Prosecutors: Men sexually abused girls they called brides

FILE - This undated file photo provided by Sanpete County Jail shows John Coltharp. Prosecutors say Coltharp and Samuel Shaffer, two Utah men who believe in doomsday and polygamy, had sexually abused young girls after conducting secret marriages they said were ordained by God. (Sanpete County Jail via AP, File)
FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Iron County Sheriff's office shows Samuel Shaffer. Prosecutors say Shaffer and John Coltharp, two Utah men who believe in doomsday and polygamy, had sexually abused young girls after conducting secret marriages they said were ordained by God. (Iron County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah men who believe in polygamy and doomsday had sexually abused young girls after conducting secret marriages they thought were ordained by God, prosecutors said Friday.

Each man believed they were married to two girls, ages 4 through 8, one of whom was related to them, prosecutor Kevin Daniels said. The pair formed a group called Knights of the Crystal Blade and created a remote, makeshift compound from shipping containers in the southern Utah desert.

John Coltharp, 33, was charged this week with child sodomy, about a month after police found four girls hidden in 50-gallon plastic water barrels and an abandoned trailer during a raid on the compound.

Similar charges are coming against Samuel Shaffer, 34, Daniels said. Authorities say they are still investigating the case and the full extent of the abuse.

Attorneys for the two men didn't immediately return calls seeking comment.

Both were charged last month with child kidnapping and other counts following the December raid about 275 miles (440 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City.

Sheriff's deputies descended on the area with helicopters and dogs after the mother of two of the girls reported them missing, along with two of her sons.

The boys were found in the makeshift compound, but it took police another day to find the girls because Shaffer had hidden them in the barrels and trailer, authorities said.

The girls were found after he was arrested and revealed their locations, police said. The children were treated for the effects of cold and symptoms of dehydration and are said to be recovering.

Shaffer and Coltharp were friends who bonded over a shared interest in arcane Mormon ideas long abandoned by the mainstream church, police have said.

The child marriages took place in summer 2017, before they decamped to the desert in mid-September in preparation for an apocalypse or in hopes of gaining followers, said Daniels, deputy attorney in Sanpete County.

"They were actively recruiting; they wanted to build this group up," the prosecutor said.

A man in California found their writings online and traveled to Utah to join them and was promised a child bride, according to search warrants made public this week.

Police also found weapons in their compound, Daniels said.

"These are extreme individuals with extreme beliefs that believe the end of the world is coming," he said. Police "prevented those little girls from dying ... or repeating a Waco-style shootout."

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