Searchers angry at CA family in missing girl case

Last Updated: Sun, Mar 06, 2011 15:00 hrs

People who helped search for a California girl reported missing by her family said Thursday that they were outraged to learn the 13-year-old's family gave authorities misleading information as she hid to avoid an alleged arranged marriage in Pakistan.

A neighbor of 13-year-old Jesse Bender said he felt tricked by the girl's family, who San Bernardino County sheriff's investigators said reported that she may have run off with a sexual predator.

"There are a lot of people in the neighborhood who feel betrayed, sickened and disgusted," Ryan Halstrum, 23, told the Victorville Daily Press.

Melissa Bender reported her daughter missing from the family's home in the desert city of Hesperia on Feb. 22.

She initially said her daughter was upset about having to go on a long vacation to Pakistan, where Bender's boyfriend is from, before she disappeared. Several days later, she told detectives that she was worried her daughter may have run away with somebody she met on Facebook.

Her statement prompted a national kidnapping probe involving several law enforcement agencies. Friends and neighbors passed out fliers and tried to spread the word on the Internet.

On Wednesday, investigators found Jesse safely hiding at a hotel in the neighboring town of Apple Valley with the help of a relative who didn't want her to go to Pakistan.

"I think it's shameful what that mother did and for the family member not to come forward and tell the police what he knew," Maryann Sands of Victorville said. "He could've saved everyone a lot of time and grief."

Jesse and her three siblings were taken into child protective custody, and detectives are trying to determine whether she was going to be taken abroad for marriage, sheriff's spokeswoman Arden Wiltshire said.

"There is a concern for all the children," Wiltshire said Thursday. "If this is possible it was going to occur with one, there is a concern for all of them."

No arrest has been made. Sheriff's officials say the case has been forwarded to the district attorney's office to determine whether any charges will be filed.


Information from: Daily Press,

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