SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Polygamous sect leader Lyle Jeffs was captured in South Dakota following nearly a year on the run after he pawned two pairs of pliers and provided a real identification card, authorities and the pawn shop owner said.
The suspicious pawn shop employee notified the owner that Jeffs was wanted by the FBI, who learned more about him online and alerted authorities.
Jeffs was alone near a lakeside marina and hours away from a compound in the state run by his polygamous group when an off duty police detective spotted a pickup truck Thursday that a tipster told police Jeffs had been driving, said Eric Barnhart, FBI Special Agent in Charge for the Salt Lake City Division.
Jeffs complied with officers when he was arrested Wednesday at a lakeside marina near the small town of Yankton in the southeastern corner of South Dakota, Barnhart said. Authorities believe he had been in that area for the last two weeks and was living out of his pickup truck.
Authorities had been hunting for Jeffs since he escaped home confinement in Utah on June 18, 2016, ahead of his trial in an alleged multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.
The events leading to Jeffs’ capture started Tuesday when he went to the River City Treasures and Pawn shop and sold two pairs of Leatherman pliers for $37 and provided his ID, owner Kevin Haug said in an interview.
A store employee notified Haug that Jeffs was wanted by the FBI after Jeffs had left the store. Haug called police in Yankton and said he provided officers with store video and pawn paperwork.
Jeffs also visited the store last week and tried to sell a tool but the store did not buy them that time and Jeffs did not identify himself during the earlier visit. Jeffs during his first visit was fidgeting, seemed nervous and was “acting like a freak,” Haug said.
Barnhart declined comment on whether Haug was the tipster credited with helping authorities capture Jeffs, but Yankton County Chief Deputy Sheriff Michael Rothschadl said authorities looked for Jeffs in the area because of the pawn shop tip.
The FBI had issued a $50,000 reward for information leading to Jeffs’ arrest and Barnhart said the agency is working to determine if the unidentified tipster will get paid.
Barnhart said investigators believe Jeffs was running out resources and not getting much help from members of the sect. He said investigators are still trying to determine Jeffs’ movements for the rest of the time he was missing and declined to discuss other tips received by agents.
Jeffs will likely face at least one new felony charge connected to his time on the run, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber said.
Jeffs was stopped in Yankton after using a bathroom as he drove at a marina-resort next to picturesque Lewis and Clark lake that marks the border of South Dakota and Nebraska, Rothschadl said.
Jeffs’ group, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is based in a small community on the Utah-Arizona border. Members of the sect believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The group is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
The group also has a small compound in far west South Dakota that was established more than a decade ago. Known to the faithful as “R23,” the compound sits along a gravel road, secluded by tall pine trees, a privacy fence and a guard tower. Barnhart said it is unclear if Jeffs spent any time there.
In a federal court appearance Thursday in Sioux Falls, Jeffs waived a detention hearing until he returns to Utah in coming days to face the pending food stamp fraud charges, said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah.
Jeffs became a fugitive the weekend of June 18-19, 2016 when he slipped off his GPS ankle monitor using olive oil or another lubricant and fled from a Salt Lake City house where he was on supervised home release, authorities have said. Jeffs and 10 others from the sect were charged with fraud and money laundering in a multimillion dollar food stamp fraud scheme.
Prosecutors accused Jeffs and other sect leaders of instructing followers to buy items with their food stamp cards and give them to a church warehouse where leaders decided how to distribute products to followers.
Food stamps were also cashed at sect-owned stores without the users getting anything in return and the money was then diverted to front companies and used to pay thousands for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors have said.
The defendants denied wrongdoing and said they were sharing food as part of their communal living practices.
Jeffs was the last of the defendants in the food stamp fraud case still behind bars when U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart reversed an earlier decision and granted his release on June 9. Prosecutors argued Jeffs was a flight risk.
“You have those times when you don’t want to say, ‘I told you so,’ but that’s kind of where we’re at,” Huber said. “We had very serious concerns.”
While Jeffs was a fugitive, nine of the 10 other people charged in the high-profile February 2016 bust accepted plea deals. Charges against one man were dismissed.
Federal prosecutors will be under pressure from critics of the sect who believe federal prosecutors went too easy on the other defendants, many of whom did not serve jail time.
Sam Brower, a private investigator who has researched the sect for years said he fears prosecutors will strike a deal with Lyle Jeffs and miss the opportunity to send a message.
“Members of the hierarchy feel that they are untouchable because of what they did with the rest of them,” Brower said. “They feel god protected them.”
Huber said authorities always considered Jeffs the lead defendant in the case and said he will be treated differently.
Nord reported from Pierre, South Dakota.
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