A Lehi woman and director of a Utah-based anti-human trafficking nonprofit was arrested Friday after prosecutors say she made false representations to donors and used some donations to pay for personal expenses.
Candace Elexzandria Lierd, co-founder of Exitus, was charged with 34 felonies, including a pattern of unlawful acts, unlawful conduct, communications fraud, theft by embezzlement, theft of services, forgery and identity fraud, according to a news release from the Utah attorney general’s office, which investigated the case.
Prosecutors say Lierd, also known as Candace Rivera, demonstrated a pattern of deceptive conduct in connection to her organization, and also made false representations that she was a nurse, a physician and a physician’s assistant, though she was never professionally licensed or registered as such in Utah, according to the attorney general’s office.
A request for comment sent Sunday afternoon to a contact email listed on Exitus’ website, which was taken down by Monday morning, was not returned as of Monday afternoon. Lierd is currently being held in Utah County jail without bail.
Who is Candace Lierd?
Lierd, who calls herself an “anti-trafficking abolitionist,” was previously listed as a volunteer with O.U.R. Conductor Club, a Facebook group affiliated with national anti-human trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad.
In 2019, she posted in the Facebook group, “Such a great night, last night! Ordinary people doing extraordinary things! One candle can barely be seen in a dark forest, but 1000 of them can burn it to the ground! Excited and proud to be a part of this wild fire!”
O.U.R. Conductor Club, whose motto is “raise awareness, conduct change,” states in its Facebook group description that it was inspired by the 19th-century Underground Railroad used by African Americans to escape slavery. The description urges members, or “conductors,” to “take note from the courageous people who saw the injustices of slavery and apply it to the fight in which we are engaged.”
Earlier this summer, Tim Ballard, the former head of Operation Underground Railroad, quietly stepped down after multiple employees reportedly filed complaints against him. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently condemned Ballard in a rare public rebuke after he “betrayed” his friendship with a senior apostle. Ballard is said to be readying a campaign for Sen. Mitt Romney’s seat, The Salt Lake Tribune has reported.
In 2020, Lierd co-founded Exitus, according to a probable cause affidavit regarding her arrest, and she is still listed as a director of the Lehi-based company, along with Jason Barattiero, according to Utah business records that designate the organization as “active.”
From 2020 to the present, Lierd misrepresented herself as a licensed registered nurse, medical doctor and nurse practitioner, according to the affidavit, which states that Utah’s Department of Professional Licensing has no record of Lierd ever being licensed as a nurse practitioner, medical doctor or registered nurse in Utah.
She did, however, apply to be a registered nurse in Utah four times; all four applications were denied, the affidavit states.
Employment records confirm Lierd worked with University of Utah Hospital from April 25, 2011, to March 6, 2012, as a “psychiatric technician,” the affidavit states, noting that her “termination was an involuntary dismissal.”
According to the affidavit, Lierd “leveraged her fraudulent representations to gain the confidence of founding partners, board members, medical professionals, volunteers, media companies, benevolent organizations, and individual donors” to establish Exitus as a nonprofit organization and “generate funds under the enterprise’s name.”
In January 2021, Lierd asked Barattiero to build a website for Exitus and take a seat on the nonprofit’s board. Barattiero said he was told by Lierd that she was a registered nurse who worked “at will” to keep her license, according to the affidavit.
In December 2021, Lierd sought assistance from a North Carolina registered nurse with medical transports for Exitus, telling the nurse that she was a nurse practitioner, the affidavit states. In 2022, the registered nurse traveled to Ukraine to help a medically needy orphan with transport to an adoptive family in the U.S. During the trip, Lierd gave the nurse medical directives for the child that “would have been harmful to the child if executed,” the affidavit states.
This year, Lierd also solicited the help of a Utah registered nurse to assist in coordinating the medical transport of another Ukrainian orphan to another adoptive family, prosecutors say. The affidavit states Lierd told the nurse that she was a nurse practitioner and gave the nurse medical directives for the child’s care. Lierd also provided the nurse with a medical kit containing ketamine and the anti-psychotic drug Haldol, the affidavit states.
Prosecutors say Lierd also misrepresented herself on several occasions for personal gain. In one instance, in 2020, Lierd falsely told a woman that she worked for the FBI, using her purposed employment with the agency to qualify to rent a home. She “squatted” at the property for about six months, the affidavit states, and caused $10,000 in damage to the property when she was evicted.
The next year, in 2021, Lierd told a man who was renting out his home in Lehi that she was a nurse practitioner and founder of Exitus, and based on this information, the man rented his home to Lierd, the affidavit states. She later defaulted on the rental agreement, with owed rent equaling $128,547.50.
In February 2022, Lierd also “leveraged” her background as a human-trafficking expert who had been featured on the BBC and who founded three companies to secure a spot on a grief panel for widows hosted at Disneyland, the affidavit states. Lierd was also able to enter into a business contract with panel host Charlene Paul totaling $8,702.55 to market a book Paul wrote about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the affidavit adds.
Exitus loses thousands
According to the affidavit, Lierd made two withdrawals on Aug. 26, 2021, from Exitus’ Mountain America Credit Union account totaling $425,000. A note attached to one of the withdrawals said it was to “wire 225,000″ to CB SkyShare, an aviation company, but the remaining $200,000 is still unaccounted for, the affidavit states.
Four days later, Lierd made two more withdrawals from Exitus’ credit union account totaling $467,493.55, with $317,493.55 used for a wire transfer to CB SkyShare. The remaining $150,000 remains unaccounted for, the affidavit states.
The affidavit details numerous transactions that were made by Lierd for thousands of dollars at a loss to Exitus, including $2,174.44 for a credit card payment; $240,000 for a house; $11,600 used as “earnest money” and prorated rent; $2,200 for a weight loss program; and $4,000 for the purchase of a 1977 Chevrolet Corvette.
The incorporation papers for Exitus say that no part of the organization’s earnings shall be distributable to its “members, trustees, officers or other persons.”
In May, Lierd was separately charged with issuing a bad check. According to a charging document, Lierd hired Utah Live Bands to put on a gala for Exitus at the South Town Mall but didn’t pay the company. Utah Live Bands didn’t receive payment until Lierd issued it a signed check for $8,640, which bounced, the document states. Utah Live Bands was hired to put on a second gala and tried to get paid for five months. Lierd again issued a signed check, which also bounced, the document states.
As of Sunday afternoon, JoinExitus.org was still soliciting donations, and Lierd was still listed as a founder of the nonprofit. By Monday morning, the website’s pages had been removed and the homepage stated: “This domain is permanently suspended.”