Polygamous sect leader Lyle Jeffs was captured in Yankton Wednesday night following nearly a year on the run.
A suspicious pawn shop employee notified the owner that Jeffs was wanted by the FBI, who learned more about him online and alerted authorities.
Jeffs was alone near at the marina when an off-duty police detective spotted a pickup truck that a tipster told police Jeffs had been driving, said Eric Barnhart, FBI Special Agent in Charge for the Salt Lake City Division.
Yankton County Chief Deputy Sheriff Michael Rothschadl said the arrest was made without incident Wednesday night. The police department, sheriff’s office, the South Dakota Highway Patrol and the FBI assisted in the arrest.
Authorities believe he had been in that area for the last two weeks and was living out of his pickup truck.
Authorities had been hunting for Jeffs since he escaped home confinement in Utah on June 18, 2016, ahead of his trial in an alleged multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.
Jeffs was spotted Tuesday at a Yankton pawn shop.
Kevin Haug, owner of Rivercity Treasures and Pawn, notified police after an individual identified as Jeffs had been in his downtown Yankton store earlier in the day.
“He was acting weird, but so many people act weird,” Haug said. “(But an employee) was really skeptical. …”
Jeffs also visited the store last week and tried to sell a tool but the store did not buy them that time and Jeffs did not identify himself during the earlier visit. During his first visit Jeffs was fidgeting, seemed nervous and was “acting like a freak,” Haug said.
When Jeffs came in Tuesday, there was no mystery about who he was.
“The fellow came in and sold a couple of Leatherman pliers (for $37). So he had to give us his ID. It was a real ID, with his birthday, his name, his picture, everything,” Haug said. “(My employee) did the process, and (the guy) was acting weird. (The employee) decided to Google his name and up pops all that (information).”
Haug was in Sioux Falls that day, and when he returned, he was told of the encounter and contacted law enforcement.
“I just called the PD (police department) … and that was that,” he said. “They came down and looked at the footage. (My employee) actually called the FBI after I called the police. They got the surveillance video.
“When I was told his name, I was wondered if he was related to Warren Jeffs out in Utah.”
Haug said the employee also got a description of Jeffs’ vehicle and the license plate number.
The FBI had issued a $50,000 reward for information leading to Jeffs’ arrest and Barnhart said the agency is working to determine if the tipster will get paid.
Barnhart said investigators believe Jeffs was running out resources and not getting much help from members of the sect. He said investigators are still trying to determine Jeffs’ movements for the rest of the time he was missing and declined to discuss other tips received by agents.
Jeffs will likely face at least one new felony charge connected to his time on the run, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber said.
Jeffs was stopped in Yankton after using a bathroom as he drove at the marina, Rothschadl said.
After his arrest, Jeffs was transported by the Highway Patrol to Sioux Falls.
The FBI announced the capture Thursday morning with a Tweet: “#ARRESTED: FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs in custody after nearly a year on the lam.”
On Thursday morning, Haug learned that his information had turned into an arrest after his wife saw media reports.
“My wife nudged me this morning and said, ‘There’s your guy! There’s your guy!’” Haug said.
Rothschadl said he’s happy the Yankton area could help in taking down a fugitive.
“The Sheriff’s Office serves a lot of warrants in a year,” he said. “We’re always looking for people, but it’s nice to come across a guy that’s wanted on the Top 10 list and get him into custody. It’s a good feeling.”
He added that he was unaware of any other instance where a major national fugitive was captured in Yankton County.
Jeffs’ group, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is based in a small community on the Utah-Arizona border.
Members of the sect believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. The group is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
The group also has a small compound in far west South Dakota that was established more than a decade ago. Known to the faithful as “R23,” the compound sits along a gravel road, secluded by tall pine trees, a privacy fence and a guard tower. Barnhart said it is unclear if Jeffs spent any time there.
In a federal court appearance Thursday in Sioux Falls, Jeffs waived a detention hearing until he returns to Utah in coming days to face the pending food stamp fraud charges, said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah.
Jeffs became a fugitive the weekend of June 18-19, 2016 when he slipped off his GPS ankle monitor using olive oil or another lubricant and fled from a Salt Lake City house where he was on supervised home release, authorities have said. Jeffs and 10 others from the sect were charged with fraud and money laundering in a multimillion dollar food stamp fraud scheme.
Prosecutors accused Jeffs and other sect leaders of instructing followers to buy items with their food stamp cards and give them to a church warehouse where leaders decided how to distribute products to followers.
Food stamps were also cashed at sect-owned stores without the users getting anything in return and the money was then diverted to front companies and used to pay thousands for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors have said.
The defendants denied wrongdoing and said they were sharing food as part of their communal living practices.
Jeffs was the last of the defendants in the food stamp fraud case still behind bars when U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart reversed an earlier decision and granted his release on June 9. Prosecutors argued Jeffs was a flight risk.
“You have those times when you don’t want to say, ‘I told you so,’ but that’s kind of where we’re at,” Huber said. “We had very serious concerns.”
While Jeffs was a fugitive, nine of the 10 other people charged in the high-profile February 2016 bust accepted plea deals. Charges against one man were dismissed.
Federal prosecutors will be under pressure from critics of the sect who believe federal prosecutors went too easy on the other defendants, many of whom did not serve jail time.
Sam Brower, a private investigator who has researched the sect for years, said he fears prosecutors will strike a deal with Lyle Jeffs and miss the opportunity to send a message.
“Members of the hierarchy feel that they are untouchable because of what they did with the rest of them,” Brower said. “They feel God protected them.”
Huber said authorities always considered Jeffs the lead defendant in the case and said he will be treated differently.
Haug said he’s happy that he was able to contribute to the apprehension of a wanted fugitive.
“It feels pretty good,” Haug said.