The XX Factor

Polygamist Fugitive Captured, Disproving Lawyer’s Theory that He Disappeared in the Rapture

The Rapture (not pictured: Lyle Jeffs)

Wikimedia Commons

When polygamist religious leader Lyle Jeffs vanished from house arrest almost a year ago, there were at least two theories about what happened to him. The FBI said he appeared to have used olive oil to slip free from his GPS-enabled ankle monitor and go on the lam. His lawyer, meanwhile, suggested in court documents that the Rapture—you know, the end-times event when God will zap Christians back to heaven en masse—might have been responsible for his disappearance.

Until this week, both theories seemed equally plausible! But Wednesday night, Jeffs was captured alive and well in South Dakota. He had been on the run for almost a year, with the FBI issuing a $50,000 reward and a bold red “WANTED” poster for him in August. At a press conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday morning, an FBI representative said he was captured thanks to a tip. Jeffs had been living out of his car near a marina, and is now being held in a Sioux Falls jail.

Jeffs is the brother of Warren Jeffs, the so-called prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a fringe Mormon sect based on the border of Arizona and Utah. The FLDS broke off from the mainstream Mormon church in 1913, largely over the question of polygamy, which the mainstream church had long disavowed. The FBI said Lyle Jeffs was in touch with his imprisoned brother after he escaped from house arrest, but intercepted messages between the brothers also suggested Lyle had been removed from his position of bishop soon after he escaped. Warren Jeffs is now serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for child rape; he had 78 wives when he was arrested in 2006, and a third of them were under the age of 17.

A detailed 2016 profile in the Salt Lake City Tribune portrayed Lyle Jeffs as a braggart with a temper, who enforced the rules at the FLDS compound with little mercy. “Uncle Lyle” evicted possibly hundreds of the faithful, and forbade members from reading or watching secular media or consuming any news about the evidence against his brother. One parishioner told the paper that Lyle would act respectfully during private counseling sessions with church members, but would make fun of people behind their backs when the sessions were over.

As of last year, Jeffs was believed to have eight wives and about 60 children. His legal troubles do not stem from his marital preferences, however, but from his role in what the FBI describes as massive food-stamp fraud. Eleven church leaders are accused of forcing members to “donate” their food stamp benefits to the church, which then used them for their own expenses. A lawyer for another family member implicated in the scheme last year compared it to a PTA bake sale, and said that the crackdown was an infringement on the group’s religious freedom. Prosecutors, meanwhile, said the scheme had cost taxpayers more than $12 million. Previously, Jeffs and a church-related company had been fined for violating child labor laws for forcing at least 175 children under age 13 to harvest pecans without pay.

So far the FBI has offered few details on Jeffs’ capture, though the representative said at the press conference on Thursday that “it’s a great story.” But at least one element of the case seems settled definitively now: The Rapture did not single out for salvation a polygamist accused of child-labor violations and food-stamp extortion. If nothing else, that’s a relief, theologically speaking.