Federal authorities say polygamist religious leader Lyle Jeffs has been captured, almost exactly one year after he escaped from home confinement while he was accused in a multimillion-dollar food-stamp fraud scheme.
Jeffs, who fled from federal custody last summer in Salt Lake City, was arrested Wednesday night without incident at a marina more than 900 miles away in Yankton, S.D., the FBI said.
“We knew that this was just a matter of time,” Eric Barnhart, FBI Special Agent in Charge for the Salt Lake City Division, said Thursday at a news conference. “He may not have been in physical custody … but he spent that whole time, I am sure, looking over his shoulder, wondering about every police officer he saw, every highway patrolman and what person would eventually give him up, and I believe all of those things played out.”
Following a tip about someone matching Jeffs’s description, an off-duty Yankton police detective spotted his vehicle at the marina Wednesday in Yankton, called for police backup and conducted a traffic stop, the FBI said.
Jeffs confirmed his identity to authorities and was taken into custody. He was being held without bond Thursday on a Federal Marshals Service hold in South Dakota’s Minnehaha County, according to online booking records. His initial court appearance was scheduled for later Thursday afternoon.
Investigators think Jeffs had been in the area for at least two weeks, living out of a Ford pickup truck. There was no solid evidence that anyone was helping him, authorities said, but they are investigating.
“Know this — when you flee a federal indictment, the long arm of the law will eventually catch up with you and bring you back to justice,” U.S. attorney John W. Huber said at the news conference.
Huber said Jeffs’s flight “will play a significant part in the prosecution.” Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will probably face another felony charge over his conduct the past year, according to prosecutors.
Jeffs assumed the role of leader of the church (known as FLDS) after his brother, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced in 2011 to life in prison for child rape.
The sect emerged when Mormon leaders suspended the practice of polygamy in the late 1800s, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which calls the group “a white supremacist, homophobic, anti-government, totalitarian cult.” FLDS, which is not connected to the Mormon Church, branched off and continues to practice polygamy in small towns along the Utah-Arizona border.
In 2016, Jeffs and other leaders were indicted on a charge of money laundering and using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for FLDS expenses.
“This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud,” Huber said at the time. The government, Huber said in 2016, was charging “a sophisticated group of individuals … who conspired to defraud a program intended to help low-income individuals and families purchase food.”
While awaiting trial last June, Jeffs was released from jail. But, The Washington Post reported then, he “was confined to his Salt Lake County home with few exceptions, told he couldn’t contact various people affiliated with the sect, and made to wear a GPS monitoring device.”
Less than two weeks later, he disappeared.
“He used a substance which may have been olive oil to lubricate the GPS tracking band and slip it off his ankle” on June 18, 2016, Barnhart, with the FBI in Salt Lake City, told Fox News affiliate KSTU at the time.
Jeffs’s attorney came up with an unusual explanation for the religious leader’s disappearance, arguing in court documents that he may have “experienced the miracle of rapture.” Last August, public defender Kathryn Nester filed for a continuance because Jeffs was still nowhere to be found, The Post’s Cleve Wootson reported.
As this Court is well aware, Mr. Jeffs is currently not available to inform his counsel whether he agrees to the Continuance. Whether his absence is based on absconding, as oft alleged by the Government in their filings, or whether he was taken and secreted against his will, or whether he experienced the miracle of rapture is unknown to counsel. However, his absence prevents counsel from obtaining his approval and thus further prevents counsel from filing a joinder with the Motion to Continue Current Trial Date in compliance with the local rules.
Nester said Thursday in an email that the reference to the rapture was meant to be “tongue in cheek.”
She said Jeffs would soon be transported back to Utah.
This post has been updated.