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Thirteen-year-old girl reported missing fled to avoid arranged marriage, authorities say

March 2, 2011 |  4:58 pm

A 13-year-old Hesperia girl reported missing by her family on Feb. 22 apparently left to avoid being taken to Pakistan for an arranged marriage, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department officials said Wednesday.

Detectives found Jessie Marie Bender safe and in good condition in an Apple Valley motel, where she was being hidden by another family member. Jesse and her three siblings have been taken into protective custody by county social services pending the outcome of the investigation.

Bender’s mother had told detectives that her daughter did not want to go on a two-month family trip to Pakistan and ran away. She later told police her daughter may have been abducted by someone she had been corresponding with on Facebook, triggering a massive search for the teenager that included local law enforcement, the FBI, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S.Marshals Service and detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department and Chicago Police Department.

After combing through cellphone records and computer data and interviewing her friends and families, however, sheriff’s detectives found no evidence that her disappearance was related to her correspondence on Facebook and that the family’s initial reports were false.

“Bender family members misled detectives and withheld critical information and as a result delayed the investigation and recovery of their daughter Jesse Bender," Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Roxanne Walker said in a news release.  “It was revealed that a member of the Bender family concealed Jess in the town of Apple Valley out of fear that she would be taken to Pakistan for an arranged marriage."

The investigation is ongoing and will be forwarded to the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office for review.

-- Phil Willon