FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs has escaped custody

Posted at 1:06 PM, Jun 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-21 18:04:16-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs has escaped custody, federal authorities confirmed to FOX 13.

A warrant was been issued for the Fundamentalist LDS Church leader's arrest, the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah said Monday.

Jeffs was released from jail on June 9 while he was awaiting trial on food stamp fraud and money laundering charges. His lawyers successfully argued that with a delay in his trial sought by federal prosecutors, he should be released. The U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah argued that Jeffs should remain in jail because he is a flight risk.

FLDS bishop Lyle Jeffs leaves federal court on Thursday after being released from jail. (Image by Mike Reidel, FOX 13 News)

FLDS bishop Lyle Jeffs leaves federal court on June 9 after being released from jail. (Image by Mike Reidel, FOX 13 News)

U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart ruled in favor of the defense, but set conditions of release including an order that Jeffs wear a GPS monitoring device, have no contact with victims, witnesses and co-defendants in the case, or his brother, imprisoned FLDS leader Warren Jeffs. He was confined to house arrest in Salt Lake County and forbidden from visiting the polygamous strongholds of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

When the Fundamentalist LDS Church leader walked out of the federal courthouse on June 9, he was asked by FOX 13 if he was a flight risk. Jeffs refused to answer.

The FBI would not divulge details of Jeffs' escape, but it is believed he removed his GPS monitoring device and fled the home he was staying at.

Jeffs' defense attorney, Kathryn Nester, did not know that her client had absconded until told of the reports by FOX 13. Over the weekend, she petitioned the court to modify the terms of his release, including allowing him to do consulting work for his son and have some church services brought to him in Salt Lake City.

Jeffs is among 11 people accused in a massive food stamp fraud scheme. They're accused of ordering FLDS members to hand over food stamp benefits to do with as they wished. Federal prosecutors have claimed in court documents that the fraud exceeds $12 million.

Jeffs is a bishop in the FLDS Church, a polygamous sect based on the Utah-Arizona border with an estimated 10,000 members. The group has fallen under intense scrutiny in recent years over its practices of polygamy, child-bride marriages, child abuse and labor violations and apocalyptic predictions. It's led by Warren Jeffs, who is serving life in a Texas prison for child sex assault related to underage "marriages." Warren Jeffs was once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

Lyle Jeffs' driver license photo. (Image via FBI)

Lyle Jeffs' driver license photo. (Image via FBI)

Sam Brower, a private investigator and author of the book "Prophet's Prey," said authorities in southern Utah had been alerted to keep an eye out for any sign of Lyle Jeffs. Ex-members of the polygamous church were frustrated that he was released from jail in the first place.

"I'm not here to say 'I told you so,' but I did," Thomas Jeffs, one of Lyle Jeffs' sons, said in an interview with FOX 13. "It was inevitable."

Thomas Jeffs, who left the church two-and-a-half years ago, said his father will be constantly on the move and assisted by FLDS faithful, and communicate with burner phones. Thomas Jeffs told FOX 13 he helped his father stay hidden from federal authorities when Warren Jeffs was a fugitive from the FBI.

But the young man said he would no longer be helping his father and asked FOX 13 to deliver a message to Lyle Jeffs.

"I know you're watching. Do it for your family, turn yourself in. Stop running. It's stupid. It's not worth it. I mean, you've made the stupidest decision in your life before now," Thomas Jeffs said. "And it's only going to come worse on your family. You think you're going to run, they'll catch you just like they did Warren."

The FBI said anyone with information on Lyle Jeffs' whereabouts is urged to call them at 801-579-1400.