PIERRE, S.D. — Polygamous leader Lyle Jeffs’ one-year run from justice was ended by pliers, sharp-eyed pawn shop workers and an astute off-duty detective in a small town in South Dakota.
The events leading to Jeffs’ capture Wednesday in a lakeside area near the South Dakota-Nebraska state line where he was living out of his truck started a day earlier when a pawn shop owner called police about a man who had come to his shop twice acting nervous and fidgety.
After Jeffs sold two pairs of Leatherman pliers for $37 and provided his ID on Tuesday, a suspicious employee at River City Treasures and Pawn in Yankton looked up online the name he had been given and realized the man was wanted by the FBI, owner Kevin Haug said in an interview Thursday.
Haug said Jeffs re-arranged his name during the transaction, going by Jeffs Lyle Steed.
“That was his shot at fooling everybody,” Haug said.
Haug alerted police and his employee called the FBI — providing authorities with store video of Jeffs, pawn paperwork bearing his information and the vehicle Jeffs was driving: A silver Ford-F-150 pickup truck.
“Every once in a while, when someone’s weird, we look into them for no apparent reason other than we’re just bored sometimes,” Haug said.
The tip proved to be the break the FBI had been craving since Jeffs used olive oil to slip out of his ankle monitor and escape home confinement in Utah on June 18, 2016, ahead of his trial in an alleged multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme.
Authorities ramped up their search for Jeffs based on the tip, and an off-duty Yankton police detective spotted Jeffs going into a bathroom at a marina-resort area next to picturesque Lewis and Clark Lake and then as Jeffs drove through the marina, Yankton County Chief Deputy Sheriff Michael Rothschadl said.
Jeffs complied with officers when he was arrested and acknowledged he was the fugitive they had been searching for, said Eric Barnhart, FBI special agent in charge for the Salt Lake City Division.
Authorities believe he had been in the area for about two weeks, running low on resources and struggling without the help of fellow sect members, Barnhart said. A falling out with his brother Warren Jeffs, who runs the sect while serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexual assault of underage brides, led to the lack of support, the FBI has said.
Their 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.
Lyle Jeffs was some six hours from that compound when he was captured. Barnhart said they do not know yet if he spent time there during his year on the lam.
He said the FBI is working to determine if the unidentified tipster will get paid the $50,000 reward. Haug said if he gets a reward, he would take a vacation.
“That’s not why I did it, but if they’re going to offer it we kind of gave them the tip that he was here,” Haug said. “That would be nice.”
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.
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 was the last of the defendants in the food stamp fraud case still behind bars when U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart last year reversed an earlier decision and granted his release in early June last year. 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 Thursday. “We had very serious concerns.”
McCombs reported from Salt Lake City.
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