Girls taken from homes in historically polygamous community after FBI searched for evidence of underage marriages

Samuel Bateman is charged in federal court with destroying evidence, and faces child abuse charges in Arizona.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Three girls embrace before they are removed from the home of Samuel Bateman, following his arrest in Colorado City, Ariz., on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Seven were removed from the Bateman home, as well as two others from another house as part of the investigation.

Colorado City, Ariz. • Early Tuesday in Colorado City, agents surrounded a home with their guns drawn as one yelled through a megaphone, “This is the FBI!”

“We have a search warrant for this property and all vehicles,” his voice echoed through the small neighborhood. “Please come out with your hands up.”

Over the next two days, federal agents would arrest Samuel Bateman, the leader of a small new offshoot of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), search his homes and compound and twice remove groups of children.

According to a copy of the search warrant, which was shared with The Salt Lake Tribune, agents were seeking evidence of any marriages or sexual relationships between adults and children.

Bateman was charged last month with child abuse after authorities discovered three young girls inside a locked cargo trailer he was pulling near Flagstaff on Aug. 28. In a three-count Arizona indictment unsealed Wednesday, he was charged with destroying evidence on the same day he was pulled over.

Federal prosecutors allege Bateman destroyed electronic communications on the messaging app Signal “with the intent to impair its integrity and availability for use in a foreseeable criminal proceeding.”

He is expected to be arraigned Thursday in federal court in Flagstaff.

During the searches Tuesday, officials took nine girls from two Colorado City homes used by Bateman to St. George for several hours, and returned them later in the day.

But on Wednesday afternoon, Arizona child welfare officials came and took the same girls. They have not been returned as of Wednesday evening.

The girls huddled together and cried while singing an FLDS song, “Marvelous Ways” — one of Bateman’s favorites, his family members told The Salt Lake Tribune. They were then separated into cars, as women gave them scriptures and religious books. When officials suggested the girls also take family photos along, the women responded that the FBI had taken all of them.

An official with the Arizona Department of Child Safety declined to comment Wednesday, citing confidentiality laws.

The twin towns of Colorado City in Arizona and Hildale in Utah are the traditional home base of the polygamous FLDS faith, which is considered separate from Bateman’s followers by members of both groups. Some of Bateman’s followers told The Tribune they also practice polygamy.

Members of the family showed unwavering support for Bateman on Wednesday as he remained in jail. They shared notes with The Tribune describing him.

“Samuel is very passionate about meeting his religious and financial goals to help the world,” one woman wrote in a looped cursive.

“Samuel is the most precious and dear thing in my life,” another wrote. A third wrote: “Samuel is every good quality that I want to be.”

How the investigation began

Bateman was stopped by police near Flagstaff on Aug. 28 around noon after someone called police to report a suspicious vehicle pulling a box trailer full of people, including children.

An Arizona public safety official soon spotted the gray GMC Denali and began to follow it, noticing children’s small fingers moving in the gap of the trailer door, according to court records.

Bateman pulled into a parking lot, according to the records, and approached police officers. According to the police, there were four females in the truck with Bateman — two over the age of 18; two under the age of 15. And there were three girls between the ages of 11 and 14 in the trailer. None of the children shared Bateman’s last name.

According to police, the trailer contained a makeshift toilet made out of a plastic bucket, a trash bag and a toilet seat; a couch; camping chairs and “a variety of other items.” The temperature inside the trailer, which had no air vents, was “hotter than outside,” where it was 81 degrees. And, police said, the two adult females and the five girls said they were headed for Phoenix or Tucson, where the temperature was in the triple digits.

Bateman was charged days later with three counts of child abuse, according to court records. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Federal prosecutors now allege that sometime that same day, Bateman and others deleted messages on Signal in an alleged attempt to obstruct a prosecution.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) FBI agents with a riot shield and rifles raid a home where followers of Samuel Bateman live, in Colorado City, Ariz., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

The copy of the search warrant shows agents were also looking Tuesday for any evidence of records being shredded or digital documents being destroyed.

The warrant sought computers, “lingerie style underwear that could be worn by minors,” and any evidence that sources of income were used to facilitate travel for underage marriage or sexual relationships.

It also sought any “correspondence about Bateman’s adult followers marrying, having sexual relationships with, or similar” associations with minors.

Bateman’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.

The FBI arrives

At a small green home with the word “Zion” written in gold on a plaque above the door, women and children eventually responded to the FBI’s announcement and came out Tuesday morning.

Agents repeated the announcement at a blue 16-bedroom home nearby, where others came outside.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Followers of Samuel Bateman, after his arrest in Colorado City, Ariz., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Bateman was arrested, according to his family, at a warehouse a few blocks away on the compound where women worked call-center type jobs and Bateman spent time.

A receipt for property shows federal authorities seized computers, a hard drive, Bateman’s birth certificate, and handwritten notes and journals from the warehouse. They also took two adult toys and several cellphones, according to the document.

Women who live in the two homes the FBI was searching gathered and waited at the nearby home of a woman who gives refuge to people connected to fundamentalist groups.

When Bateman called from the Coconino County jail on Tuesday afternoon, a group who had been waiting at that home gathered in a tight circle to hear his voice over the phone and to show their support.

The small crowd appeared to include older teenagers and young adult women, several with babies resting on their hips.

“I’m grateful for you!” one said as a toddler in her arms sucked on a pacifier.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Family and followers of Samuel Bateman gather around as he calls from custody after his arrest in Colorado City, Ariz., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Bateman told the group that he was feeling well, and said he appreciated the “kindness and professionalism” of the agents who arrested him.

“We’re not doing anything wrong,” he told them. “So it must just be a simple misunderstanding. So I should be out by tomorrow, hopefully. Or today.”

“Be so prayerful, would you?” he added.

‘The Samuel Bateman Group’

Colorado City and Hildale in southern Utah are known collectively as “Short Creek.” The community was settled by members of the FLDS faith in the early 1900s, as a place to get away and practice their beliefs freely.

The group splintered from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when leaders there agreed to ban polygamy to appease the United States government.

FLDS believers saw polygamy as a founding and important principle of their faith, decreed by church founder Joseph Smith. And they didn’t want to abandon it.

In 2002, Warren Jeffs became the new prophet over the FLDS community. He remains the polygamous sect’s official leader, giving edicts from behind bars as he serves a prison sentence in Texas for sexually abusing two girls.

Bateman’s followers told The Tribune that they consider themselves separate from Jeffs’ version of the FLDS church — though a photo of Jeffs hangs in a bedroom in the green house that was raided by federal officials. FLDS members also consider the Bateman group separate from them.

They have called themselves Fundamental FLDS, and have also been referred to by others as the “Samuel Bateman group” and “Samuelites.” They consider Bateman their leader, and refer to him as “father.”

In the warehouse that was raided Tuesday, there was a Post-it note left behind.

“Samuel Rappylee Bateman,” someone wrote in black Sharpie. “I am here to do your will.”

Under a row of hand drawn hearts, they wrote in capital letters: “I LOVE YOU FOREVER.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A note left at the warehouse where Samuel Bateman was arrested in Colorado City, Ariz., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.