Fraud probe in polygamous town aided by surveillance video

Rick Bowmer
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints women leave the Federal Courthouse following detention status hearing for high-ranking polygamous leader Lyle Jeffs Wednesday, April 6, 2016, in Salt Lake City. Jeffs will have to wait to find out if he can leave jail pending trial on accusations he helped orchestrate a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Investigators took aerial videos and installed surveillance cameras at a polygamous town’s general store to gather evidence in a multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud case, prosecutors revealed Wednesday.

The FBI got permission from a judge and placed a couple of cameras on poles outside the store for about a year, and a camera inside the store for about 40 days, prosecutor Robert Lund said in a Salt Lake City courtroom.

Investigators used planes to take videos of people making bulk purchases at the Meadowayne Dairy Store and taking the items to a community storehouse instead of their homes, he said.

The disclosure provided new insight into how authorities conducted the multiyear investigation that led to 11 people being accused in February of diverting at least $12 million worth of federal benefits. It marked one of the biggest crackdowns on a group run by imprisoned polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering. All but high-ranking leader Lyle Jeffs are on supervised release.

Prosecutors say sect leaders instructed followers to buy items with their food stamp cards and give them to a church warehouse where leaders decided how to distribute the products to followers.

The food stamps were also cashed at sect-owned stores without the users getting anything in return, with the funds then diverted to front companies and used to pay thousands for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors say.

The volume of food stamp purchases at two small convenience stores was so large that it rivaled retailers the size of Wal-Mart and Costco, prosecutors say.

Lund offered the information after U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart questioned why the government hadn’t turned over all its evidence by an April 15 deadline. Lund says the lengthy videos were still being processed.

He said investigators are working now to synchronize the aerial video with the footage from inside and outside the store to paint a picture for jurors of how the scheme worked. They also obtained video from security cameras put up the by the sect at the store, Lund said.

The polygamous group, based in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, has cameras throughout the community on poles and buildings.

The sect, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago. The leader is Warren Jeffs, who is considered a prophet and is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. His brother, Lyle Jeffs, runs the day-to-day operations.

The food-stamp crackdown marked the government’s latest move against the sect, coinciding with legal battles in two states over child labor and discrimination against nonbelievers.

A jury in Phoenix decided in March that the towns violated the constitutional rights of nonbelievers by denying them basic services such as police protection, building permits and water hookups. The Department of Justice is expected to recommend punishments for the towns later this week that could include asking a judge to disband the town police department.

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