The following was written and researched by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Spectrum & Daily News.
Eugene Richardson is a Mormon fundamentalist who lives on a very lonely patch of desert about 45 minutes west of Cedar City. He lives in a small trailer on 80 acres of sand and sagebrush surrounded by miles more of the same. It’s a quiet and beautiful stretch of solitude, bordered on the north by the Wah Wah Mountains, with flat vistas to the west where one is likely to see more dust devils than cars moving along the horizon.
Although the location is remote and isolated, he finds camaraderie online with other fundamentalists with whom he can chat about scriptures and revelations. Two such men visited him in November 2017.
Samuel Shaffer and John Alvin Coltharp, founders of a religious group called the Knights of the Crystal Blade, would make international news when they were accused of “marrying” each other’s daughters — ages 7 and 8 — to start a new society in the desert to wait out the apocalypse. Coltharp pleaded guilty to child bigamy and sodomy, and Shaffer pleaded guilty to child rape and child abuse. Both are currently serving sentences of 26 years to life in prison.
Richardson met the men a week before their arrests in early December, and they told him they were camping in the mountains. Richardson told them that if they were in need, they could come onto his property to get water from his well.
“This really is a fundamentalist movement for Millennials. I’m a Millennial and that’s how people my age communicate, it’s through social media.”
Sanpete County Prosecutor Kevin Daniels
Shaffer and Coltharp tried to persuade Richardson to join them, but he scoffed at the men. Not because he doesn’t believe in the end of the world or prophesy — he does and says he’s seen visions of the end himself. He just says these men couldn’t match their visions against scripture.
“But the problem is they were lying to me on the face of it because they were doing that end of the world compound crap and tried to convince me of it, but I said ‘no go’ — it doesn’t fit scripture,” Richardson says.
Thanks to the power of social media, however, the men did win converts to their extreme following. Prosecutors say Shaffer and Coltharp’s efforts helped recruit half a dozen members who were officially baptized. Members included a follower from Idaho, who acquired the land for the Knights’ compound in Southern Utah. Another was Robert Roe, who left California after he was promised a child bride in return for joining. He is currently facing charges in the 6th District Court in Manti for sodomy of a child. His preliminary hearing is Jan. 25.
“This really is a fundamentalist movement for Millennials,” says Sanpete County Prosecutor Kevin Daniels. “I’m a Millennial and that’s how people my age communicate, it’s through social media. That’s how this whole thing started and without it I don’t think you have these guys meeting.”
Daniels said the group recruited members from a Facebook page focusing on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ doctrinal change of 1890 that banned polygamy. From there they made inroads with likeminded individuals and recruited them into the sect.
In exploring how these men were radicalized online and through their bond with each other, The Utah Investigative Journalism Project combed through dozens of archived pages of revelations from sites now taken down from the internet, spoke with fundamentalist friends of theirs and corresponded with Shaffer and Coltharp from behind bars.
Members of The Knights of the Crystal Blade lived in a digital world where extreme — even apocalyptic — views are common, so there was almost no warning they would actually live out their beliefs in the real world.
Shaffer, for example, proclaimed to have a number of divine and supernatural visions and to have received prophecies throughout the years. But in an Oct. 28, 2016, revelation posted to his website, Councilofseers.webs.com, he proclaimed that his past prophecies were tainted and it was only since he met Coltharp that fall that his new revelations were to be trusted.
“A fire hath been kindled in my bones, and a word hath come unto my lips, and I cannot restrain it, for the Lord hath spoken unto me as by fire and by the Holy Ghost,” the posted revelation said. “All the words that ye did reveal after ye were an Aaronic Priest, save those words that ye have delivered unto John Alvin Coltharp, and a precious few words otherwise, are polluted.
“Bow thyself down and repent,” the revelation continues, “that ye may be a tool in My hand, and not a servant of darkness that must needs be destroyed.”
Barely a year later, Shaffer would be arrested and hauled out of the cold and dark desert of Southern Utah and taken to jail.
A custody fight and an Amber Alert
Coltharp was arrested at his home by Spring City police on Dec. 1, 2017, after they said he failed to turn over four children to his ex-wife, who had been awarded full custody of their two daughters and two sons in November. He told investigators the children were in the care of Shaffer but refused to reveal where they were.
An Amber Alert was issued Dec. 4 after the Iron County Sheriff’s Office raided a compound belonging to Coltharp about a mile west of Lund. His sons and their grandparents were found living there in a makeshift residence composed of storage containers. The grandparents told authorities the girls, along with Shaffer’s two young daughters, had spent the night with Shaffer in a tent on the property.
After a search, Shaffer was spotted walking alone on a dirt road several miles west of the compound. He was taken into custody and told authorities where to find the children.
Shaffer had hidden two of the girls in a cramped trailer on Richardson’s property and two others inside 50-gallon water barrels. Though the girls faced exposure to freezing cold hiding in the drums that December night, Shaffer seemed to have no qualms about hiding them there.
‘Custody of the state is worse than death’
Shaffer and Coltharp have remained adamant since their sentencing that their actions were divinely sanctioned. At Shaffer’s sentencing in May 2018, he was contrite when apologizing about the trauma the sexual assault had caused Coltharp’s daughter, whom he said he had “wed.” But he was also by turns defiant about fleeing from police at the compound.
“Part of the reason why I ran is because I did not want (the girls) to go into the custody of the state,” Shaffer told the 5th District Court Judge Matthew Bell. “In our religious belief, custody of the state is worse than death. It was taught to us that way by John Coltharp.”
Writing from the Utah State Prison in Draper last fall, Shaffer still insists he truly was in love with his victim and she was in love with him.
“My only regrets are for what [she] and her mother are going through,” Shaffer wrote. “That consequence is too terrible to bear. But it is caused by our civilization.”
Coltharp echoed the point, writing from the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison that, thanks to “personal communication with heaven” and by reference to scripture, history and his knowledge of “human reproductive development and psychology, and the power of reason, that it was the right thing to do, notwithstanding the baseless consensus of present-day public opinion to the contrary.”
Coltharp stresses that he is “an enemy of the state,” but not because he victimized an innocent person. “But because I am a servant of Christ, and because the State and its supporters are waging war against Christ,” he wrote.
During Shaffer’s sentencing in May 2018, Iron County Attorney Gary Edwards called Shaffer out for inflicting lifelong trauma on his victims to slake “his deviant sexual appetites under the guise of religious fanaticism and doomsday paranoia.”
Shaffer and Coltharp were not only welded to a belief that shocked even other fundamentalists, but to each other as well. For Shaffer, it was the culmination of a lifetime spent following leaders of fringe groups in a strange and quixotic quest for meaning.
Leaders and Followers
In response to written questions, Shaffer provided The Utah Investigative Journalism Project with a handwritten autobiography detailing being a sickly child with central core myopathy, a debilitating muscle disease. It describes how he turned to reading and imagination for fulfillment and grew up with an outsider’s group of friends, delving into fantasy role-playing games as an adolescent.
He had a rapacious curiosity and from an early age devoured books on religion from yogi mystics, and Hindu and Zoroastrian texts, along with the Bible and Book of Mormon. He also chronicles a litany of strange visions. In the 10th grade, he stared into the green flame of a candle and was pulled into a vision of stars and “planets without number,” he writes.
He shared his vision with his cadre of role-playing game friends, who all shared similar strange experiences and made a special club out of trying to reach new transcendent levels of consciousness. One of the leaders of their group, Shaffer says, attained such a level of consciousness that he asked for the group to gather all the dice in the house and using them he cast all sixes, repeatedly, to the amazement of the rest.
“The odds were in the trillions to one,” Shaffer writes.
With his chums, Shaffer had shared strange experiences, he says. The autobiography details how they teleported from school to the street where one of their friends lived, and how they used magical artifacts to destroy a machine (disguised as a cell tower) spreading a mist over their Provo neighborhood that was stupefying everyone into zombie-like states of dullness.
These capers have a “Stranger Things” sense of childish adventure to them, but they also presaged a pattern Shaffer would continue into adulthood—more visions and more attachments to cult-like leaders.
Shaffer went on an LDS mission, returned home and was drawn into fundamentalism, taking part in a succession of groups. He met his wife through an LDS dating website, and the two of them had a child. During this tumultuous time, Shaffer wrote that he was providing revelation for a fundamentalist in Southern Utah and was beginning to believe in Mormon fundamentalism and Norse gods. He wrote that he felt he “was tossed on every wind of doctrine.”
Around this time, Shaffer writes in the autobiography, he was greeted by a goat-headed hermaphrodite that told him he needed to make a “blood sacrifice” spell. He told the beast he had to think about it, only to later say he was abducted by hit men in a van who threw a bag over his head. They told him: “Say the spell, and they will die! Say the spell and you will get glory!” Shaffer writes that he escaped the van by telling the hit men he was a Hindu, which confused them and then they let him go.
Dumped from the van, he walked home. Cradling his newborn daughter in his arms, he said: “I am done being a false prophet; I just want to be a dad.”
He would move through other trials — alcoholism and addiction to pornography and “screen time,” or being online too much — before finally meeting Coltharp, the figure above all others in his life he felt was the true leader.
Revelation by Facebook
The men met in the fall of 2016, when Coltharp reached out to Shaffer on Facebook. Shaffer had revelations for both of them, and the two agreed to marry each other’s daughters.
Shaffer describes the ceremony in the autobiography:
“On December 3rd, 2016, John Coltharp and I stood on either side of a camp fire in his parent’s back yard in Spring City, Utah. As John promised to his daughter’s hand in marriage to me, and betrothed her to me, the campfire began turning green before my very eyes. Just as had happened in my green candle vision. John asked me what I was looking at, and then said, ‘do you see green fire?’ — with a smile. I said ‘do you see it too?’ He shook his head and said the green candle had come to mind. I assure the reader that no pyrotechnics were employed by John, as I am very familiar with such things.”
Shaffer writes that he then gave his daughter to Coltharp and the green flames subsided.
Shaffer noted Coltharp asked him to get revelation about the two men’s divine mission after the underage marriages, indicating they didn’t at that time have a grand plan for rebuilding society after the apocalypse.
The autobiography says that after the marriages, Coltharp told Shaffer: “Now we have to know who we are, we have to have some type of calling or this wouldn’t be happening.”
For being so significant to Shaffer’s life, the men’s plans in the moments leading up to their arrest get little mention in his manuscript. He describes how Coltharp pressured him into receiving revelation about what to do about Coltharp’s ex-wife, which led them to hide out in the “wilderness” outside of Lund.
Shaffer recalls the desert “tabernacle” fondly in his writings. They hiked the rugged terrain with their daughters — whom the men considered to be their spiritual “wives” — and read scriptures at night. Shaffer told them stories about “underground civilizations.” Once, to the fascination of the children, he showed off by catching a rattlesnake. After the girls had gotten a close study of it, he released the serpent and they stood on the banks of a river and watched it swim away. Other times, Coltharp would drive them into town, the van jostling across potholed dirt roads into civilization while cranking techno music, or other times Shaffer would sing the theme song to the movie “Zorro” to his young “wife.”
“It was the best time of my life,” Shaffer writes.
This idyll was interrupted in a section of Shaffer’s autobiography that makes only an oblique reference to Coltharp telling him that they needed to go on a “mission.” Shaffer doesn’t say what the mission was, but he felt it necessary to bring his 9 millimeter pistol with him — though he stresses that Coltharp did not bring his Glock pistol with him. Whatever the mission was, it was pre-empted by police searching for the men and Shaffer fleeing with the children and hiding out on Richardson’s property.
Dungeons and Dragons of Mormon Fundamentalism
Mark Lichtenwalter knew Shaffer and Coltharp before the two met and bonded. Lichtenwalter first met Shaffer at a cottage meeting of independent Mormon fundamentalists in Utah County in 2014. The two became friends and later Lichtenwalter called Shaffer to be a patriarch of his church, The Church of the Living Messiah. Lichtenwalter calls it a radio or teaching ministry; it’s mostly taught through Facebook and podcasts.
Lichtenwalter is a stout figure, sporting long brown hair, a beard and thick silver rings on his hands. He might look like an extra from the FX biker drama “Sons of Anarchy,” but the gruff exterior belies his warm and friendly demeanor. Lichtenwalter pays his bills as a truck driver but his passion is preaching Mormon fundamentalism. Like other fundamentalists, Lichtenwalter believes the mainstream LDS Church has become too worldly and lost its way after it rejected foundational doctrines like its belief in polygamy and the Adam-God doctrine, referencing a belief once held by Brigham Young that Adam from the Garden of Eden is also God. But just because Lichtenwalter believes in polygamy, for example, he doesn’t believe it’s for everyone.
Lichtenwalter’s faith journey took him from a troubled youth plagued by drugs and alcohol to spiritual revelation in 1995. Lichtenwalter joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but eventually he was excommunicated for his fundamentalist beliefs and for the visions he had throughout his life, including one where he was told he would be the last prophet before Jesus returned to earth.
He’s a strong believer in the power of the internet to reach receptive audiences around the world. His current podcast, Fundamentally Mormon, has downloads from Canada, the United Kingdom and Africa, and he says his previous podcast notched over 100,000 downloads.
“So I live in Emery County but I can talk to people all around the world,” Lichtenwalter said.
Being a minister on social media has other perks, he says.
“The other thing that’s really nice about being able to speak online is that you don’t have mobs of people who can get to you, because they don’t know where I live.”
Lichtenwalter for a time had Shaffer serve as his church’s patriarch, receiving revelation from God, and gave him space on Lichtenwalter’s website at the time, The Kingdom of God or Nothing. Lichtenwalter said he was never involved with the Knights or knew of their horrendous plans. The Shaffer he knew back then was eccentric, smart and harmless, he said, pointing out for example that Shaffer’s muscle disease made it hard for him to climb stairs, let alone do normal work. He mostly just read scriptures and dabbled in painting and music, according to the minister.
Lichtenwalter met Coltharp after having scriptural debates with him online. Lichtenwalter used to hang out with Shaffer and Coltharp. When Lichtenwalter drove from Emery County to Provo to deliver mail, he would meet with the other men and they often would go to the special collections library at Brigham Young University and pore over old scriptural tracts and discuss theology. But Lichtenwalter says things started to change once Shaffer and Coltharp became closer.
Lichtenwalter said Shaffer had “seeing stones” that he would use to translate secret texts. One such document, he said, included the revelations about Nazore, the Eternal Bird God.
“John and Sam were people who were like in the Dungeons and Dragons of Mormon fundamentalism,” Lichtenwalter says.
Their beliefs began to not just focus on fundamentalism but seemed to trawl the depths of the internet, picking everything up in their net and not putting anything back, according to Lichtenwalter. Shaffer and Coltharp began to believe in Norse and Roman gods; they ascribed to flat earth theory and then alternatively hollow-earth conspiracy theories. They believed Hitler was a prophet, and Shaffer even believed adamantly that mountains were actually enormous petrified trees from a bygone era that had fallen over to create ranges. Besides the Eternal Bird God Nazore, Shaffer also once believed in gods that lived in the sun and navigated its fiery surface aboard ships made of crystal, Lichtenwalter said.
Lichtenwalter said that during this time, Shaffer and Coltharp went off and formed the Knights of the Crystal Blade.
As for the name “Knights of the Crystal Blade,” Shaffer explains in his letters, the crystal blade is “the word of God” and references Revelations 1:16 from the Bible: “In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword.”
Lichtenwalter describes the group more as a fraternal order than a church, but he acknowledges he does not know what really went on in those meetings.
Revelations from Shaffer’s website dated March 14, 2017, provide a disturbing glimpse into the direction the Knights were headed. The revelation Shaffer says he received from God focuses on pure marriages, stating that priests and patriarchs in the order could not marry women who had been “defiled.”
The “divine” revelation states: “The marriage of a maiden is the most pleasing unto Me (for I delight in chastity), and it will become the only form of marriage in the Millennium when My people are redeemed.”
Women who had previously been unpure could join the order, but if they again committed “adultery or whoredom,” they would be put to death. Other parts of the revelation reference stoning as capital punishment.
Another revelation of Shaffer’s says masturbation can be allowed when done in a virtuous way, apparently only when the individual lusts after his wife.
“Wherefore, only lust after her who is given unto thee; and if ye do not have one who is given unto thee, then seek for that condition,” it says. “And behold, the time is at hand, even now, when the hearts of the fathers shall begin turning unto the children, and the hearts of the children shall begin turning unto the fathers.”
Coltharp and Shaffer at one point attempted to recruit Lichtenwalter. According to the minister, they even told him Coltharp had revelations Lichtenwalter was an exalted god and that he had to join them — and if he didn’t, a curse would befall him and his family.
Lichtenwalter had had enough. He excommunicated the men from his church in August 2017 and cut all ties with them.
Coltharp denies threatening a curse against Lichtenwalter.
“I love him and his family, and have no ill feelings for them whatsoever,” Coltharp wrote from prison.
Lichtenwalter says Shaffer and Coltharp got what they deserved, though he takes pity on Shaffer. Shaffer struggled to hold a job and live on his own independently. Lichtenwalter said at one point he tried to set up a bookstore in southern Utah that Shaffer could live at and run as a way to be self-reliant, but instead he settled with Coltharp. Although court documents have described Shaffer as a leader because he had revelations for the group, Lichtenwalter says Coltharp was the one manipulating Shaffer, describing Coltharp as a “Judas goat.”
“A Judas goat is a goat that they put up with the sheep, and they train it to go up into the chute toward the slaughter house,” Lichtenwalter says. “They pull the goat out and all of the sheep go into the slaughter house to be killed.”
Lichtenwalter says he still believes Shaffer at one time had prophetic abilities but that Shaffer did not check his visions against scripture and was led astray.
“The thing with being a prophet is you can either go towards the light or towards the darkness, because you can receive revelation from evil sources,” Lichtenwalter says.
It’s a point echoed by Richardson.
“If you listen to the revelation and if you know scripture and it doesn’t match, [then] something is wrong,” Richardson says. “There’s a snake in the woodpile and the snake is literally Satan.”
The Digital Fringe
Both Coltharp and Shaffer say Richardson and Lichtenwalter did not have the knowledge that they did. Coltharp in a letter explained that his faith in God and in himself guided him along his destiny.
“I know who I am, and thus have no fear of leading myself astray,” Coltharp writes. “One’s liability to being deceived is proportional to the impurity of his or her heart.”
Joan Donovan is a researcher and project lead on media manipulation at Data & Society, a New York City-based research institute. She says online radicalization starts with questions people are afraid to ask in person but rather ask from behind the digital veil of the anonymous internet search.
“As they search for answers, what they find aren’t necessarily answers but communities of people willing to have discussions,” Donovan says.
But finding a community, perhaps a fringe one, can go from being a liberating experience to one that shuts off contrary viewpoints, says Donovan, as people settle into online echo chambers.
“In gaining trust and staying the course, you do see these filter bubbles consolidate because people who do have disagreeing opinions eventually go to other groups, or remove themselves from the conversation or they’re forcibly removed,” Donovan says.
Coltharp does credit digital outreach as one of various divine means wielded by God’s “almighty hand” that helped him recruit followers.
“Social media is only one of an endless number of tools that are at his disposal,” Coltharp writes.
Donovan says it’s not easy fighting online radicalization but a red flag to look out for is when people feel that real life is some kind of charade and their online echo-chamber existence is where they are truly being real.
“To me that’s when things become really potentially dangerous because they are unable to espouse what they believe in front of people that would contradict them and persuade them to think differently,” Donovan says.
It’s a problem that can become dangerous, but to a degree it’s one shared by many.
Social media has contributed to the polarization in the U.S.; newsfeeds cater to people’s particular political, religious or ideological worldviews. When these echo chambers affect individuals who are desperate or who have normalized extremist mindsets, the results can be disastrous. In the case of Shaffer and Coltharp, they believed their actions and thoughts were divinely sanctioned.
From Shaffer’s website, there was an undated revelation presented more like a journal entry. The story tells of Shaffer attempting to hike up a snowy canyon. As a test of faith, Shaffer endeavors to walk on top of the snow, which he says he is successful until he begins to doubt himself, at which point his steps sink in. From Shaffer’s revelation:
“The moment I doubted I again fell into the snow and could not make my way forward. The voice of the Spirit again came to me saying: ‘A man who is truly sanctified does not doubt his own worthiness, as he never doubts the worthiness of God; for he has perfect faith in the Atonement and to doubt his ability to carry out the will of the Lord is a lack of faith, and a perfected man has this perfect faith. To doubt is to sin.’ ”
The Spectrum & Daily News contributed to this article.