The polygamous leader had 20 wives, many of them minors

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 (FLDS) until he left to start his own small offshoot group. According to an FBI affidavit, he was financially supported by male supporters who also gave up their own wives and children to become Bateman’s wives.

The document, filed on Friday, offers new insights into what investigators found in a case that first became public in August. It came with charges of kidnapping and obstructing 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 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 transferred to Arizona state custody earlier this year. The children were found hundreds of miles (kilometers) away in Spokane, Washington last week.

Bateman was arrested in August when someone spotted pinky fingers in the gap in a trailer he was towing around Flagstaff. He posted bail but was arrested again and charged with obstructing justice in a federal probe into whether children were transported across state lines for sexual activity.

According to court records, Bateman, 46, was involved in child 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 both 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 traded attorney.

The FBI affidavit filed in the woman’s case largely focuses on Bateman, who proclaimed himself a prophet in 2019. Bateman says he was directed by former FLDS leader Warren Jeffs to invoke the “spirit of God upon these people.” The affidavit details explicit sexual acts committed by Bateman and his followers to perform “divine duties.”

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

Defense attorney Michael Piccarreta, who represented Jeffs on the dismissed charges in Arizona, said the state has historically tried to take a stand against polygamy by charging relatively minor offenses to build larger cases.

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

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

Bateman lived in Colorado City amid a patchwork quilt of devout members of the polygamous FLDS, former church members and those who don’t practice the faith. 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 traveled frequently to Nebraska, where some of his other followers resided, and internationally to Canada and Mexico for conferences.

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

According to the FBI affidavit, he demanded a public confession from his followers for all leaks and shared those confessions widely. He claimed the penalties, which ranged from time off to public shaming and sexual activity, came from the Lord, the affidavit said.

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

None of the girls taken into state custody in Arizona disclosed sexual abuse by Bateman during forensic questioning, although one said she was present during sexual activity, according to the FBI affidavit. But the girls often wrote in magazines confiscated by the FBI. In it, 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.

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

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/2022/12/07/fbi-polygamous-leader-had-20-wives-many-of-them-minors/ The polygamous leader had 20 wives, many of them minors

Sarah Y. Kim

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