Polygamist sect leader Lyle Jeffs jailed for food fraud scheme

Image source, CBS/ Davis County Jail
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Lyle Jeffs

A former leader of a breakaway polygamous Mormon sect has been given a nearly five-year sentence for fraud and fleeing house arrest in Utah.

Lyle Jeffs admitted to orchestrating what authorities have called the nation's largest scheme to defraud the federal food benefits programme.

He was arrested in June after nearly a year on the run and has pleaded guilty.

His brother and former Mormon leader Warren Jeffs was jailed in 2011 on child sexual assault charges.

Warren Jeffs, the former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), was found guilty of forcing two underage girls into "spiritual marriage" and fathering a child with one of them when she was 15.

Lyle Jeffs, a former FLDS bishop, told a federal judge in Salt Lake City on Wednesday that he "humbly and respectfully say I acknowledge my mistakes and decision-making".

Prosecutors say the FLDS leadership took their followers' food stamp benefit cards and sold them in order to pay for cars and other luxuries.

According to court documents, "many families suffered extreme hunger, malnutrition and related health issues" after being forced to hand over their benefits to Mr Jeffs.

"While members subsisted on meagre quantities of rice and noodles," Mr Jeffs had a "personal chef and he regularly ate prime rib, halibut, lobster, scallops and other expensive cuisine," prosecutors said in their pre-sentence report.

His defence team had argued during his trial that his faith is based on communal living, and that contributing food stamps would be like bringing a dish to a potluck in other faiths, the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper reports.

Mr Jeffs was also ordered to repay $1m (£747,000) in restitution to the US Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp programme.

Federal prosecutors had argued that despite being convicted of his first offence, he had for years presided over illegal activities that were ordered by his brother, Warren Jeffs.

What is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints?

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  • The Mormon church, officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was founded in the US by Joseph Smith in 1830 and now has 14m members
  • Mormons believe their church is a restoration of the Church as conceived by Jesus and that the other Christian churches have gone astray
  • The FLDS split from mainstream Mormonism after it banned polygamy in 1890 amid increasingly punitive laws
  • Its members see polygamy as necessary for reaping maximum reward in the afterlife
  • Former FLDS President Warren Jeffs was jailed in 2011 for sexually assaulting two children he took as brides