Polygamous leader had child wives, called himself ‘prophet’

The leader of a small polygamous group on the Arizona-Utah border had taken at least 20 wives, most of them minors, and punished followers who did not treat him like a prophet, federal court documents recently filed. to show.

The filing provides information about what investigators have found in a case that was first made public in August. It came as federal authorities charged three of the self-proclaimed prophet’s wives with kidnapping and preventing foreseeable prosecution after eight girls associated with the group fled state foster care.

Naomi Bistline and Donnae Barlow appeared in federal trial court in Flagstaff on Wednesday. They remain jailed and have court hearings scheduled for next week. Moretta Rose Johnson is awaiting extradition from Washington state.

The FBI affidavit filed in the women’s case centers on Samuel Bateman, who declared himself a prophet in 2019. Authorities wrote that Bateman orchestrated sexual acts with minors and gifted wives to his male followers, claiming he was doing so at the order of the “Heavenly God.” Dad.” The men supported Bateman financially and gave him their own wives and young daughters as wives.

Bateman, 46, has pleaded not guilty to state child abuse charges and federal evidence tampering charges. A trial on the federal charges is scheduled for January. He remains jailed in Arizona.

Bateman was a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until he left in recent years and started his own small spinoff group, said Sam Brower, who has spent years researching the group. Bateman was once one of jailed leader Warren Jeffs’ trusted supporters, but Jeffs denounced Bateman in a written revelation sent to his followers from prison, Brower said.

Jeffs is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for child sexual abuse related to underage marriages.

The FLDS is itself a splinter sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon Church. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the majority church, but it abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly prohibits it.

Federal officials maintain that Bateman engaged in horrific acts with children and asked his followers to help cover his tracks. He demanded that his followers publicly confess to any indiscretions and shared those confessions widely, according to the FBI affidavit. He claimed the punishments, which ranged from time-out to public shame and sexual activity, came from the Lord, the affidavit states. Bateman lived in Colorado City, a community that straddles the Arizona-Utah border, among a patchwork of devout polygamous FLDS members, ex-FLDS members and those who do not practice the beliefs. Bateman and his followers believe that polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

He once tried to take his only daughter as his wife, but she told her mother about her father’s plan and the mother and daughter moved in and obtained a restraining order against Bateman. The mother was Bateman’s only wife in 2019, before Bateman began taking more wives.

Bateman was first arrested in August when someone saw little fingers in the space of a trailer he was transporting through Flagstaff. Police found three girls, ages 11 to 14, in a makeshift room in the trailer with no ventilation.

The girls told authorities they did not have any health or medical needs, according to a report from the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Bateman posted bail but was re-arrested in September and charged with obstruction of justice in a federal investigation into whether children were being transported across state lines for sexual activity. Authorities said that after his first arrest, he instructed his followers to obtain passports and delete messages sent through an encrypted messaging app.

At the time of the arrest in September, authorities removed nine children from Bateman’s Colorado City home and placed them in foster care.

None of the girls, identified by their initials in court documents, disclosed sexual abuse by Bateman during forensic interviews, although one said she was present during the sexual activity, according to the FBI affidavit. But several of the girls wrote in journals that were seized by the FBI about intimate interactions with Bateman. Authorities believe the older girls influenced the younger ones not to talk about Bateman, the FBI said.

Eight of the children later escaped from the foster home, and the FBI alleged that Bistline, Barlow, and Johnson, all relatives of the children, as well as Bateman’s current or former wives, went to Arizona to pick them up. The girls were found last week, hundreds of miles away in Spokane, Washington, in a vehicle Johnson was driving, according to the FBI affidavit.

In court on Wednesday, Barlow’s lawyer said his client was only doing what he thought was right. The lawyer, Roberta McVickers, added that Barlow would follow any order issued by the court.

Barlow has lived in Colorado City for much of her life and has a 2-year-old son with special needs, McVickers said in arguing to have her released from custody. Barlow was home-schooled through seventh grade and has no independent source of income or criminal record, McVickers said.

“It’s an adjustment for her to learn what rules to follow,” McVickers said.

Prosecutor Wayne Venhuizen noted that Bistline and Barlow were communicating with Bateman about the children. “These women have shown that they will stop at nothing to interfere with a federal investigation and protect Bateman, who sexually abused children,” he said.

Ultimately, the federal judge overseeing the case ordered Barlow and Bistline, whose brief hearing focused on setting more court dates, to remain in custody.

Barlow, Bistline and Johnson face life in prison if convicted of the charges. Johnson did not have a publicly traded lawyer.

FBI spokesman Kevin Smith declined Tuesday to discuss the course of the case against the women and Bateman. Court records allege that Bateman, 46, engaged in child sex trafficking and polygamy, but none of her current charges relate to those allegations. Bateman’s attorney in the federal case, Adam Zickerman, did not respond to requests for comment.

Criminal defense attorney Michael Piccarreta, who represented Warren Jeffs in the Arizona charges that were dismissed and is not involved in the current cases, said Arizona has a history of trying to take a stand against polygamy by charging relatively minor offenses to build cases. bigger.

“Whether this is the same tactic that was used in the past or if there is more to the story, only time will tell,” he said.

Polygamy is a felony in Arizona, but in Utah it’s only a misdemeanor, after a 2020 change that ended prison sentence for polygamy between consenting adults. Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal, which supporters say will allow the roughly 30,000 people who live in the state’s polygamous communities to come out of the shadows and report abuses such as underage marriage by other polygamists without fear of prosecution. .

Arizona Department of Children’s Services spokesman Darren DaRonco declined to comment on the status of the nine children in state custody.

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