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Crime News Peacock

Who Was Sarah Jessop Barlow, And What Role Did She Play In Warren Jeffs' Downfall?

A terrified caller identifying herself as 15-year-old Sarah Jessop Barlow said she was being sexually abused her much older husband, launching a massive raid on The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' ranch in Texas, but she didn't actually exist.

By Jill Sederstrom

When a terrified caller, identifying herself as 15-year-old Sarah Jessop Barlow, called into a family crisis center in central Texas in April 2008, she set into motion a chain of events that would forever alter The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).

Texas authorities descended on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado with guns, a tank, and SWAT vehicles as they searched for Barlow, who had called into the Newbridge Family Shelter in San Angelo claiming to be the teenage bride of a man named Dale Barlow, according to Peacock’s “Preaching Evil: A Wife on The Run with Warren Jeffs,” available to stream now.

“There’s a potential situation with sexual assault. If it’s underage girl, well its sexual assault of a child,” said Sheriff Nick Hanna, a retired Texas Ranger, in the docuseries of why authorities stormed the property.

According to the Deseret News, Barlow told the shelter she had an 8-month-old child, was pregnant with a second, and was being abused by her much older spouse.

“Sarah Barlow desired to leave the YFZ Ranch compound, but stated to call takers that if she were caught, she would be locked in her room and not allowed to eat,” an affidavit obtained by The Deseret News stated.

While on the notoriously private and isolated ranch, law enforcement officers forced their way inside a FLDS temple and seized a trove of evidence, including priesthood records that would eventually be used to send FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, who was known as “the prophet,” to prison for life.

Authorities temporarily removed more than 400 children from the ranch—separating them from their families—as they investigated what they believed to be a “pervasive pattern” of sexual abuse by men against underage girls, according to the docuseries.

But the one thing they didn’t find was Sarah Jessop Barlow.

It turned out Barlow didn’t exist.

“There was a woman in Colorado with no ties whatsoever to the FLDS with a history of false police reports and mental illness that called into this hotline,” Nate Carlisle, former Salt Lake City Tribune reporter, said in the docuseries.

Authorities believe the person who placed the phone call on March 28, 2008 was a woman in her 30s named Rozita Swinton, who had a history of falsely reporting abuse, according to The Desert News.

In the days that followed the initial phone call to the Newbridge Family Shelter, “Sarah” placed multiple calls to other organizations as well. On March 30, 2008, she called anti-polygamy activist Flora Jessop.

Jessop spent more than 40 hours talking to the caller over multiple calls.

“She sounded just like a little girl,” Jessop told the paper in 2008. “She was really damn good.”

“Sarah” also placed calls to the Snohomish County Shelter for Battered Women in Washington approximately 28 times, called the Newbridge Family Shelter a total of 16 times, reached out to another shelter seven times, and spoke with Schleicher County Sheriff’s Deputy John Connor in Texas, the Deseret News reported.

Eventually investigators were able to trace the calls to Colorado Springs and Swinton was named a “person of interest,” according to the paper.

As of 2010, Swinton had not been charged for making the calls as “Sarah Jessop Barlow” but later pleaded guilty to one charge of false reporting in an unrelated charge stemming from an incident two months later,  according to Newsweek.

The property search of the FLDS compound resulted in the seizure of more than 700 pieces of evidence. They also found a log of Warren Jeffs' activities kept by his scribe and wife, Naomie Jeffs, known as the priesthood records that were later used as evidence against Jeffs. 

In the aftermath of the raid, some criticized law enforcement and child protective services for removing 468 children from the ranch and placing them in state custody for weeks as they investigated possible abuse. Although the children were returned to the families on June 1, 2008, the experience was traumatic for many of those involved.

“The state of Texas tried the case in terms of collective guilt that what happened in one part of the community condemned the whole community and that is not what the law says,” Susan Hays, child advocacy attorney said in “Preaching Evil.”  “You can’t take a child out of a household in a community of 500 people because in some other house something bad is happening.”

“Preaching Evil: A Wife on The Run with Warren Jeffs,” is available to stream now on Peacock.