Friday, March 4, 2011
Jesse Bender Says She Fled to Avoid Forced Marriage
HESPERIA, Calif. -- Investigators who spent more than a week searching for a 13-year-old girl her family feared had run away with someone she met online found her unharmed in a hotel Wednesday, where she said she had been hiding to avoid being forced into an arranged marriage in Pakistan.
Jesse Bender was taken into child protective custody as authorities decide whether to recommend filing charges against her family, San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said.
No arrests have been made. A call to the Bender family home in the desert city of Hesperia went unanswered late Wednesday.
Jesse's mother reported her missing on Feb. 22, telling authorities that her daughter was upset about having to go on a two-month vacation to her father's native Pakistan, Bachman said.
Several days later, Melissa Bender told investigators she was worried her daughter ran off with someone she had been communicating with on Facebook. Her statement launched a nationwide kidnapping investigation by the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, and multiple law enforcement agencies fearful that the girl was with an Internet predator.
Detectives served several search warrants and the investigation reached as far as Chicago because the mother believed the person who befriended her daughter on Facebook lived there.
"All that information was misleading," Bachman said. "Whoever she was communicating with online was not a threat to her."
As detectives began to focus on the Bender family, they learned that a relative was hiding Jessie in the nearby town of Apple Valley out of fear that she would be taken to Pakistan. That relative led detectives to the hotel early Wednesday.
Jesse's three siblings were also taken into child protective custody pending the completion of the investigation, Bachman said.