Jesse Bender, 13, Escapes Forced Marriage in Pakistan, Say Police

Police investigate family of Jesse Bender, who said daughter was kidnapped.

ByABC News
March 3, 2011, 4:51 PM

March 3, 2011— -- The parents of a California 13-year-old are under investigation after the girl told police she was being forced to go to Pakistan for an arranged marriage.

The girl, Jesse Marie Bender, disappeared for more than a week and prompted a nationwide search after her mother, Melissa Bender, told police that her daughter had run off with someone she met on Facebook.

Friends and neighbors in the high-desert community of Hesperia launched a desperate search -- only to discover Wednesday that Jesse was being hidden from her mother and Pakistani stepfather by other family members.

Bender, who was described as an honors student in the eighth grade at Cedar Middle School, was taken in by child protective services along with her three siblings as authorities decide whether to charge the parents, according to San Bernardino County Sheriff's office.

Jesse went missing on Feb. 22. She was discovered with her uncle and grandmother in nearby Apple Valley on March 2. No arrests have been made.

"There is nothing new at this time," said San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Rachel Walker. "The report has been forwarded to the district attorney's office for their review."

Jesse and her younger brother John had been living with their uncle, Michael Bender, who is their mother's brother and was not married. The family also included their disabled grandmother, Mary Bender, according to neighbors.

"Michael takes care of her and the children," said a 33-year-old neighbor who lives on his street and did not want to be identified. "He's a really great guy and works really hard to support all of them."

She said Bender was in school and worked nights.

"I actually give him a lot of credit," she said of reports that he had hidden Jesse when the girl thought she might have to go to Pakistan.

Several calls to Melissa, Michael and their mother, Mary Bender, were not returned to today.

The children's mother was married to a Pakistani man who identified himself to reporters as "Mo." He was not the children's father.

"The mother generally doesn't live here and came back a few months ago," said the neighbor. "The kids are raised by Michael, their uncle. Jessie is a great girl -- a really sweet girl. She plays with my twins all the time."

The neighbor said she was "really taken aback" when they learned that Jesse had been found hiding with her uncle.

She said she had even joined the search and arranged to have photos of Jesse printed on Domino's Pizza boxes.