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Woman arrested for Colorado hoax calls said her name was 'Sarah'

Published: Friday, April 18 2008 9:44 p.m. MDT

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — For hours, Flora Jessop would be on the phone with "Sarah" trying to figure out where the little girl was and if she was OK.
The girl first called the anti-polygamy activist on March 30, claiming she was nearly 16, pregnant, in a bad marriage and planned to move to the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch in Texas.
Jessop's number is passed around among people seeking to leave polygamous communities. She runs a sort of underground railroad, sheltering children who run away from the FLDS Church.
"She's very damn good. She did have me convinced at one point. But then I started to question it," Jessop said in an interview Friday with the Deseret News.
Texas Rangers are investigating a 33-year-old Colorado Springs woman whom activists say made recent hoax phone calls to them, pretending to be a child-bride in an abusive marriage. Authorities are trying to figure out if Rozita Swinton had any role in the March 29-30 Texas phone calls that triggered the raid on the FLDS ranch, where 416 children were removed and placed into state protective custody.
It was a girl named Sarah who called a domestic violence hotline in Texas several times on March 29 and 30, claiming she was 16 years old, pregnant and in an abusive marriage to a man named Dale Barlow.
Jessop doesn't even want to speculate if Swinton and the mysterious Texas Sarah are the same person.
"I feel very sorry for her in a lot of ways. I think she's very disturbed," Jessop said of Swinton.
Colorado Springs police said Swinton was arrested at her home Wednesday on a warrant for misdemeanor charges of filing false police reports. It stems from an incident in February, where she reportedly made a hoax call to police about being an abused child.
Police here confirm a pair of Texas Rangers were present at the arrest, but refused to say any more about it.
"The Texas Rangers were in Colorado Springs (Wednesday) as part of their investigation involving the compound in Texas. They left and have not filed any charges on Rozita Swinton as of this time," police said in a statement.
The Texas Department of Public Safety has declined to comment, only saying no one has been arrested in connection with their investigation.
Since the Texas raid began April 3, authorities have been trying to identify the Sarah who called. They have repeatedly said they believe she is among the 416 children removed from the ranch, but they have still been unable to identify her for sure.
FLDS faithful have said they do not believe the girl exists at all.
The voice
Since March 30, Jessop has received a flood of phone calls from "Sarah," who she said spoke like a little girl and seemed to know the intricacies of life in the FLDS Church and Short Creek, the FLDS strongholds of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
"She was damn good," Jessop said of the girl. "She had the 'crick' lingo down, which is just amazing."
Others were convinced that "Sarah" needed help.
"I thought she was real," said Joni Holm, who shelters FLDS kids and also spoke to the girl.
The conversations would last for hours. "Sarah" said she wanted to run away, and provided details of a life of abuse. "Sarah" gave her addresses of where she said she was inside the FLDS stronghold of Colorado City, Ariz. Jessop reported the calls to child welfare workers, who checked out the homes and found nothing. The calls continued, always from different cell phone numbers.
Eventually cracks started appearing in the girl's story.
"She did not use the term 'mother and father.' She used the term 'mom and dad,"' Jessop said. "There were just numerous things, but still she was very convincing as a girl that was in desperate need of help."
Jessop said when she pressed "Sarah" once, the girl claimed to talk in hypotheticals about a twin sister who was also a child-bride. The story started to make Jessop more suspicious, and she began tape recording them and called police.
Sting
Jessop said she set up a three-way phone conversation with a Texas Ranger on the line and confronted her.
"By the end of my phone calls with her it was very, very difficult to continue to talk to her and not reach through the phone and choke her," she said. "I asked her, 'Are you tricking me?' I said, 'What's your real name?' She finally said, 'Rozie."'
By that time, authorities had tracked Swinton down in Colorado Springs and Texas Rangers told local officers they were coming to question her.
"They had independently focused one component of their investigation on her and were coming up to our city. We then brought our case to a conclusion, made the arrest and assisted Texas while they were here," said Colorado Springs Police Lt. Skip Arms. "They will evaluate what they have to determine if they'll pursue any charges in the future."
The affidavit dealing with the February incident in Colorado Springs has been sealed by a judge, but Arms said it involved her making calls to police of a "distress nature."
Colorado police have dealt with her in the past, Arms said, and authorities have even come to recognize some calls from her. This is the first time, however, that she has been charged with any crime.
"She has made distress calls in the past in our department," he said. "There were different age ranges. In our case that was charged, she did talk about being a child."
In 2005, Castle Rock, Colo., police were chasing Swinton, who called an adoption agency saying she was a 16-year-old girl named Jessica and she wanted to abandon her baby and then kill herself. For days, police played phone tag with her; an officer was on the phone with "Jessica" once for five hours.
"She called dispatch several times with the same story that she'd recently delivered a child. She reiterated that she had a firearm and wanted to commit suicide," said Castle Rock Police Lt. Douglas Ernst.
During one call, "Jessica" admitted to being outside the police station. An officer stopped her and discovered she was Swinton. The woman was charged and later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and filing a false report. Ernst said police never did learn why she made the hoax calls.
"Because this had gone on for days and she had a story that was false and had inconsistencies, we worried about what's going on with the person, Ernst said. "We did have her evaluated at a hospital."
In this latest case, Swinton posted $20,000 bail and was released from the El Paso County Jail on Thursday. Within hours of posting bail, Jessop said Swinton had called her again.
"She's on the phone with me, trying to continue the ruse," Jessop recalled. "Swearing up and down, sobbing."
Swinton did not return phone calls seeking comment from the Deseret News. She has been ordered to appear in district court here to face charges on May 1.
Fallout
Questions have been raised that without 16-year-old Sarah's phone call, what was seen and seized at the YFZ Ranch may be inadmissible in court.
Child protective services workers insist the girl is unnecessary to their case of child abuse in the FLDS compound.
"I think some people have really focused on that (Sarah) but the reality is that her phone call is the reason we went out there, but it was not the reason for the removals," said Greg Cunningham, spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. "The removals happened based on what we saw out there."
Jessop said Texas child protective services workers found underage, pregnant girls and that is enough to make a possible hoax call moot.
An ex-FLDS member herself, Jessop has tried to help children leave the polygamous sect and even sheltered children who ran away. She said the experience won't stop her.
"My job is to help the kids that call me," she said. "You have to take every call seriously."


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com

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