SALT LAKE CITY — Polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs appeared in federal court on Monday, pleading not guilty to charges related to food stamp fraud and his time as a fugitive.
Jeffs, once a bishop in Utah’s largest polygamous sect, the Fundamentalist LDS Church, made an initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Brooke Wells.
In court, Jeffs appeared thinner since he disappeared last year. Shackled, he wore an orange and white striped jail jumpsuit and Crocs.
Judge Wells asked if Jeffs would admit to violating the terms of his pre-trial release. His attorney, Kathy Nester, said he would not be able to admit it, because prosecutors obtained an indictment charging him with failure to appear. However, he would not contest the violation.
Judge Wells ordered Jeffs jailed pending trial.
“Not guilty,” he told the judge on the failure to appear charge.
Judge Wells scheduled a two-week trial beginning Sept. 18. Jeffs’ defense attorney said she believed it would take longer than that to try him.
Jeffs vanished last year after a judge allowed him to be released on home confinement pending trial on food stamp fraud charges. As FOX 13 first reported, the FBI believes he used olive oil to slip out of a GPS monitoring device.
He was arrested last month in South Dakota, where authorities said he had been living out of his pickup truck. Police got a tip that Jeffs had been trying to pawn some tools.
“It’s kind of nice to see him in a similar condition to what he put thousands of people in. They’re in mental chains, he’s in physical chains,” said Brenda Nicholson, an ex-member of the FLDS Church who was in court on Monday.
Nicholson, who left the church in 2012 and has said she knew of food stamp fraud within the polygamous sect, said she still wished the federal government would pursue tougher charges against him.
“It makes me wonder if the comprehend the gravity of the harm that man has done to so many people,” she told FOX 13. “It just seems like they’re still taking it like it’s not a big deal.”
Jeffs was once a bishop in the FLDS Church, but the FBI believes he has been ousted from his leadership role by his brother, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs (who is currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for child sex assault related to underage “marriages”).
Lyle Jeffs is the last defendant in a massive food stamp fraud case leveled by the federal government against FLDS Church members. Prosecutors alleged faithful members were ordered to hand over their Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to church leaders to do with as they wished. In court documents, the feds alleged taxpayers were bilked out of as much as $12 million.
The defense argued the FLDS had a religious right to hand over their benefits, saying their belief system has them consecrate their property to the church.
The other defendants in the case have either struck plea deals or had their case dismissed.