8 girls believed to be underage wives of Mormon fundamentalist found hiding in Spokane; woman faces kidnapping charge
Kip Hill, Spokesman-Review
SPOKANE (Spokesman-Review) — An Arizona woman arrested Thursday leaving a Spokane Airbnb with eight girls who were believed to be the underage wives of a polygamist with ties to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been ordered home to face federal charges.
Moretta Rose Johnson is scheduled to appear before a federal judge in Arizona on Dec. 16, facing obstruction of justice and kidnapping charges. A Spokane County Sheriff’s deputy performing a “knock and talk” at an Airbnb on Thursday found Johnson and the eight girls, all of whom had run away from group homes in late November following the arrest of Samuel Rappylee Bateman. Bateman is described in a 22-page complaint filed by FBI Special Agent Dawn Martin as a self-proclaimed prophet in the FLDS church, an organization once run by convicted child rapist Warren Jeffs.
Johnson was one of Bateman’s underage wives, though she has since turned 18. Two other women, whom Bateman also referred to as his wives, are named in the complaint as having aided the girls in escaping homes in Arizona, but were not arrested Thursday. The FBI in Phoenix did not immediately return a request for comment Sunday on their status, nor did they respond to a question about what happened to the girls who were with Johnson when she was arrested.
The FBI’s investigation into Bateman included audio and video recorded by a filmmaking couple that had been granted access to Bateman’s home in Colorado City, a town of about 2,500 people on the Arizona/Utah border that is part of the Short Creek community where the fundamentalist church was started.
Bateman had begun calling himself a prophet in 2019, according to the complaint, and started claiming his own daughter as his wife. On a trip back from Canada, Bateman asked the girl, who was 14 or 15 at the time, if she’d prayed about whom she would marry. He gave her $50, two bags of Doritos and then promised her an airplane ride and that “if his feelings were right, he would make her have a child,” according to court records.
He told the girl not to tell her mother, according to court records, but when Bateman brought it up with the girl’s mother, she and her daughter moved out of the home and received a restraining order against Bateman.
Three other men described in court records as “followers” of Bateman provided their own wives and daughters to Bateman, according to court records. Martin wrote that it is believed Bateman has as many as 50 followers and more than 20 wives, at least one younger than 10 years old. The family members communicated via group chat and email, including using the Signal app, an encrypted instant-messaging service.
When the married couple making a documentary interviewed girls at the house, they would often refer to notes contained on their cellphones, according to Martin’s complaint. Johnson’s mother eventually approached the filmmakers and later spoke with the FBI, describing visits to Nebraska, Utah and Arizona, where Bateman’s male followers would have sex with their wives while the other girls watched, either in person or on video chats.
Bateman was arrested on Aug. 28 by the Arizona Department of Public Safety on suspicion of child endangerment, according to the complaint. He was towing a box trailer in which at least three girls were riding unsecured, according to court records.
After his arrest, Bateman called one of his male followers and his wives to tell them to delete his and their Signal accounts, according to the complaint, after the authorities in Arizona seized his phone as evidence.
Bateman was indicted a week later on federal charges of destroying records. He is in custody of the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex, awaiting trial on his charges.
Nine girls were taken from Bateman’s home and placed in group homes pending dependency proceedings.
On Nov. 27, all but one of the girls escaped, apparently continuing to communicate via a group chat with one of the adult wives. From his Arizona jail, Bateman made video calls to inquire about the status of the underage wives that night and Nov. 28.
A credit card tied to one of Bateman’s male followers revealed an Airbnb purchase from Tuesday through Friday in Spokane.
Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Mark Gregory confirmed the agency assisted on the case via text Sunday, and referred questions on the status of the investigation to federal authorities.