Texas FLDS case: Was massive raid based on bogus call from Colorado woman?
Updated 9:05 PM- A Colorado woman with a history of making phony reports to police has been named by Texas Rangers as a "person of interest" who could have made the calls to a women's shelter that sparked the FLDS compound raid.
Police arrested Rozita Estraletta Swinton, 33, at her Colorado Springs apartment Wednesday in connection with a February call to police there in which she pretended to be a young girl being held in a basement, said Colorado Springs police Lt. Skip Arms.
Investigators also executed an evidentiary search warrant at Swinton's home and seized a number of items that indicated a possible connection between her and calls regarding the FLDS compounds in Colorado City, Ariz., and Eldorado, Texas, the Texas Rangers said Friday in a press release. The items, which were not identified, will be evaluated and analyzed at various crime labs in Texas.
Swinton's arrest came after the Texas Rangers contacted local authorities about a possible connection between Swinton and the raid on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ranch earlier this month, Arms said. She remained at large Friday after posting a $20,000 bail from the El Paso County Jail.
Texas officials removed 416 children from the sect's ranch after the NewBridge Family Shelter received calls on March 29 and 30 from someone claiming to be a 16-year-old FLDS girl named Sarah. The girl, whom authorities say they have yet to locate, described being beaten by her husband and conceiving her first child at the age of 15.
The Denver Post reports Flora Jessop, an Arizona woman who grew up FLDS and now helps teenage girls leave the sect, said Swinton called her pretending to be a girl named Sarah who had been sexually abused by her new father. Jessop told The Post the first of many phone calls placed by Swinton to Jessop was on March 30 - the same day the Texas shelter received a call from the 16-year-old.
Jessop said Swinton would call her at night when she claimed others at the ranch were asleep, The Post reports. Jessop told the newspaper her suspicions were raised and she contacted the Texas Rangers after Swinton called her saying she was Sarah's sister living in Colorado City.
Jessop recorded between 30 and 40 hours of conversations with Swinton, who alternately claimed to be Sarah, Sarah's twin sister Laura, and Laura's friend, according to The Post. The newspaper reports Jessop said Texas Rangers were able to trace the calls to Swinton's cell phone.
In the February case in Colorado, Swinton is accused of making calls pretending to be a teenage girl "in distress" who was being held in a basement, Arms said. Swinton had told police she was in the "general area" of where she was arrested, he said.
Swinton is charged in the case with making a false police report, but the case has been sealed by a Colorado judge.
Three years earlier, police say, Swinton called authorities in Castle Rock - about 20 minutes north of Colorado Springs - saying she was a 16-year-old girl named Jessica who had just given birth to a boy named Jacob.
She told police she had been molested by a family member and feared going home, said Castle Rock police Sgt. Scott Claton. Swinton led police on a three-day goose chase looking for the girl, who claimed she wanted to give up the baby and kill herself, Claton said.
During the third day of the phone calls, a Castle Rock police officer spotted a woman driving by the police station and talking on the phone, Claton said. The officer pulled over the car, driven by Swinton, whose name matched records from the cell phone she used to call police, he said.
Swinton admitted to making up the story, Claton said, but did not discuss her motivations.
"I don't know if she was trying to draw attention or what her hope was in this thing," Claton said. "It's very strange."
Court records show Swinton was charged with making a false police report and obstructing police in that case. She pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor false reporting charge and the obstructing charge was dismissed.
A judge ordered Swinton to serve a one-year deferred judgment in the case, to have a mental health evaluation and to take prescribed medications.
Shelter employees in Texas said Friday they continue to believe their call was authentic despite the reports about Swinton, a shelter spokeswoman said.
"They think it's legitimate, that Sarah really does exist," said Susan Risdon, who talked with the shelter's director Friday about the issue. "She had so much information about what was going on at the compound. If it was this woman in Colorado, she would have had to have someone on the inside feeding her information."
Among the convincing details offered by the 16-year-old was the girl's assertion that she had borrowed a communal cell phone used by FLDS men who leave the compound to work, Risdon said. Other details offered by the girl "checked out" after investigation by Texas police, leading shelter employees to continue to believe the story, Risdon said.
But the shelter has little more than notes from the call taker to check into the veracity of the original call, Risdon said. Only one line at the shelter has caller identification, and "Sarah" did not call on it, Risdon said. Calls into the shelter are not recorded.
Texas Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said late Friday she believes the 16-year-old Sarah exists and that the raid on the ranch was warranted.
- Tribune reporter Jason Bergreen contributed to this report.