Was the Call That Sparked the Eldorado Raid a Hoax?

It would be no surprise if you have yet to read this, since for some reason The Dallas Morning News is ignoring it, but it now appears the phone call that sparked the raid on the polygamist compound in Eldorado may have been a hoax. As ABC News reported yesterday on its Web site, the phone call may have been made by a 33-year-old woman in Colorado named Rozita Swinton. From ABC News:

Swinton became a person of interest to Texas authorities when former Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints member Flora Jessop, who now operates a rescue mission for teenage girls trying to escape the sect, told authorities she had been getting calls from a girl claiming to be Sarah -- the same girl who made the call for help to a San Angelo, Texas, shelter that led to the raid on the El Dorado compound.

Jessop told ABC News that she -- at the direction of Texas Rangers -- began recording those calls in the past two weeks and that the Rangers were able to trace them to Colorado Springs, where the arrest was made.

Swinton was arrested at her home Wednesday evening on charges of false reporting in two Colorado cases, but Texas Rangers were present for the arrest.

In one Colorado case, authorities say Swinton made several calls in February in which she claimed to be an abused child being held in a Colorado Springs basement. In another case, she reportedly called an adoption agency in Colorado claiming to be a woman named Jessica who wanted to give up her child, and then later left a note on the agency’s door saying she planned to leave the baby at a fire station and kill herself.

And now she’s in the middle of this, which raises a couple questions: how does a mentally disturbed Colorado woman become aware of a secretive polygamist sect hundreds of miles away in Texas -- and more importantly, how does she get the phone number of Flora Jessop?

Jessop is a former polygamist Annie Oakley-type who wears a knife on her boot and has made it her life’s work to eradicate the practice of polygamy from America. A noble cause to be sure. But the fact that she is involved in this mess is troubling.

Earlier this week, a private investigator in Salt Lake City who is involved in the anti-polygamist movement there told me he thought it was Jessop who made the phone call that sparked the raid in the first place. He also told me he wouldn’t be surprised if Jessop is the informant the sheriff in Eldorado says he’s been communicating with from inside the compound for the last four years.

Maybe, and maybe not. But we do know that Jessop has been bugging law enforcement to do something about the compound since residents in Eldorado first figured out it wasn’t a hunting lodge. In fact, it was Jessop who first alerted the town’s newspaper editor that the polygamists had come to town, and together, the two have kept the drumbeat going to get rid of the place. Nothing wrong with that.

But when we’re talking about removing children from their families, we’re talking about evidence, not what someone thinks about a religion or what someone thinks might be going on within the ranch’s log cabins or hilltop temple. And it can not be ignored (although it is not understood by the mainstream media because they don’t know what they’re dealing with here) that all the information to date that has ever been made public about what goes on within FLDS communities in Arizona, Utah and Texas (including Jon Krakauer’s sloppily researched Under the Banner of Heaven) has come from people who have left the sect or been kicked out, making their information, at the least, suspect.

Perhaps the stories Flora Jessop tells folks like Anderson Cooper every day of forced marriage and child rape are true. And if they are, then by all means the state has the right, and the obligation, to do something about it. But at this point, we have a case built on suspicion, rumor and innuendo, fueled by hysteria and religious bigotry, that looks shakier by the day.

This morning, The New York Times reported that in court yesterday, Sgt. Danny Crawford, a CPS investigator:

... produced documents that he said showed marriages among the sect, including some that seemed to suggest that the wives had been under 16 when they wed. Under Texas law, no girl under 16 can legally marry even with her parents’ permission.

But under questioning, Sergeant Crawford acknowledged that the documents simply listed the names of men with their wives and children listed beneath them. There was no indication what age the wives had been when they married and no proof of sexual abuse.

So let’s review. We have an unsubstantiated phone call from a girl authorities have never located reporting abuse. It now looks like that phone call -- which appears to be the entire basis for the search warrant, the raid and the removal of 416 children from the custody of their parents -- was a fake. We have a bed in a temple. We have a piece of paper with a list of names on it. We have an informant, who for all we know, could have been Flora Jessop, or could have been made up out of thin air. And now the judge in this case, who approved the search warrant in the first place, is talking about sending these kids to foster homes throughout the state.

I hope I’m wrong. Perhaps I am: As ABC is reporting today from the hearing in San Angelo, "More than 20 girls taken from a polygamist Texas ranch became pregnant or gave birth before they were 16 or 17, according to testimony today in the giant child custody case."

I just hope law enforcement has more evidence than a phone call to remove hundreds of children from their parents and to further tax a woefully underfunded child welfare system that is already stretched to the breaking point. I hope that the actions officials in Eldorado have taken will not undo the progress law enforcement in Arizona and Utah have made in recent years in ferreting out actual claims of abuse within polygamist communities in those states, where prosecutors understand that to prosecute a claim of child abuse you have to, at the least, have an actual victim. --Jesse Hyde

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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