Leader, members of Arizona-based cult indicted on child sex crimes

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PHOENIX — Lurid new details have emerged from a new 53-felony-count federal indictment against an Arizona-based polygamist fundamentalist cult and its leader, Samuel Bateman.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona now accuses Bateman, the self-proclaimed prophet of a splinter group of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and 10 others of causing sexual harm to nine girls whose ages ranged from 9 to 17 at the time the alleged offenses took place.

Federal prosecutors filed the extensive indictment on May 18, replacing a more limited one against Bateman and three followers. The latest court filings, naming 11 defendants, show the scope of the case has widened and the allegations have grown more serious.

The new accusations rely, in part, on Bateman’s own writings and remarks from some of the girls, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona. The new indictment revealed stories of Bateman coercing little girls to have sex with him and other adults, trading nights with girls for luxury Bentley cars, coercing children into participating in live-streamed group sex acts and transporting across state lines the girls for sexual trade.

Indictment: Read the 56-page redacted second superseding indictment

Bateman had been charged in December, along with Naomi Bistline, Donnae Barlow and Moretta Johnson, all of whom Bateman claimed to be his wives.

Originally, the four faced charges of kidnapping and destruction of evidence in a federal investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed affidavits describing sexual coercion but had not filed charges against them.

Josephine Barlow Bistline, LaDell Bistline Jr., Brenda Barlow, Marona Johnson, Torrance Bistline, Leia Bistline, and Leilani Bistline were added to the indictment on May 18. They are all relatives, followers and others Bateman claimed as wives.

The 11 co-defendants face an assortment of charges ranging from making child pornography to transporting kids for sex.

Who is Samuel Bateman?

He is 47 and a leader of an FLDS sect in Colorado City, Arizona. Beyond that, much is still not known about him. He calls himself a prophet, according to Colorado City and Hilldale, Utah, residents.

What happened in Colorado City, Arizona?

On Aug. 28, Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers saw a GMC Denali pulled over on Interstate 40. They noticed a child’s hand poking out of a trailer in tow and then arrested Bateman. He was booked into a Coconino County jail on suspicion of child endangerment, but he returned home.

Why is the FBI involved?

Federal agents grew suspicious that Bateman was deleting records off a cellphone app during and after his arrest and communicating with supporters in Colorado City while he was in jail. On Sept. 13, agents searched his home there. On Sept. 15, he appeared in federal court on new federal charges dealing with interfering with destruction of records.

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Overt acts, sex and Bentleys

Last week’s indictment listed “overt acts” in a detailed timeline, starting in 2019 when Bateman declared himself a prophet and ending with his arrest by federal agents in the fall of 2022.

The “acts” alleged in court documents described times Bateman took young girls for himself by convincing them and their parents that God had commanded them to marry. The ceremony would often be the first time the girls were told to have sex with him — something some of the girls admitted to fearing, according to the indictment.

By the time law enforcement caught up with him, he had claimed 10 women and 10 underage girls to be God-given wives. The identities of most remain unclear.

In court records filed last winter, federal prosecutors hinted at some of the dreadful allegations that they presented in the new indictment. They include:

  • Coerced sex acts.
  • Transporting children for sex with other adults.
  • Attempting to marry one of his underage daughters.

But the new details, some lurid, go further.

According to the latest accusations, Bateman started a manipulative pattern of taking underage girls in March 2020, when he claimed a vision from God told him to take the 9-year-old daughter of a man identified only as M.J. as his wife.

Reports in the court records alleged that Bateman had the 9-year-old sleep in his bed four months later.

Prosecutors claimed Bateman did this at least seven other times. Four more daughters were taken from M.J., aged 10, 11, 13, and 14. Two others, aged 9 and 10, were taken from co-defendants LaDell Bistline and Josephine Bistline. Bateman would also take Josephine Bistline as his wife, according to the new indictment.

On at least two occasions, it alleges that the girls described sexual acts with Bateman. In another account, it claimed that Bateman wrote, referring to one of the girls, that he “slept with Angel Mother tonight!”

In past filings, LaDell Bistline was accused of being involved in group sex acts involving the girls. The new allegations describe Bateman offering up one of the children for sex to LaDell Bistline in exchange for a night with Bistline’s wife.

Prosecutors noted that in October 2021, a wealthy farm engineer, Torrance Bistline, bought Bateman a luxury Bentley. Months later, according to the indictment, Bateman offered a 12-year-old girl to Torrance Bistline and watched them have sex.

Torrance Bistline would buy Bateman a second Bentley shortly after that night, prosecutors claimed.

The Green House

Sitting in Coconino County Jail after his arrest in Flagstaff, Bateman contacted Torrance Bistline and other followers to get them to delete messages and documents from digital devices, prosecutors allege.

According to the indictment, after Bateman was bonded out in early September, a 15-year-old girl claimed Bateman coerced another 15-year-old girl into sex and made her watch.

When federal agents arrived on Sept. 13, some of the older women attempted to get rid of or hide evidence, the indictment claimed. One reportedly threw a backpack full of condoms and digital devices out a window.

Prosecutors also moved to seize Bateman’s belongings if convicted. They are seeking to seize two homes in Colorado City that prosecutors claimed belonged to Bateman. They were known as the “Blue House” and the “Green House.”

For more than a year, several of the girls visited the Green House. Prosecutors claimed it was where Bateman ordained them to take part in group sex acts.

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53 felony counts

The indictment numbers each separate charge as counts 1-53. Some of the defendants share the same count. The following lists the number and type of charges each defendant is facing.

Bateman faces 51 total felony counts. They include the production of child pornography, interstate travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor, and transportation of a minor for criminal sexual activity.

Donnae Barlow, Morretta Johnson and Naomi Bistline face four felony counts. They include kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, tampering with an official proceeding and conspiracy to commit tampering with an official proceeding.

Josephine Barlow Bistline faces 12 felony counts. They include the production of child pornography, the transfer of obscene material to a minor, and the transportation of a minor for criminal sexual activity.

LaDell Bistline faces eight felony counts. They include receipt of child pornography, transfer of obscene material to a minor and transportation of a minor for criminal sexual activity, among others.

Brenda Barlow faces 11 felony counts. They include the transfer of obscene material to a minor, transportation of a minor for criminal sexual activity and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.

Marona Johnson faces one felony count of transfer of obscene material to a minor.

Leia Bistline faces two felony counts of using a means of interstate commerce to persuade or coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity.

Torrance Bistline faces five felony counts. They include using a means of interstate commerce to persuade or coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity and four other felony counts related to tampering with evidence.

Leilani Bistline faces three felony counts, including using a means of interstate commerce to persuade or coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity, transportation of a minor for criminal sexual activity and persuading or coercing travel to engage in sexual activity.

Bateman is scheduled to be arraigned in court on Friday in Phoenix.

Reach crime reporter Miguel Torres at miguel.torres@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @TheMiguelTorres.

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