By FELICIA FONSECA (Associated Press)
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The leader of a small polygamous group on the Arizona-Utah border took at least 20 wives, most of them minors, and punished followers who did not treat him as a prophet, documents recently filed by federal court show.
The file provides insight into what investigators found in a case that first became public in August. It came as federal authorities charged three of the self-proclaimed prophet’s wives with kidnapping and hindering a foreseeable prosecution after eight girls associated with the group ran away from state foster care.
Naomi Bistline and Donnae Barlow appeared in federal court in Flagstaff on Wednesday. They remain jailed and have court hearings scheduled next week. Moretta Rose Johnson is awaiting extradition from Washington state.
The FBI’s statement filed in the women’s case focuses on Samuel Bateman, who proclaimed himself a prophet in 2019. Authorities wrote that Bateman orchestrated sex acts involving minors and gifted wives to his male followers, claiming he was doing so at the behest of ” It is”. Father.” The men supported Bateman financially and gave him their own wives and young daughters as wives.
Bateman, 46, has pleaded not guilty to state charges of child abuse and federal charges of tampering with evidence. A trial on the federal charges is scheduled for January. He remains imprisoned in Arizona.
Bateman was a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until he left in recent years and started his own small group, said Sam Brower, who spent years investigating the group. Bateman was once among the trusted followers of imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs, but Jeffs denounced Bateman in a written exposé sent to his followers in prison, Brower said.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for child sex abuse related to underage marriages.
The FLDS is itself a breakaway 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 mainline church, but it abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly forbids it.
Federal officials allege that Bateman engaged in horrific acts with children and asked his followers to help cover his tracks. His supporters say federal officials have falsely accused him and claim something else is at play.
Barlow’s sister, Alice Barlow, said the community supports them, the children are happy and the wives consider themselves sisters. She said Bateman is a “sweet and gentle spirit” who teaches that forgiveness and repentance are within reach.
“What they’re trying to do is annihilate a religion,” she told The Associated Press after Wednesday’s hearing. “Samuel is a prophet and a savior in this world. He was not wrong. He must realize that God will defend his prophet.”
According to the FBI affidavit, Bateman demanded that his followers publicly confess to any indiscretions and shared those confessions widely. He claimed the punishments, which ranged from a break to public shaming and sexual activity, came from God, the statement said. Bateman lived in Colorado City, a community that straddles the Arizona-Utah border, among a patchwork of devout polygamous FLDS members, former FLDS members, and non-practicing FLDS members. Bateman and his followers believe that polygamy brings exaltation to heaven.
He once tried to marry his only daughter, but she told her mother about her father’s plan, and mother and daughter moved out and got a restraining order against Bateman. The mother was Bateman’s only wife in 2019, before Bateman started taking multiple wives.
Bateman was first arrested in August when someone saw little fingers in the trunk of a trailer he was hauling through Flagstaff. Police found three girls, between 11 and 14 years old, in a makeshift room in the unventilated trailer.
The girls told authorities they had no health or medical needs, according to a report from the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Bateman posted bail but was arrested again in September and charged with obstruction of justice in a federal investigation into whether children were being transported across state lines for sex. Authorities said that after his first arrest, he instructed his followers to obtain passports and delete messages sent through an encrypted messaging app.
Alice Barlow said the family was already planning to get passports for a family trip to Mexico, not to evade authorities.
At the time of the September arrest, authorities had 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 statement. But several of the girls wrote in diaries 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 foster care, and the FBI alleged that Bistline, Barlow and Johnson—all relatives of the children, as well as Bateman’s current or former wives—played a role in getting them out of Arizona. The girls were found hundreds of miles away in Spokane, Wash., last week in a vehicle Johnson was driving, the FBI statement said.
In court Wednesday, Barlow’s attorney said her client was only doing what he thought was right. The lawyer, Roberta McVickers, added that Barlow will follow any order the court issues.
Barlow has lived in Colorado City most of her life and has a 2-year-old child with special needs, McVickers said, arguing for her release from custody. Barlow was home-schooled through the 7th grade and has no independent source of income and no criminal record, McVickers said.
“It’s an adjustment for her to learn whose rules to follow,” McVickers said.
Prosecutor Wayne Venhuizen noted that Bistline and Barlow were communicating with Bateman about the children.
“These women have proven 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 other court dates, to remain in custody.
Barlow, Bistline and Johnson face life in prison if convicted of the charges. Johnson does not yet have a publicly listed attorney in Arizona.
FBI spokesman Kevin Smith declined Tuesday to discuss the trajectory of the case against the women and Bateman. Court records allege Bateman, 46, engaged in child sex trafficking and polygamy, but none of his 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 on 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 bigger 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.
Polygamy is a felony in Arizona, but only a misdemeanor in Utah, after a 2020 change ended prison terms for polygamy between consenting adults. Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal, which supporters said would allow the roughly 30,000 people living in the state’s polygamous communities to come out of the shadows and report abuses, such as the marriage of minors by other polygamists, without fear of being prosecuted.
Arizona Department of Child Services spokesman Darren DaRonco declined to comment on the condition of the nine children in state custody.
Associated Press writer Sam Metz in Salt Lake City contributed to this story.