51 felonies: Polygamist leader Samuel Bateman now charged with sexually abusing girls he’d claimed as wives

The new counts against the imprisoned leader come in an updated indictment filed this week that details new allegations about Bateman’s conduct heading an offshoot of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Underage followers of Samuel Bateman are taken into protective custody following his arrest in Colorado City, Ariz., on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Bateman was charged in May 2023 with counts including sexual abuse of minors he'd claimed as wives.

Months after a federal raid of his compound, the leader of a polygamous splinter group on the Utah-Arizona border has now been charged with 51 felonies — including, for the first time, counts accusing him of sexually abusing the underage girls he had claimed as his wives.

An updated indictment released Wednesday against Samuel Bateman, 47, provides new details about the offshoot that he claimed to be appointed by God to lead, and about the allegations of “overt acts” with minors that he said was part of the faith. Ten of his followers, some of whom were his adult wives, were also charged with aiding him in the sex crimes.

The new filing from federal prosecutors was largely anticipated, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona previously saying it planned to file more charges against Bateman as it reviewed evidence from the high-profile September raid. The latest indictment replaces the more limited federal counts first filed against him last fall, which centered around the alleged destruction of records.

It also provides the latest indication of the focus of the yearslong FBI investigation into Bateman, showing an effort to crack down on child marriages that were once more common in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, known collectively as Short Creek.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Samuel Bateman leaves the courthouse during the trial of Warren Jeffs in St. George on Nov. 20, 2007. Bateman was present as an observer and supporter of Jeffs.

Historically, the area has been a refuge for those who broke off from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known informally as the Mormon church. Those who moved to the towns wanted to continue practicing polygamy after faith leaders had agreed to end plural marriages in 1890.

In recent years, the communities have been moving away from the control of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). That shift started after the incarceration of famed FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, who was convicted of sexually assaulting girls he had taken as wives.

But since 2019, Bateman had been trying to recruit members back by telling them that Jeffs died in prison — which is not true — and that he is Jeffs’ successor. In that time, Bateman amassed roughly 50 followers who call themselves “Samuelites.”

The extensive indictment now alleges that Bateman took 20 women and girls as “wives,” 10 of whom were minors when he married them. One of those girls later turned 18, and federal prosecutors say she helped Bateman assault and kidnap the others; she has also been charged. The counts against Bateman largely focus on the nine other girls, who were all younger than 15 when he allegedly began assaulting them.

“His intent was to engage in sexual activity with minor girls, and he did so on a regular basis,” according to the filing.

Bateman is alleged to have claimed his first minor wife in May 2020. She was 9 years old at the time.

For two years after that, he traveled across Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska, the charges allege, to collect child brides — who were the daughters of his followers. He allegedly told members that to be faithful they needed to offer up their daughters to him or face punishment. He often “rebuked” them in harsh ways, according to the court filing, if they refused. And the male followers offered up new Bentley cars and other favors to stay in his good graces or to trade for a night with one of Bateman’s young wives.

The alleged assaults of the girls occurred in all four states. Bateman later directed and participated in group sex acts with the girls, women and other followers, the indictment states. Children cannot legally consent to sex acts with adults.

He is currently being held without bail in a private prison in Arizona. The attorneys who were previously representing him withdrew as his legal counsel four days after the updated indictment was filed, under seal, on May 18; it was unsealed Wednesday. There was no one currently working as Bateman’s lawyer for The Salt Lake Tribune to reach out to for comment on the latest charges.

A trial in his case has been postponed until 2024. He is scheduled to make an initial court appearance on the new counts Friday in Phoenix. So far, he has pleaded not guilty to the initial charges.

Underage brides, trades and gifts

Bateman first rose to power within the FLDS community in 2019. Early that year, he first said he felt prompted to take his own teenage daughter as his wife, his family later told investigators.

Soon after, his then-wife (now divorced) and daughter fled. But Bateman quickly had buy-in from others, according to the indictment, because of his charisma and his supposed revelations from God.

He married his first plural wife, Marona Johnson, who is also named in the charges, in September of that year. He wed his second adult wife the next month. He then allegedly claimed several young girls as wives.

The daughter he had wanted to marry told police that Bateman called her once and introduced a 9-year-old girl to her as the daughter’s “new mother.” In another phone call where they were talking with video, the daughter told police that Bateman allegedly hugged and kissed the girl in front of her.

The indictment indicates that law enforcement and child protective services likely became aware of accusations surrounding Bateman at least by mid-2020. Records show the Arizona Department of Child Safety sent staff to Bateman’s compound to interview him in July 2020. But no action appears to have been taken at that time, according to the court filing.

Police also received calls from concerned residents in the town starting in November 2020. When interviewed by officers early on, the girls and their parents often told law enforcement that they were there on their own free will or denied having a relationship with Bateman. One father, who prosecutors said had two daughters married to Bateman, told police that it was all just a rumor; the indictment says that LaDell Bistline, Jr. had previously assaulted one of the girls, with Bateman’s approval.

Bistline was also charged this week with aiding Bateman.

The new details in the filing also say that Bateman refused to talk to the DCS employees and instructed the youngest girl, referred to in the court documents as Jane Doe 6, not to answer their questions.

(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.

That girl was the daughter of parents who were followers of Bateman’s. And the father, M.J., has since told investigators that he was coerced by Bateman to “give” the leader four of his girls as brides — even when they begged not to be married to Bateman.

According to the indictment, M.J. said Bateman provided “corrections,” both painful and humiliating, when his followers weren’t obedient. When M.J. finally gave up his 9-year-old girl, he was then “blessed” by Bateman, he said. At one point, M.J. said he felt forced to give Bateman his home in Nebraska as a gift; Bateman later moved there for a few months with his wives and assaulted the man’s daughters there, according to the allegations in the indictment.

M.J. and one of his wives, J.J., who also spoke to police, have since left the offshoot started by Bateman; they have not been charged.

A traffic stop and a raid

Throughout 2020 and 2021, Bateman often recorded videos of himself talking about the girls and women he claimed as his wives or wrote about them in his journals, which prosecutors refer to in the indictment. In one video, he complained about the 9-year-old wetting the bed. In his journal, he described feeling compelled by God to marry the girl’s 14-year-old sister.

In another recording, he apparently said two girls told him they wanted to be “single again”; he says he chastised them until they changed their minds.

Some of the girls also made recordings. In one cited by prosecutors, Bateman is asking a minor girl: “Did you know that you belong to me?” In another, Bateman refers to having “holy sex” with a different child.

At least four times, the court filing also says Bateman had sex with his adult wives or forced others to have sex in front of the minors to “teach” them. At first, the girls were instructed to watch, according to the indictment, but later were told to touch Bateman.

Some of those group sex acts were allegedly recorded or broadcast via video calls with other followers. Prosecutors included several child pornography charges against Bateman and some of the others, according to the indictment.

Bateman is also accused of trading sex with girls for luxury cars, including allegedly receiving two Bentleys from one of the new defendants accused in the indictment, Torrance Bistline, after Bistline was “given” a 12-year-old girl to allegedly assault.

Even though authorities seemed aware of some of the allegations earlier, Bateman’s first arrest wasn’t until Aug. 28, 2022, during a traffic stop in Arizona that led to state charges unrelated to taking child brides.

Highway patrol officers had pulled over Bateman, who was hauling a trailer behind his car. Officers had seen what they thought was the hand of a child poking out of the slats. They discovered three young girls inside.

Bateman faces state-level child abuse charges for those allegations. He was taken to jail and then released on bond.

During the next week, the indictment alleges, he continued to assault some of the girls. And he allegedly instructed his followers to delete his Signal account, where he had been sending messages.

On Sept. 13, 2022, FBI agents raided his homes in Colorado City — known in the community as the “green home” and the “blue home.”

The federal agency served a search warrant detailing that they were looking for evidence of underage marriages or sexual contact between adults and children. Some of his wives, according to the indictment, tried to hide or break tablets and computers so they couldn’t be searched.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) FBI agents begin the search of a home where followers of Samuel Bateman live, in Colorado City, Ariz., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

At that point, Bateman was placed in prison on the original federal charges of destroying records and tampering. And the nine minor girls were removed from the properties and placed in state custody.

After that, Bateman had explicit conversations with the girls from prison — despite no-contact orders with the victims.

Then, in November 2022, eight of the nine minor girls were reported missing from the homes they’d been placed in by Arizona DCS.

A few days later, law enforcement found them outside an Airbnb in Spokane, Wash., in a vehicle driven by Moretta Rose Johnson, who Bateman had claimed as a wife when she was under age 18, according to an affidavit. Johnson, who was then 19, was taken into custody and is accused of kidnapping in a federal complaint.

That complaint alleges that Johnson, Naomi Bistline and Donnae Barlow, all adults claimed as wives of Bateman’s, worked to kidnap the girls from DCS custody at the direction of Bateman, who was communicating with them from jail. They were charged in December, along with additional charges added on to Bateman’s counts.

11 defendants, 56 charges

The latest updated indictment now includes Bateman, those three women, and seven more followers: LaDell Bistline Jr., Josephine Barlow Bistline, Leia Bistline, Torrance Bistline, Leilani Bistline, Brenda Barlow and Marona Johnson.

All are in custody and have arraignment hearings scheduled for this month.

The charges against Bateman include conspiracy to transport a minor for criminal sexual activity, interstate travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor and production of child pornography. Some of the women are charged with distributing obscene material. One faces counts for cyberstalking after threatening staff at Arizona DCS.

Total among the 11 of them, there are 56 felony charges.