CEDAR CITY — The purported leader of a doomsday cult pleaded guilty Wednesday to child rape and abuse.
Samuel Shaffer, 34, was accused of kidnapping and hiding the children of his primary follower in a small fundamentalist religion they called the Knights of the Crystal Blade.
Shaffer and the children's father, John Alvin Coltharp, were also accused of attempting to marry each other's young daughters.
With the wild hair and beard from his mugshot cut short, a shackled Shaffer appeared in court Wednesday and pleaded guilty to one count of rape of a child, a first-degree felony carrying a potential sentence of 25 years to life in prison, and one count of child abuse, a second-degree felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison.
Shaffer, of Cedar City, was originally charged with two counts of child kidnapping, a first-degree felony, and four counts of child abuse, a second-degree felony.
Asked if anyone had threatened or coerced him to take the deal, Shaffer gave a long pause before answering, "Not in any illegal manner, no."
Following assurance by Shaffer's attorney, Troy Sundquist, that Shaffer agreed the deal was in his best interest, whether he liked it or not, 5th District Judge Matthew Bell pressed Shaffer further.
"Let me ask you this way, Mr. Shaffer," Bell said. "It sounds like you're not thrilled with the agreement itself, but are you telling me that you are voluntarily entering into that agreement, even if you don't love the terms?"
Shaffer replied with a simple "yes."
Prosecutor Gary Edwards said the guardians of Shaffer's two children, who are in state custody, and the mother of Coltharp's children, who has moved her family to a different state, support the deal.
"We do not want to bring these young children, the victims in this case, before the court to have to testify in trial," Edwards said. "We feel like justice has been served in this plea agreement, and we especially do not want to revictimize those little children."
Under the plea agreement, Edwards explained that the state agrees to drop the remaining counts against Shaffer and not pursue the case further, with one exception.
If child pornography is discovered on electronic devices seized during the investigation, Edwards said, prosecutors may choose to file additional charges.
No deal has been made regarding Shaffer's sentence, which is scheduled to be handed down April 10.
Edwards also noted that Shaffer's deal with prosecutors in Iron County has no bearing on a case against him in Sanpete County.
There, Shaffer is charged with two counts of sodomy on a child, a first-degree felony; child bigamy, a second-degree felony; obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony; and lewdness involving a child, a class A misdemeanor. His initial appearance in 6th District Court is scheduled for March 7.
Coltharp, of Spring City, is charged in one case in Sanpete County with sodomy on a child, a first-degree felony, and child bigamy, a second-degree felony. He faces charges of child kidnapping, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony, in an additional case.
Coltharp was also due in court Wednesday. He was expected to waive a preliminary hearing, advancing his cases toward trial.
Both men were arrested in December after Coltharp's ex-wife hadn't heard from him or her children for weeks, prompting a search by authorities.
Following an intensive search and an Amber Alert, Coltharp's children were found on Dec. 5 in a remote area of northern Iron County living in a "compound" that consisted mainly of storage units, according to police.
Coltharp's two girls were found hidden in a plastic 50-gallon water barrel that Shaffer had made them stay in for at least 24 hours in subfreezing temperatures, charging documents state, while his sons were located in the storage units that had been converted into living quarters.
Shaffer's two daughters were also found "in poor health" in an abandoned mobile home "in deplorable living conditions," charges state.
Shaffer's father, James Shaffer, also faces a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice for his alleged role hiding the children.2 comments on this story
According to police, Samuel Shaffer took Coltharp's children from Coltharp's home in Spring City on Dec. 1, sneaking them out the back door while Coltharp talked to police in the front. He then had James Shaffer come pick them all up and take them to his home in Nephi as they made their way to Iron County. When police interviewed James Shaffer on Dec. 3, he said he had no idea where the children were, charges state.
Search warrants unsealed this month paint a dark picture of the Shaffer and Coltharp's beliefs.
According to police, Shaffer and Coltharp believed a Muslim invasion of the United States was imminent and the end of the world would shortly follow. Revelations recorded by the men suggested they had plans to kidnap more family children in anticipation of the doomsday scenario, and suggested Coltharp was making plans to kill a son who he believed was possessed by an evil spirit, the warrants say.