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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Three women face federal charges accusing them of kidnapping eight girls by helping them escape the custody of child welfare officials in Arizona. The women and girls are considered to be wives of a polygamous sect leader.
Nine girls were removed from their home in September after state and federal charges were filed against Samuel Bateman, a religious leader of a small group of Fundamentalist LDS Church members.
Bateman was charged in Arizona with three counts of child abuse, a second-degree felony, and later indicted by a federal grand jury with destruction of records in an official proceeding, tampering with an official proceeding and destruction of records in a federal investigation.
Eight of those girls were found in Spokane, Washington, with members of the religious group on Thursday, according to a criminal complaint filed against the three women.
The Short Creek FLDS community, located in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, was led by Warren Jeffs, who is now serving a life prison sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls that he considered to be his wives.
Charging documents say Bateman, 46, is a "self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS Church" within the Short Creek community with over 50 followers and over 20 wives "mostly under the age of 15."
Naomi Bistline, Donnae Barlow and Moretta Rose Johnson are accused of interfering with a case and unlawfully abducting eight girls and taking them out of the custody of the Arizona Department of Child Safety. They are each charged with obstruction of justice and kidnapping.
Allegations against Bateman
The documents filed in Arizona's federal court allege that Bateman and others in the community engaged in illicit sexual conduct with minors between May 2020 and November 2021 in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Nebraska.
Currently, no sexual abuse charges have been filed against Bateman, but the charges show that the investigation is ongoing.
Bateman was arrested in Arizona on Aug. 28 for child endangerment after he was pulled over by police who say he was towing a box trailer with at least three minor girls inside.
In phone calls from jail that day, Bateman instructed a man and his wives to delete his Signal account, then after he was released from custody on Sept. 1 he asked about resetting his cellphone that had been taken as evidence, according to charging documents.
Bateman was arrested again on Sept. 13 on federal charges of tampering with a proceeding. The next day, the nine minor girls were interviewed and placed in group homes.
None of these girls disclosed sexual abuse during interviews. One admitted she was partially nude at what the criminal complaint called a sex orgy. Multiple girls, however, referenced sleeping with Bateman and touching and kissing him in journals seized with search warrants, the charges state.
Some of the girls refused to participate in interviews and the complaint says investigators believe older girls were encouraging younger girls not to talk, which led investigators to separate the girls into group homes with only their siblings.
The women's alleged involvement
Eight of the nine girls ran away from the group homes on Nov. 27. Investigators say it appeared the girls were using a group chat with some of the adult wives to arrange the trip.
The FBI was able to obtain an emergency disclosure request to Airbnb to provide addresses for bookings with credit cards under the name of a man in the religious community or his business. Airbnb provided a Mesa address for the morning of Nov. 29, an address later that day in Utah, and an address in Spokane which was reserved between Nov. 29 and Dec. 2.
Spokane sheriff's deputies went to knock on the door of the Airbnb address. No one answered, but charging documents say deputies later saw a vehicle driven by Johnson leaving the house. Police say all eight missing girls were found in the vehicle.
Recorded video calls show Bateman communicating with Bistline and Barlow on Nov. 28 about picking up the girls, according to the complaint.
"He tells the girls how much he needs them, and how it puts pressure on him when they are scattered and that he needs everyone to be together," the complaint said.
Charging documents said Bateman is currently in federal custody in Florence, Arizona. He was allowed to be released on bail from his state charges on Oct. 7.
A trial in his federal case is scheduled for Jan. 10.