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Troubles Beyond a Girl’s 11 Years

Times Staff Writers

Elijah threw a water balloon at Maribel as she played in the frontyard. From the street, he teased her and called her names. Mad and wet, Maribel told Elijah to leave, then she threw a rock at him, drawing blood just above his left eye.

Most examples of this schoolyard staple -- boy hits girl, girl hits back -- end without arrests, felony charges or electronic monitoring anklets.

Then there is the case of 11-year-old Maribel Cuevas.

In April, police arrested the Fresno girl on suspicion of felony assault after Elijah Vang was hit with a rock. She spent five days in Juvenile Hall, then was placed under house arrest and forced to wear a monitoring anklet for 30 days. She is expected to stand trial in Juvenile Court today. If the allegation is found true, the fourth-grader could spend the next four years incarcerated.

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Fresno police said the girl’s actions were anything but child’s play. Officers responding to a 911 call said they retrieved a 2-pound rock thrown by Maribel. It opened a deep gash that required stitches.

“If she had hit the kid on the temple, she could have killed him,” said Fresno Police Sgt. Anthony Martinez. “Then the story would read, ‘Little boy throws water balloon, little girl throws rock and kills him.’ ”

Fresno’s mayor and police chief stand by the official handling of the incident. But the case of Maribel Cuevas has generated baffled, angry reactions from as far away as France, as observers question whether adult penalties are being levied on what amounts to childish behavior gone awry.

In this Central San Joaquin Valley city, hardly a hotbed of activism, the arrest has unleashed an outcry from activists who say that it is an example of police excess by a department with a poor history of community relations. A recent candlelight vigil in support of Maribel drew close to 100 people.

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“What we have here is just kids being kids,” said Richard A. Beshwate Jr., the girl’s lawyer. “Somebody got hurt and it’s unfortunate, but this behavior does not rise to the level of criminal activity.”

Fresno County Assistant Dist. Atty. Robert Ellis said the department could not comment because the case involves a minor.

Elijah and Maribel live in a working-class neighborhood of Latinos and Asians, and both attend the same school. Maribel, the second of six children born to a ranch handyman and housewife from Guadalajara, struggled in school.

“She’s very shy and it took me a while for her to start feeling comfortable with me,” said Patty Shindler, a retired teacher who tutors Maribel once a week.

In an interview with an investigator for the defense, Maribel’s schoolteacher said the girl got along well with other students, and tried hard to improve.

Elijah’s teacher told a defense investigator that the 8-year-old was a good student, who sometimes had difficulty controlling his anger, erupting at fellow students with rants in the Hmong language.

The two were in different classes and grades, but on April 29, their paths met.

Maribel was at a friend’s house, playing in a gated yard with her 6-year-old brother and three younger friends. According to Maribel, Elijah and six other boys rode up on bikes and began taunting her, as Elijah had done in the past. Elijah pelted the girl with water balloons, hitting her in the head. The group also threw rocks, Maribel said.

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Maribel intended only to scare the boys away, Beshwate said, when she threw the rock from 25 to 30 feet away.

“I think she was as shocked as anybody that it actually hit the boy,” he said. “How could anybody have intended the outcome?”

Police describe the stone as a “jagged-edged piece of river rock” 5 1/2 inches long and 3 3/4 inches wide. Beshwate said that police recovered the wrong rock and that the real one is smaller.

An adult from the house tended the bleeding boy with a towel as Maribel ran around the corner to alert Elijah’s father and to apologize, Beshwate said. No one was home, and Maribel returned to find police waiting for her.

The girl alleged that an officer grabbed her by the back of her shirt, threw her to the ground, put his knee in her back, handcuffed her and put her in the back of the patrol car.

Police offer a different version. Officers maintain that no other boys were involved in the incident. Elijah threw only one water balloon, they said. A report filed after the incident depicted the girl as hysterical and apologetic.

“She scratched one of the officers in an effort to get away from him, then she threw herself on the ground and began to kick at the officers, to prevent them from taking her into custody,” Martinez said.

Both sides agree that the girl’s mother, who does not speak English, attempted to communicate with officers, neither of whom speaks Spanish.

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Guadalupe Cuevas, 33, said she wanted them to know that her daughter had a “nervous temperament” and that aggression would aggravate it.

“I tried to tell [police officers] about her condition ... that they shouldn’t talk to her like that, but they didn’t let me get near her,” Guadalupe Cuevas said. Later, Martinez said, a Spanish-speaking interpreter was dispatched to the scene.

Both sides also agree that Maribel did not understand her Miranda rights.

“I read Cuevas her Miranda warnings and asked if she understood, she replied with ‘no,’ ” Officer Christopher Green wrote in his report. “I read them line by line and explained until she understood each line.”

According to the report, Maribel told Green that she had been having trouble with Elijah “calling her names and flipping her off.”

“I asked Cuevas what she thought would happen if the rock hit Vang and she replied that it could make him bleed,” Green wrote. “Cuevas said she meant to hold back, but the rock slipped out of her hand and went in the direction of Vang striking him in the head.”

Due to the severity of Elijah’s injury, the size of the rock and the words from Maribel, the officers determined that a felony had been committed, Martinez said.

Elijah was taken to a hospital and released with stitches. His family could not be reached for comment.

When released from Juvenile Hall, Maribel returned home wearing the electronic monitoring anklet. It is not clear how common the use of such monitors is.

The judge required Maribel to be home by 3 p.m. each day. The thought of being sent back to Juvenile Hall for missing curfew so terrified the girl that school officials agreed to allow her to leave at 2:15 p.m. rather than 2:45. Cuevas said her daughter had trouble sleeping and would burst out crying.

“She didn’t believe me when I told her the bracelet would eventually come off,” her mother said.

Ironically, it was through Maribel’s involvement with a police-inspired mentoring and tutoring program that Beshwate learned of her case.

He slashed his fee, and New Harvest Church, which offers the program for low-income youth, is paying the bill.

In the aftermath of the arrest, police faced a long list of criticisms, some of which exaggerated the department’s role in determining Maribel’s fate, Martinez said.

“The Fresno Police Department has no influence over Juvenile Hall and we have no influence over the D.A.'s office and how they will prosecute and when they will prosecute a juvenile case,” Martinez said.

But Beshwate said police errors formed the basis for decisions made by the court and the district attorney’s office.

Police initially reported that Maribel was 13 and weighed 130 pounds; she is 11 and her family says she weighs 90 to 100 pounds. Police also said that Elijah was 6 -- he is 8 -- and that the rock weighed five pounds.

Some of the errors were based on misinformation received from the families involved, Martinez said.

The Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit is investigating the incident. The inquiry has not quieted local concerns about law enforcement.

Last Friday evening, a multiracial coalition that included Muslim and Christian leaders, immigrant groups and civil rights organizations held a vigil at Juvenile Hall in support of Maribel. Carrying placards that read “Stop Police Brutality,” the group said Maribel’s treatment was typical of how authorities police minority neighborhoods in Fresno.

The Rev. Floyd Harris, president of the California chapter of the National Action Network, said the police had failed to make an effort to communicate effectively with Maribel and her parents the day of her arrest.

“If this had happened in the rich part of town, they wouldn’t have done things the way they did,” he said. “They would have consulted with the parents first.”

Maribel and her parents attended the vigil, one example of how their life has changed since April. A simple thing like playing outside is not the same for Maribel, her parents said.

“The other day her cousins came to play with her and a police helicopter flew by,” said her father, Martin Cuevas. “Maribel ran inside as soon as she heard it.”

Zequeira reported from Fresno and Stewart from Los Angeles.


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