The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has found itself in dire straits.
Warren Jeffs, the leader of the polygamist sect on the Utah-Arizona border, is currently serving a life sentence for child rape. The self-described “prophet” is associated with a slew of accusations, from exerting tyrannical control over his numerous wives to molesting underage girls.
With Jeffs behind bars as of 2011, however, his brother Lyle Jeffs has taken over FLDS. But the church’s legal tangles didn’t end after their leader’s imprisonment.
Last September, the Labor Department sued FLDS for oppressive child-labor conditions, alleging that church leaders put at least 175 children younger than 13 to work to harvest pecans without compensation.
In January, a civil rights trial began against the twin polygamous towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah — collectively known as “Short Creek” — where FLDS is based. Prosecutors claim that the communities discriminate against residents who aren’t members of the church, depriving them of housing and essential services such as water and police protection. The church denies these allegations.
Another crushing blow came Tuesday. In the largest raid to hit Short Creek since the polygamist arrests of 1953, federal authorities indicted Lyle Jeffs, his brother Seth Jeffs and nine other church leaders on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering.
“If they’re finally going to prosecute Lyle and the leaders of the church, it will eventually bring the church down,” Wallace Jeffs, a half-brother of Warren Jeffs who was expelled from FLDS, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “This pretty much cuts the head off the snake.”
Situated in barren, remote corners of Utah and Arizona, FLDS was established in the 1930s, its members branching off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after that church renounced polygamy. FLDS has nearly 6,000 members in Short Creek, in addition to networks across the Americas.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has described FLDS as a “white supremacist, homophobic, anti-government, totalitarian cult.” In his sermons, Warren Jeffs has declared homosexuality “the worst evil act you can do, next to murder,” and has implored women to “build up young husbands by being submissive.”
In her book “Stolen Innocence,” former FLDS child bride Elissa Wall recounts that Jeffs taught everyone that “nonwhite people were the most evil of all outsiders.”
While FLDS has been open about its disdain for the government, federal prosecutors have made clear that the latest indictment is unrelated to the church’s philosophies.
Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber said Tuesday that the indictments were about fraud, not religion, according to the Associated Press.
The church’s leaders are accused of executing a years-long ploy to take federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from its intended beneficiaries and put them toward FLDS expenses.
Members of the church in Short Creek receive millions of dollars in SNAP benefits each year, according to a previously sealed indictment filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in Utah. About 2011, Lyle and Seth Jeffs and their co-conspirators allegedly formed the “United Order,” a subgroup which supposedly constituted “the highest level of worthiness and spiritual preparedness in the church.” United Order participants were required to “donate their lives and all of their material substance to the church.”
These superior members allegedly used their food stamps to buy groceries that were turned over to a communal storehouse, from which the leaders redistributed the goods throughout the church, including to individuals ineligible for SNAP.
Prosecutors also claim that FLDS leaders created two small convenience stores as fronts for accepting electronic money transfers drawn from SNAP benefits. SNAP beneficiaries swiped their cards at the stores but did not receive any goods in return; instead, the funds were allegedly put toward church expenses such as a tractor purchase. According to the indictment, the convenience stores made more sales than stores such as Walmart and Costco.
The church has no spokesman and has made no comment on the allegations.
Compared with other cases against FLDS, this one may prove to be the tipping point because it targets the church’s money supply. State officials in Arizona and Utah told the Salt Lake Tribune that about 700 Short Creek households received a total of $7.2 million in food-stamp benefits last year.
“I can imagine, using common sense, that if you engage in fraud, it may disqualify you from taking part in the [food stamp] program in the future,” Huber told the Tribune.
Wallace Jeffs told the Tribune that the financial implications are “going to bring the church to its knees,” though the fall may not come for a couple of years.
Lyle and Seth Jeffs were the remaining “backbone” of the church, Wallace Jeffs said. Without them, the institution loses credibility.
“This is a huge blow,” Sam Brower, a private investigator who has tracked FLDS for years, told the AP. “Combined with everything else, it’s incredible.”
Still, there remains the sordid specter of Warren Jeffs, whom many suspect of running the church from jail. Despite his criminal convictions and witnesses testifying to his sexual aggression against young women, Jeffs has clung onto a devoted following.
He has fathered about 60 children with almost as many wives. Speaking with two of Jeffs’s children who have since broken away from FLDS, CNN reported last September that he is still “firmly in control.”
Members of the church are under strict instructions not to watch TV, read books or listen to the radio. As a result, new generations of followers continue to be born, even as scrutiny from the general public and government escalates. “They’re so brainwashed by how my dad is,” Roy Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’s son, told CNN, “and I worry sometimes that it would end up in a mass suicide because of how much control he has.”
Tonia Tewell, director of an organization that helps FLDS members transition out of polygamy, agreed: “Some people would go all the way to death for him, no question.”
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