Feds: Imprisoned polygamous leader helped plan girls’ escape

Samuel Bateman, a self-declared prophet who is behind bars while he awaits trial, worked with three adult women he also claims to be his wives to help the girls escape foster care, attorneys allege.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) FBI agents raid the home of Samuel Bateman in Colorado City, Ariz., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. Prosecutors this week accused Bateman of helping orchestrate the escape of girls he considered his wives from state foster care while behind bars awaiting trial. In court documents filed Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, they allege the self-described polygamous "prophet" worked with adult women he also claims as wives to help the underage girls escape foster placements they were sent to after his arrest earlier this year.

The leader of a small polygamous group on the Arizona-Utah border helped orchestrate the escape of eight girls he considered his wives from group homes where they were placed after authorities learned of what was happening, prosecutors allege in a Wednesday court filing.

An indictment filed by U.S. attorneys in Arizona outlines how Sam Bateman, a self-declared prophet who is behind bars while he awaits trial, worked with three adult women he also claims to be his wives to help the girls escape foster care.

The document, an updated or “superceding” indictment, is the latest development in a federal case that has roiled Bateman’s small community on the Utah-Arizona border.

[Read more: Polygamous leader Samuel Bateman: What we know so far]

It includes earlier counts Bateman faces for allegedly impeding his impending prosecution. In support of four new counts against him, prosecutors claim that Bateman spoke to two of the women he calls wives via video calls from the federal prison where he’s being held. Those calls include conversations while the women were driving from Arizona to Washington state and while they were in a hotel room with the girls, the indictment alleges.

On one of the calls, Bateman asked the women, who typically reside in Arizona, if they were in “our state,” according to prosecutors. They responded that they were not. On another, one of his wives reassured him, “we are helping you.” On a third, they discussed changing vehicles. Law enforcement was pursuing them at the time.

[Read more: Officials took girls from a historically polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border. Then the girls went missing.]

Prosecutors accuse Bateman of working with those two women and a third to “unlawfully seize, confine, inveigle, decoy, kidnap, abduct and carry away” three children and transport them to Washington state. Each of those women — Naomi Bistline, Donnae Barlow and Moretta Rose Johnson — are accused of four counts, along with Bateman, in the updated indictment.

The three girls specified were born between 2009 and 2011 and are under age 14, though the indictment states eight minors in total were taken from state custody. A ninth girl also removed from Bateman’s group in September remained in state custody.

The community where Bateman and those he claims as wives reside has recently undergone major shifts, but for decades it was a stronghold of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a polygamist offshoot 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 prohibits it.

The offshoot group, known by its acronym FLDS, garnered nationwide attention more than a decade ago when federal authorities pursued charges against its leader, Warren Jeffs, for child sexual abuse related to underage marriages.

[Read more: He told FLDS followers that Warren Jeffs was dead. Then, Samuel Bateman said he was their prophet now.]

Bateman is a former member of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who started his own breakaway group several years ago after Jeffs was sent to prison.

He was once among Jeffs’ most trusted followers, but Jeffs denounced Bateman in a written revelation sent to his followers from prison, investigator Sam Brower, who has spent years following the group, told The Associated Press this year.

Bateman now faces federal evidence tampering and state child abuse charges. About two weeks ago, Bistline, Barlow and Johnson were charged in federal complaints with helping eight children placed in foster care after Bateman’s arrest to flee their assigned homes.

Though federal prosecutors claimed in the women’s original charging documents that Bateman had taken some of the girls in question as child brides, they haven’t filed charges relating to abuse or underage marriages. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to questions about whether additional charges would be filed.

[Read more: What happened to Bateman’s underage wives since he was arrested]

Authorities allege in court documents in the overlapping cases, however, that Bateman orchestrated sexual acts involving minors and gave wives as gifts to male followers. The men supported Bateman financially and gave him their own wives and young daughters as wives.

They also allege that Bateman would demand followers confess publicly to any indiscretions and later share those confessions widely. He claimed punishments, which ranged from a time out to public shaming and sexual activity, came from the Lord, prosecutors allege.

— The Salt Lake Tribune contributed to this report.