SALT LAKE CITY — Investigators say they noticed something strange when they began tracking food stamp transactions coming out of two small convenience stores in a polygamous community on the Arizona-Utah border.
The volume of food stamp purchased was so large that it rivaled big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco.
They said they ultimately learned that residents were scanning their food stamp debit cards at the stores but getting no items in return, allowing leaders of the polygamous sect to funnel the money to front companies. The proceeds paid for a John Deere loader, a Ford truck and $17,000 in paper products, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
The alleged scheme is at the heart of a major takedown of top leaders of the secretive sect in which followers believe that having multiple wives brings exaltation in heaven.
Eleven people were charged with food stamp fraud and money laundering, including Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs, top-ranking leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and brothers of imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs.
Lyle Jeffs runs the day-to-day operations in the polygamous community of Hildale, Utah, while Seth Jeffs leads a branch of the group in South Dakota. Their brother Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.
Prosecutors accuse church leaders of orchestrating a yearslong fraud scheme that included meetings where they told members how to use the food-stamp benefits illegally and avoid getting caught, charging documents say.
The practice has been called “bleeding the beast,” taking money from a government they disdain and using it as they see fit, said Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor who has studied the church.
The sect does not have a spokesman or a phone listing where leaders can be contacted. The Associated Press could not verify if the defendants had attorneys yet.
The arrests — which were made Tuesday in Salt Lake City; Custer County, South Dakota; and the sister cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona — are the government’s latest move targeting the sect.
They come amid a civil rights trial in Phoenix against Hildale and Colorado City, Arizona, in which prosecutors say the communities discriminated against non-members by denying them housing, water services and police protection.
Federal labor lawyers also are going after the group on allegations that leaders ordered parents to put their kids to work for long hours for little pay on a southern Utah pecan farm.
The communities deny those allegations.
Prosecutors said the actions in this new case weren’t coordinated. But Sam Brower, a private investigator who has spent years investigating the group, said one common theme in the cases is that authorities are finding more willing witnesses with inside knowledge because large numbers of people have been kicked out or left.
Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs and the others are expected to make their initial court appearances Wednesday in three different federal states.
Federal prosecutors are asking the judge to keep them behind bars, arguing that they are flight risks. They contend that if allowed out on bail, the polygamists are likely to flee and hide in the group’s elaborate network of houses throughout North and South America, using aliases, disguises, false identification and pre-paid cellphones.
U.S. Attorney John Huber said repeatedly Tuesday that the indictment was not about religion, but fraud.
Guiora, the law professor, said the bust goes well beyond fraud — putting the group’s leadership in doubt.