PHOENIX (AP) — A polygamous leader accused of taking more than 20 wives, including underage girls, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to kidnapping and tampering with evidence charges stemming from a federal investigation into his community on the Utah-Arizona border.
Sam Bateman's case is the most recent example of law enforcement taking action against abuse in the sister cities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, longtime strongholds of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known by its acronym FLDS.
They are a polygamous offshoot of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which no longer practices polygamy.
Bateman entered his not-guilty plea during a hearing in a federal courtroom in Phoenix, court documents show. A trial has been set for Jan. 10, but his attorneys have requested more time to prepare.
The community was once dominated by the polygamous group but has transformed since its leader, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced to life in prison more than a decade ago on child sex abuse charges related to underage marriages.
Bateman, 46, is a former follower of Jeffs who broke off from the FLDS church with a few dozen followers of his own after fashioning himself as a prophet and successor to Jeffs. From prison, Jeffs has denounced Bateman, said Sam Brower, an investigator who has spent years following the group,
Bateman faces a raft of state and federal charges including child abuse, obstructing a federal investigation and — along with several female followers — aiding in kidnapping girls the state foster care they were placed in after his arrest earlier this year.
Though federal charges to date have been limited to tampering with and destroying evidence, and aiding in kidnapping girls, court documents in Bateman and his followers' cases outline a thorough investigation uncovering allegations that Bateman orchestrated sexual acts involving minors and gave wives as gifts to his male followers — claiming to do so on orders from the "Heavenly Father."
They said that he used public shaming and sex to punish followers — and at one point tried to take a wife his only daughter, who later left with her mother when Bateman started taking more wives.
Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the faith known widely as the Mormon church abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly prohibits it.