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Legal Action From All Sides Stands To Impact FLDS Community On Arizona-Utah Border

Several top leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are behind bars on federal charges of conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud and money laundering.

These criminal charges come right as a civil rights trial against two towns settled by FLDS church members is wrapping up in federal court in Phoenix. The U.S. Department of Justice has accused the towns of acting as arms of the FLDS church, and the case is expected to be in the jury’s hands by late next week.

Both developments could have big impacts for the future of the church and the people who live in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, on the Arizona-Utah border.

The FLDS church practices polygamous marriages and broke off from the Mormon religion for that reason. FLDS members settled the Colorado City-Hildale area, known as Short Creek. According to the latest census, fewer than 8,000 people live in the two towns combined.

The church has come under scrutiny in the past for arranged church marriages between underage girls and adult men.

The Criminal Case

According to federal prosecutors, a large percentage of church members in the Short Creek area receive millions of dollars in SNAP benefits a year.

Prosecutors allege church leaders directed church members to turn over food purchased with SNAP benefits to the church. They also are accusing church leaders of creating an elaborate scheme involving multiple front companies so church members could swipe their electronic benefit transfer cards at those businesses and money would be routed back to the church.

Church leaders created a group in 2011 within the church called the "United Order" that required members to turn in all of their material possessions to the church’s storehouse and only use food, clothing and other items from the storehouse. According to prosecutors, members with food stamps were required to turn over their benefits to the storehouse in the same way.

The 11 people indicted include Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs, brothers of Warren Jeffs, the church’s prophet who is incarcerated in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he took as brides.

Four of the defendants named in the indictment remain at large, according to the Associated Press. But Lyle Jeffs is one of the church leaders currently in federal custody. He is the FLDS bishop in Short Creek and is believed to be running church operations since his brother is in prison. Jeffs has pleaded not guilty.

Federal prosecutors want Lyle Jeffs, Seth Jeffs, John Wayman and Nephi Allred to remain in custody as their cases progress.

They argue these men are a flight risk because the FLDS church has a history of hiding fugitives, as was seen by their efforts to hide Warren Jeffs when he was a federal fugitive before his 2006 arrest.

It is now known that church members used an elaborate network of safe houses, disguises and burner cell phones to evade law enforcement.

Friday afternoon a judge will decide whether John Wayman can be released. Lyle Jeffs’ detention hearing is scheduled for March 7. Some other lower-level defendants have been released with ankle bracelets.

Some observers believe this criminal case could spell the end for the church, since it could create a power vacuum and hurt the church’s finances.

On Friday, Arizona’s Department of Economic Security put out a statement saying 4,000 people in the Colorado City area are eligible for SNAP benefits and will not be impacted by the criminal case.

The Civil Rights Case Against Colorado City and Hildale.

When the criminal case was announced on Tuesday, a separate civil case against the towns of Colorado City and Hildale was poised to wrap up soon in Phoenix federal court.

In that case, the U.S. Department of Justice is accusing the towns and local police of acting as arms of the FLDS church and discriminating against church outsiders. Defense lawyers for the town argue the towns operate legally without interference by church authorities and the allegations of discrimination are unfounded. Defense lawyers acknowledge there were problems with certain police officers in the past, but point out that those officers were dismissed.

The defense argues this case is an effort by the federal government to eradicate an unpopular religion.

There have been some instances where allegations in the criminal case against church members have overlapped with testimony in the civil rights case against the towns.

On the very first day of the civil rights trial, Justice Department lawyers called former FLDS church member, Dowayne Barlow to testify. Barlow’s testimony included statements about how his family was directed by church leaders to pick up boxes of food with SNAP benefits and turn them over to the bishop’s storehouse. He said at other times they were directed to simply run their electronic benefit transfer card for a certain dollar amount, like $250 dollars, at certain businesses.

Barlow estimated that up to 300 families in the church were doing the same with their SNAP benefits.

Lyle Jeffs was subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice to testify in the civil rights case but was excused from appearing in person. Justice Department lawyers showed excerpts of Jeffs’ video deposition. Jeffs repeatedly invoked his First and Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer most questions.

The Justice Department also called Colorado City mayor Joseph Allred to testify, and asked him about improperly funneling money from a local water utility to the church in a different alleged scheme. Allred invoked his First and Fifth amendment rights more than 60 times in his 45-minute testimony.

The civil rights trial is scheduled to resume on Monday. It was suspended for four days after the judge in the case had a medical emergency.

Closing arguments are expected by mid-week. If the jury rules against the towns, the federal government could ask the judge to put the towns or certain town agencies in receivership.

In recent years, the number of non-FLDS church members in the Short Creek area has been growing, particularly as many people have been kicked out of the church or decided to leave the church.

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.