A leader of a small polygamous group on the Arizona-Utah line pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges of tampering with evidence, weeks after he was pulled over on a highway with young girls in an enclosed trailer. Samuel Bateman, 46, was charged earlier this month with three counts of destroying or attempting to destroy records and tampering with criminal proceedings.
He pleaded not guilty in the United States District Court in Flagstaff, a mountain town where he was arrested in late August by a state police department after someone spotted small fingers in a rear trailer door gap.
Authorities found three girls, ages 11 to 14, in the trailer he was transporting through Flagstaff, according to court documents. The trailer had a makeshift toilet, a sofa, camping chairs and no ventilation, according to the documents. The documents do not specify whether the girls are related to Bateman, and it was not discussed during Thursday’s hearing.
Bateman was a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, until he left in recent years and started his own small spinoff group, said Sam Brower, who spent years of investigating the group. Bateman was once among imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs’ trusted supporters, but Jeffs recently denounced Bateman in a written revelation sent to his supporters from prison, Brower said.
Bateman’s group still practices plural marriage with a small audience of less than 100 people, estimated Brower, who has written a book about FLDS and appeared on the recent Netflix series, “Keep meek: pray and obey.”
Federal Prosecutor Patrick Schneider said Bateman spoke to supporters at Coconino County Jail at Flagstaff in Colorado City, Arizona, and ordered them to delete communications sent via an encrypted private messaging system, and demanded that all women and girls get a passport.
Schneider said the National Child Protection Agency removed children from Bateman’s home in Colorado City, where the FBI had recently served a search warrant.
Darren DaRonco, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Child Safety, declined to comment in an email Thursday, citing privacy laws. FBI spokesman Kevin Smith said in an email that the search warrant was sealed.
Bateman posted bond on the state charges. He was arrested again Tuesday in Colorado City by federal authorities investigating whether children were being transported across state lines for sexual activity, Schneider said. If convicted, Bateman faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for each federal charge.
Bateman previously pleaded not guilty to three counts of child abuse in Arizona state court, court documents show.
Bateman’s attorney, Adam Zickerman, cautioned against inferring that the federal case was about religious persecution, though he didn’t specify Bateman’s faith or say whether he practiced polygamy. Zickerman said Bateman was not a danger to the community.
Schneider cited a pretrial services report saying Bateman had relationships with multiple women, but also did not mention whether Bateman belonged to polygamous groups.
The Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office and Zickerman declined to comment after Thursday’s hearing, as did two women who sat in the gallery and met with Zickerman.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Camille Bibles ordered Bateman to remain behind bars while the case unfolds in court. She noted that Bateman is a pilot and survivalist who has followers and international contacts who could help with financial or other resources at any time. She said she was also concerned about young girls in vulnerable positions.
“Courts have a huge interest in protecting people who cannot protect themselves,” she said.
Bateman listed a mailing address in Colorado City, where a patchwork of devout polygamous FLDS members, former church members and those who don’t practice the creeds live. Colorado City and its sister community of Hildale, Utah have experienced significant cultural shifts in recent years.
The FLDS group led by imprisoned Chief Jeffs has lost much of its control over the communities. Jeffs is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for child sexual abuse related to underage marriages.
Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream church abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly forbids it.