By Jacques Billeaud | Associated Press

PHOENIX – A businessman pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring with the leader of a polygamous offshoot cult near the Arizona-Utah border to transport underage girls across state lines. This makes him the first man to be convicted for a plan to stage sexual acts involving children.

Moroni Johnson, who faces 10 years to life in prison, admitted he participated in a plan to transport four girls under 18 for sexual activity. According to authorities, the conspiracy between 53-year-old Johnson and the cult’s leader, self-proclaimed prophet Samuel Bateman, took place over a three-year period and ended in September 2022.

According to authorities, Bateman created an extensive network that spanned at least four states as he attempted to establish an affiliate of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, historically based in the neighboring communities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale was, 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 that polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

The FBI said Bateman took more than 20 women, including 10 girls under the age of 18. Bateman is accused of giving women as gifts to his male followers and claims he did so on orders from the “Heavenly Father.” According to investigators, Bateman traveled extensively between Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska and regularly had sex with underage girls. Some of the sexual activity in which Bateman engaged was recorded and transmitted across state lines via electronic devices.

The FBI said Bateman required his followers to publicly confess to any indiscretions and widely disseminated those confessions. He claimed the punishments, which ranged from time out to public shaming and sexual activity, came from the Lord, federal law enforcement said. Authorities said Johnson was pressured by Bateman to give up three of his wives as atonement because Johnson had not treated Bateman as a prophet.

Bateman was arrested by state police in Flagstaff in August 2022 after someone discovered pinky fingers in a crack in the door of a closed 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 bail but was arrested again the following month and charged with obstruction of 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 Colorado City home and placed them in foster care. Eight of the children later escaped foster care. The FBI alleged that three of Bateman’s adult women played a role in getting her out of Arizona. The girls were later found hundreds of miles away in Washington state in a vehicle driven by one of the adult women.

Bateman has pleaded not guilty to state and federal charges, including conspiracy to promote a minor for sexual activity, conspiracy to tamper with an official proceeding and conspiracy to kidnap the girls, who were taken to the state child welfare agency after his arrest . Myles Schneider, an attorney representing Bateman, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on his client’s behalf.

Bateman was jailed pending the conclusion of his trial, now scheduled for September 10.

Earlier this year, four of Bateman’s adult wives each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to tamper with an official proceeding and admitted that they had witnessed Bateman’s sexual acts with his child brides and that they were also involved in the conspiracy to kidnap the eight girls state custody.

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

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