FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The leader of a small polygamous group on the Arizona-Utah border took at least 20 wives, most of them underage, and punished followers who didn’t treat him like a prophet, documents show. recently filed in Federal Court.
The filing provides insight into what investigators 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 obstructing 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 in jail 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 relates to Samuel Bateman, who proclaimed himself a prophet in 2019. Authorities wrote that Bateman orchestrated sex acts involving minors and gave wives as gifts to his male followers, claiming to do so by order of “Heavenly Father.” The men supported Bateman financially and gave him their own women and young girls as wives.
Bateman, 46, pleaded not guilty to the child abuse charges and the federal evidence tampering charges. 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 spinoff group, said Sam Brower, who spent years at investigate the group. Bateman was once among imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs’ trusted supporters, but Jeffs denounced Bateman in a written revelation sent to his supporters from prison, Brower said.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas 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 mainstream church, but it abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly forbids it.
Federal officials say Bateman engaged in horrific acts with children and have called on his supporters to help cover his tracks. His supporters say federal officials falsely accused him and say there’s something else at play.
Barlow’s sister, Alice Barlow, said the community was supportive, the children were happy and the wives thought of each other as sisters. She said Bateman is a “gentle, gentle spirit”, who teaches that forgiveness and repentance are at hand.
“What they’re trying to do is wipe out a religion,” she told The Associated Press after Wednesday’s hearing. “Samuel is a prophet and a savior in this world. He has done nothing wrong. They must realize that God will defend his prophet.”
According to the FBI affidavit, Bateman demanded that his followers publicly confess to any indiscretion and widely shared those confessions. He claimed that the punishments, which ranged from a time out to public shaming 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, former FLDS members, and those who don’t practice the creeds. Bateman and his followers believe that polygamy brings exaltation to heaven.
He once tried to take his only daughter as his wife, but she told her mother about her father’s plan and both 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 on more wives.
Bateman was first arrested in August when someone spotted tiny fingers in the gap of a trailer he was hauling through Flagstaff. Police found three girls, between the ages of 11 and 14, in a makeshift room in the unventilated trailer.
The girls told authorities they had no medical or health needs, according to a report from the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Bateman posted bond 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 sexual activity. Authorities said after his first arrest, he told his followers to obtain passports and delete messages sent through an encrypted messaging app.
Alice Barlow said the family were already planning to get passports for a family trip to Mexico, not to evade authorities.
At the time of the September arrest, authorities removed nine children from Bateman’s home in Colorado City and placed them in foster care.
None of the girls, identified by initials in court documents, disclosed sexual abuse by Bateman during forensic interviews, although one said she was present during the sexual activities, according to the FBI affidavit. But several of the girls wrote in diaries seized by the FBI about intimate interactions with Bateman. Authorities believe the older girls tricked the younger ones into not talking about Bateman, the FBI said.
Eight of the children later escaped from foster care, and the FBI has alleged that Bistline, Barlow and Johnson – all relatives of the children as well as Bateman’s current or former wives – played a role in their exit from arizona. The girls were found last week hundreds of miles from Spokane, Wash., in a vehicle Johnson was driving, according to the FBI affidavit.
In court on Wednesday, Barlow’s attorney said his client was only doing what she believed was right. The attorney, Roberta McVickers, added that Barlow will follow all orders issued by the court.
Barlow has lived in Colorado City much of her life and has a 2-year-old child with special needs, McVickers said in pleading for her release. Barlow was homeschooled through 7th grade and has no independent source of income or criminal history, McVickers said.
“It’s an adjustment for her to learn what rules to follow,” McVickers said.
Prosecutor Wayne Venhuizen noted that Bistline and Barlow communicated with Bateman about the children.
“These women have proven they will stop at nothing to interfere with a federal investigation and protect Bateman, who was sexually abusing children,” he said.
Ultimately, the federal judge handling the case ordered Barlow and Bistline, whose brief hearing focused on setting new 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 traded 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 in charges dismissed by Arizona and who is not involved in the current cases, said Arizona used to trying to take a stand against polygamy by charging relatively minor offenses to build up larger cases.
“Whether this is the same tactic that has been 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 just a misdemeanor, after a change in 2020 ended a prison term for polygamy between consenting adults. Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for the proposal, which supporters say will allow the roughly 30,000 people living in the state’s polygamous communities to come out in the dark 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.
Alice Barlow has two teenage daughters in state custody, one of whom ran away from the group home. She says she has not been allowed to see or communicate with them lately.