FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The leader of a small polygamous group near the Arizona-Utah border had taken at least 20 wives, most of them minors, and punished followers who did not treat him as a prophet, newly filed federal court documents show.
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 offshoot 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 provides new insight about what investigators have found in a case that first became public in August. It accompanied charges of kidnapping and impeding a foreseeable prosecution against three of Bateman’s wives — Naomi Bistline, Donnae Barlow and Moretta Rose Johnson.
Bistline and Barlow are scheduled to appear in federal magistrate court in Flagstaff on Wednesday. Johnson is awaiting extradition from Washington state.
The women are accused of fleeing with eight of Bateman’s children, who were placed in Arizona state custody earlier this year. The children were found last week hundreds of miles (kilometers) away in Spokane, Washington.
Bateman was arrested in August when someone spotted small fingers in the gap of a trailer he was hauling through Flagstaff. He posted bond but was arrested again and charged with obstructing justice in a federal investigation into whether children were being transported across state lines for sexual activity.
Court records allege that 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 didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Barlow’s attorney declined to comment. Johnson didn’t have a publicly listed attorney.
The FBI affidavit filed in the women’s case largely centers 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 on these people.” The affidavit details explicit sexual acts that Bateman and his followers engaged in to fulfill “Godly duties.”
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for child sex abuse related to underage marriages.
Criminal defense attorney Michael Piccarreta, who represented Jeffs on Arizona charges that were dismissed, said the state 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’s 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 Colorado City among a patchwork of devout members of the polygamous FLDS, ex-church members and those who don’t practice the beliefs. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream church abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly prohibits 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 to delete messages sent through an encrypted system, authorities said.
He demanded that his followers confess publicly for any indiscretions, and shared those confessions widely, according to the FBI affidavit. He claimed the punishments, which ranged from a time out to public shaming and sexual activity, came from the Lord, the affidavit states.
The children identified by their initials in court documents have said little to authorities. The three children found in the trailer Bateman was hauling through Flagstaff — which had a makeshift toilet, a couch, camping chairs and no ventilation — told authorities they didn’t have any health or medical needs, a police report stated.
None of the girls placed in state custody in Arizona disclosed sexual abuse by Bateman during forensic interviews, though one said she was present during sexual activity, according to the FBI affidavit. But the girls often wrote in journals that were seized by the FBI. In them, several of the girls referenced 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.