FLDS members take plea deals in massive food stamp fraud case

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ST. GEORGE, Utah - Members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church have struck plea bargains with federal prosecutors, bringing one of the nation's largest food stamp fraud cases closer to an end.

Rulon Barlow, Kimball Barlow, Ruth Barlow, Winford Barlow, Hyrum Dutson and Kristal Dutson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of aiding and abetting Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits fraud. In exchange, they were given no jail time, no probation and ordered to pay no restitution. All of them have agreed to take a class on the proper use of SNAP benefits.

FLDS 11 IN CUSTODY

One after the other, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Braithwaite accepted the guilty pleas. He read the waiver of rights for all six defendants at the same time to move the hearings along.

"I plead guilty," Kimball Barlow told Judge Braithwaite.

"I plead guilty," Winford Barlow said.

"Guilty," Rulon Mormon Barlow told the judge.

"I'm pleading guilty," Ruth Barlow said when her case was called.

"Guilty," Hyrum Dutson said.

"I plead guilty," Kristal Dutson said.

They're among 11 members of the Utah-based polygamous church indicted by a federal grand jury on food stamp fraud and money laundering charges. They're accused of ordering faithful members of the FLDS Church to hand over SNAP benefits to church leaders to do with as they wished. Federal prosecutors have claimed the fraud scheme -- which lasted from 2011 to 2016 -- exceeded $12 million in taxpayer dollars.

FLDS member Winford Barlow (right) walks into the St. George courthouse to plead guilty in a massive food stamp fraud case. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

FLDS member Winford Barlow (right) walks into the St. George courthouse to plead guilty in a massive food stamp fraud case. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

For a case that began with FBI raids in the polygamous enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., it is ending quietly with nearly all of the defendants taking plea deals. Federal prosecutors have acknowledged an uphill battle if the case went to trial, where FLDS members were expected to claim a religious right to consecrate all they have to their church.

Defense attorneys have said the First Amendment religious freedom rights allows for FLDS members to live the "law of consecration," which includes communal living and giving of all they have. They also argued federal law is silent on whether SNAP benefits could be shared.

As he left the courthouse, Hyrum Dutson told reporters: "We won."

Ruth Barlow, accused in the FLDS food stamp fraud case, walks into the courthouse in St. George. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Ruth Barlow, accused in the FLDS food stamp fraud case, walks into the courthouse in St. George. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Last month, high-ranking FLDS Church members John Wayman and Seth Jeffs struck plea deals. They admitted to a felony food stamp fraud charge and were sentenced to time served, no restitution and no probation. Both men were released from jail immediately after entering the plea deals.

"It's like Vietnam. The government declared victory and got out and everyone's benefitted for it," said Aric Cramer, an attorney for Kristal Dutson. "It's a good deal."

Preston Barlow is expected to plead guilty at a later date, after it was announced in court his attorney was out of the country. Nephi Steed Allred has a motion to suppress evidence pending in the case. FLDS leader Lyle Jeffs remains a fugitive. FOX 13 reported in July the FBI believes he used olive oil to slip out of a GPS monitoring device and escape home confinement.

Asked if he knew where Lyle Jeffs is, Hyrum Dutson replied: "It wouldn't matter if I did."

The FLDS Church is based on the Utah-Arizona border and is led by Warren Jeffs, who is currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for child sex assault related to underage marriages. He was considered an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the case.