The 25-year-old former Nebraska teacher arrested last month in Mexicali, Mexico, said in federal court Monday that she was strong-armed into leaving the country by her controlling and abusive teenage lover, a former student of hers.
"He used to threaten me, like if I ever left him he would kill me," Kelsey Peterson testified before the judge, according to an audio clip posted online by ABC News' Omaha affiliate KETV. "He left bruises all over my arms and across my chest at times when he would get angry with me," Peterson said, "so he was very much the dominant man in the relationship."
Late last month, Peterson, a former math teacher and basketball coach, pleaded not guilty to federal charges of crossing the border to have sex with a minor. She has been incarcerated at the Cass County jail and has yet to face state charges tied to the same incident, which began with a missing person's report in late October.
Peterson argued yesterday that she was not a flight risk, asking the judge if she could be released under certain conditions to her grandmother so she could start the process of facing state charges. The judge denied Peterson's request.
James Martin Davis, Peterson's attorney, has also continually raised questions about the age of the boy, whose undocumented immigrant status has prevented his return to the United States despite the ongoing federal and state prosecutions involving him. Davis was unavailable for comment today but reiterated his client's claims that it was the boy who was the aggressor after the hearing Monday.
He also took aim again at the boy's age, which he has claimed is older than 13. "So do you think he's still 13?" Davis asked reporters outside the federal courthouse Monday, according to video posted on KETV.
Joe Stecher, the United States attorney in Nebraska whose office is prosecuting the Peterson case, told ABC News that prosecutors have seen no evidence to suggest the boy is anything but 13 years old. "There's been a lot of rhetoric" on the matter, Stecher said.
Amy Peck, the lawyer for the 13-year-old, said that her client has documentation from the government in Mexico, where he was born, proving he is just 13. Peck is trying to convince federal authorities to bring the boy back to the United States because of Peterson's case.
Peck claims that the boy is living with relatives of his mother's in-laws. He is not with his mother, because she is in the United States illegally, is vulnerable to deportation and would not be allowed back in the country if she visited her son in Mexico. The boy has two brothers, Peck said, who were born in the United States and are American citizens. His father, according to Peck, lives in Mexico, but "is lost in the wind."
Peck is aiming for a special U visa, which allows illegal immigrants to receive legal status if they are recognized by the federal government as going through some type of trauma as a victim of a crime. To her, Peterson's attorney can say whatever he wants about the boy because he "is not here to defend himself."
"He's a child, and he's the victim and that is getting lost in all of this," Peck said, acknowledging that the defense has somewhat successfully painted her client as the predator in the relationship.
Stecher, the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, said that it would be presumptuous to simply assume that the boy's parents aren't caring for his well-being or that the Mexican government has turned its back on one of its citizens.
"I find it a little insulting that we would assume that the parents, wherever they are, aren't doing what they need to do to care for the boy or the Mexican government itself would let the boy suffer," Stecher said.
If his office determines that the case requires the boy's testimony, Stecher said, they would take the appropriate steps to legally bring him into the United States. For now, Peterson's trial is set to begin Jan. 22, and the boy will remain in Mexico.