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Utah doomsday preppers reportedly involved in illegal activities

Over the past six months, authorities in Iron County, Utah, have been investigating two unrelated events reportedly involving the illegal activities of doomsday preppers. 

In June, firefighters inadvertently discovered several explosive-filled bunkers illegally constructed on federal land in Southern Utah. This month, sheriff’s deputies arrested two religious fanatics, described as “doomsday preppers,” near Cedar City, Utah, for their alleged child abuse and kidnapping.

Utah’s religious fundamentalists, and avid outdoorsmen provide fertile ground for preppers and survivalists seeking a permissive environment to stockpile food, weapons, and equipment to prepare for the world’s end. During the 1990s, as well as today, gun shows and preparedness expos are held regularly throughout the state. In particular, Mormonism, (which is prevalent in Utah) provides a religious philosophy emphasizing millennialism, food storage and family preparedness, to those seeking to market disaster preparation, survivalism and prepper-related gear.

The first incident began on June 17, 2017, when a home owner lost control of a burning brush pile in Parowan Canyon. The fire quickly grew into an inferno that eventually engulfed 71,000 acres in Southern Utah. Due to its size and destructive magnitude, the wildfire became known as the Brian Head Fire.

Ten days after the fire started, firefighters were still working vigorously to suppress the blaze near Henderson Hill. As they fought the flames, they began to hear “popping sounds” in the distance. Initially, they thought the noise was the result of burning vegetation. Others wondered if the sounds were coming from rocks exploding from the heat. As the sounds persisted for several more minutes, the fire crew finally realized it was ammunition exploding from beneath the ground. As a result of the flying projectiles, firefighters quickly vacated the immediate area. Their retreat negatively impacted the firefighting efforts, because no one could enter the area safely for an extended period of time.

Once the fire had been extinguished, several firefighters walked back to the area where they heard the ammunition exploding. There, they found the remains of a cabin. Next to the cabin’s ashes, they noticed an entrance to an underground bunker. Glancing inside, firefighters saw scorched hand grenades, containers of explosive powder, fuses, and ammunition. Looking further, they also saw a large number of stacked boxes and other containers that looked like food storage. Some of the firefighters took photos of these suspicious items and notified law enforcement.

On June 30, 2017, the Washington County Bomb Squad, along with the FBI, removed the hand grenades and other explosive material from the bunker. According to media sources, investigators later located a person of interest related to the bunker’s discovery and its contents. This individual lived in Parowan and is known to local authorities as a doomsday prepper. The suspect admitted to owning the cabin, building the bunker, and placing the explosives, fuses and hand grenades inside it. He emphasized to authorities that the grenades had been drilled out and threaded, but they did not contain explosive material. As a result, the suspect rationalized that the law had not been violated. He further stated that the hand grenades did not pose a hazard to the firefighters. He said nothing about storing the live ammunition, though.

As the case unfolded, law enforcement authorities later learned the man had built and maintained seven additional cabins throughout the area — four of which also had bunkers hidden nearby filled with similar items. The suspect admitted to also constructing these cabins and bunkers over a 30-year time period. Local prosecutors are still considering whether or not to file criminal charges against the man because the cabins and bunkers were illegally constructed on U.S. Forest Service land. This person remains unidentified and has not yet been charged.

As federal and local authorities continued their investigation into the illegal bunkers, two men, Samuel Warren Shaffer and John Alvin Coltharp, secretly formed a new Mormon fundamentalist sect in a remote part of Iron County near Lund, Utah. Authorities described both men as religious zealots who engaged in doomsday prepping activity.

Shaffer and Coltharp reportedly met each other at a Mormon fundamentalist group called the Church of the Living Messiah near Cedar City, Utah. Mark Lichtenwalter, a self-proclaimed prophet and leader of the group, claims he baptized Coltharp in the spring of 2017 and that Shaffer was also a former disciple in his church.

In a video posted to his website, Lichtenwalter claims that Shaffer was excommunicated on August 15, 2017, because he was becoming “more radical” and “militarized.” Lichtenwalter says that Shaffer possessed Nazi and Hitler propaganda, believed in conspiracy theories, and espoused white supremacist views. Lichtenwalter reportedly rejected these extreme beliefs and chose to distance himself from Shaffer. Upon their departure, Shaffer and Coltharp would later form their own Mormon fundamentalist group called “Knights of the Crystal Blade.”

This bizarre case began in mid-August when Coltharp and his wife, Micah Soble, separated. Soble moved to Utah County while Coltharp remained in Spring City, Sanpete County — also in Utah. During this time, the couple’s children (two sons and two daughters) remained in Coltharp’s custody along with his parents.

By mid-September, Soble contacted police after a prolonged period of not hearing from her ex-husband or their children. According to court documents, investigators believe Coltharp and his parents abruptly left their residence around this time and discarded their cell phones, so they couldn’t be tracked. Other relatives told police that Coltharp and his parents had “left the area to join a Mormon fundamentalist church in Iron County.”

Soble later learned from extended family members that Coltharp “belongs to a religious group called the Knights of the Crystal Blade and is likely living in the Cedar City area with the sect's prophet, Samuel Warren Shaffer." In court documents, Soble referred to Coltharp as “a doomsday prepper who believes that the world will soon come to an end.” She further stated that she feared her children would “suffer immediate and irreparable harm” if allowed to remain with her ex-husband. For several weeks, the children’s whereabouts remained a mystery.

A much needed break in the case occurred on December 1, 2017. Neighbors reported suspicious activity at Coltharp’s abandoned home in Spring City. When police arrived, they discovered Shaffer and Coltharp at the residence. After refusing to disclose the whereabouts of the missing kids, Coltharp was arrested and taken into custody. Shaffer was also questioned by police at the time, but later released.

A second break occurred a few days later. On December 3, 2017, Iron County deputies spotted vehicles registered to Coltharp’s parents at a remote piece of property outside of Lund. The following day, the sheriff’s deputies returned to the property to find Coltharp’s parents living in a makeshift residence constructed of Conex storage containers. According to a police spokesperson, the Coltharp “compound” consisted of a large storage container connected to two smaller ones in a U-shape. A total of four adults and six children were living inside the containers. The two missing boys were found at that time and taken into police custody.

After locating the two boys, investigators questioned the grandparents and learned that the two missing girls were possibly with Shaffer along with his own two girls. Authorities issued an Amber Alert for the missing children and launched an extensive ground and aerial search. Later that night, Shaffer was finally located several miles from the compound property. He cooperated with authorities and led them to the girls’ location.

Coltharp’s girls were found hidden inside two adjoining 50-gallon plastic water barrels about 1,000 yards from the compound. Shaffer admitted to hiding the girls in the empty water barrels to conceal them from the law enforcement search. Authorities believe the girls spent about 24-hours inside the barrels in subfreezing temperatures. They were not properly dressed for the cold climate. They did not have access to food or water during this time period.

Shaffer’s two girls were found soon thereafter in an abandoned mobile home. According to court documents, they were found “in deplorable living conditions” and “in poor health, with signs of dehydration and acting lethargic.” All four girls were taken to Cedar City hospital for medical treatment.

Samuel Shaffer is currently being held in the Iron County Jail. He is charged with two counts of child kidnapping and four counts of child abuse. Coltharp remains in custody at the Sanpete County Jail on $50,000 bond. More recently, prosecutors filed child kidnapping and obstruction of justice charges against Coltharp.         

Since the arrests of Shaffer and Coltharp, unsubstantiated rumors have circulated in the media and among the public speculating that Lichtenwalter’s and Coltharp’s religious groups had practiced polygamy and married child brides, also known as “child coupling” (e.g. illegal marriage of under-aged children to adult men). To date, authorities have not substantiated either allegation. Further, Lichtenwalter vehemently denies his church or Shaffer’s group ever practiced polygamy or coerced children to marry adults.

Photo credit: Rex Features via AP Images

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