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Girl ran away from home to avoid an arranged marriage

March 3, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
When she disappeared, Jesse Bender's parents told investigators they suspected she was with someone she met online.

But when sheriff's deputies found the teenager hiding in a local hotel they got an entirely different story. Her parents could now be facing charges.

For eight days, authorities were focused on the missing girl. Now that the 13-year-old has been found safe, authorities are turning their attention toward her parents and relatives for allegedly misleading police.

"Her brothers and sisters miss her so much and they want her to come back," the girl's mother Melissa Bender said in a video last week. "Whoever you are that has my daughter please let her go."

The child's mother had told police that she believed her daughter was abducted by a child predator. But as it turns out, police say Jesse was staying with her uncle the whole time, hiding from her parents the night before they left on a family trip.

"Jesse's mother said they were planning a two-month long vacation to Pakistan," said Cindy Bachman, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. "And then Jesse left in the middle of the night."

Police said Jesse feared her parents were going to set her up for an arranged marriage during the trip to Pakistan, so she went into hiding with relatives.

"They obviously felt that Jesse's story was valid and therefore harbored her," said Bachman. "Pending completion of the investigation, she's out of the custody of all her family members and in the custody of children and family services."

Jesse's siblings were also placed in protective custody.

Neighbors were shocked by the news.

"I'm very angry," said neighbor Ryan Halstrum. "I have a whole bunch of nieces and nephews. How am I supposed to let them come over and play in the yard when we have people over here trying to sell their own daughter to an arranged marriage? How does that make me feel over here? It makes me feel sick."

It is unclear if anything will come of the plans for allegedly forcing marriage on the girl.

The district attorney's office will decide were to charge the family for making false statements.