A fundamentalist Mormon sect in Utah, whose leaders are brothers to convicted child rapist Warren Jeffs, have been arrested for stealing millions of dollars in food stamps.
Investigators have called the arrests and the dismantling of a multimillion dollar fraud and money laundering operation the biggest takedown of the sect thus far, CBS News reported.
The arrest of sect leaders Tuesday is a continuation of ongoing investigations into the group, situated on the Utah-Arizona border, and has coincided — but isn’t related to — two ongoing legal battles over child labor and discrimination, the Washington Post added.
“This is a clear drawing of that magical line in that sand that government will not tolerate crimes committed in the name of religion,” said professor Amos Guiora.
Investigators have been tracking food stamp purchases made in two small, church-run convenience stores in the polygamous community. Purchases made there were as large and frequent as those processed in Wal-Mart or Costco, which raised alarm bells.
The investigation discovered that for years, the group devised a fraud scheme in which they taught members how to use food stamp assistance illegally to benefit the church, and even advised them on how to avoid being caught.
Residents were scanning their cards, but took no items. Instead, store managers in this small Utah town transferred the benefits into accounts of two companies the church controlled. The funds would then be diverted to three more companies, which were fronts to a storehouse. This hid the source of the company’s funds.
With this money, they purchased a Ford truck, John Deere loader, and $17,000 in paper products, according to prosecutors. The indictment filed when the leaders were arrested doesn’t specify a dollar amount, but because many sect members receive food stamps, the amount could have reached millions of dollars every year.
Members of this polygamous group, who historically hate the federal government, call the process “bleeding the beast,” the beast being the feds. FBI special agent Eric Barnhart calls it just plain theft.
“The violations included in the indictment are especially egregious since they allege that leaders of the conspiracy directed others to commit crimes, for which only certain people benefited. This type of conduct represents nothing less than pure theft.”
Eleven people have been arrested and charged with food stamp fraud and money laundering. Among those arrested are Warren Jeffs’ brothers, Lyle and Seth, who are top-ranking sect leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Lyle runs a community in Hildale, Utah, and Seth leads a group in South Dakota.
This case and two other pending legal battles have been made possible with the help of former members. Over the years, many have been kicked out of the group or left due to bizarre orders from Jeffs and his loyal followers. In these shunned members, investigators are finding willing witnesses.
“This is [a] huge blow,” said private investigator Sam Brower. “Combined with everything else, it’s incredible.”
The people arrested face five years in prison for the fraud and up to 20 for money laundering. Prosecutors want all those arrested to be remanded; if released, the polygamists will likely flee and disappear into an intricate network of houses, pre-paid cell phones, alias, disguises, and false IDs.
Two more cases are underway against twin polygamous towns — Hildale in Utah and Colorado City in Arizona. The communities are accused of discriminating against anyone who wasn’t a member of their church, denying them housing, water services, and police protection. In another case, sect leaders are accused of demanding parents force their kids to work long hours for little pay on a pecan farm in southern Utah.
[Photo by Rick Bowmer/AP]