UNITED STATES

Polygamous sect member Moroni Johnson pleads guilty to transporting underage girls over state lines

Mar 20, 2024, 1:53 PM

Image of Colorado City, Arizona. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

PHOENIX (AP) — A businessman pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring with the leader of an offshoot polygamous sect near the Arizona-Utah border to transport underage girls across state lines, making him the first man to be convicted in what authorities say was a scheme to orchestrate sexual acts involving children.

Moroni Johnson, who faces 10 years to life in prison, acknowledged that he participated in a scheme to transport four girls under the age of 18 for sexual activity. Authorities say the conspiracy between the 53-year-old Johnson and the sect’s leader, self-proclaimed prophet Samuel Bateman, occurred over a three-year period ending in September 2022.

Authorities say Bateman had created a sprawling network spanning at least four states as he tried to start an offshoot of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which historically has been based in the neighboring communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. He and his followers practice polygamy, a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which abandoned the practice in 1890 and now strictly prohibits it. Bateman and his followers believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

The FBI said Bateman had taken more than 20 wives, including 10 girls under the age of 18. Bateman is accused of giving wives as gifts to his male followers and claiming to do so on orders from the “Heavenly Father.” Investigators say Bateman traveled extensively between Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska and had sex with minor girls on a regular basis.

Some of the sexual activity involving Bateman was recorded and transmitted across state lines via electronic devices.

The FBI said Bateman demanded that his followers confess publicly for any indiscretions and shared those confessions widely. He claimed the punishments, which ranged from a time out to public shaming and sexual activity, came from the Lord, the federal law enforcement agency said. Authorities said Johnson was pressured by Bateman to give up three of his wives as atonement because Johnson wasn’t treating Bateman as a prophet.

Bateman was arrested in August 2022 by state police in Flagstaff after someone spotted small fingers in a door gap on an enclosed trailer. Authorities found three girls — between the ages of 11 and 14 — in the trailer, which had a makeshift toilet, a sofa, camping chairs and no ventilation.

Bateman posted bond, but he was arrested again in the next month and charged with obstructing justice in a federal investigation into whether children were being transported across state lines for sexual activity.

At the time of the second arrest, authorities removed nine children from Bateman’s home in Colorado City and placed them in foster care. Eight of the children later escaped from foster care. The FBI alleged that three of Bateman’s adult wives played a part in getting them out of Arizona. The girls were later found hundreds of miles away in Washington state in a vehicle driven by one of the adult wives.

Bateman has pleaded not guilty to state and federal charges, including conspiracy to transport a minor for sexual activity, conspiracy to commit tampering in an official proceeding and conspiracy to commit kidnapping of the girls who were placed in state child welfare agency after his arrest. Myles Schneider, an attorney representing Bateman, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on behalf of his client.

Bateman was ordered jailed until the resolution of his trial, now scheduled for Sept. 10.

Earlier this year, four of Bateman’s adult wives each pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit tampering with an official proceeding, acknowledging that they witnessed Bateman engage in sexual acts with his child brides and that also they participated in the plot to kidnap the eight girls from state custody.

Charges also are pending against four other women identified as Bateman’s wives and two of his male followers, both of whom are charged with using a means of interstate commerce to persuade or coerce a minor to engage in sexual activity, among other charges. The four women and two men have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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Polygamous sect member Moroni Johnson pleads guilty to transporting underage girls over state lines