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 wanted to name her son David, but Rafael had insisted that a boy be named after him. Again, she acceded to his wishes.

Benita Venegas was very proud of her new son, though she had little idea how to care for him. She returned to school after Ralfy was born, leaving the baby with her mother, neighbors and other family members.

Benita and Rafael were the talk of the Manhassett Apartments grapevine. Some believed Rafael to be a child molester who deserved to be locked up. Others saw Benita Venegas as a deaf Lolita. But everyone agreed Benita's mother had let things get out of control.

"We thought the mother should be shot," says Miguel Lopez, who was living there with his daughter at the time. "This punk was strutting around like a stud, 'cuz he'd gotten into the pants of a little deaf girl. Then the older brother came along."

The older brother was Javier Machuca, who had turned 30 in June 1992. Benita long had known Javier was attracted to her. He'd tried drunkenly to kiss her a time or two, though she'd rebuffed his advances. After Rafael again left for Mexico, Javier made his move.

Their sexual relationship may have been hastened by something Benita says happened to her that July. She was walking alone in a park near her home, Benita says, when a man grabbed and raped her.

Benita told a PDSD school counselor she thought she knew the man's first name and where he lived. CPS and the Phoenix police were called in to investigate.

But detectives put little stock in Benita's allegations, especially after they reviewed the failed 1991 case. Police reports show the rape investigation ended before police interviewed either the suspect or the alleged victim.

Javier Machuca consoled Benita, she says, saying he wanted to protect her. They began to spend lots of time together, with her mother's blessing.

Soon, the 30-year-old man and the 14-year-old girl began to have sex.
On February 19, 1993, the Phoenix police were called yet again to the Manhassett Apartments. Apartment manager Maria Lourdes Hernandez told them Benita had a fresh welt on her shoulder, where Javier Machuca allegedly had whacked her with a plastic bat.

But there was a deeper motivation for Hernandez's call.
"What can you do when you see problems?" says Hernandez, who has managed the apartments since May 1992. "I did what I thought was best. These Machuca guys took advantage of her. They washed her brain and the mother let them. It was crazy."

Lacking an interpreter, a Phoenix street cop jotted down a few questions for Benita to answer. She again refused to cooperate, saying only she wanted Javier to leave her alone.

Phoenix sex-crimes detective Arthur Smith was assigned that day to investigate. Three weeks later, he interviewed Benita at PDSD.

In Benita's mind, the police were an enemy not to be trusted. Things always seemed to get worse when they came around, and everyone blamed her.

Benita told the cop through a school counselor that she'd been a willing partner in the sexual relationship with Javier. Getting hit by the plastic bat had been no big deal, she added.

Smith then interviewed Javier Machuca at the police station. A talkative sort, Javier said Benita had given birth to his brother's child. He'd felt compelled to look after the girl in Rafael's absence. Somehow, he explained, that had evolved into a sexual relationship. Javier tearfully blamed the girl for seducing him.

"Javier told me he would be drinking and he would let her convince him," Smith's report said. "He told me he would argue with her after they had sex, telling her it was wrong."

Despite Javier's admission, the detective let him go after the interview. His reasoning: "Benita has consented to the sexual relationship, and because of her display of uncooperativeness."

Following procedure, Smith sent a report--albeit halfhearted--on Javier Machuca to the County Attorney's office for consideration as a sex-abuse filing. The report went to the desk of senior prosecutor Vince Imbordino. He turned it down a few weeks later.

"It's not unusual to get this type of case and not be able to go with it," says Imbordino. "I'm looking at a girl who has had consensual sex. . . . Even with the suspect's admissions, she was unwilling to provide enough information as to when the acts occurred. It was apparent she had told as much as she was going to tell."

Specificity would always be a problem with Benita, who's not good at remembering or recording dates or times. But authorities can't blame everything on the girl.

Vince Imbordino says he's certain he never saw or heard about the August 1991 police report involving Benita Venegas and Rafael Machuca.

"I wish I had known about it," he says. "If I had had that report, I'm convinced I would have tried to clarify some things. It would have raised questions about just what was going on with this girl."

Imbordino also says he's unsure that meeting with Benita last year would have convinced him to prosecute Javier Machuca: "The girl you're talking to now is probably much different than the girl back then. I'm not sure whether it would have done any good."

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