A polygamist leader near the Arizona-Utah border had 20 wives, including minors mostly under the age of 15, according to allegations in a probable cause affidavit filed last week.
Samuel Bateman is the head of a small sect of religious fundamentalists, investigators said in the affidavit.
Three women in Bateman's church -- which includes approximately 50 followers -- are accused of kidnapping and obstructing justice in the federal government's investigation of whether children in his care were trafficked across state lines to engage in sexual activity.
Bateman is also being investigated in connection with that case and has been indicted on federal charges of destruction of records and tampering with an official proceeding after allegedly seeking to delete messages sent through an encrypted app. He has not been charged with kidnapping and obstruction of justice.
In September, nine girls were taken into custody with the Arizona Department of Child Services, according to the affidavit, and while none alleged sexual abuse by Bateman at least one allegedly admitted they were present for sex orgies.
Eight of the nine girls later ran away from group homes on Nov. 27 and were tracked down by authorities at a rental property in Washington state last week, the affidavit states.
The FBI filed its affidavit against the three women the next day. (The Arizona Department of Child Services declined to comment due to confidentiality laws.)
Federal authorities described Bateman in the affidavit as a "self-proclaimed prophet" who allegedly engaged in sex trafficking and claimed he was fulfilling "Heavenly Father's will" when he would "engage in sexual acts" with minor children, according to the filing.
According to the affidavit, Bateman is a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which broke away from the Mormon church because its members continued to practice polygamy, which has long been prohibited by Mormons.
After being a part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), Bateman began his own group.
The affidavit states that Bateman, a Colorado City, Arizona, native, and his suspected accomplices are believed to have conducted "criminal sexual activity" and traveled between Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Nebraska to "engage in illicit sexual conduct with minors."
The affidavit charges the three women, who include one of his wives, with kidnapping eight unnamed minors and obstruction of justice.
Two of the three defendants charged in the FBI affidavit appeared in federal magistrate court in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Wednesday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Camille Bibles ruled that defendants Naomi Bistline and Donnae Barlow will remain in custody. Moretta Rose Johnson, the third defendant, has not appeared in court.
"I believe that Naomi was groomed and victimized by Mr. Bateman and others in the so-called, and I use the term loosely, 'church,' in the FLDS church," Daniel Kaiser, Bistline's lawyer, told ABC News. "Based on what I've seen and my knowledge, my position and my feeling for now is that just like some of these other young women, she is a victim and has been victimized by my Bateman and other male people in the community."
Bistline has another court appearance scheduled for Monday.
The case is in the early, preliminary stages, according to Kaiser. "I'm sure there's going to be a lot more information, but I just don't have it yet," he said.
"From what I have seen in the affidavit it's going to be a very long and time-consuming case," he added.
Johnson's lawyers did not respond to ABC News' request for a comment. Barlow's attorney declined to comment.
None of the three have entered pleas.
One arrest leads to another
Bateman was previously arrested on suspicion of child endangerment in August after he was pulled over in Arizona and authorities found he was transporting three girls under 18 who were "riding unsecured" in a trailer, according to the affidavit filed last week.
Bateman posted bond but was arrested again and charged with document tampering, the affidavit shows: Law enforcement initially seized his phone after arresting him for child endangerment, but while in custody he allegedly called some of his wives and instructed them to delete messages via the encrypted app.
He has pleaded not guilty to his federal charges and remains in custody in Arizona. Prosecutors declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Bateman's lawyers did not respond to ABC News' request for a comment.
"What they're trying to do is annihilate a religion," his sister told the Associated Press this week after a court hearing in his case. "Samuel is a prophet and a savior in this world. He hasn't done wrong. They've got to realize that God will defend his prophet."
'He felt like she was his wife'
Court documents detail how law enforcement learned about Bateman's alleged polygamy.
The probable cause affidavit states that as of 2019, he was legally married to one woman. On Nov. 23, 2020, an unnamed individual called the Colorado City Marshall's Office (CCMO) in Arizona to report that Bateman was married to her friend's granddaughter, a minor, according to the affidavit.
The CCMO was assured by a close friend of Bateman's that "the stories were just rumors" and authorities spoke to the granddaughter, who denied having a relationship with Bateman, the affidavit states. But her grandmother called CCMO the next day and said that "Bateman was married to another one of her granddaughters, born in 2011, and possibly [Bateman's] own daughter, born in 2005."
On Nov. 24, 2020, according to the affidavit, the grandmother then contacted the Iron County Sheriff's Office (ICSO) to claim that Bateman and another unnamed person were "kidnapping her grandchildren."
But after further investigation by the sheriff's office, "the parents each said their children were fine with Bateman" and he was released, the affidavit states.
Bateman's daughter was later interviewed by local investigators in December 2020 and she shared that Bateman told her "he felt like she was his wife" when she was approximately 14 years old, according to the affidavit. He also allegedly told her that "if his feelings were right, he would make her have a child."
Her mother resisted, telling Bateman that their daughter "was not, and would never be, his wife," according to the affidavit. Bateman's wife then got a restraining order against him and moved out with their daughter.
The affidavit states that the daughter also "provided a 'Journal of Events'" where she documented the dates that Bateman had previously introduced "new wives" to her, "including all the young girls he took as wives and called 'mother.'"
The affidavit outlines Bateman's alleged interactions, both sexual and non-sexual, with his adult and minor wives, many of whom are related to each other and to Bateman's colleagues and peers.