“Nothing catches an editor’s eye like a good rape,” gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson once observed, and this month’s lurid tales of teenage girls ritually raped in the temple of a Texas polygamist cult caught editors’ eyes around the world.
“Documents: Sect married girls at puberty,” declared the headline on an April 8 Associated Press story, while the online version of the Everett, Washington, Daily Herald featured this April 10 headline: “Texas cult’s girls required to have sex in temple.”
British tabloids jumped aboard in the sensationalist Fleet Street tradition, with the Mirror offering a typical screamer: “Horror of the Texas child sex cult ranch.” The London Daily Mail soon dubbed the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) the “underage sex cult.”
Bizarre and illegal though the FLDS sect’s practices may be, however, no one at the “Yearning For Zion Ranch” has yet been charged with rape, polygamy, or any other sex crime.
In fact, the only person arrested in connection with the April 4 raid on the 1,700-acre Texas compound is a Colorado woman whose hoax phone calls may be the source of those tales of ritual rape that unleashed a global epidemic of leering headlines.
OFFICIALS SAY Rozita E. Swinton is a “person of interest” in the cult case, and reports of her arrest strongly suggest that it was the 33-year-old Swinton who called a domestic-abuse hotline in Texas, identifying herself as “Sarah Jessop Barlow.”
Claiming to be the 16-year-old mother of an 8-month-old infant and already pregnant again, “Sarah” said she had been forced into a “spiritual marriage” at the FLDS compound when she was only 15. Her parents had brought her to the site when she was 13, “Sarah” said in a series of late-March calls to the hotline, and now she was being held captive as the seventh wife of 50-year-old convicted sex offender Dale Barlow, who she said had once beaten her so badly she suffered broken ribs.
The horrifying details related by “Sarah” caused the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to file an affidavit seeking an emergency protection order that sent dozens of law enforcement and child-welfare officials swarming onto the Eldorado compound, where they took custody of 416 FLDS children.
Four days later, the San Angelo Standard-Times obtained the affidavit, which was then posted online at TheSmokingGun.com, and “Sarah” instantly became the world’s most famous victim of polygamy.
Even as the brutalized teen’s plight was sparking salacious tabloid stories and relentless cable TV coverage, Texas officials were discovering another problem with Sarah Jessop Barlow: She apparently doesn’t exist.
MORE THAN TWO weeks after the Eldorado raid, authorities have been unable to identify any such person at the FLDS site — although they reportedly were desperate to find her. “They are trying to pin it on anybody named Sarah,” one of the women at the Yearning For Zion Ranch told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Several young women named Sarah lived at the ranch, the woman said, and the Texas officials interviewed them all in a vain effort to find one who matched the “Sarah” who called the hotline. “They find out and then let them go, then grab another one and try to find out and they let them go….There is just not a Sarah that fits what they said,” the FLDS woman told the newspaper.
Meanwhile, the man who supposedly raped and abused “Sarah” in Texas was actually living in Arizona. Before the raid, officials issued an arrest warrant for Dale Barlow, who served 45 days in jail last year after being charged with sexual misconduct in 2005 for marrying and impregnating his third wife when she was still 16.
But after interviewing Barlow in Arizona on April 12, Texas officials declined to arrest him. Barlow, who is still on probation, told reporters he hasn’t set foot in the Lone Star State since 1977.
ROZITA SWINTON HAS never been a member of the FLDS, and the Colorado woman’s known criminal record involves a history of hoax phone calls. When she was arrested last week in connection with the Texas case, Swinton was a fugitive wanted in a Denver suburb.
Authorities there say she called an adoption agency in June 2005, threatening to abandon her baby and commit suicide. But there was no baby. Swinton has no children, the Denver Post reported, and she later pleaded guilty to filing a false report.
The fugitive warrant for Swinton apparently was related to her failure to abide by terms of her sentence in that case. Authorities in Colorado Springs told the Post that a series of February phone calls by Swinton, claiming to be an abused child locked in a basement, caused a frantic, fruitless search for the non-existent victim.
Swinton came to the attention of Texas officials after anti-polygamy advocates with an Arizona-based organization said they also received similar calls from “Sarah,” which police then traced to Swinton, who appears to have been obsessed with the FLDS sect.
Texas Rangers “confiscated tons of material on the FLDS” from Swinton’s home, Child Protection Project founder Linda Walker told the Houston Chronicle.
THE ORIGINS OF Swinton’s alleged interest in the FLDS sect are unclear, although the subject of polygamy have been the focus of intense media publicity in recent years, including Big Love, an HBO series about a fictional Utah clan now in its second season.
FLDS is an offshoot of Mormonism that has been repeatedly condemned by the mainstream LDS (Mormon) church, which disavowed polygamy in 1890. The fundamentalist splinter group took root along the Arizona-Utah border in the 1930s, which was the site of the infamous 1953 “Short Creek Raid” in which 263 FLDS children were seized by Arizona authorities.
The sect’s current leader, Warren Jeffs, was once named one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives. The son of Rulon Jeffs — the longtime FLDS “prophet” who died in 2002 — Warren Jeffs was convicted last fall on charges of being an accomplice to rape, after authorities say he forced a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin.
The manhunt for Jeffs was part of a legal crackdown on polygamy that produced nationwide media attention, fueled in large measure by former FLDS members who have testified to widespread abuse within the sect. One ex-FLDS woman, Carolyn Jessop, last year published a bestselling memoir of her experiences and was featured on a November episode of Oprah.
“Jessop” and “Barlow” are common family names among FLDS members — when Dale Barlow was indicted in 2005, two other Barlows and a Jessop were indicted along with him.
If Swinton’s reported obsession with the sect led her to make hoax calls to the Texas hotline, the name “Sarah Jessop Barlow” might sound authentic enough to fool even experts on FLDS.
DURING TWO DAYS of hearings in Texas, however, the subject of the Colorado hoaxer was never raised. On Friday, District Court Judge Barbara Walther granted state officials custody of all 416 minor children seized from the Eldorado ranch, saying the children were in danger of abuse.
Even as state-appointed guardians were taking custody of the FLDS children, however, reports of Swinton’s history of hoaxes caused Internet newshounds to begin researching the Colorado woman. Blogger “DRJ” at Patterico.com made the shocking discovery that Swinton is listed as a pledged delegate for Sen. Barack Obama at next month’s state convention of the Colorado Democratic Party.
That surprise twist led to some mordant political humor — Rusty Shackleford of The Jawa Report noted that if Swinton was “Sarah,” the hoax wouldn’t be the first “fake but accurate” tale spun by a Democrat — but serious legal questions surround the FLDS custody case.
The Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement questioning “whether the current proceedings adequately protect the fundamental rights of the mothers and children.”
After police first swooped down on the Eldorado ranch, the raid was compared to the deadly 1993 raid on another Texas cult compound, David Koresh’s Branch Davidian sect near Waco. If it turns out that the FLDS raid was the result of a bogus call from Swinton, however, other comparisons — to the McMartin Preschool case or the Duke University rape hoax — may be more appropriate.
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