RECKLESS ABANDONMENT

SHE WAS ROBBED OF HER HEARING AT BIRTH. SHE WAS ROBBED OF A HOME LIFE BY AN INDEFFERENT MOTHER. SHE WA ROBBED OF HER VIRGINITY AT AGE 12, BECOMING A MOTHER AT AGE 14. AND DESPITE CLEAR EVIDENCE OF ABUSE, IT TOOK THE SYSTEM YEARS TO COME TO HER AID.

Benita and Rafael had sex regularly after that. She says he'd use a condom now and then. Rafael later brought birth control pills back with him from a trip to Mexico, but they made her ill and she stopped taking them.

That July, she missed her period and began to experience morning sickness. Benita wouldn't admit to herself that she might be pregnant.

Finally, she told Maureen Gallucci, her former teacher and longtime confidante at school, how badly she was feeling. Gallucci took her to a clinic, where a pregnancy test came up positive.

Benita wrote about that day in her diary: "Doctor talk to Maureen. Yes, Benita pregnant. Maureen told me. I was shocked. Cry. Then Maureen and I went to eat. Talk about my being pregnant. My mom was sad and cry. Then Maureen leave."

Gallucci and someone from the clinic separately called CPS, which contacted Phoenix police on August 31, 1991.

Police reports say CPS caseworker Margaret Lothian told Officer Raul Bustamante she couldn't interview Benita because she didn't know sign language. Neither did Bustamante.

Nonetheless, the pair met at the Manhassett Apartments to sort out what they could about the pregnant, deaf girl.

CPS' Lothian interviewed Benita's mother and older sister. When it was over, she informed Officer Bustamante she wasn't going to put Benita into foster care.

Instead, Margaret Lothian instructed Benita, through her sister, to avoid Rafael. It's not certain if the caseworker knew the sister was dating another Machuca brother at the time.

The authorities left Benita to fend for herself.
"Everyone was telling me not to say who the dad was," she recalls, "because Rafael would go to jail. I was scared. I didn't know what to think."

Five days after the first interviews, Phoenix police detective Jack Martin and two CPS caseworkers went to interview Benita at PDSD. The caseworkers spoke with her first, as a school counselor interpreted and the detective waited outside.

Benita admitted she'd been having sex with Rafael, and that he'd been hitting her during during their frequent arguments.

Detective Martin then introduced himself to the girl. He told Benita he was concerned someone "might be doing things to her against her will" and he needed to know the truth.

Benita replied fiercely that she liked having sex with Rafael and no one had forced her to do anything.

Her attitude should not have shocked anyone. The insularity of the deaf world makes it difficult for victims to come forward in the best of circumstances. This was not the best of circumstances, for Benita or the police.

For better or worse, Rafael had become a constant in her life. She hated his temper, his drinking, his drug use. But, in a way, she felt safer with him than she did with her mother.

Martin's short interview with Benita went badly. He ended it by saying Rafael would go to jail if the two continued to have sex.

Two days later, Martin looked for Rafael at the Manhassett Apartments. He wasn't home, so the detective left his card. His police report concluded: "Bonita's [sic] mother does not speak English, so I did not contact her."

Days passed, and Martin again returned to the apartments. The detective spoke with an apartment manager, who said he knew Rafael had been molesting a 13-year-old girl.

"Most of the people in the complex were already aware of it, as well," Martin's report said. But Rafael had fled to Mexico after hearing that the police were looking for him, the manager told the detective.

Rafael Machuca needn't have been so concerned. On September 10, 1991, Martin dropped his investigation. "It would be impossible to prosecute this case at the present time," he wrote, "because the victim is a hostile witness and refuses to testify. . ."

Martin's supervisor, Lieutenant Al Thiele, doesn't fault his detective's conclusion, and quickly passes the buck to CPS for not having pulled Benita out of the house sooner.

"This may sound callous," Thiele says, "but no one in our unit tends to get very excited about a 13-year-old going with a 20-year-old. It's wrong, of course, but our experience is that juries don't convict on those facts. But why that girl was allowed to stay with that mother is another issue."

Thiele says Martin's report should have been forwarded to CPS and to the County Attorney's Office. But prosecutors say they never got it. This glitch would become important in light of what was to come.

Rafael Machuca spent a few months in Mexico before he returned to Phoenix. He and the pregnant Benita resumed where they'd left off, staying together most nights at her mother's two-bedroom apartment. In return, Benita says, Rafael--a cook at an Italian restaurant--helped out with money.

But the relationship between the prospective parents was souring, Benita says, and had become increasingly violent.

"I was black and blue on my arms from where he hit me," Benita says. "I wore long sleeves at school. My teacher asked me what was going on. I said it had been my sister doing it."

On February 23, 1992, Benita gave birth one month prematurely to a healthy, five-pound, 13-ounce baby boy. In the delivery room were her sister Maria and teacher Maureen Gallucci, who interpreted the doctor's instructions for Benita in sign language.

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