Federal authorities say polygamist religious leader Lyle Jeffs has been captured, nearly a year after he escaped from home confinement while he was accused in a multimillion-dollar food-stamp fraud scheme.
The FBI said Jeffs was taken into custody about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in southeastern South Dakota, where he is still being held.
Yankton County Chief Deputy Sheriff Michael Rothschadl told the Associated Press that Jeffs surrendered without incident at a marina near Yankton, where an off-duty police detective spotted a vehicle that authorities believed the fugitive polygamist had been driving.
Jeffs escaped from his Utah home by using olive oil to slip off his ankle monitor in June 2016, the FBI said.
His attorney later came up with an unusual explanation for the religious leader’s disappearance, arguing in court documents that Jeffs may have been raptured.
Jeffs assumed the role of leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known as FLDS) after his brother, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced in 2011 to life in prison for child rape.
The sect, which is based in Utah, emerged when Mormon leaders suspended the practice of polygamy in the late 1800s, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which calls the group “a white supremacist, homophobic, anti-government, totalitarian cult.” FLDS, which is not connected to the Mormon Church, continues to practice polygamy in small towns along the Utah-Arizona border.
As The Washington Post reported last year, Lyle Jeffs and other church leaders were indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. They were accused of using benefits from beneficiaries for FLDS expenses.
Jeffs was released from jail last June while he awaited trial; but, The Post reported at the time, he “was confined to his Salt Lake County home with few exceptions, told he couldn’t contact various people affiliated with the sect, and made to wear a GPS monitoring device.”
Less than two weeks later, he disappeared.
“He used a substance which may have been olive oil to lubricate the GPS tracking band and slip it off his ankle,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Barnhart told a Fox affiliate at the time.
According to local media reports, investigators believed Jeffs had removed his ankle bracelet at some point on June 18, 2016, because federal agents were in contact with him earlier that day but lost contact during the evening hours. After speaking with neighbors, investigators told the Salt Lake Tribune that witnesses saw “a newer model dark Mustang” leave his garage sometime during the night.
Last August, Jeffs’s public defender, Kathryn Nester, filed court documents requesting a continuance because the religious leader was still nowhere to be found, The Post’s Cleve Wootson reported.
In the filing, Nester offered a theory for his disappearance: a miracle:
As this Court is well aware, Mr. Jeffs is currently not available to inform his counsel whether or not he agrees to the Continuance. Whether his absence is based on absconding, as oft alleged by the Government in their filings, or whether he was taken and secreted against his will, or whether he experienced the miracle of rapture is unknown to counsel. However, his absence prevents counsel from obtaining his approval and thus further prevents counsel from filing a joinder with the Motion to Continue Current Trial Date in compliance with the local rules.
It’s unclear who is currently representing Jeffs. Nester could not immediately be reached for comment following his most recent arrest.