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Knights of Crystal Blade defendant asks to withdraw his guilty plea to child rape and abuse charges

Defense attorney Troy Sundquist explains the plea agreement to Samuel Shaffer at the Fifth District Court Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2018. Shaffer pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree felony rape of a child and one count of second-degree felony child abuse. (James Dobson/The Spectrum via AP, Pool)

A man accused of physically and sexually abusing children and of marrying one asked to withdraw his guilty plea. His friend, accused of the same, rejected a plea deal and appears to be headed to trial.

Samuel Shaffer, the original prophet of a fundamentalist Mormon offshoot preparing for the end of the world, said he was not in his right mind when he pleaded guilty.

Shaffer made his request in a Feb. 27 letter to to 5th District Judge Matthew Bell. The letter came six days after he entered guilty pleas for first-degree felony child rape and second-degree felony child abuse. He would serve a minimum of 25 years in prison.

Shaffer and friend John Coltharp are leaders of the small religious group Knights of the Crystal Blade. According to police documents, they were preparing for a Muslim invasion of the United States and the end of the world.

Coltharp was in Sanpete County for a pretrial conference in which he rejected a plea deal that would have landed him in prison for at least 25 years. A three-week trial was scheduled for July 9.

FILE - This undated file photo provided by Sanpete County Jail shows John Coltharp. Coltharp, a self-styled prophet accused of secretly marrying young girls because of his beliefs in polygamy and doomsday, pleaded guilty in Utah Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, to child rape and abuse charges filed after police raided the group's remote desert compound. Samuel W. Shaffer faces at least 25 years in prison after agreeing to the plea deal. His fellow self-styled prophet Coltharp is also facing child bigamy and other charges there. Authorities believe the two men each held the title of prophet at different points. (Sanpete County Jail via AP, File)

Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels said plea negotiations broke down, in part because Coltharp believes his actions were “sanctioned by God.”

“He has, in my opinion, cloaked himself in the robes of religious freedom when, in reality, under the robes, he is just a pedophile,” Daniels said.

The men are accused of marrying each other’s oldest daughters and their own youngest daughters. Coltharp had kept his two daughters and two sons despite a court order giving custody to his ex-wife. After failing to turn the kids over, Coltharp was arrested and the compound the two men lived on in Iron County was raided Dec. 4.

Coltharp’s sons were found, but his daughters were missing. An Amber Alert was issued and the girls were found later that night and appeared to have been neglected.

In the letter, Shaffer said he was not mentally prepared to plead guilty, and that his attorney, Troy Sundquist, said if he didn’t the prosecution would send him to jail for life. Shaffer said he was innocent.

“I was suddenly scared; Troy Sundquist did not warn me that I was pleaing [sic] that day, and I feel like he twisted my arm because he was worried that I would not do it,” Shaffer wrote in the letter.

Sundquist told The Salt Lake Tribune that he has spoken with Shaffer about the letter, and said that Shaffer didn’t mean to imply that Sundquist had pressured him into the plea.

Nonetheless, Sundquist argued for Shaffer’s plea to be withdrawn in court Wednesday. Bell ultimately ruled against it, saying Shaffer knew what he was doing when he pleaded guilty.

Shaffer is scheduled to be sentenced May 8.

In Sanpete County, he is charged with sex crimes, including two counts of sodomy of a child, a first-degree-felony. He had his initial appearance via video; attorney David Angerhofer appointed to represent him.

According to the letter, Shaffer said he experienced a mental breakdown after entering guilty pleas. He was put on suicide watch until Feb. 27, he said, and was prescribed antipsychotic medication.

Shaffer said he was finally ready to confront a mental health issue that he has been in denial about. He said the condition has caused him to act irrationally, though he said he is innocent of the crimes he’s accused of.

Shaffer also said he is concerned for “the family” and would like to pay restitution. It’s not clear if he is talking about Coltharp’s family or his own. In order to make payments, Shaffer proposes he be sentenced to house arrest so that he could work over the internet.

Because Shaffer’s motion to withdraw his plea was rejected and he will be sentenced to prison, Daniels said the Sanpete case can be resolved before a trial.

He’s not as optimistic with Coltharp.

Daniels said he will not settle for anything less than a 25-to-life sentence for Coltharp. Coltharp’s children deserve that, he said.

Coltharp’s attorney, Paul Frischknecht, did not return a voicemail and email seeking comment.

Daniels said the Coltharp children are ready to testify, as are Coltharp’s parents, who, along with Shaffer, were the other members of Knights of the Crystal Blade.

Daniels said the parents were around some of the abuse but were far less culpable than Coltharp or Shaffer. He offered them concessions in exchange for their testimony against their son, but he said they “will still be held accountable down the road.”

Daniels said he will keep the offer on the table until the next pretrial conference, which will be in four to six weeks. But with a “plethora” of evidence and witnesses, he’s not inclined to make a last-minute deal.

“You can liken it to trench warfare: I am dug in, he’s dug in,” Daniels said. “I’d rather take it to trial.”

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