The leader of an Arizona polygamous group called himself a prophet and had 20 wives, most of them minors.

The arrest operation, in September (The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) (Trent Nelson /)

The leader of a polygamous group on the Arizona-Utah border had at least 20 wivesmost of them minorsand punished members who did not treat him as a prophet, according to documents filed Friday in federal court.

The documents offer a glimpse into what investigators found in a case that first came to light in August. The matter became known when federal authorities three of the wives were charged with kidnapping and hindering a trial after eight young women related to the group fled from state guardianship.

Naomi Bistline and Donane Barlow appeared in federal magistrate court in Flagstaff on Wednesday. They remain jailed and have hearings scheduled for next week. Moretta Rose Johnson is awaiting extradition from the state of Washington.

The FBI affidavit filed in the women’s case focuses on samuel batemanwho declared himself a prophet in 2019. Authorities wrote that Bateman orchestrated sexual acts involving minors and provided wives to his male followerswith the assertion that he did it by order of the “Celestial father”. The men supported Bateman financially and gave him their own wives and young daughters as wives.

Samuel Bateman, leader of a small polygamous group on the Utah-Arizona border, accused of child abuse.  This undated photo provided by the Coconino County Sheriff's Office.  (Coconino County Police via AP)
Samuel Bateman, charged with child abuse (Coconino County Police via AP)

Bateman, 46, pleaded not guilty to state child abuse charges and federal evidence tampering charges. Trial on federal charges is scheduled to begin in January. He remains incarcerated in Arizona.

Samuel Bateman was a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). for its acronym in English), until he left a few years ago and created his own groupsaid Sam Brower, who has spent years investigating the group. Bateman was once one of the confidants of the imprisoned leader Warren Jeffswho denounced him in a written message addressed to his followers from prison, according to Brower.

Jeffs is serving a life sentence in a Texas jail on charges of child sexual abuse related to underage marriages.

The FLDS is also a splinter sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church. Polygamy is a legacy of that Church’s early mainstream teachings, but it abandoned the practice in 1890 and is strictly prohibited.

Federal authorities claim that Bateman carried out terrible acts with minors and asked his followers to help him hide his whereabouts. He demanded that his followers publicly confess to all of his indiscretions and shared them widely, according to the FBI affidavit. In it he maintained that the punishments, which ranged from a suspension to public shaming and sexual activity, came from the Lord. Bateman lived in Colorado City, a community that straddles the Arizona-Utah border. He and his followers believe that polygamy leads to exaltation in heaven.

FILE - 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. Federal documents released Friday, Dec. 2 show that Bateman, the leader of a small polygamous group near the Arizona-Utah border, had taken at least 20 wives, most of whom were minors, and punished followers who did not treat him as a prophet.  (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)
(The Salt Lake Tribune/AP) (Trent Nelson/)

batman once tried to take his only daughter as his wife, but she told her mother about her father’s plans. They both moved out and got a restraining order against Bateman. The mother was Bateman’s only wife in 2019, before the man started having others.

He was first arrested in August when someone saw little fingers sticking out of the opening of a trailer he was driving through Flagstaff. Police found three girls, ages 11 to 14in a makeshift room in the trailer, devoid of ventilation.

Bateman posted bail but was re-arrested in September and charged with obstruction of justice in a federal investigation into whether girls were being transported across state lines for use in sexual activity.

During the arrest in September, authorities nine girls removed from Bateman’s home in Colorado City and placed in temporary conservatorship.

Donnae Barlow descends from a police vehicle at federal court in Flagstaff, Arizona, Wednesday, December 7, 2022, charged with other women with kidnapping and obstructing a trial related to a polygamous cult near the Arizona-Utah border.  (AP Photo/Jake Bacon)
Donnae Barlow, Bateman’s ex-wife, gets out of a police vehicle at a federal courthouse in Flagstaff, Arizona. She is accused with other women of kidnapping and obstructing a trial (AP Photo / Jake Bacon) (Jake Bacon /)

None of the girls, identified only by their initials in court documents, disclosed sexual abuse by Bateman during interviews with forensic experts, although one did say she witnessed sexual activity, according to the FBI affidavit. However, several of the girls wrote in journals seized by the FBI about intimate interactions with Bateman. Authorities believe the older girls influenced the younger ones not to talk about Bateman, the FBI said.

Eight of the girls later escaped conservatorship, and the FBI claimed that Bistline, Barlow and Johnson—all wives or ex-wives of Bateman and related to the girls—came to Arizona to take them away. The girls were found last week hundreds of miles (kilometers) away in Spokane, Washington, in a vehicle driven by Johnson, according to the FBI affidavit.

(With information from AP/By Felicia Fonseca)

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