SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The takedown of top leaders in a secretive polygamous group on the Utah-Arizona border in a food stamp fraud case is a major blow that will hurt in the short term.
But former members and experts don’t expect it to dismantle the sect.
Mid-ranking leaders who have been closely involved in business and religious dealings will likely step up and fill the vacated roles, even it takes time to find their footing.
And imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs will likely spin the arrests by telling his flock that the Tuesday raids are more evidence that the government is an evil entity out to attack their way of life, former sect members say.
It’s a tactic that has helped the group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints stay afloat since Jeffs was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
“Sometimes these things can backfire on you because it strengthens their devoutness and faithfulness because they can say to themselves: ‘This just proves how much government hates us,’” said Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who has studied the church.
It’s a deep-rooted disdain with roots in previous government raids, in 1953 on the Utah-Arizona line, and in 2008 at a ranch in Texas in what led to Jeffs’ conviction.
Eleven people now face food stamp fraud and money laundering charges. Food stamp debit cards were scanned, but shoppers got nothing in return, prosecutors say. Group leaders then funneled money to front companies.
The volume of food stamp purchases was so large it rivaled stores the size of Wal-Mart and Costco, prosecutors say, with the total amount of money diverted and laundered estimated at $12 million.
Devout followers will only know what leaders tell them about the arrests because of a standing rule not to watch TV, browse the internet or read newspapers, said Thomas Jeffs, a former member of the sect and son of the highest-ranking leader arrested: Lyle Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’ brother.
“They’re most likely being told that the government drummed up some evidence to try and put them away and it’s the fault of us apostates,” said Thomas Jeffs, 28.
He and his cousin Roy Jeffs, son of Warren Jeffs, were in the court gallery Wednesday in Salt Lake City as Lyle Jeffs pleaded not guilty to the charges, wearing a prison jumpsuit and looking somber.
Roy Jeffs, who also left the sect, said his father will harken back to a prediction he made years ago when he said things will get so bad it will seem like the religion is crushed, calling that a prophecy.
Outsiders have been predicting that sect leaders’ power would crumble since Warren Jeffs was first arrested in 2006, but he and his loyal lieutenants still hold sway.
After the Texas raid, that also sent Warren Jeffs’ trusted deputies to prison, Lyle Jeffs eventually stepped into the power vacuum.
In the years that followed, Lyle Jeffs relayed a series of bizarre edicts from his imprisoned brother that forbade children’s toys, Internet access, new marriages and sexual relations between spouses without Warren Jeffs’ permission.
As the rules became more restrictive, the number of people who have left or are being kicked has swelled.
That’s given authorities a much larger pool of potential witnesses, opening up access to closely guarded secrets they’re now sharing with police. That’s bolstered a series of new actions from police and prosecutors, including an ongoing civil rights trial in Phoenix and child labor proceedings in Utah.
Thomas Jeffs said he is among the group that has cooperated with investigators.
“I told them exactly what they needed to do to put the church in a spiral,” Thomas Jeffs said. “I’m hoping this will wake up some of my brothers and sisters.”
Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.
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