Widespread law enforcement effort returns missing children to mother
Children found in Iron County-based compound where religious group preaches polygamy, child marriage
By Robert Stevens
SPRING CITY—Thanks to cooperation among law enforcement agencies and tips from the public, four Spring City children who had been taken to remote area of western Iron County were reunited with their mother on Monday.
Their father, John Coltharp, 33, is being held in the Sanpete County Jail on one count of child kidnapping, a first-degree felony, and one count of obstruction of justice, a Class A misdemeanor.
The children’s grandparents, former Spring City Councilman Keith Coltharp and his wife Cathy, were taken into custody in Iron County. It is unclear whether Iron County prosecutors will be charging them with anything.
Iron County authorities also arrested Samuel Warren Shaffer, 34, who describes himself as the prophet of a religious group call the Knights of the Crystal Blade. The group, which has referred to itself in Spring City as “the righteous wing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” endorses polygamy and child marriage.
Shaffer is being held in the Iron County Jail on suspicion of child kidnapping (two counts) and reckless child abuse (four counts).
Two Coltharp boys, William, 7, and Seth, 6, were found on Monday during a raid by the Iron County Sheriff’s Office on a compound in Lund, Iron County (about 35 miles outside of Cedar City) made up mostly of shipping containers.
Lund consists of a handful of homes. According to Sanpete County Attorney Brody Keisel, the compound is so remote that one of the Iron County sheriff’s officers he talked with hadn’t heard of it.
Two Coltharp daughters, Dinah, 8, and Hattie, 4, were also found Monday after an Amber Alert was issued. Helicopter surveillance and tips from the public helped the Iron County sheriff’s deputies find one of the Coltharp girls in Lund and the other in the desert outside the settlement.
According to Spring City Police Chief Clarke Christensen, the two Coltharp girls and two of Shaffer’s daughters were all found locked up. Two girls were found in a 50-gallon locked water barrel in Lund and two others in a trailer in the desert, dehydrated and in poor health.
When officers moved in on the main Crystal Blade compound in Lund, Shaffer apparently fled to the desert with his own daughter and one of the Coltharp girls. Christensen says one theory in the investigation is that the girls where being hidden away for potential plural marriage.
The whole case appears to revolve around the emergence of the polygamist group. John Coltharp, and his parents, Keith and Cathy Coltharp, apparently got involved with the group in Spring City. Coltharp’s wife and the children’s mother, Micah Sobles Coltharp, couldn’t accept the group and moved to Utah County, leaving the four children with their father in Spring City.
Keisel said his understanding is that in September, all of the Coltharps moved to Iron County. They took the children.
The mother was not told where the children were.
Subsequently, Micah Soble (she now goes by her maiden name) got a divorce. The 4th District Court in Provo granted her sole custody of the four children and directed that John Coltharp have only supervised visitation.
According to Keisel, the divorce became final in late November. Because the children were missing at the time the final divorce decree was issued, and because John Coltharp had failed to appear for various proceedings during the divorce, 4th District Judge Derek Pullan issued a “writ of assistance.” Such a document directs law enforcement officers statewide so search for the children and return them to the parent who has legal custody.
It was after the divorce became final and the writ of assistance was issued that the focus of the case shifted back to Spring City.
Late last week, Christensen, the Spring City police chief, received a tip from a citizen about suspicious activity at the abandoned Coltharp family home. On Friday night, Dec. 1, he visited the home and found John Coltharp. He asked where the missing children were. Coltharp refused to give any information, and asked for a lawyer. That’s when Christensen called Sanpete County Attorney Brody Keisel.
“I told him, ‘At minimum you’ve got custodial interference,” Keisel says. “But I told Clarke (Christensen) I was considering filing child kidnapping charges.”
Christensen arrested Coltharp and took him to the Sanpete County Jail.
“I lost sleep that night,” Keisel says.
When Coltharp left with the kids in September, nothing could be done about it, Christensen says, since Coltharp was still married to the children’s mother and had full parental rights—which could include an “extended vacation,” the excuse Coltharp gave right after his arrest. But the divorce decree and writ of assistance changed all that.
On Saturday morning, Keisel cancelled personal plans and contacted David Angerhofer, a public defender who represents Sanpete County clients. Keisel needed to be sure John Coltharp’s request for an attorney was honored and his rights as a criminal defendant protected. He emailed Angerhofer a copy of the divorce decree and writ of assistance.
Angerhofer talked with Coltharp by telephone and advised him a court had ordered the children returned to their mother in Springville. Later in the day Saturday, Angerhofer called Keisel to let him know John Coltharp refused to say where the children were.
“That really tipped me over,” Keisel says. “I concluded, and continue to conclude to this day, that this was a child kidnapping.”
Christensen says Keisel did the “right thing, not the safe thing,” by defining the case as a kidnapping from the get-go, instead of as misdemeanor-level custodial interference.
“For a while it seemed like we [Keisel and Christensen] were on the phone every 30 minutes,” Christensen says.
Keisel’s decision made all the difference in the world, Christensen says. The investigation began building steam.
It turned out Shaffer, the prophet of the Knights of the Crystal Blade, was at the Coltharp family house in Spring City at the time Coltharp was arrested. Based on Chief Christensen’s description of the vehicle at the Coltharp home, officers pulled Shaffer over the next day, Saturday, in Ephraim and verified that the children were not with him.
Once John Coltharp was in jail, detectives with the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office confiscated his phone and began search it. They found a large volume of calls to Iron County. “They were able to find a specific area where the phone had been very active,” Keisel says.
Sanpete authorities contacted the Iron County Sheriff’s Office. Working off a tip from a businessman who dealt in shipping containers, Iron County officers raided the Lund compound and found the boys, who told them their sisters had been taken somewhere. That’s when the Iron County Sheriff’s Office arranged for the Amber Alert, which was issued about 3:30 p.m. Monday.
As of Saturday, Coltharp was being held on $50,000 cash-only bail. But Kelly Peterson, the divorce lawyer who had represented Micah Soble in the divorce, says he was informed on Sunday that someone might post the $50,000 in cash for Coltharp.
“If he got out, he would be been in the wind,” Peterson says. He says he thought long and hard about how he could help.
Then, citing John Coltharp’s lack of cooperation with police, Peterson filed a motion in 4th District Court for what he describes as essentially a bench warrant. Judge Pullen granted the request and backed it up with an order for $100,000 in cash-only civil bail. That meant Coltharp would need to post $150,000 to get out of jail.
“The fact that the bail increase came from a civil court was very out of the ordinary,” Christensen says. “The first I have ever seen, but it really helped.”
Back in Iron County, “the help from the public absolutely made all the difference in the world on this case,” Christensen said. “We received multiple tips that advanced the case quickly and resulted in a happy outcome. The Amber Alert made a huge difference.”
The fact that officers found the girls who had been locked in the trailer fairly quickly could have spelled the difference between life and death.
“If we didn’t get the tip from the public that led to the discovery of the young girls hidden away in the desert, I think it is very likely they would have frozen to death out there,” Christensen said. “They were not wearing much at all, and that night the temperature dropped below single digits.”
According to Christensen, Shaffer started the Knights of the Crystal Blade after associating with another, larger fundamentalist group for some time and becoming dissatisfied.
Shaffer’s website TheKingdomofGodorNothing.com, outlines doctrine that Shaffer says was given to him by God on June 22, 2015. According to the website, God told Shaffer the Book of Mormon was law in addition to the practices of polygamy and coupling with children.
On Tuesday, Christensen said he was heading to Iron County that day to continue the investigation into the details of the kidnappings.
Keisel praised the work of the small-town police chief. “Chief Christensen has done very well on this case. His investigative techniques were very sound,” the county attorney said.
While prosecution of the suspects lies ahead, Keisel said the focus since Friday had been to “reunite these four children with their mother.”
According to Christensen, that outcome was achieved. “When I called them last night (Monday) they were eating pizza and watching movies with their mom. We are so grateful for all the help we received from the public and other law enforcement.”
Keisel and Christensen both praised everyone in the law enforcement community who played a role. From Chief Christensen, to the Sanpete County detectives, to the Iron County Sheriff’s Office, to Judge Pullan in Utah County, “it was a team effort all the way around,” he said.
Coltharp had his initial appearance in front of 6th District Judge Wallace Lee yesterday in Manti.