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Judge rejects cult leader's request to withdraw guilty plea

Samuel Warren Shaffer
Samuel Warren Shaffer
Iron County Sheriff's Office

SALT LAKE CITY — A judge on Wednesday rejected a motion by the purported leader of a doomsday cult to withdraw his guilty plea.

"The court finds that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily entered into the plea agreement. Therefore, the motion to withdraw defendant's plea is denied," 5th District Judge Matthew Bell ruled, according to court documents.

Samuel Warren Shaffer, 34, of Cedar City, pleaded guilty on Feb. 21 to 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. He was originally charged with two counts of child kidnapping, a first-degree felony, and four counts of child abuse, a second-degree felony.

But according to a handwritten letter sent to the court earlier this month, Shaffer says he "was not mentally or emotionally prepared" to take a plea deal on that day.

Shaffer contends he told his attorney he wanted to see a psychiatrist before pleading guilty but felt pressured by his attorney, who told him if he didn't take the deal, "the prosecution would 'send you to jail for life,'" he wrote.

"I feel like he twisted my arm because he was worried I would not do it," the letter states. "Afterward, I had an emotional and mental breakdown which put me on suicide watch until the 27th.

"I have the presence of mind now to say that I intend to go to trial. I did not commit the offenses," he continued.

Shaffer also wrote that he has concerns over a "mental health issue which I was in denial about, but which my family has been aware of, and which has led me to a number of irrational actions."

He was originally scheduled to be sentenced April 10 on his guilty pleas. That has now been rescheduled to May 8.

Shaffer is also charged in Sanpete County with two counts of sodomy on a child, a first-degree felony; child bigamy and obstruction of justice, second-degree felonies; and lewdness involving a child, a class A misdemeanor. That case will now move forward.

Shaffer is the alleged leader of a religious group called the Knights of the Crystal Blade. He, along with John Alvin Coltharp, 34, of Spring City, are accused of kidnapping their young daughters and marrying them to each other.

"They were cloaking sexually deviant and reprehensible behavior under the auspices of religious freedom and religious belief,” Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels said Wednesday.

Coltharp 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.

In court in Manti Wednesday, Coltharp waived his preliminary hearing and rejected a plea deal offer from prosecutors.

"We presented an offer to Mr. Coltharp that we thought would indicate to the victims the serious nature of this case and make them feel that justice had been served and what Mr. Coltharp did was absolutely not OK — in fact, reprehensible. He has rejected that offer, which is fine from my perspective. He decided not to take it. So now we’re headed to trial,” Daniels said.

The trial will be in July, he said.

Coltharp's ex-wife, Micha Coltharp, has started a YouCaring crowdfunding campaign to try and help her two daughters and two sons, who were also taken.

"The boys were told they would be murdered if they went near their sisters (the men's child wives). They men also planned to kidnap numerous other little girls to take as plural child brides," Micha Coltharp wrote.

In the three months since the children were reunited with their mother, Coltharp said, "They are physically recovered for the most part, but emotionally, it's a far different story. They struggle daily with things most children do not. They do not fear imaginary monsters in the dark, they fear flesh and blood monsters who have done unspeakable acts. They fear hunger and cold, they fear not having a home."

Micha Coltharp, who was forced to file for bankruptcy, is trying to raise money so she can move into a permanent home with her children.

Contributing: Sam Penrod