SALT LAKE CITY — A polygamous sect leader charged with fraud said Tuesday that not sharing goods purchased with food stamps would prohibit him and others from living their religion and being prepared for heaven.
Seth Jeffs and 10 other suspects accused of food stamp fraud and money laundering are trying to persuade a Utah judge they were following religious tenets of communal living, not breaking the law.
He testified that they believe everything on earth belongs to God, which is why members must donate everything they own to a community storehouse. The group’s leaders decide how best to redistribute the goods. The “law of consecration” is based on early Mormon beliefs from the 1800s, he said.
“Every person has the privilege to turn everything they have in because we believe all is not ours,” said Seth Jeffs, who runs the group’s South Dakota compound and is a brother of the group’s imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs. “All belongs to Heavenly Father.”
Prosecutors haven’t yet cross-examined Seth Jeffs, who wore a jail jumpsuit with his hands and feet in cuffs. He is one of two defendants who are behind bars as the case plays out.
Prosecutors counter the defendants knowingly broke the law by not only donating food to a storehouse but diverting funds to front companies and to pay for a tractor, truck and other items. They say sect leaders lived lavishly while low-ranking followers suffered.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart in Salt Lake City is weighing whether food stamp rules burden the suspects’ sincerely held religious beliefs.
He has already warned defense attorneys he is struggling to understand how the suspects had a burden if they didn’t personally receive food stamps. Defense attorneys say some of their client’s family members, who include multiple wives and many children, receive the benefits.
The courtroom was packed with lawyers, defendants and onlookers. Some 20 members of the sect sat in one corner, the women wearing their typical prairie dresses and updo hairstyles. Since each suspect has at least one attorney, there were some 15 lawyers before the judge, making for unique interchanges and exchanges during questioning of the witness.
One important person not in attendance was Lyle Jeffs, the highest-ranking leader ensnarled in the bust. He’s been a fugitive for more than three months since he slipped out of a GPS ankle monitor and escaped home confinement in the Salt Lake City area. The FBI has a $50,000 reward for finding him.
Before Seth Jeffs took the stand, an expert on early Mormonism testified that members of the sect hold beliefs strikingly similar to Mormons in the 1800s. Mormon history expert Lyndon Watson Cook said early Mormons would have worried about their eternal salvation if they didn’t follow the communal living guidelines.
“Their language is the language of the 19th century Mormon,” Cook said. “That’s the way they thought and talked.”
Federal prosecutors, though, pointed out that Cook isn’t an expert on the sect, and he acknowledged his opinion is based solely on his reading of affidavits submitted in this case.
The sect, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is based on the Utah-Arizona border. They believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven — a legacy of the early Mormon church. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice in 1890 and strictly prohibits it today.
The hearing is scheduled for two days. It’s unknown if Judge Stewart will rule from the bench or at a later date. If he rules for the defense it could toss out part of the case.
The 11 defendants have pleaded not guilty to food stamp fraud and money laundering.