4 missing children found in Utah after Amber Alert tip

Lund is a tumbleweed ghost town, an old railway junction left for dead decades ago in the Escalante Valley on Utah’s Paleolithic southwest corner. The unincorporated piece of Iron County boasts an official population of one.

“Probably 20 residents within a 15-mile radius,” a local sheriff’s official mused this week. Isolated, empty and entirely forgotten — a good place, then, for doomsday visions. Or for hiding missing children.

Earlier this week, helicopters beat across the air over Lund while law enforcement vehicles scoured the unpaved roads. Authorities were searching for four children they said were taken from their mother by their father, John Alvin Coltharp, after a custody battle. Police allege the 33-year-old man absconded with his children to a desert compound in Lund run by Samuel Shaffer, a self-described prophet who ran a sect called the Knights of the Crystal Blade.

On Monday, as freezing night temperatures clamped down on the valley, the children were located after an Amber Alert tip, according to a news release from the Iron County sheriff. Two children were found hiding in two plastic 50-gallon water barrels, which were empty. Another pair of children was discovered in an abandoned trailer. Two of the girls were Coltharp’s, the others were Shaffer’s. (Coltharp’s sons were rescued earlier in the day).

All of the children had been outdoors without food or water for 24 hours, exposed to subfreezing temperatures.

“Had we not received that tip today, these girls probably wouldn’t have been alive in the morning,” Iron County Sheriff’s Lt. Del Schlosser told CBS Denver.

This week, Shaffer’s brother, Benjamin Shaffer, said he was no threat and was likely just watching his friend’s kids. He also disputed law enforcement’s characterization of the Knights of the Crystal Blade as a religious sect, telling the Salt Lake Tribune that it was a club formed to discuss philosophy and religion.

The Denver Post reported this week that Coltharp was originally from Highlands Ranch, Colo., outside of Denver. Raised in the Mormon Church, Colthrap married his now-ex-wife, Micha Soble, when she was 16.

Soble reported that Coltharp immediately began “brainwashing” her with his unorthodox views, the Post said. The couple had two sons and two daughters, and the family relocated to Provo, Utah in 2008. Coltharp was excommunicated from the Mormon Church due to his beliefs. Michael Lee, Coltharp’s brother-in-law, told the Associated Press his interest in doomsday prepping and polygamy had grown in recent years.

Eventually, Coltharp told the family he wanted to live “off the grid.” The couple split in May. Coltharp disappeared with the children — Dinah, 8; William, 7; Seth, 6; and Haddie, 4 — in September.

In divorce records reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, Soble described her husband as “a doomsday prepper who believes that the world will soon come to an end.” She also said 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.” Soble added in the divorce records that her husband “distrusts modern medicine, refusing to allow petitioner to use pain medication during childbirth” and also teaching his “unusual beliefs” to the kids.

Kelly Peterson, Soble’s attorney, told the Salt Lake Tribune her client was concerned about her children’s safety. “He has stated, according to my client’s understanding, that he would rather see the kids dead than with the police.”

Coltharp’s sister also told the paper the family was worried Coltharp might have been preparing to marry off his young daughters, noting in the past he had said “girls are meant to get married at the age of 12 — their bodies are ready.”

The couple’s divorce was finalized on Nov. 27. A judge granted Soble full custody of the kids, issuing an order for law enforcement to collect the children and return them to their mother, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. Law enforcement tracked Coltharp down to a Utah address in Spring City last Friday. Police said he refused to tell law enforcement where their four children were. They arrested Coltharp on suspicion of kidnapping and obstruction of justice.

“Late last night he was taken into police custody, but will not tell us where the children are being hidden,” Soble wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday.” He was taken while with his friend Samuel Warren Shaffer, who is believed to be headed to Cedar City … Samuel Shaffer has been seen with them and is presumed to either be with or hiding them.”

In Iron County, law enforcement received a tip the same day that Shaffer had taken Coltharp’s children to a compound in the desert near Lund. The structure was simply three trailers placed together.

“They had manufactured this place for them to live,” Iron County Sheriff Lt. Schlosser told KSL. “It wasn’t the safest conditions, by any means, for where we are. They do not have any power at the residence. They have no heat.”

The two Coltharp boys — William and Seth — were taken from the compound by police on early Monday.

But the two Coltharp girls — Dinah and Haddie — were still missing.

Shaffer was also gone.

Investigators learned he had walked into the desert on Sunday with the Coltharps, as well as his own two young daughters. They spent the night in a tent, according to police.

As helicopters searched overhead for the missing girls, an Amber Alert was issued for Dinah and Haddie. Two hours later, law enforcement received a tip about a man matching Shaffer’s description walking several miles west of the compound, according to an Iron County sheriff’s news release.

Schaffer was taken into custody and revealed the four girls were hidden in the barrels and trailer, authorities said. Law enforcement discovered them around 7 p.m. Monday — before another cold night dropped over the desert.

The four Coltharp children have since been reunited with their mother.

On Tuesday, Coltharp was officially charged with first-degree felony kidnapping and obstruction of justice. Shaffer had yet to be formally charged but is being held on suspicion of committing kidnapping and child abuse. Neither man made any comment and no lawyer was listed for either.

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