Sect official Lyle Jeffs went missing while awaiting trial, but feds suspect it's probably not 'rapture'

All that was left of the onetime bishop was an oily ankle monitor.

What became of the ankle, and the rest of Lyle Jeffs, is a $50,000 question to the FBI in Salt Lake City.

Lyle Jeffs is brother to Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its enclave on the Arizona-Utah border. Lyle Jeffs disappeared on June 18, hours after a U.S. marshal checked his  court-ordered monitor as he awaited trial on charges of orchestrating a food stamp fraud scheme. 

The earth-bound explanations for his escape are of the more mundane variety: The FBI believes Jeffs slathered his ankle with olive oil to slip off the location monitor.  

His lawyer, Utah federal defender Kathy Nester, whose office serves as the public defense agency for federal defendants, offered another theory.

Jeffs “is currently not available,” Nester wrote in a court filing in September. “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.”

The “miracle of rapture” refers to the teaching that believers will be transported to heaven. If that is what happened to Lyle Jeffs, it would break a promise made to the remaining 10,000 residents of this small desert outpost when they entered the church as adults: If they followed the directives of the prophet Warren Jeffs, never erred in their faith, abided by the rigid dress code and did not question church authority, they would meet eternal joy when they were swept up to paradise with their prophet. But none of those residents disappeared along with Lyle Jeffs.

The FBI suspects the mechanics of Jeffs’ disappearance may have less to do with the criminal charges he’s allegedly fleeing, and more to do with a direct order from his imprisoned brother.  

 “There was a fracturing there of the leadership, and Lyle decided he had to get out,” said Eric Barnhart, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Salt Lake City field office.

The FBI believes that Lyle Jeffs in some way disobeyed his brother. Barnhart said that Texas prison officials, while monitoring Warren Jeffs’ communications, overheard his directive to have Lyle Jeffs “sent away.” Barnhart declined to say with whom Warren Jeffs was speaking. 

“It seems that Warren has ordered him out, and that may have to do with his status as a fugitive,” said Barnhart, whose office is offering a $50,000 reward for information that leads to Lyle Jeffs’ capture. The agency also warns that he should be considered armed and dangerous.

If Lyle Jeffs was banished, such treatment would follow the pattern set by  the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, in the bordering towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, which form the FLDS community of Short Creek. The FLDS church is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the formal name of the Mormon Church, which banned polygamy in 1890, though plural marriages remained a custom through the 1930s, when Mormons began to excommunicate those who took multiple wives.

Marriages in the FLDS church are arranged by the prophet, usually involving more than one young woman or girl committed to an older man, according to court documents in Warren Jeffs’ prosecution. As a way of controlling the leftover male population and threats to the power structure, with Warren Jeffs at its top, young men are exiled from the community.

In the most infamous episode, and one that led to a fracturing of the FLDS church, nearly two dozen men were banished at once in the mid-2000s, their wives and children reassigned to other people.  

But today, even with Warren Jeffs serving a sentence of life in prison plus 20 years on convictions for the sexual assault of his child brides, and Lyle Jeffs on the run, life appears unruffled in Short Creek. 

The secretive, closed society continues to shun outsiders. Colorado City’s City Hall still has smoked glass in its windows, preventing visitors from seeing inside. No one answers the locked front door. An FLDS-owned gas station is eerily silent, its windows also darkened.

Lyle Jeffs is facing allegations that he and 10 others diverted at least $12 million in federal food stamp benefits to the FLDS church, over which Warren Jeffs maintained near-absolute power.

Prosecutors wrote in court filings that church leadership ordered followers to make purchases with their food stamp cards, then turn over the goods to the church.

In another segment of the alleged scheme, food stamps were cashed at FLDS-owned businesses, no goods were turned over to the purchasers and the money was handed over to church-owned companies or used to pay for capital expenses, such as vehicles.

For years, Lyle was Warren Jeffs’ right-hand man as they maintained a vise grip on the lives of people here. In court documents, Lyle Jeffs is referred to as a bishop of the FLDS church, or as his brother’s “special advisor.”

That grip was loosened in March when a Phoenix jury found that the towns of Short Creek intentionally sabotaged people considered threats and enemies to Warren and Lyle Jeffs. The jury found that the cities’ police departments followed, harassed and intimidated nonbelievers, and the cities denied services to new residents from outside the faith.

At some point after the verdict, Barnhart said, Warren Jeffs issued his order that Lyle Jeffs be “sent away.”

While changes are almost certainly coming to the community of Short Creek, in court filings prosecutors said they worried about the still-effective FLDS system of hiding and moving people across state or national borders, and opposed Lyle Jeffs’ release from detention pending his trial.

The FLDS has affiliated compounds in Mexico, Canada and South America, according to the FBI and interviews with former FLDS members still living in Short Creek.

Nevertheless, in February, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart granted his release but ordered Lyle Jeffs to adhere to strict conditions, including that he live near the courthouse in Salt Lake County, Utah, until his trial on the food stamp charges, that he avoid contact with witnesses or codefendants and that he wear the ankle monitor.

The FBI suspects that in July, a month after he disappeared, Lyle Jeffs visited Colorado City and Hildale. The FBI has received tips that he has attempted to take shelter from law enforcement in Canada or Mexico.

But Barnhart is confident. “It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “We will capture him.”

nigel.duara@latimes.com

Follow Nigel Duara on Twitter: @nigelduara 

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