- Associated Press - Thursday, March 3, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The inclusion of two women among the people indicted in a polygamous food stamp fraud scheme marked a shift in how investigators have long targeted polygamous groups.

By including Kristal Meldrum Dutson, 55, and Ruth Peine Barlow, 45, it appears the investigation is moving away from the commonly held belief that women in the sect are victims who only follow the directions of male leaders, according to the Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1oPQGz2 ).

“Historically, they were probably viewed as victims rather than active participants,” said Georgia attorney Ken Driggs, who studies polygamy and the law, “though the way the statutes were drawn they were probably just as culpable as the male participants.”

The indictments are in contrast to arguments state attorneys have made previously. In a lawsuit filed by the family for the reality show “Sister Wives,” the Utah Attorney General’s Office argued polygamy harms women and children by subjecting them to physical and financial neglect, taking the view that women are victims.

A total of 11 people have been accused of diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits by telling hundreds of members to buy things and give them to a church warehouse or using the food stamps in sect-owned stores without actually getting anything in return.

Both women have pleaded not guilty.

Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap, who is designated as a federal prosecutor in the food-stamp case, said gender played no role in who was or was not indicted and instead the conversation focused on the role suspects appeared to play.

“We tried to take into account the relative position of the followers doing what they believed they were asked,” Belnap said, “as opposed to the upper-level people who were instrumental in carrying it out.”

Dutson, Barlow and their husbands operated stores in Colorado City, Arizona. According to court documents, the women are accused of participating in meetings where sect leaders directed members to misuse their food-stamp benefits.

Aric Cramer, an attorney for Kristal Dutson, said Dutson isn’t responsible for the scheme.

“Knowing the culture, generally speaking, the men run the show and women are not placed in leadership positions,” Cramer said. “I’m not commenting if that’s good or bad. That’s just kind of their religious belief system.”

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com

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