Micha Coltharp has to keep the house cold. She has to avoid Spam and Pop-Tarts at the grocery store. She has to monitor the TV and radio to make sure a man’s voice doesn’t fill the house.
These things are triggers for her two boys and two girls, who spent three months under the care of their father while he led the fundamentalist Mormon offshoot Knights of the Crystal Blade. They were in his custody as he and his fellow believer allegedly prepared for a prophesied Muslim invasion of the United States and the end of the world — while “marrying” the young girls.
After three months of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, Coltharp said, her fragile children are living in a world riddled with landmines. The glow-in-the-dark stars on their ceilings, the dark nights, the toys — all are reminders of the worst three months of their lives.
Coltharp’s children have started therapy, but their wounds are deep and will take time to heal. She wants to move them from her parents’ house in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and into their own home, where they will feel safe and stable. But she can hardly leave them long enough to go to the bathroom.
“I can’t leave them to have a job, because they fear being alone so much,” Coltharp said. “The nightmares are every night. It’s a 24-hour job now.”
So she started a crowdfunding page seeking $10,000. As of Tuesday night, the page had raised $2,320 from named and anonymous donors. Coltharp called the donations “amazing.”
Her ex-husband, John Coltharp, and his friend Samuel Shaffer left with the children in May to live with John Coltharp’s parents. The men built a makeshift compound out of shipping containers near Lund.
In late November, the divorce between Micha and John Coltharp, 34, was finalized and she gained legal custody of the children. But police could not find the children. John Coltharp was arrested Dec. 1 for custodial interference after he refused to disclose where his children were.
On Dec. 4, Iron County Sheriff’s Office deputies raided the compound and recovered the two Coltharp boys, ages 6 and 7. But the girls were still missing. An Amber Alert was issued, and police found Shaffer, 34, walking near Lund later that evening. He eventually gave up the location of the two Coltharp girls and his own two daughters. Two were in an empty water drum, and two were in a run-down mobile home.
All four girls were hospitalized to treat their dehydration. Shaffer and John Coltharp were charged with an array of crimes, including kidnapping, sodomy of a child and child bigamy. Each man married the other’s older daughter, according to police records, and each married his own 4-year-old daughter.
Shaffer pleaded guilty to rape of a child and child abuse in February and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. John Coltharp has a pretrial conference scheduled for Wednesday.
Micha Coltharp was reunited with her boys Dec. 4 and with her girls a day later, after they were released from a hospital. Some of the abuse and trauma they endured was immediately identifiable.
“When we found the boys, their hair was so filled with tree sap that we thought we’d have to shave their heads,” Micha said. The boys told her Shaffer would walk them miles into the woods before abandoning them. The children would have to retrace their footsteps to make it back to the compound.
That compound, where the children lived for three months, had no electricity or running water. Micha Coltharp found that her children were so accustomed to the cold that she had to turn down the heat. They were scared of the dark after spending so much time in it, so she armed them with flashlights.
Other signs of trauma took a little longer to uncover. Her sons had become conditioned to wear diapers to bed because it was too cold to go to the bathroom outside at night. Now, they wet the bed.
When they came home, her boys shied away from her girls. She later learned that Shaffer and John Coltharp had separated the children based on gender because the prepubescent boys were seen as “competition” to the men, who were sexually abusing the young girls, Micha Coltharp said.
The men threatened to kill the boys if they contacted the girls, she said.
“They were told so many things by their father, who literally told them he was God and would destroy them if they did anything other than what he said,” Micha Coltharp said.
Her older daughter, 9, who was made a wife and was told she was an adult, is finding it difficult to return to life as a child, Micha Coltharp said, after being forced into doing adult things, including drinking alcohol.
“Taking herself out of that has been very strange for her,” Micha Coltharp said. “She has made tremendous progress, but it has been hard for her.”
The girl also misses the family unit the Coltharps had before the Knights of the Crystal Blade. But the younger daughter, 4, doesn’t. When told her father was in jail and could no longer hurt her, she replied to her mother: “Can they just kill him?”
Around seemingly every turn is a trigger, Micha Coltharp said. After living off Spam and Pop-Tarts for three months, the sight of the foods is traumatic.
The children were constantly told to trust no outsider. And the person they were supposed to trust, their father, beat the older boy until he bled, Micha Coltharp said. They were told to stay away from other children.
Now, they are improving. Slowly.
Micha Coltharp is using the crowdfunded donations to show them that people can be caring and generous.
The kids are starting to play with other children, but reminders of those three months pop up everywhere. On a recent walk, her son asked her whether they needed to look at their footprints to find their way home.
“It broke my heart,” Micha Coltharp said.
Micha Coltharp has devoted her life to her children’s recovery. She doesn’t work, she lost her car and her apartment, and she filed for bankruptcy. She can’t leave the room without her children thinking she won’t return.
But as she works to rebuild her family’s life, she finds solace in words of wisdom from someone who has been through it all. After the news of the kidnapping flooded news media, Micha Coltharp said she received a phone call from Elizabeth Smart. Micha Coltharp said she asked Smart how she found light at the end of the tunnel.
Smart, 30, said that after surviving her kidnapping as a girl, she took out a piece of string and marked a section for each year she has been alive. She colors in the nine months she was held captive.
“As time goes on,” Micha Coltharp said, “that piece of string gets smaller and smaller.”