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.

This was new territory for Benita.
"I like to have fun and smile," she says. "But I have to work, too. That's okay. They don't hurt me or my son. They really like me, except when I'm a brat."

As trust grew, Benita began to open up to Ellen White. The Whites knew the basics of Benita's story--her horrific family life, the pregnancy at 13--but there was much more.

The details revolted the couple. Ellen White decided to find out why no one had been brought to justice for abusing Benita.

In her quest, White enjoyed an advantage over the average citizen: She often interprets for the courts and for police, so she's familiar with the criminal-justice system. That, combined with her stubborn streak, made for a potent package.

In April, White left a note about Benita for veteran Phoenix sex-crimes detective Lou Marotta, a longtime acquaintance whom she respected. White's message had a sense of urgency: Rafael Machuca had contacted Benita's latest CPS caseworker, Mary Roberts, and planned to seek legal custody of Ralfy.

Marotta's report details how he called CPS' Roberts, who confirmed that her agency had received a slew of complaints about the Machucas and Benita's mother.

Marotta told Roberts he couldn't tell from reading prior police reports whether Rafael Machuca actually was Ralfy's father. The caseworker informed him that Rafael had volunteered to submit to testing to prove his paternity.

Let me know what the test shows, Marotta told Roberts. The test showed that Rafael Machuca was Ralfy's father.

Roberts mailed the results to Marotta on May 31, but heard nothing from the detective for two weeks. With Ellen White hounding her almost daily, Roberts finally called the police to get a status report.

On June 15, Roberts got return calls from two detectives. One call came from detective Art Smith, who had investigated the rejected 1993 case involving Javier Machuca. He did not remember Benita with fondness and summarily dismissed the updated allegations.

"I recognized the name Bonita Vanegas [sic] from a prior contact with her," Smith's police report says. "I told Mary [Roberts] of Bonita's promiscuous behavior, and advised her at this time there is nothing we can do."

Lou Marotta also called Mary Roberts that day. The detective said he'd received copies of about 20 complaints to CPS concerning Benita's welfare, but hadn't seen the paternity test results.

The missing letter from Roberts turned up days later--it remains uncertain why it was delayed--at which time Marotta informed Mary Roberts he'd reopen the case.

But another month went by without any investigation. Ellen White kept pushing. Finally, on July 12, Marotta interviewed Benita.

Through an ASL interpreter--not White--Benita recounted her history with Rafael and Javier Machuca--the seductions, the "bird house," the pregnancy. The interview was far from perfect. Benita still couldn't recall dates, and it was clear she was holding some things back.

But Ellen White knew from experience that problems such as these crop up frequently in sex-abuse cases involving juveniles. She began to believe the Machucas finally would be brought to justice.

Nevertheless, the case against the Machucas again stalled after the July 12 interview.

In early August, Cindy Nannetti, a prosecutor who supervises the sex-crimes unit, learned New Times was preparing a story about Benita. It was the first time Nannetti had heard of the girl or the case.

After doing some homework, Nannetti contacted Lou Marotta and asked him to put Benita's case on the front burner. The detective complied.

On August 17, Phoenix police arrested Javier and Rafael Machuca on charges of sexually abusing Benita. The brothers told Marotta they couldn't understand why they'd been arrested. Benita's mother had allowed them to sleep with the girl at her apartment, they explained, and Benita hadn't complained.

In his interview, Rafael added that he'd been eager to take responsibility for his son, as his voluntary paternity testing proved.

Police booked the brothers into the Maricopa County Jail, where they remain, awaiting trial.

By most accounts, Benita Venegas has made remarkable progress in her nine months as the Whites' foster child. Her recent appearance before Commissioner Roy Waddell was markedly different than an earlier one at which she threw a tantrum.

Those present say Waddell told Benita she should be proud of how well she's doing. Her case was one of the worst he's ever heard, Waddell reportedly said, and he praised the Whites for their foster parenting.

"The foster parents provided a new and far better kind of atmosphere for the girl," agrees Phoenix police lieutenant Al Thiele. "She obviously feels safer and freer to talk to us. It was a stroke of luck for her and for us."

But real-life cases such as Benita's rarely have Hollywood endings. She's been suspended from school once this year after a vicious fight with another girl. She suffers dramatic mood swings, and fears the retaliation of the Machucas for having come forward.

Life for Benita Venegas, it seems, is destined to be a struggle.
Ellen White wonders what will become of her foster daughter.
"She'll just be 26 and her son will be going into his teens," White says, shaking her head at the thought of it. "I hope she has learned a skill and found a guy who can find it in his heart to be good to her. That's about the best thing to hope for."

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