PHOENIX (AP) — The leader of an offshoot polygamous sect near the Arizona-Utah border has pleaded guilty to conspiring to transport underage girls across state lines in what authorities say was a yearslong scheme to orchestrate sexual acts involving children.

Samuel Bateman also pleaded guilty on Monday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix to conspiring to commit kidnapping in a plan to free underage girls who had been taken into Arizona state custody. His plea agreement recommends a sentence of 20 to 50 years in prison, though one of his convictions carries a possible maximum sentence of life in prison.

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In pleading guilty, Bateman acknowledged taking underage brides, having sex activity with them and arranging group sex, sometimes involving child brides.

This undated photo provided by the Coconino County, Ariz., Sheriffs Office shows Samuel Bateman, the leader of a small polygamous group near the Arizona-Utah border. On Monday, April 1, 2024, Bateman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit transportation of a minor for criminal sexual activity and another federal charge in what authorities say was a years-long scheme to orchestrate sexual acts involving children.  (Coconino County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

Authorities say Bateman, a self-proclaimed prophet who had taken more than 20 wives, including 10 girls under the age of 18, created a sprawling network spanning at least four states as he tried to start an offshoot of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which historically has been based in the neighboring communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah.

He and his followers practice polygamy, a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly prohibits it. Bateman and his followers believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

Bateman was arrested in August 2022 by Arizona state police in Flagstaff after someone spotted small fingers in a door gap on an enclosed trailer. Authorities found three girls — between the ages of 11 and 14 — in the trailer, which had a makeshift toilet, a sofa, camping chairs and no ventilation.

Bateman posted bond, but he was arrested again the next month and charged with obstructing justice in a federal investigation into whether children were being transported across state lines for sexual activity.

At the time of the second arrest, authorities removed nine children from Bateman’s home in Colorado City and placed them in foster care. Eight of the children later escaped, and the FBI alleged that three of Bateman’s adult wives played a part in getting them out of Arizona. The girls were later found hundreds of miles away in Washington state in a vehicle driven by one of the adult wives.

Bateman is accused of giving wives as gifts to his male followers and claiming to do so on orders from the “Heavenly Father.” Investigators say Bateman traveled extensively between Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska and had sex with minor girls on a regular basis. Some of the sexual activity involving Bateman was recorded and transmitted across state lines via electronic devices.

He is the second man to be convicted as part of the scheme. Businessman Moroni Johnson of Colorado City pleaded guilty last month to a charge of conspiring with Bateman to transport underage girls over state lines.

Four of Bateman’s wives also previously pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit tampering with an official proceeding, acknowledging that they witnessed Bateman engage in sexual acts with his child brides and that they participated in the plot to kidnap the eight girls from state custody.

Charges also are pending against four other women identified as Bateman’s wives and two of his male followers, both of whom are charged with using a means of interstate commerce to persuade or coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity, among other charges. The four women and two men have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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The FBI said Bateman demanded that his followers confess publicly for any indiscretions and share those confessions widely. He claimed that punishments, which ranged from a time-out to public shaming and sexual activity, came from the Lord, the federal law enforcement agency said. Authorities say Bateman instructed some of his male followers to engage in sex with some of Bateman’s wives to atone for the men’s purported sins against the sect leader.

Authorities said Johnson was pressured by Bateman to give up three of his wives as atonement because Johnson wasn’t treating Bateman as a prophet.

Sentencing for Bateman is scheduled for July 15.



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