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

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

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.

Jesse Bender: Neighbors Shocked By Alleged Hoax

"They live on my street and it's definitely crazy how things have changed through this case," said the neighbor. "We were under the impression she was taken and my children were so scared. We even had someone fly in to stay with use because my husband was out of town."

The neighbor described the Jesse Bender's mother as "definitely not a stable person and I know her children didn't particularly care for her."

Jesse had told the neighbor and her 10-year-old daughter that she was "moving" to Pakistan.

"She never mentioned anything about an arranged marriage to my daughter," said the neighbor. "But she did tell me when the news said that the family was going on a two-month vacation, 'It's not a vacation, she's moving there. She can't take her out of school for two months. It made no sense."

Jesse's mother reported her daughter missing on Feb. 22, telling authorities that her daughter was upset about having to go on a two-month vacation to Pakistan, according to police.

Police reported several days later that Melissa Bender said she worried that her daughter had run off with someone she had been communicating with on Facebook, which prompted a nationwide kidnapping investigation by the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, and multiple law enforcement agencies.

"All that information was misleading," Cindy Bachman, spokesman for the San Bernardino County sheriff's office, told the Associated Press. "Whoever she was communicating with online was not a threat to her."

Investigators began to zero in on the family and police eventually learned that a "relative" was hiding Jesse. That person led police to the girl.

Experts say there are no reliable statistics for how many minors are forced by immigrant parents to go overseas for arranged marriages.

"There are women's organizations that focus on the immigrant communities and this is among the types of request for help that they receive," said Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "It's not unheard of and, in fact, it is becoming a more prominent issue."

The complaints usually fall under the category of domestic violence, she said. "Parents use threats against the girls in the family if they don't like someone they are dating or somebody getting westernized. These threats are used against the girls."

Varia said that the United Kingdom had adopted a law in 2007 to help girls in this situation -- the Forced Marriage Act.

"It basically allows anybody at risk if being taken out of the country and forced into marriage to get a protection order against the parents," she said. "Then, if that person does break the order, they are liable to be arrested."

ABC reporter Lisa Sivertsen and information specialist Melissa Lenderman contributed to this report.

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