Arizona man accused of child abuse as leader of polygamous cult, FBI says

<span>Photograph: Trent Nelson/AP</span>
Photograph: Trent Nelson/AP

Federal investigators in Arizona discovered that a man arrested in August for kidnapping was head of a polygamous religious cult and had at least 20 “wives”, most of them children.

Samuel Rappylee Bateman, an erstwhile member of the Mormon Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, set up an offshoot sect and persuaded male followers to surrender their wives and daughters, court papers filed in Flagstaff said.

Bateman, 46, of Colorado City, would beat those who did not greet him as a prophet, the FBI indictment alleges. He is also alleged to have engaged in child sex trafficking with the assistance of several of his wives.

Samuel Bateman.
Samuel Bateman. Photograph: AP

The agency says Bateman insisted it was “Heavenly Father’s will” that he engage in sex acts with them. An FBI special agent, Dawn Martin said in the affidavit it was Bateman’s position that the girls had “sacrificed their virtue for the Lord”.

Three women, Naomi Bistline, Donnae Barlow and Moretta Rose Johnson, are accused of kidnapping, with two scheduled to appear in magistrates court in Flagstaff on Wednesday. Johnson, 19, is awaiting extradition from Washington state.

They are accused of taking flight with eight of Bateman’s children, who were placed in the care of Arizona authorities earlier this year but found last week hundreds of miles away in Spokane, Washington, according to CBS News.

Sheriff’s deputies rescued the girls in an Airbnb rental property, Arizona’s CBS5 said. Court documents allege Bateman and his co-conspirators transported the girls from Nebraska to Arizona, Utah and Nevada for sex acts.

One of the underage girls reportedly told authorities she was naked in the presence of an orgy Bateman had with “many other girls”.

So far Bateman, who was arrested in August when somebody spotted a child’s fingers poking through the gap of a trailer he was driving through Flagstaff, faces charges relating to destruction of evidence, each carrying up to 20 years in prison.

But the details contained in the court papers suggest more charges are likely.

Bateman is being held in Florence, Arizona. The FBI, and the Arizona department of child safety, declined to comment, CBS said.

Detectives have spent at least three months on the case, allegedly discovering that Bateman appointed himself head of the small cult and was engaged in child sex trafficking and polygamy.

He declared himself a prophet in 2019, in the style of the fundamentalist sect leader Warren Jeffs, who was imprisoned for life in 2011 for crimes including polygamist marriages to girls as young as 12. Bateman and his followers referred to Jeffs as “Uncle Warren”, the FBI indictment states.

The official Mormon church broke with the practice of polygamy in 1890, under pressure from the US government which made renouncing the practice a condition of granting statehood to Utah. Polygamist Mormons refused to renounce plural marriages.