PHOENIX -- Members of a small polygamous group accused of child sex abuse of underage girls whom the group’s leader claimed as brides were arraigned in federal court on Friday.
Sam Bateman and the three women followers, who are each represented by different attorneys, entered not guilty pleas in a downtown Phoenix courtroom. They also waived having the charges read to them. None of them spoke.
All four were arrested last year and charged with kidnapping and impeding a federal investigation. Prosecutors earlier this month expanded the group's charges.
Now 11 members of Bateman’s group face 51 felony counts for transporting children across state lines to facilitate sexual activity, recording it, destroying evidence and witness tampering.
Two women, including one with a baby in a carrier, sat in the gallery. They declined to give their names but said they were there to support all four defendants.
The group's appearance in court is the latest development in a sprawling federal investigation spanning at least five states that became public last fall after authorities raided Bateman's compound in Colorado City, Arizona. The site was long home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known by its acronym FLDS.
Colorado City and Hildale — an adjoining town across the Utah border — have changed dramatically since the group's prophet, Warren Jeffs, was arrested more than a decade ago. But the case against Bateman serves as a reminder that its legacy remains and continues to evolve.
In court filings, investigators have alleged that Bateman, 47, persuaded followers to break off from the FLDS Church, convincing them that he was a prophet who succeeded Jeffs and was “doing ‘Uncle Warren’s’ will.”
Bateman has been accused of taking at least 20 wives, including many minors as young as 8 and 9 years old. But charges have mostly pertained to the decision by him and his adult followers to take the minors across state lines — including at one point breaking them out of Arizona foster care — and impeding the investigation.
A call to one of Bateman’s lawyers seeking comment was not returned Thursday.
The FLDS, from which Bateman originated, is itself a breakaway sect 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.
An indictment published earlier in May says Bateman traveled extensively between Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska and allegedly had sex with the minor girls on a regular basis. It also charges Bateman with recording some of the sexual activity, alleging some images may have been transmitted across state lines via electronic devices.
Relying on journals, day planners and text messages, it says Bateman initiated sexual encounters with groups of followers in hotel rooms, including one that began with a religious rite-inspired “washing of the feet.” A girl, who the indictment describes as 9 or 10 years old, called the sexual encounters “definitely terrifying.”
The indictment also claims several male and female followers denied the allegations of abuse, including of their own children, when interviewed by the Arizona Department of Child Safety.
Bateman was arrested last year and remains in federal custody pending his trial, which is scheduled for March 5, 2024. He previously pleaded not guilty to state and federal charges accusing him of kidnapping, child abuse and tampering with evidence.
Metz reported from Salt Lake City.