ST. GEORGE — Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints polygamous sect leader Lyle Steed Jeffs, who had been on the run from authorities for almost a year, did not resist arrest Wednesday night in South Dakota, officials said Thursday at a news conference in Salt Lake City.
Jeffs had been living out of his car for two weeks before his arrest in Yankton, which is located approximately six hours east of Pringle, South Dakota, where the FLDS owns a compound.
“From the beginning of this fugitive hunt, we said that this will be the public and local law enforcement, and that proved to be true,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Barnhart said Thursday, noting that the FBI had received a tip Tuesday from a citizen reporting an individual matching Lyle Jeffs’ description.
The information provided by the tipster – including a description of the make, model, color and plate of Jeffs’ vehicle – was “absolutely instrumental” to tracking down Jeffs, Barnhart said.
Just after 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jeffs’ vehicle was spotted by the Yankton Police Department’s acting chief, who was off-duty at the time, near a recreation area marina in Yankton, Barnhart said.
Jeffs, who was alone at the time, was leaving the area when additional law enforcement agencies arrived and conducted a felony stop on his vehicle. He was arrested and transported to the Minnehaha County Jail in South Dakota where he is being held without bond. He was scheduled to make his initial appearance in the U.S. Courthouse in Sioux Falls Thursday afternoon.
“Now that he’s back into the loving embrace of law enforcement, we will try and patch together a timeline of where he was and with whom he interacted,” Barnhart said, noting that officials have no solid evidence that anyone was helping him in his fugitive status.
Jeffs escaped house arrest last summer after using olive oil to slip a GPS tracking bracelet off his ankle and abscond from home confinement in Salt Lake City while awaiting trial on accusations he helped orchestrate a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme within the FLDS church.
Jeffs and other leaders were accused of instructing followers to buy items with their food stamp cards and give them to a church warehouse where leaders decided how to distribute products to followers, diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah John Huber said Thursday that Jeffs’ flight from prosecution and his fugitive status will undoubtedly play a significant part in his upcoming prosecution.
“When you flee a federal indictment, the long arm of the law will eventually catch up with you and bring you back to justice,” Huber said. “… A trial team comprised of our top prosecutors and investigators eagerly await the opportunity to give Mr. Lyle Jeffs his day in court.”
Officials have always viewed Lyle Jeffs as the lead defendant in the food stamp fraud case, Huber said Thursday, noting that the prosecution’s approach with Jeffs “will in no way resemble the way we have handled and processed the other defendants in this case.”
Jeffs’ 11 co-defendants resolved their cases by pleading guilty to felony or misdemeanor charges. All avoided jail time or paying restitution.
Because he fled prosecution, Huber said Jeffs will likely face at least another felony charge.
“It’s a serious offense to flee justice and we do not take it lightly,” Huber said. “We do not give up, you’re not going to get away with it, the FBI and their partners will find you, a conscientious public will step up and do the right things and report the things that trouble them, and you will be brought back to court and your problems will be deeper and more serious.”
Jeffs is expected to be extradited to Utah in the next couple of days.
Officials are determining whether the tipster qualifies to receive a $50,000 reward offered by the FBI for Lyle Jeffs’ capture and conviction.
“We want to do what’s right because without this person’s assistance, we wouldn’t be here today,” Barnhart said. “… The reward was up to $50,000 so, our aim is to get it out to deserving people, if they qualify.”
The tipster provided “very solid information,” Barnhart said, adding that he knew it was just a matter of time before someone spotted Jeffs while he was on the run.
“He may not have been in physical custody from that moment that he fled almost a year ago until last night,” Barnhart said, “but he spent that whole time, I’m sure, looking over his shoulder wondering about every police officer he saw, every highway patrolman and what person would eventually give him up.”
Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.
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