COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Nestled among the towering red walls and sweeping khaki valleys of Arizona's high northwest desert lies the tight-knit community of Short Creek Valley.
It's home to Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah. The two small towns are surrounded by the Canaan Mountains, a preview to Zion National Park less than 50 miles away. Only a state border separates the towns from each other. What separates them from the rest of the state is something altogether different.
Yes, it's beautiful. But it's also controversial. A place where best-selling books and true-crime specials come from and arrests are made.
It was twelve years ago that Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexual assault against children. Jeffs had long before proclaimed himself Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a sect of the Mormon religion that practices polygamy. Jeffs was sent to jail on tax evasion and fraud charges.
Samuel Bateman stepped forward.
Bateman, 46, claims to be Jeffs successor, according to the FBI. The self-proclaimed new prophet of the FLDS has about 50 followers and more than 20 wives. Half of them were underage -- with the youngest just 9-years-old according to documents filed in U.S. District Court of Arizona. These federal court documents detail Bateman’s rise to power in the polygamous sect.
Bateman is currently in custody facing 51 federal charges after a raid was conducted at his Colorado City compounds in September 2022. Investigators claim Bateman not only forced young girls to marry him, but they also say he sexually abused them on a regular basis while forcing other minors to watch and even participate.
Several of Bateman’s followers and adult wives are also facing federal charges for their reported roles.
The red walls that surround Colorado City are infamous for hiding secrets. Not much is known about Bateman’s past other than he was a product of this small community dominated by extremists who coerced thousands in the name of a higher power.
This is a situation Briell Decker -- Jeffs' 65th wife -- knows too well.
"When Sam Bateman popped up being the Prophet I was concerned all along because he claimed to follow Warren," Decker said.
Decker said many have claimed to be the Prophet, but in order to gain a following like Bateman has, she believes he was in close communication with Jeffs during his reign. Decker said he is nothing more than a cookie-cutter product of his predecessor.
"He learned it from Warren," Decker said. "He did almost the same thing that Warren was doing."
Before he was a “prophet”
Bateman was married with three children and lived in Colorado City according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court. In February 2019, the FBI alleged Bateman told his wife that he started having visions of grandeur and becoming the FLDS Prophet. He told his wife “he was going to be a very important man,” according to court documents.
It was also around this time when Bateman allegedly told his wife that he started to have “feelings” for his own daughter, who was about 14 at the time.
His daughter who is identified as Jane Doe 1 in documents was interviewed at the Child Justice Center in St. George, Utah about her father.
She told investigators in 2020 that Bateman told her that he felt that they should be married and “he would make her have a child.” She told investigators she was scared of her father when he said this. Bateman also reportedly told her not to tell her mother. She even said her father bribed her with two bags of chips and $50 to keep it a secret.
However, the FBI alleges Bateman ultimately told his wife about what happened, telling her he “felt inspired to have sexual relations” with his daughter. It ended when his wife, who is identified as LB in the court paperwork, got a restraining order against Bateman and moved her and their daughter out of the home away from Bateman.
Within the next three years, Bateman amassed dozens of followers as his flock and power within the FLDS grew.
The FBI obtained audio recordings of Bateman that were taped in November 2021. Bateman claims he was up on a mountain when Jeffs, the former FLDS Prophet came to him in a vision. He was to" invoke the Spirit of God on these People.”
Bateman referred to his predecessor as “Uncle Warren”, which many FLDS followers did during Jeffs' reign, as well.
Bateman lost his original family. So he built a new one.
He amassed dozens of followers and several wives, many of whom were younger than 15, according to a criminal complaint.
The indictment alleges Bateman exploited his male followers' faith by convincing them to give up their own daughters to be his child brides, which they did. It was simple: Give up your daughters to Bateman or be banished from salvation. It was simpler for the daughters: Be "obedient to [Bateman's] will" or be banished from salvation.
It’s believed all of the minors allegedly abused by Bateman are his follower’s daughters.
Marriages, marriages and marriages
The FBI reports none of Bateman’s marriages were legally recognized.
The indictment alleges Bateman, his co-conspirators, and wives traveled to Nebraska, Utah, Colorado and Arizona where he sexually abused the minor girls on a regular basis.
In certain cases the abuse was recorded on camera, according to the indictment.
The indictment also claims Bateman forced the young women to participate in orgies and made others watch.
Two of the girls actually spoke out against Bateman according to the indictment. Both said they wanted to be single again. Bateman and his followers allegedly told them it was God’s will they weren't.
Bateman didn’t work and was -- like Jeffs - was supported by his followers. The criminal complaint reports they paid for Bateman’s expenses including luxury cars like Range Rovers and Bentleys that were seen driving around Colorado City.
It raised suspicion from those in town. The Colorado City Marshal's Office (CCMO) investigated reports of Bateman marrying minors. A now accused co-conspirator of Bateman’s, Ladell Bistline Jr., spoke with CCMO and told them the claims were just rumors, documents said. Bistline Jr.’s daughter was with her father at the time he was questioned. She is also said to be married to Bateman, though court documents say she denied being in a relationship with Bateman.
The Arizona Department of Child Safety was also called to one of Bateman’s compounds in May 2021. Workers allegedly spoke with Bistline Jr., who reportedly denied the allegations. They also spoke with another now co-defendant, Josephine Barlow Bistline, another alleged wife of Bateman.
It was reported Barlow Bistline’s underage daughters, who were 11 and 9 at the time, were also married to Bateman. However, Child safety investigators were turned away from the compound when they went to question Bistline Barlow, her daughters, and other wives.
No arrests were made. The accused self-appointed prophet remained free and, federal officials allege, the sexual abuse against the girls continued for more than a year.
Until August 2022.
“Fingers poking out of the trailer”
Drivers called 911 when they noticed little fingers sticking out of a box trailer on a highway in Flagstaff.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety pulled over the truck carrying the trailer. Bateman was driving, DPS said.
Body camera video from Coconino sheriff’s deputies and Flagstaff police officers shows them questioning Bateman who refuses to answer their questions. At one point Bateman is heard telling a sheriff’s deputy to “calm down."
The video then shows law enforcement with guns drawn open the trailer and three kids ages 11 to 14 walk out. The indictment identifies them as Jane Does 4, 7, and 8.
Inside the trailer were some chairs and a makeshift toilet. It’s unclear how long the girls were in the trailer before it was pulled over.
In the truck’s cabin were Bateman, accused co-conspirator and wives Naomi Bistline and Marona Johnson, according to the indictment. Jane Does 9 and 10 were also in the truck.
Deputies separated Bateman from the women. The video shows that law enforcement attempted to question the girls but Bistline stepped in.
The women and children stood near each other wearing prairie dresses -- which are synonymous with the modest, 19th Century clothes FLDS women wear. A deputy noticed something on each of the girls fingers.
“The 14-year-old, she had a ring on her finger, on her ring finger,” the deputy said. “They’ve all kind of, like, hidden those. I mean, we know what’s going on here.”
Bateman continued to not answer questions. He was handcuffed, stuffed in the back of a police cruiser and was soon charged with three counts of child abuse.
Police took his cell phone.
But they didn't take away communication with his wives.
Delete every message “right now”
According to the indictment, Bateman contacted an accused follower and co-defendant from jail: Torrance Bistline. Bateman reportedly told Bistline to delete his Signal account. Signal is an encrypted messaging app that's used by many people -- including journalists -- to communicate sensitive information.
While he was still in custody, the FBI alleges, Bateman contacted his wives and told another wife and co-defendant in the case to delete every message "right now."
It’s also said Bateman’s wives started to shred their diaries. Some are accused of hiding tablets, computers, and digital devices.
Just a day after his arrest, Bateman was released on bond. Federal agents claimed that for the next two weeks, Bateman allegedly had sex with two of his young wives.
On Sept. 13, 2022, Bateman’s Colorado City compounds were raided by FBI agents. Bateman was arrested on a federal warrant and taken to the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex in Florence, Arizona.
The next day, Arizona's child-protection agency took custody of 9 minors, all believed to be child brides of Bateman’s, and took them to group homes in the Phoenix Metro area. The criminal complaint reports each one was interviewed. None of the girls admitted they were abused, but one allegedly told investigators she was partially nude and present during one of many orgies.
Agents recovered data from several journals written by the girls that were seized during the search warrant. The entries allegedly reveal they were kissed and touched by Bateman, according to court documents.
Agents tried to interview the girls following this discovery but said they refused to participate. They separated themselves from others at the group home who were not their siblings.
The girls were in state custody for two months before they escaped.
Escape from custody
On Nov. 27, 2022 eight of the nine girls ran away from their group homes with the help of Bateman’s adult wives, documents report.
Investigators found communication devices the minors had and learned they were in communication with Bateman’s older wives. They had planned the alleged getaway, according to court documents.
It’s believed Bateman, while still in custody, had a role. Records show Bateman was in constant contact with his followers and video called them. One of the videos shows Naomi Bistline, Donnae Barlow and two of the missing girls.
Investigators said Bateman made several calls to Bistline and the girls at one point asking them if they were still in “our state." They answered they were not.
Federal investigators said Bistline, Barlow and the girls made it all the way to Spokane, Washington and were staying at an Airbnb. Investigators were tracking credit card purchases made by Bateman’s followers, including Torrance Bistline who reportedly rented the Airbnb.
Spokane County sheriff's deputies arrived at the home and saw a car leave the property. The deputy pulled the vehicle over and saw Moretta Johnson, driving the car with all eight escaped minors inside. The criminal complaint against Johnson said she married Bateman when she was under 18.
Johnson, Bistline and Barlow were all arrested and charged federally for their alleged roles in the escape.
Since Dec. 2022, Bateman and 10 others, including eight of his adult wives and two male followers, have all been charged with several federal felonies. They are all awaiting trial in Phoenix that is set to start next year.
Many have tried to get supervised release and return to Colorado City, but were denied by the U.S. District Court. The judge says they are a danger to the public.
Bateman’s followers in Colorado City
One of three compounds searched by FBI agents is known as "the green house." It’s the home where Bateman and most of his wives lived, according to the indictment.
Nearly a year after his arrest, 12News went to the home in Colorado City.
The blinds were closed and no one answered the door. A little girl in a blue prairie dress stood underneath a makeshift garage, until she was picked up by an older woman in a similar dress and both went inside the home.
Despite knocking on the door again, there was no answer.
About ten minutes later, two van loads filled with women and children left the home.
Left behind: A white trailer that looks similar to the one police seized near Flagstaff. An empty, sprawling house. And the red cliffs that tell no tales but have witnessed plenty.