SALT LAKE CITY — From faith leader to fugitive, Lyle Jeffs pleaded guilty Wednesday to food stamp fraud and failing to appear in court.
Jeffs, 57, was accused last year alongside 11 other leaders and members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church in an indictment alleging $191,000 in food stamp fraud.
But while the other 10 defendants resolved their cases with no prison time, Jeffs slipped an ankle monitor and fled, spending nearly a year on the run before being captured in June in South Dakota.
Back in custody, Jeffs was brought before U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart in a shackles and a striped jail uniform Wednesday. As the judge questioned Jeffs on whether he was pleading guilty because he was, in fact, guilty, Jeffs replied softly, "Yes sir, as far as I understand."
Stewart went on to call the deal between Jeffs and federal prosecutors "unique."
For one count of conspiracy to commit Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits fraud, Jeffs is facing one year in federal prison. For the second count, failure to appear in court, the judge could hand down a prison sentence anywhere between two and four years. The prison terms would run consecutively.
Stewart emphasized to Jeffs that means he could spend anywhere between three and five years in prison, depending on what the judge decides once a presentence report is completed. His incarceration would be followed by probation.
Stewart noted that he is not bound by the recommendation, however, and should he come back and announce that more prison time is warranted, Jeffs will have an opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea.
Following the hearing, U.S. Attorney John Huber praised the resolution. At Jeffs' Dec. 13 sentencing hearing, federal prosecutors will argue for the five-year prison sentence.
A five-year prison term "captures justice," Huber said.
"This case made a significant impact on the United States government, and also upon that community in the Short Creek area," he said.
As part of Jeffs' deal, a third charge alleging conspiracy to commit money laundering was dismissed and a mandate for $1 million in restitution to the U.S. government was imposed.
Huber emphasized that the restitution must come from Jeffs personally and not from the FLDS Church.
"This is a personal obligation for Lyle Jeffs, $1 million on the hook. Now, whether we can get $1 million out of him is another story," he said.
"We're not out to punish people of faith, people with sincere religiously held beliefs," Huber said. "We're out to punish fraudsters."
The U.S. attorney acknowledged that Jeffs was destitute when he was recaptured, identified by a pawn shop owner in South Dakota when he went in to trade a Leatherman multitool for $37 cash.
According to the indictment, Jeffs — the brother of the FLDS Church's incarcerated prophet, Warren Jeffs‚ and other church leaders diverted SNAP benefits from the people authorized to receive them to instead be used as church leaders saw fit.
The indictment claims that church members in some cases were instructed to swipe their SNAP cards as if making purchases in FLDS-owned businesses but left empty-handed.
"We believe that (Lyle) Jeffs and his co-conspirators held positions of influence and trust in that community, as religious leaders and as prominent leaders in that community. The people then felt an obligation, whether spiritually or emotionally or whatever, to follow those instructions," Huber said.
With the close of Lyle Jeffs' case, Huber said prosecutors believe food stamp fraud has been curbed in the polygamous community, and they will not pursue additional charges against other suspected co-conspirators, including Warren Jeffs.
Kathryn Nester, Lyle Jeffs' attorney, declined to comment Wednesday.