Standing in front of TV cameras at a Hesperia gas station Monday, the distraught mother of a missing teenager made an urgent plea.
“If you are holding my daughter, please let her go,” Melissa Bender said. “Please, I beg you to let my daughter go. She’s just 13 years old.”
Jessie Marie Bender had been missing a week. Her mother told authorities she feared the girl had run away with a Chicago man she met on Facebook. Following the family’s initial report, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department launched a massive search in the High Desert town for the girl, bringing in agents from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Chicago police.
On Wednesday afternoon, detectives found the girl at an Apple Valley motel. She was hiding there, authorities said, with the help of an uncle who said she was running away from a forced marriage in Pakistan.
Investigators are now trying to find out whether such a marriage was being planned, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Roxanne Walker. But they know that the girl left home because she was scared.
“Jessie was afraid to go to Pakistan with her mom,” Walker said. “She was concerned about the situation, and she didn’t want to go.”
Melissa Bender, holding the door to her home slightly ajar, told a reporter Thursday that a forced marriage was not being planned. In a voice just above a whisper she said the family had planned a trip to Pakistan in February to visit the family of her 6-year-old daughter’s father.
“I just wanted my daughter to see it and experience it,” Bender said.
She said that she and her significant other, Mohammad Khan, a Pakistani man, passed lie detector tests and that she didn’t expect any charges would be filed against her.
“We’re all just very happy Jessie has been found,” she said. “I thank the community for all their help.”
When Jessie first disappeared Feb. 22, her mother told detectives that her daughter might have run away because she did not want to go on a two-month family trip to Pakistan, authorities said. A few days later Melissa Bender told them about the Facebook relationship.
Neighbors said a team of investigators showed up at the home earlier this week and searched inside and out.
“They shut down the cul-de-sac,” said Ryan Halstrum, 23, who was inside his home when investigators arrived. “They wouldn’t let anyone go through.”
After combing through cellphone records and computer data and interviewing Jessie’s friends and relatives, sheriff’s detectives found no evidence that her disappearance was related to her correspondence on Facebook and determined that the family’s initial reports were false.
“The evidence in the investigation never revealed any of that,” Walker said.
Jessie Bender and three siblings are now in protective custody. The investigation into the case is ongoing, and a report will be forwarded to the district attorney when it’s complete, Walker said.