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Feds: Imprisoned polygamous leader helped plan girls escape

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The leader of a small polygamous group on the Arizona-Utah border helped orchestrate the escape of eight girls he considered his wives from a group home where they were placed after authorities learned of what was happening, prosecutors allege in a Wednesday court filing.

An indictment filed by U.S. attorneys in Arizona outlines how Sam Bateman, a self-declared prophet who is behind bars while he awaits trial, worked with three adult women he also claims to be his wives to help the girls escape foster care.

The document is the latest development in a federal case that has roiled Bateman’s small community on the Utah-Arizona border.

It supplements existing charges Bateman faces for impeding his impending prosecution. In it, prosecutors claim that Bateman, from the federal prison where he’s being held, spoke to two of the women he calls wives via video calls, including while they were driving from Arizona to Washington state and while they were in a hotel room with the girls.

On one of the calls, Bateman asked the women, who typically reside in Arizona, if they were in “our state,” according to prosecutors. They responded that they were not. On another, one of his wives reassured him, “we are helping you.” On a third, they discussed changing vehicles. Law enforcement was pursuing them at the time.

Prosecutors accuse Bateman of working with three of the women he says are his wives to “unlawfully seize, confine, inveigle, decoy, kidnap, abduct and carry away” three children and transport them to Washington state.

The community where Bateman and those he claims as wives reside has recently undergone major shifts, but for decades it was a stronghold of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a polygamist offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, widely known as the Mormon Church. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream church, but it abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly prohibits it.

The offshoot group, known by its acronym FLDS, garnered nationwide attention more than a decade ago when federal authorities pursued charges against its leader, Warren Jeffs, for child sexual abuse related to underage marriages.

Bateman is a former member of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who started his own breakaway group several years ago, after Jeffs was sent to prison.

He was once among Jeffs’ most trusted followers, but Jeffs denounced Bateman in a written revelation sent to his followers from prison, investigator Sam Brower, who has spent years following the group, told The Associated Press this year.

Bateman now faces federal evidence tampering and state child abuse charges. About two weeks ago, three women he claims as wives — Naomi Bistline, Donnae Barlow and Moretta Rose Johnson — were charged with helping nine children placed in foster care after Bateman’s arrest to flee their assigned homes.

Though federal prosecutors claimed in the women’s charging documents that Bateman had taken some of the girls in question as child brides, they haven’t filed charges relating to abuse or underage marriages. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to questions about whether additional charges would be filed.

Authorities allege in court documents in the overlapping cases, however, that Bateman orchestrated sexual acts involving minors and gave wives as gifts to male followers. The men supported Bateman financially and gave him their own wives and young daughters as wives.

They also allege that Bateman would demand followers confess publicly to any indiscretions and later share those confessions widely. He claimed punishments, which ranged from a time out to public shaming and sexual activity, came from the Lord, prosecutors allege.