It was only a matter of time before polygamous cult leader Lyle Jeffs ran away.
His imprisoned brother Warren Jeffs, the president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), once spent months as a fugitive before police found him in 2006 traveling through Las Vegas in an Escalade full of wigs, cell phones, and sunglasses.
Now, Lyle, who has been handling the day-to-day affairs of the FLDS church since Warren went to jail for child sexual assault, is taking his turn on the lam.
In early June, Lyle Jeffs was released into house arrest to await trial on charges of food stamp fraud and money laundering that federal investigators filed against FLDS leaders this February. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, it took Jeffs less than two weeks to take off his GPS monitor and flee his Salt Lake City home. A warrant has been out for his arrest since Sunday.
The FBI is now hunting him down, just like they hunted his brother a decade ago. But private investigator, Prophet’s Prey author and FLDS expert Sam Brower believes it could be even harder for them to find Lyle than it was to find Warren.
“They learn from their mistakes,” he told The Daily Beast. “Warren was caught. They’re not going to make the same mistakes again with Lyle. It’s going to be that much more difficult.”
“Lyle Jeffs is not like a normal crook that, say, robs a gas station and takes off in an old, beat-up car and has little money and not much help,” Brower continued. “He has thousands of people who would die for him, unlimited money, and unlimited resources so he’s well set-up.”
Jeffs is one of 11 FLDS leaders and members who were charged in a food stamp scheme in the cult’s Short Creek community, which straddles the Utah-Arizona border. As part of the scheme, members were allegedly required to spend their food stamp stipends at two FLDS-owned stores and then donate everything they bought back to the church. In the process, church leaders, including Lyle Jeffs, allegedly raked in millions from the phony transactions.
Before Jeffs fled, the trial in this case was scheduled for October. Prosecutors and family members warned U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart that Jeffs should await the trial in detention because he was an extreme flight risk.
“Blame the judge for this,” Wallace Jeffs, one of Lyle’s relatives and a former FLDS member told the Tribune. “Everybody knew that he was going to do this. Everybody.”
“I’m not here to say ‘I told you so,’ but I did,” Lyle’s son Thomas told KSTU. “It was inevitable.”
Not only do the FLDS faithful already have experience hiding a high-profile fugitive, Lyle Jeffs himself helped Warren Jeffs flee from the FBI when he was on the Ten Most Wanted List in the mid-2000s.
“It was frustrating that the judge would even release him with the tons of evidence showing that he would run,” Brower told The Daily Beast.
Brower estimates that the polygamous cult, which split from the mainstream Mormon Church after 1890 in order to continue practicing plural marriage, now has about 10,000 members spread across the small Short Creek community and even smaller compounds in the Western United States, Mexico, and Canada. That gives Lyle Jeffs plenty of places to hide, if he even stays in one spot.
“He literally could be just about anywhere,” Brower said. “They have the resources. They can set up cargo containers, put bathrooms in them and really deck them out so they can pull somebody around all over the country.”
Jeffs’ family members seem to suspect he’s heading south of the border. Wallace Jeffs told the Tribune that Lyle is probably headed to Mexico or South America, where he owns a ranch, according to court filings from his ex-wife. But as Brower told The Daily Beast, Jeffs could just as easily flee to Canada. Back when Warren was on the run, Brower and Under the Banner of Heaven author Jon Krakauer found unsecured stretches of the Canadian border with FLDS-owned property on the other side.
It’s also possible that Jeffs could stay in the United States and take advantage of the cult’s network of compounds and safe houses.
“They call them ‘places of refuge’ and they’re all over the country,” Brower said. “They’re not only set up, there are probably more now than when Warren was on the run.”
When Warren Jeffs fled from the FBI, his aiders and abettors used a sophisticated system of burner phones, radios, and church-owned vehicles to coordinate the cult leader’s movements. He traveled in disguise, wearing street clothes rather than the characteristic FLDS clothing. He even grew a beard, which is taboo in FLDS culture. When police finally found him in the Escalade, he was carrying $50,000 in cash.
The cult’s certainty that the apocalypse is nigh only helps them harbor fugitives. As documented in the film Prophet’s Prey, the Short Hill community is patrolled by FLDS security. And the cult’s South Dakota compound boasts a “scary-looking guard tower,” as one local paper described it.
“They spend a lot of time preparing for the calamities of the last days,” said Brower, “so they are very well prepared for [this].”
The FBI is hopefully prepared, too. They’ve already had a practice run capturing Warren Jeffs and, as the Tribune reported, there is a law enforcement task force focused on the FLDS that can pump Lyle’s former followers for information. Still, prosecutors say, it would have been much easier to keep him under lock and key than to waste resources on yet another costly FLDS manhunt.
Jeffs’ attorney successfully argued that keeping her client in detention until the October trial would have been a violation of his constitutional rights. The judge’s decision to release him into house arrest was baffling and infuriating for those who saw this coming a mile away.
“Why [the judge] would give deference to Lyle Jeffs is beyond me,” said an exasperated Brower. “I think it’s this thing in the back of judges’ minds that [FLDS] is some sort of religion.”
“They’re not a religion, they’re a crime syndicate,” he continued. “They’re a criminal organization that specializes in exploiting children and women. A religion doesn’t have every single member of its leadership in prison.”