How 8 girls in Arizona protective care ended up back with a polygamous cult over 1,000 miles away

FLDS women
Unnamed female members of the FLDS, which is largely considered a cult.Photo by: Visions of America/Joe Sohm/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • Nine girls were taken from the Arizona homes of an FLDS cult leader in August.

  • The girls were placed in Arizona group homes for children but fled in November.

  • Four days later, eight of the girls were found back with the cult over 1,000 miles away.

Samuel Bateman, the self-anointed "prophet" of a polygamous FLDS cult, was arrested in August after three young girls were found hidden in a cargo trailer that law enforcement said he was towing on a highway in Flagstaff, Arizona — over 1,000 miles from the group's stronghold in Colorado City.

Around that time, local officials raided Arizona residences used by Bateman — who has 20 wives, most of them children — and nine girls were placed in Arizona Department of Child Safety group homes, according to the FBI.

Two months later, though, eight of those girls had run away. Four days after they ran away, they were found with members of the group in Washington State.

"On November 27, 2022, eight of the nine minor females ran away from DCS group homes," Dawn Martin, an FBI special agent, wrote in an affidavit filed in federal courts in Washington and Arizona.

It's unclear how so many girls were able to run away at once or what was done to prevent their disappearances. An Arizona Department of Child Safety spokesperson told Insider they couldn't comment on the specific case due to privacy laws but that steps are immediately taken when a child runs away.

"If a child runs away from a DCS foster home or group home, the Department immediately notifies the court and the local law enforcement agency," Darren DaRonco said. "DCS caseworkers continue efforts to locate the child by working with law enforcement and the child's family until the child is located and returned to care."

Police lights.
A group home called police when the FLDS girls ran away, the FBI said in an affidavit.Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

'Get that girl'

For many years, Bateman worked to advance his position in the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a cult long run by the infamous child abuser Warren Jeffs.

Bateman had been trying to create an FLDS splinter group in recent years and had built a small following of around 50 members, the FBI said in court records.

When the girls were placed into state care, federal investigators began reviewing some of their journals, which were seized from Bateman's homes.

The journal entries detailed kissing, sleeping with, and touching the 46-year-old Bateman. In interviews with the FBI, informants detailed some of Bateman's alleged treatment of his underage wives, including a wine-fueled orgy in which they were made to watch him have sex with their father before they were forced to have sex with other men.

One informant told investigators that Bateman complained to some of his wives that another one of his child brides — no older than 10 — was wetting the bed. Bateman also told his own underage daughter he was meant to marry and impregnate her, and on several occasions kissed her inappropriately in front of other followers, according to the FBI report.

In forensic interviews, though, the girls didn't report sexual abuse, and Martin said she believes that the older girls were keeping the younger ones from talking.

Sometime before Thanksgiving, though, one of the nine girls in state care said that Bateman had sexually abused her, according to the FBI affidavit.

Days later, eight of the girls took off, prompting investigators to once again turn to electronic devices and journals they left behind for answers.

They learned the girls had been communicating with Bateman's older wives through a encrypted group chat on Signal.

In a journal entry on November 27, one girl wrote, "today is the day we go home," according to the affidavit.

For the next four days, investigators worked to track down the girls, turning to calls Bateman made from jail to some of his adult wives for clues.

A video call between Bateman and one of his adult wives, Naomi Bistline, showed her driving with another adult wife, Donnae Barlow. She said in the call they had some of the girls in the car with them, the affidavit said.

In a later call, Bistline said she had all but one of the girls from the group home.

She said the girls "ran for their lives" from the group home when police were called, and the ninth minor didn't make it out, according to the document.

"Get that girl, she needs to be with you," Bateman responded, according to the FBI.

FBI logo
The FBI said Samuel Bateman has been transporting girls for sex.Charlie Neibergall/AP

Connecting the dots

In addition to monitoring calls made by Bateman from jail, the affidavit says investigators also received information that a credit card belonging to the business of one of Bateman's male followers had been used to book several Airbnb properties.

Investigators made an emergency request to Airbnb for the addresses of the reservations — including the most recent booking in Spokane, Washington.

On December 1, Spokane sheriff's deputies went to the property to execute a search warrant and found the eight missing girls fleeing in a car driven by Moretta Johnson, another of Bateman's adult wives, the document says.

Johnson, Bistline, and Barlow were arrested on charges of kidnapping and obstruction of justice. Bistline's attorney didn't respond to Insider's requests for comment. His adult wives will be transferred from Washington to Arizona, where they will then retain lawyers.

In a probable-cause affidavit filed in the case, Martin accuses Bateman and his coconspirators of transporting minors between Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Nebraska for illegal sex between May 2020 and November 2022.

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