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Inside the Food Stamp Scandal That Could Be the Downfall of the FLDS Church

We spoke to a woman who escaped the polygamist Mormon cult about the church's alleged welfare fraud currently under investigation by the FBI.

Molly Oswaks

Molly Oswaks

Photo by Desert Morning New via Getty Images

The twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah––a community that is collectively known as Short Creek and is home to thousands of members of a polygamous cult called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS)––were raided Tuesday morning by the FBI.

Just days before the defense is set to rest in the case of United States v. Colorado City/Hildale, following weeks of testimony from witnesses for the US Department of Justice who spoke of city-wide discrimination against non-members and ex-members of the sect, the Feds arrested 11 individuals, including Lyle Jeffs, bishop of the FLDS, who has been running the cult on behalf of his imprisoned brother, Prophet Warren Jeffs––for a new case, United States v. Jeffs, et al.

Lyle Jeffs, and ten others, including two women, were indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit welfare fraud and money laundering. Because of the nature of their practice of plural marriage, ancillary wives are considered single mothers, and they can collect welfare and food stamps. The church requires all money and food be donated to the community's storehouse, where it is redistributed on a weekly basis. According to the Department of Justice, FLDS members receive millions of dollars in food stamp, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), benefits each year.

Well-trafficked SNAP retailer businesses in town were targeted by the Feds, including the Meadowayne Dairy Store and Vermillion Cliffs Produce Market––which court documents state engaged in "abnormally large and frequent" food stamps transactions "which rival and even surpass those sales generated by much larger stores like Wal-Mart and Costco"––and Reliance Electric. Court documents further state that FLDS leaders––including the indicted Lyle Jeffs, Seth Jeffs, John Wayman, and Kimball Barlow––"provided instruction on how to avoid suspicion and detection by the government."

Kristal Meldrum Dutson, wife of Vermillion Cliffs Produce general manager Hyrum Bygnal Dutson, was one of the two women taken into custody on Tuesday. The other is Ruth Peine Barlow, who worked at the dairy store. All face one count each of conspiring to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The produce market in Short Creek. Photo by Molly Oswaks.

One woman who was close with both women—and who herself worked for both the dairy store and the produce market between 2012 and 2015, when she finally left the FLDS for good—spoke to Broadly on the condition of anonymity.

She described the dairy store computer database created by Kimball Barlow through which members of the FLDS could access a list of bulk items needed for the community storehouse. The storehouse would insert into this database "the numbers that [the community] would need, as far as oatmeal or whatever it was... chicken or fish." After that, "people would come in and look of that list," make their orders, and then bring everything over to the storehouse. To pay, "some would use cash, some would use credit card, some would use food stamps."

She describes similar interactions at the produce market. "There were times when people would come in and buy in bulk," she says. "You could assume," they were taking these goods to the FLDS community storehouse.

Those that are getting food money [from the government]: Don't just hoard it for yourself. Bless others.

The community storehouse contained all the food that the elite group of FLDS members known as the United Order were allowed to access each week. The idea is that everything is equal among the UO and everyone gets the same allocation of food and supplies. Members are required to donate all their money and food to the storehouse; they then are able to pick up a box of food for their families each week.

"I was there at the meetings when Lyle was saying, 'Anything that you have, Heavenly Father wants to you bless everybody [with it]. Those that are getting food money [from the government]: Don't just hoard it for yourself. Bless others'," she says. Buying large quantities of food with government assistance "wasn't something we would do because we wanted to get in trouble," she says of the charges of welfare fraud. "It was more of us giving our all [to the community and the Heavenly Father], and doing what we were told."

"Heavenly Father knows—he sees everything," she says, explaining the mentality of those women who were arrested for following the orders of the priesthood above them. "Eternal damnation seems a lot harder to deal with than having the government slap your hands... it seems so dang weird now."

She says that Lyle Jeffs "must have known" of the criminality of what he was doing. Lyle Jeffs has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.