Founder of anti-trafficking group charged with 31 felonies alleging forgery, theft

The founder and CEO of a nonprofit anti-human trafficking group was charged Monday with 31 felonies alleging fraud, theft and other crimes.
The founder and CEO of a nonprofit anti-human trafficking group was charged Monday with 31 felonies alleging fraud, theft and other crimes. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The founder of a nonprofit anti-human trafficking organization in Utah has been arrested and accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from donations and using the money for personal expenses such as cars, vacations and homes.

In addition, investigators say Candace Elexzandria Lierd, 37, also known as Candace Rivera, has made numerous false claims of being a nurse, physician and physician's assistant but was never licensed or registered in Utah.

Lierd was booked into the Utah County Jail Friday and charged Monday in 4th District Court with 31 felony crimes, including engaging in a pattern of unlawful activity, theft of services and four counts of communications fraud, second-degree felonies; 10 counts of theft, eight second-degree felonies and two third-degree felonies; two counts of identity fraud, a second-degree felony and a third-degree felony; plus six counts of forgery and seven counts of unprofessional conduct, third-degree felonies.

According to a statement from the Utah Attorney General's Office, its investigation "uncovered evidence that Candace Lierd repeatedly made false representations to donors who gave money to support the fight against human trafficking, and that Lierd used at least some of the money for personal expenses including homes, apartments, cars and trips."

From August 2020 through Dec. 27, 2022, Lierd was the CEO of Exitus, a Lehi-based nonprofit anti-human trafficking corporation. On her website, she describes herself as "the brand house owner of CR House & Co Brands, and while her passion and joy can be found in her brand, her greatest joy is found within being the CEO and founder of Exitus, an anti-human trafficking nonprofit organization."

Investigators say Exitus' business license expired in 2022 after it was not renewed. But the business was still soliciting donations on June 15 on Facebook and Instagram.

"Both social media pages appeared to document the organization's work in orphan rescues in Europe and solicited donations toward that effort," a police booking affidavit states.

"From Sept. 10, 2020, to present date, Candace Lierd misrepresented herself as a licensed registered nurse, medical doctor and nurse practitioner. Candace falsely stated that she held a position with the United Nations and was featured on BBC News. Candace also falsely asserted she was a successful business owner who has founded several multimillion-dollar companies," the affidavit states. "Based on the misleading and fraudulent representations made by Candace, the Exitus nonprofit corporation raised more than $1,697,000 since its founding in 2020."

The lengthy affidavit lists multiple times that investigators believe Lierd falsely represented herself to others, including in 2021 when she solicited a member of the Navajo Nation.

"Candace later met with tribal nation leaders to solicit donations for Exitus' work with a missing and murdered indigenous women effort." But a Navajo Nation member "later learned that no such effort to rescue or seek justice for missing and murdered indigenous women existed within Exitus," the affidavit alleges.

Lierd also entered into a residential agreement in Lehi but told the property manager that she "worked for the FBI and could not reveal the details of her work because everything she did was secret," according to the affidavit. She then wrote checks for the deposit and first month's rent, both of which bounced.

"Candace effectively 'squatted' at the property for about six months," the affidavit says. "And she caused approximately $10,000 in damage done to the property upon her eviction. There is no record of Candace being employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

In addition, investigators say Lierd used an Exitus credit card to buy her son a used Toyota 4-Runner. And in 2021 withdrew more than $400,000 from an Exitus bank account over four transactions that is still unaccounted for, according to the affidavit. Furthermore, investigators believe she took an additional $240,000 from an Exitus account to help with the purchase of a new home, according to the affidavit.

In May, Lierd was charged in 4th District Court with issuing a bad check, a second-degree felony. In that case, a man who says he was hired twice by Exitus to work events the company was hosting, was paid with checks that both bounced, according to charging documents.

Matt Johnson, who is listed as Exitus' business relations manager, and who says he "worked closely" with Lierd and Exitus, released a statement following her arrest saying he has severed all ties with her.

"Candace has personally lied to me about who she is and misled me to believe many things about her and her dealings with individuals, both personally and in business," he stated. "I apologize to those who are being affected by this; it's extremely disappointing and disheartening. Today is a very sad day for anti-trafficking work. ... I am sickened and hurt by this."