When Flora Jessop answered her phone on the morning of March 30, a female caller spoke in a meek and frightened whisper. She said her name was Sarah, a child bride trapped on a polygamist compound in Texas. She had apparently sought out Jessop because of the woman's work with abused kids as executive director of the Child Protection Project. Sarah claimed she had been assaulted by the older man she was assigned to marry and was often locked in a room with boarded windows. She described details, like names of elders, that only someone in the sect would likely know.
Around the same time, Sarah was also calling a shelter in San Angelo, Texas. After counselors there forwarded her abuse reports to law enforcement, authorities responded with a massive April 3 raid on the property where Sarah claimed to be held, the Yearning for Zion ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) in Eldorado, Texas. In the course of the operation, officials said they discovered such a troubling pattern of sexual and physical abuse that they forcibly removed more than 400 kids. (All of them have since been returned to their families by court order; last week sect leader Warren Jeffs and four of his followers were charged with sexually abusing underage girls.) But Sarah was never found.
The reason, according to law enforcement: Sarah was not the blond, blue-eyed teen bride she claimed to be, but rather a 33-year-old African-American woman living in Colorado Springs, Colo., named Rozita Swinton. It's not the first time Swinton has been accused of duping authorities. She's been arrested for false reporting in two separate cases in Colorado, allegedly setting off frantic manhunts by repeatedly impersonating abuse victims. But even as she now faces possible charges in Texas, Swinton remains an elusive and enigmatic figure. As one woman who cared for her believes, Swinton might well be a victim of sexual abuse who fractured into multiple personalities to cope with the trauma. Others who've known her view her as a masterful manipulator with an insatiable appetite for attention. In a brief conversation with NEWSWEEK, Swinton only added to the mystery. "There are so many lies about me that have been published," she said without elaborating.
The daughter of a convicted murderer, Swinton had a turbulent upbringing in Nashville. By the age of 14, she had run away from home so many times that she became a ward of the state. In her senior year in high school, Rozita accused her father, Clarence Swinton, of sexually abusing her—an allegation she would repeat throughout her life. Though he was never charged with abuse, a restraining order against him—which cites Rozita's allegations—was issued in 1992. In a recent conversation with NEWSWEEK, Clarence described Rozita as "the world's greatest con artist," and denied her accusations. "If there is any victim, it is me," he said. (Rozita didn't address the abuse allegations with NEWSWEEK, and her attorneys did not return repeated calls for comment.)
When Swinton was 19, she went to live with Mary Nelson, a social worker who gave shelter to foster kids. Writing under the pseudonym Kate Rosemary, Nelson authored two books that mention Swinton. In "After Disclosure," Nelson wrote that the girl "had been tragically abused" and "had been diagnosed as having developed multiple personalities, each of which experienced part of her abuse." When news of Swinton's arrest broke, a newsletter put out by Nelson's publisher featured a story meant to defend Swinton. Citing a "source very close to her," the article claimed that "Rozita has flashbacks to a time when she was an abused child and teenager, and to times when she had been locked up and kept hostage." (Nelson, who is exceedingly private, declined to comment.)
After leaving Nelson's home, Swinton headed west, eventually settling in Colorado Springs in the mid-1990s. She became a Mormon and worked in the insurance industry, first as an agent and later in the claims department at State Farm.
Soon, Swinton came to the attention of authorities. Around 1997, she filed the first of some 15 police reports claiming that her father or some other man was sexually assaulting her (Clarence denies he ever visited Colorado). But "we could never corroborate information because she would never do any follow-up," says Det. Terry Thrumston of the Colorado Springs Police Department.
One of Swinton's calls in 2005 led to her arrest. In June of that year, staffers at an adoption agency in Castle Rock, Colo., notified police that a girl claiming her name was Jessica had contacted them about giving up her newborn for adoption. The baby, Jessica claimed, was the product of sexual molestation by her father. On the morning she was scheduled to bring in the newborn, she left a note at the agency saying she'd changed her mind, would leave the baby at a fire station and then kill herself, according to a police report. That set off a three-day search by police that eventually identified Swinton as the hoax caller (with no baby). She was charged with false reporting and obstructing government operations, to which she pleaded guilty in 2007 in return for a deferred sentence.
Yet the calls continued—to school counselors, women's shelters and police. Among the cast of characters Swinton impersonated, according to Thrumston: April, who claimed she was molested by her father; Ericka, who said she'd been impregnated by her uncle, and Dana, who alleged that she was abused by her youth pastor. This past February, according to an arrest-warrant affidavit against Swinton, Colorado Springs police responded to two 911 calls from someone claiming to be Jennifer, a 4-year-old abused girl locked in a basement. By tracking the calls, cops narrowed the location to a two-block radius and then searched the area house by house for a trapped little girl. Swinton "basically shut down a whole police division," says Thrumston. The girl was never found. (In between calls, Swinton also found time to get elected as a state delegate for Sen. Barack Obama in the Colorado Democratic caucuses.)
Swinton's alleged behavior is difficult to categorize. On one hand, she seems to inhabit her fabricated identities so thoroughly that some who have dealt with her believe she may indeed suffer from multiple personality disorder. She said as much in a conversation with Jennifer Pierce, a victim advocate at a Colorado Springs social services agency who received calls from the Dana character for months. Describing a stay at a shelter at one point, Dana said "she had another personality named Rozita … and Rozita took 'them' to the safe house," says Pierce. Dana explained that "her personality comes out when Rozita feels threatened, and she's there to protect Rozita." Court documents show that Swinton takes prescribed medication, sees a therapist and has attended an in-patient program in Missouri.
Yet there's a highly rational and calculating aspect to Swinton's alleged deeds. In the past few years, she has used at least nine cell-phone numbers—many of them prepaid, avoiding the need to register them—to orchestrate her ruses, according to police. And rather than slipping uncontrollably into one character or another, she has seemed to switch between them at will.
Psychiatrists interviewed by NEWSWEEK say that although they wouldn't rule out multiple-personality disorder—a controversial diagnosis technically known as dissociative identity disorder (DID)—Swinton's behavior doesn't match the usual profile (none of them has personally examined her). "People with DID typically have intense stories of their own abuse" and don't "run around reporting on other people's abuse," says David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. Richard Kluft, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine, says it's possible that Swinton suffers from other conditions, like factitious disorder, in which people have a need to be seen as ill and deliberately create symptoms to prove it.
Whatever the case, Swinton's alleged deceptions began to unravel in March. Thrumston had already concluded that the countless calls from little girls were probably made by the same person. But she hadn't yet established a link to Swinton. Things finally clicked when Thrumston interviewed Pierce, the victim advocate, who provided a phone number for Dana that matched one on record for Swinton. On April 13, one of Thrumston's sergeants received a call from the Texas Rangers, who had traced two phone numbers in the FLDS investigation to Colorado Springs. One of them, Thrumston discovered, was associated with Swinton. Within days, police obtained a search warrant for Swinton's home, carted off boxes of evidence and arrested her for false reporting in the episode involving the house-to-house search.
Swinton's legal troubles are mounting. She's now awaiting an October trial in the Colorado Springs case, in which she pleaded not guilty. The case in Castle Rock has been reopened, since her arrest violated the terms of her deferred sentence. And the Texas Rangers are "actively pursuing" her as a "person of interest" in the FLDS case, according to a press release. Whether any of this has curbed her alleged trickery is unclear. Only hours after Swinton was released on bond in Colorado Springs, Jessop, the former FLDS member, received a call. It was the same voice as before, except now the caller said her name was Rose. "You're playing games with me," Jessop said. "It's not a game," Rose responded, sobbing. "I know you think I probably tricked you, but it's not like that." Even now, Swinton's calls can sound like a genuine cry for help. Instead, they stand to land her in jail.