UPDATE: Fugitive Lyle Jeffs has been captured in South Dakota, the FBI announced Thursday. He was found after using his real ID to pawn two pairs of pliers for $37, according to the Associated Press. Authorities said that he had been living out of his car at a recreation area nearby Soux Falls. In addition to the conspiracy charges that sent him on the lam last summer, Jeffs will most likely face additional charges for fleeing prosecution.
In the community of Short Creek, on the border of Arizona and Utah, the Mormon fundamentalists have always believed in miracles.
Gold tablets unearthed under the guidance of angels, magic rocks that decode ancient languages, the deliverance of prophets from jail – all of these phenomena inform the magic worldview of the thousands of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, the largest polygamist sect in America.
But no miracle in recent memory is as surprising as the way the bishop of Short Creek, Lyle Jeffs, recently escaped the law last month. Apparently using olive oil, a substance Mormons believe can have sacred healing powers, Jeffs lubed up his ankle and slipped off his GPS tracking device, becoming the most recent fugitive in a family well versed in evading justice.
It’s the latest twist in a saga that’s been unfolding ever since Lyle Jeff’s brother Warren rose to power in Short Creek almost 15 years ago and quickly put himself in the crosshairs of law enforcement by taking scores of wives – many underage – and engaging in a host of crimes befitting a mob boss: tax evasion, money laundering and threats and intimidation of anyone who opposed him. With Lyle on the lam, it’s unclear who’s running the day-to-day operations of the cult, or what the future holds for a church eagerly awaiting the apocalypse.
“I’m still worried how this all ends up,” says Sam Brower, a private investigator and producer of the Showtime documentary on Warren Jeffs, Prophet’s Prey. “Lyle has people loyal to him who will do anything to keep him hidden.”
The FLDS have been under existential crisis for at least a year, and that only ratcheted up in March when a jury in Phoenix found that city officials in Short Creek had violated the civil rights of residents who didn’t belong to the faith, denying them utility hookups and refusing to haul off their sewage for years. The Department of Justice, which brought the case, alleged that city officials all answered to the FLDS and their leader Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned pedophile prophet who married his late father’s wives and once had sex with a 14-year-old on a temple bed. Widely suspected of being insane, Warren Jeffs’ control extended to the town marshals, who under his orders ran apostates out of town and tracked license plates of any outsiders who passed through the dusty desert hamlet.
While the trial in Phoenix – which began in January and ended in March – was wrapping up, the FBI raided church-controlled businesses in Short Creek. What they uncovered, federal prosecutors say, implicates church leadership in another kind of crime: money laundering and food stamp fraud to the tune of $12 million. Lyle Jeffs was arrested in Salt Lake City in February and had been held in jail until early June, when a district judge released him to home confinement on the condition that he avoid contact with certain sect members. And that’s when Lyle, or someone close to him, concocted the olive oil escape plan. (Lyle’s attorney tells Rolling Stone that she was “surprised and concerned” when she heard about her client’s escape, noting that neither Lyle nor the FBI has contacted her.)
If the whole incident sounds familiar to anyone following the story of the FLDS, it’s because Lyle’s brother Warren was once on the run himself, eventually landing on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. He evaded capture for years through decoy vehicles, burner phones, wigs and a network of supporters who sheltered him.
Because Lyle helped orchestrate much of that, he may prove even more difficult to capture, say former FLDS members.
“He knows how the system works, he knows how it worked with Warren,” Brower says. “They have places he could be hiding all over the country, or in Mexico, Canada, or South America. Or he could be hiding right under our noses.”
Brower is referring to what the FLDS call “lands of refuge” and “houses of hiding.”
“They all had code names that only the inner circle could identify,” says Don Barlow, a former member who drew up floor plans for houses of hiding and worked as an excavator at a land of refuge in Texas.
Barlow says there are lands of refuge in remote, rural areas in South Dakota and Colorado, outfitted with watchtowers to allow the FLDS to see approaching vehicles from miles away. The church also owns a ranch in South America.
But Brower thinks Jeffs may be much closer to home – perhaps even in Short Creek – making it easier for his followers to get him cash and help him shuttle between “houses of hiding,” which are nothing more than nondescript homes hidden in subdivisions in places like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Salt Lake City.
Pinpointing Lyle’s location is one thing; catching him is another. During the federal trial against Short Creek earlier this year, the former head of FLDS security testified about elaborate plans they had in place to help Warren Jeffs escape when he was on the run. In one incident when the police were closing in, they used a caravan of ATVs to exit a church building, leading police on a chase through a dry creek bed in Short Creek, eventually arriving at a trailer where they had stashed motorcycles outfitted with prepaid debit cards, wigs and sunglasses. They escaped to Las Vegas.
But Brower thinks this time might be different. When Warren Jeffs was on the lam, he had 10,000 followers to help hide him, but in the time since his conviction for underage marriage, hundreds, and perhaps thousands of cult members have either been excommunicated or left the faith. And many of these people still have contact with family members in Short Creek, meaning law enforcement now has an intel network they didn’t before.
“We’re well aware of Warren’s modus operandi and that he was able to stay on the loose for a time,” says Eric Barnhart, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Salt Lake City office. “We’re aware of the places of hiding in Canada and Mexico and elsewhere. We believe it’s just a matter of time before we catch [Lyle.] He’s not behind bars now, but he’s also not able to live freely. He’s gotta believe every stranger he sees is going to turn him in.”
In the meantime, the ironclad grip the Jeffs brothers exerted over Short Creek continues to loosen. At a recent July 4th party, thousands of former members returned to the community, something that would have been impossible not long ago. Ben Thomas, a former member, says thousands of FLDS members have left the faith in the last five years. He estimates only 7,000 remain.
There are even rumors that there’s a growing rift between Lyle and Warren Jeffs, who is said to control the sect through coded letters he sends to his wives from his Texas prison cell. If that’s true, it would follow a familiar pattern in Mormon polygamist circles, most notably in the sibling rivalry between Ervil and Joel Lebaron, two fundamentalists who can trace their heritage back to Short Creek. Ervil eventually had Joel killed, and before his death in 1981, was responsible for the murders of at least 20 Mormon fundamentalists.
But Brower dismisses the rumor of tension between Warren and Lyle as just that – a rumor.
“I think Lyle knows Warren is crazy, but he’s smart enough to know that Warren has a very devout following, which means money and standing and power,” he says. “As long as he remains Warren’s mouthpiece, he’ll keep all of that.”
So what does the future hold for Short Creek? Chris Wyler, a former FLDS member who lives there, says with each passing day the town turns over to the apostates. The loyalists to the Jeffs brothers, which number between 5,000 to 7,000, are starting to leave, he says. Some have bought property in nearby towns, while others are decamping for lands of refuge in South Dakota and Colorado.
The nail in the coffin for FLDS control over the town could come in October, when the federal judge who presided over the corruption trial in Phoenix earlier this year decides what measures to put in place to rid the town of church control. The Department of Justice has recommended disbanding the marshal’s office as a start.
Whether Lyle Jeffs is in prison or still on the run when that happens remains to be seen. One thing that’s certain, Brower says, is that the FLDS will continue on in some fashion, either in Utah or elsewhere, and Warren Jeffs won’t relinquish his power without a fight.
“That’s all Warren has in prison – power and control,” Brower says. “He’s never going to give that up. He’s going to keep his followers and control over things until the day he dies.”