[Find the latest on the missing girls, who were recently located, here]
After federal agents descended on Colorado City in September and searched the homes of Samuel Bateman, the leader of a small new offshoot of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Arizona child welfare officials removed a group of young girls from among his followers.
The nine girls, ranging in age from 11 to 16, had been in Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS) custody since then, and had been staying in group homes in the suburbs of Phoenix.
Last Sunday, eight of them went missing.
But on Thursday, court documents reveal, a Spokane County Sheriff’s deputy found all eight missing girls outside an Airbnb in Spokane, in a vehicle driven by Moretta Rose Johnson. Johnson, 19, was taken into custody and is accused of kidnapping in a federal complaint.
The FBI had traced the credit card reservation for the Airbnb rental, court documents said.
It’s not clear where the girls are now, as various Arizona police agencies have not responded to requests from The Salt Lake Tribune for comment. KXLY.com, affiliated with KXLY-TV Ch. 4 in Spokane, also reported Friday that the girls’ location was not known.
Arizona law enforcement authorities had listed eight of the nine girls as “missing juveniles” as of Nov. 27, according to Arizona police records. Several agencies told The Tribune that the girls were classified as runaways, with Glendale Sgt. Randy Stewart adding, “at this time, we are not seeking help from the public.”
Also on Thursday, in Colorado City, Ariz., a 24-year-old woman who was among Bateman’s followers was arrested. She was booked into the Mohave County jail on suspicion of kidnapping, obstructing a criminal investigation, resisting arrest and tampering with a witness.
According to federal court documents, Bateman called that woman from jail in Arizona on Sunday at approximately 8:38 p.m., in a video call that was recorded. That woman was driving a vehicle, and another woman in the car told Bateman they had two of the girls, court documents said.
The next day, the woman who had been the passenger told Bateman, from what appeared to be a hotel room, that they had all of the girls but one, court documents said.
Phoenix police confirmed that the girls listed missing in their city were in Arizona DCS custody at the time they disappeared. Child welfare officials declined to comment about the situation, citing confidentiality laws.
A family member of three of the children confirmed that the eight girls listed on Nov. 27 as missing are the same young people who were removed from their homes as part of the September raid and Bateman’s subsequent arrest, but declined to comment further.
The FBI searched Bateman’s homes on Sept. 13 looking for evidence of underage marriages, according to a search warrant shared with The Tribune. Federal agents seized computers, handwritten notes and journals, cellphones and other items from Bateman’s residences, according to a receipt for property shared with The Tribune.
Bateman hasn’t been charged with sexual abuse or related crimes, but he has remained in jail after prosecutors say authorities discovered three young girls inside a locked cargo trailer he was pulling near Flagstaff in late August. He also faces federal charges for allegedly instructing his followers to delete the messaging app Signal from his phone after he was arrested. He has pleaded not guilty to this charge and three other child abuse counts.
Federal prosecutors say Bateman was recorded on a jail phone call instructing another man to delete the account. “The whole thing,” Bateman said, according to a court filing. “Every message, right now.”
Bateman has remained jailed since his September arrest, after a federal judge ordered that he be held without the opportunity to post bail.
U.S. District Judge Camille Bibles found that Bateman was a flight risk, noting he is a licensed pilot and “admitted survivalist.” The judge also noted that the man had instructed his followers to get passports for the young girls and women in his group “for reasons that are unclear.”