On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, eight girls under the care of Arizona child welfare officials disappeared from group homes near Phoenix. By Thursday of that week, they were back in custody — and two young women had been arrested, accused of kidnapping them with a third woman, who was arrested the next day.
All 11 women and girls had been taken as wives, the FBI alleges, by self-proclaimed prophet Samuel Bateman, as he led a small offshoot of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Here’s a rundown of seven Salt Lake Tribune stories that explore how Bateman, 46, rose to power in the group, why he was soon on the FBI’s radar and how arrests have scattered his followers.
A raid, and girls removed
On Aug. 28, after Bateman was pulled over near Flagstaff, authorities discovered three young girls inside a locked cargo trailer he was pulling, according to Arizona prosecutors. He was charged with three counts of child abuse, but he posted bail and was released.
Then, early on Sept. 13, FBI agents surrounded one of his homes near the Arizona-Utah state border with their guns drawn. According to a copy of their search warrant, which was shared with The Tribune, agents were seeking evidence of any marriages or sexual relationships between adults and children.
As that Colorado City, Ariz., home and another in town was searched, Bateman was arrested, and he has remained in custody since then. In a new indictment, federal prosecutors alleged Bateman had destroyed electronic communications on the messaging app Signal on the day of the traffic stop, “with the intent to impair its integrity and availability for use in a foreseeable criminal proceeding.”
Child welfare officials briefly removed and then returned nine girls — ranging in age from 11 to 16 — on the day of the raid, but took them into state custody the next day.
Read more: Girls taken from homes in historically polygamous community after FBI searched for evidence of underage marriages
Eight girls disappear
On Nov. 27, Arizona law enforcement authorities listed eight of the nine girls taken from Colorado City as “missing juveniles,” according to police records.
Four days later, court documents said, a Spokane County Sheriff’s deputy found all eight girls outside an Airbnb in Spokane, Wash., in a vehicle driven by a 19-year-old woman. Also on Thursday, a 24-year-old woman was arrested in Colorado City; the FBI described both of the women as wives of Bateman. Federal court records show a third woman, described by the FBI as a young adult, was arrested the next day.
Read more: Officials took girls from a historically polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border. Then the girls went missing.
Disturbing allegations revealed
In an affidavit filed Dec. 2 in federal court in Spokane, the FBI alleged Bateman had begun gathering plural wives in 2020 — first young women, and then girls, and then the adult wives of his male followers. He later directed and participated in group sex acts with them, an agent alleged.
The affidavit also revealed that by late 2020, people in Colorado City had begun contacting law enforcement about Bateman, concerned about his relationships with young girls.
Read more: Polygamous leader Samuel Bateman had 20 wives, according to FBI
The story behind the girls’ disappearance
The affidavit also revealed that Bateman — through video calls from behind bars — had been keeping in touch with the girls who disappeared from group homes and the young adult wives, as they traveled in groups to multiple states.
The girls were found after the credit card used to rent the Airbnb in Spokane was traced to a business linked to the FLDS offshoot.
Read more: What happened to Bateman’s underage wives since he was arrested
Bateman’s rise to influence
Bateman was raised in the FLDS faith in Colorado City, which, along with Hildale, Utah, is known as Short Creek, the traditional home base of the polygamous sect. After suffering serious injuries in a car accident as a young adult, he became even stricter in his religious beliefs, several people told The Tribune.
In 2019, some of Bateman’s followers said, he began to say he was the successor to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, who is in prison for sexually assaulting girls he had married.
As Bateman’s group became established, he was often seen wearing a crisp white leather jacket, traveling on Short Creek’s red dusty dirt roads in a single-file motorcade of two Bentleys sandwiched between two Range Rovers.
Bateman’s goals — as seen in his home
Bateman’s goal to own Bentleys and Range Rovers was represented by images of the vehicles on a vision board hung inside his small green home in Colorado City. Other images and vision boards reflected his additional dreams of financial success, such as a 40-bedroom mansion.
Bateman’s followers allowed a Tribune photographer to document what that house and large blue home, located two blocks away, looked like after FBI agents spent the day searching the residences.
‘We want to come with you’
Followers also allowed a Tribune photographer to document notes they wrote for Bateman after his September arrest.
“We want to come with you everywhere you go,” one read. “How do you feel about it?”
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