Man in Sex Slave Case Pleads Not Guilty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man accused of kidnaping a 14-year-old girl in Mexico and holding her as a sex slave in Los Angeles was charged Tuesday with lewd conduct. But authorities declined to file kidnaping charges after the girl recanted her earlier story and told them she came to Los Angeles voluntarily.

Agustin Ramirez, 31, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Los Angeles Municipal Court to six counts of having sex with a minor. He is being held on $100,000 bail pending a preliminary hearing on March 30.

Authorities also disclosed that Ramirez is the girl's brother-in-law and that he had talked her into leaving her village in Mexico and coming with him to Los Angeles. The girl told investigators Monday night that she made up her story of kidnap and sex enslavement because she feared the reactions of her mother and sister. The sister is married to Ramirez. They have five children.

Authorities said they decided to charge Ramirez because the girl was too young to consent to sex.

"She is still a victim," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Diana Teran. "Even though perhaps it was consensual, it is against the law in the state of California to have sex with a child.

"Based on our interview with her, we are filing the most serious charges we can file," Teran added. "If further investigation reveals something else later on, then we can file more charges."

If convicted on all six counts filed against him, Ramirez could be sentenced to up to six years in prison, the same penalty he could receive for statutory rape, Teran said. Ramirez and the girl were together for a month. Each count represents five days that the girl was with Ramirez, during which they had sex repeatedly, the prosecutor said.

The girl's story gained wide attention after her brother, Marcelino Benitez, came to Los Angeles from Houston and launched an exhaustive, 10-day search. His efforts led sheriff's deputies to a barbecue stand in South-Central Los Angeles, where Ramirez was arrested and the teen-ager was taken into protective custody. Initially, the girl told authorities a shocking tale of being kidnaped in a village in the Mexican state of Puebla and taken to Los Angeles. She said Ramirez threatened to kill her mother if she tried to escape.

But when pressed on Monday for more details about the alleged abduction, she told investigators that Ramirez actually was married to her older sister, authorities said. The girl "said she would tell us the truth but that she did not want her family to find out," Teran said. "She was ashamed after it became evident that she was there voluntarily."

Ramirez talked the teen-ager into going to Los Angeles by promising to "take care of her and send money back to her mother," said one law enforcement official familiar with the case, who asked not to be named.

"She said that initially she went with him thinking it was just as friends, but that later the relationship developed into something more," the source said. "She said she wanted to be with him and is in love with him. She is upset now that he is in jail."

Benitez and his sister, whose name has not been released, are staying together at an undisclosed location and could not be reached for comment. But the source said Benitez was bewildered by the turn of events.

Authorities said the girl is likely to be returned to her home in Mexico, although there is a chance she could be taken into protective custody in Los Angeles. The county Department of Children's Services is expected to decide how to handle the case within a few days, Teran said.

Teran said Tuesday that there was no medical evidence that the girl had been sexually assaulted, despite earlier reports by the Sheriff's Department that she had.

The girl's predicament might not have come to light if her brother had not left his job at a Houston restaurant early this month to begin his search.

After a call from his mother, Benitez was on a plane to Los Angeles within three days, armed only with a picture of Ramirez and a report that he might be staying with his brothers who ran the barbecue shack.

Benitez spent days searching fruitlessly--scanning the sea of Latino faces outside downtown's Grand Central Market, then phoning dozens of restaurants and, taking buses to visit scores of restaurants.

Finally, he happened on Mom's Bar-B-Q, a dilapidated chicken and rib joint on Imperial Highway in the Athens District of South-Central Los Angeles. Benitez enlisted the support of sheriff's deputies, who arrested Ramirez.

Authorities say Benitez knew all along that the man he was looking for was married to another one of his sisters.

In addition, Gardena Police Department officials denied earlier claims by Benitez that he had been refused help by the department.

Lt. Gary Cherry said a Gardena detective went door-to-door for two days trying to track down Ramirez and the teen-age girl. The department referred Benitez to sheriff's deputies after he told them that he had found Ramirez at the barbecue stand, Cherry said. The establishment is in the Athens District of South-Central Los Angeles, an area patrolled by the Sheriff's Department.

But investigators and prosecutors said the new information does not detract from the courage that Benitez displayed in searching for his sister in a sprawling and unfamiliar city.

"The brother is still a total hero," Teran said. "He saved his sister."

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