No bond for the bishop; Lyle Jeffs of FLDS stays behind bars

Lyle Jeffs, bishop of the FLDS enclave in Short Creek, lost his bid for house arrest as he awaits trial in a welfare fraud case.

Story highlights

  • Lyle Jeffs, FLDS bishop, is charged with 10 others in welfare fraud scheme
  • Jeffs' lawyers asked for ankle monitor, house arrest in Provo, Utah
  • U.S. judge said no, citing leadership position, past attempts to hide fugitive prophet

(CNN)Lyle Jeffs, the bishop of a polygamous enclave known as Short Creek, will remain behind bars until he is tried on charges he conspired to fleece the federal government -- and his own followers -- of millions of dollars in food stamp money.

Jeffs, 56, is the younger brother of Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader and prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
    It is considered unusual for a judge to order pretrial detention for a first-time offender in a white collar case. Ten other FLDS members charged in the alleged scheme have been allowed to post bond and leave federal detention.
    Jeffs' lawyers had asked to outfit him with an ankle bracelet with a GPS monitor and confine him to house arrest in Provo, about 275 miles from Short Creek.
    But U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart cited Jeffs' high rank in the FLDS, his continued contact with the church's imprisoned prophet, and his history of dodging subpoenas and hiding from the law. The judge labeled Lyle Jeffs a flight risk.
    "The FLDS church has used an elaborate system to conceal its members from law enforcement," Stewart wrote in an opinion supporting his ruling, issued Thursday. "While it would be improper to order detention simply because of defendant's religious beliefs or his association with other members of the FLDS church, the court simply cannot ignore this evidence."
    The judge also pointed out that Lyle Jeffs "oversees many of the daily affairs" of the FLDS. Failure to follow his orders can cause followers to lose their businesses, homes, status in the church, and even their wives and children.
    "Several witnesses have stated that defendant exercises considerable control over the people and businesses in Short Creek and that there are serious consequences for those that disobey him," Stewart wrote. "The court is gravely concerned that defendant would use this influence to intimidate witnesses and obstruct justice."
    The judge also expressed concern that Lyle Jeffs would follow his brother's instructions to impede law enforcement and tamper with witnesses.
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    Warren Jeffs, prophet of the FLDS since his father's death in 2002, is serving a life sentence at a prison in Palestine, Texas. He was convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he considered "spiritual wives."
    Lyle Jeffs and 10 other church members, including another Jeffs brother, Seth, were accused in a federal grand jury indictment of conspiring to cheat the federal government -- and qualified recipients -- of millions in food stamp benefits. Families who qualified for federal assistance were told to turn over their food stamp debit cards and take what they needed from a warehouse of pooled resources called "the bishop's storehouse."
    Scallops for the bishop, beans for the flock
    As a result, the federal government alleges, some families subsisted on beans, rice and toast, while high-ranking church members were able to serve more expensive meat, turkey and seafood. The government also alleges that the Jeffs brothers and others laundered money by swiping food stamp debit cards and ringing up "ghost" purchases at church-friendly businesses. The laundered cash allegedly was used on big-ticket items such as a Ford F-350 pickup truck ($30,236), a John Deere tractor ($13,561) and $16,978 in paper products.
    In addition, another $250,000 allegedly was spent on printing costs for Warren Jeffs' self published, 854-page book of jailhouse revelations, "Jesus Christ, Message to All Nations."
    The trial is set to begin at the end of May, but is likely to be postponed so attorneys for the 11 defendants have time to digest the voluminous investigative documents generated by the case.