CEDAR CITY, Utah — A self-styled Utah prophet who secretly married young girls because of his beliefs in polygamy and doomsday was sentenced Tuesday to up to life in prison after pleading guilty to child rape and abuse charges.
Samuel W. Shaffer was charged after police raided a remote desert compound built to house an upstart group called Knights of the Crystal Blade, The Spectrum newspaper in St. George said.
Shaffer, 34, and a friend formed the group based on arcane Mormon ideas long abandoned by the mainstream church and each believed himself to be married to two young girls, prosecutors said.
The four girls were found in December hidden in 50-gallon (190-liter) plastic water barrels and an abandoned trailer near the makeshift compound made of shipping containers about 275 miles (440 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City.
Shaffer said Tuesday he put the girls there to protect them from the winter weather, and he was glad that the girl spoke out.
“I want her to know that everything that’s happening to me is my fault and it’s not her fault. I love her and I respect her. And it’s OK that she talked,” he said.
Judge Matthew Bell said his conduct toward the children was “highly disturbing.”
“Rather than care for and protect them as you claim was your intent, you groomed, endangered and exploited these victims,” Bell said.
Child kidnapping and additional abuse courts against Shaffer were dropped when he pleaded guilty in an agreement that kept the girl from having to testify. Shaffer tried to withdraw from the deal at one point, but a judge denied the attempt.
His attorney Troy Sundquist did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
Shaffer also faces child bigamy, child kidnapping and other charges in Sanpete County, where prosecutors say the men conducted secret marriages they thought were ordained by God before they decamped to the compound.
His fellow self-styled prophet, John Coltharp, 34, is also facing child bigamy and other charges there.
Authorities believe the two men each held the title of prophet at different points, Coltharp most recently. His lawyer did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Each man secretly married two girls, ages 4 through 8, prosecutors have said. Each man married a relative of the other, according to court documents.
Authorities say the two older girls were sexually abused by the two men, but it doesn’t appear the two younger girls were victimized.
The charges were filed after sheriff’s deputies descended on the rural Iron County compound with helicopters and dogs after the mother of two of the girls reported them missing, along with two of her sons. The men had taken the children there months before in preparation for an apocalypse or in hopes of gaining followers, authorities said.
The boys were found in the makeshift compound, but it took police another day to find the girls in the barrels and trailer.
After Shaffer told police where to find them, the children were treated for the effects of cold and symptoms of dehydration, police said.