FBI: Polygamous leader had 20 wives, many of them minors

By FELICIA FONSECA (Associated Press)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The leader of a small polygamous group near the Arizona-Utah border took at least 20 wives, most of them minors, and punished followers who did not treat him as a prophet, newly filed documents show. of federal court claim.

Samuel Bateman was a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, until he left to start his own small group. He was supported financially by male followers who also gave up their own wives and children to be Bateman’s wives, according to an FBI affidavit.

The document filed Friday offers new insight into what investigators discovered in a case that first became public in August. It accompanied kidnapping and hindering prosecution charges against three of Bateman’s wives – Naomi Bistline, Donnae Barlow and Moretta Rose Johnson.

Bistline and Barlow are scheduled to appear in federal court in Flagstaff on Wednesday. Johnson is awaiting extradition from Washington state.

The women are accused of seizing eight of Bateman’s children from Arizona state custody and fleeing with them. The children were found last week hundreds of miles (kilometers) away in Spokane, Washington.

Bateman was arrested in August when someone spotted little fingers in the trunk of a trailer he was hauling through Flagstaff. He posted bail but was arrested again and charged with obstruction of justice in a federal investigation into whether children were being transported across state lines for sex.

Court records allege Bateman, 46, engaged in child sex trafficking and polygamy, but none of his current charges relate to those allegations. Polygamy is illegal in Arizona, but was decriminalized in Utah in 2020.

Arizona Department of Child Services spokesman Darren DaRonco and FBI spokesman Kevin Smith declined to comment on the case Tuesday. Bistline’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment, and Barlow’s attorney declined to comment. Johnson did not have a publicly listed attorney.

The FBI’s statement filed in the women’s case focuses largely on Bateman, who proclaimed himself a prophet in 2019. Bateman says he was told by former FLDS leader Warren Jeffs to invoke “the Spirit of God upon these people.” The affidavit details explicit sexual acts that Bateman and his followers engaged in to fulfill their “pious duties”.

Jeffs is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for child sex abuse related to child marriage.

Criminal defense attorney Michael Piccarreta, who represented Jeffs on the Arizona charges that were dismissed, said the state tried to take a stand against polygamy by charging relatively minor offenses to build larger cases.

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

The office of Bateman’s attorney in the federal case, Adam Zickerman, declined to comment Tuesday.

Bateman lived in the Colorado town among a crowd of devout polygamous FLDS members, ex-church members and non-practitioners. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainline church abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly forbids it.

Bateman often traveled to Nebraska, where some of his other followers lived, and internationally to Canada and Mexico for conferences.

When Bateman was arrested earlier this year, he instructed his followers to obtain passports and delete messages sent through an encrypted system, authorities said.

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 a break to public shaming and sexual activity, came from God, the statement said.

The children, identified by their initials in court documents, have said little to authorities. The three children found in the trailer Bateman was driving through Flagstaff — which had a makeshift toilet, couch, camping chairs and no ventilation — told authorities they had no health or medical needs, a police report said .

None of the girls placed in state custody in Arizona disclosed sexual abuse by Bateman during forensic interviews, although one said she was present during the sexual activity, according to the FBI affidavit. But the girls often wrote in journals that were confiscated by the FBI. In them, several of the girls referred to intimate interactions with Bateman. Authorities believe the older girls influenced the younger ones not to talk about Bateman, the FBI said.


Associated Press writer Sam Metz in Salt Lake City contributed to this story.

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