Charges Dropped Against Liberian Parents Who Blamed Girl for Rape

All charges have been dropped in the child-abuse case against a Liberian couple who blamed their 8-year-old daughter for being gang-raped.

The July 2009 incident in Phoenix made international headlines and sparked fresh commentary about Liberia's alleged sub-culture of rape, which evolved during the West African nation's civil war from 1989 to 2003. As many as three-quarters of Liberia's women were raped during that time, according to a 2009 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, who helped expose the country's persistently high occurrence of rapes — often of girls as young as 4.

Phoenix police detailed the shocking allegations, reporting that four boys aged 9 through 14 lured the girl into a shed with an offer of chewing gum, then held her down while each of them sexually assaulted her. The oldest boy was initially charged as an adult, but court records show his case was handled in juvenile court; it was apparently wrapped up in 2010. All of the suspects were refugees from Liberia, and all but one lived in the west Phoenix apartment complex where the crime took place.

According to police at the time, "Patrol officers then assisted Child Protective Services with removing the victim from the custody of her parents, who, according to detectives, blamed her for being victimized and bringing shame to their family."

News coverage of the attack brought strong comments from Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. "This is not a question of shame on a family," she told news media at the time." It's a question of assault on a young child and that can not be tolerated."

Edwin Sele, Liberia's ambassador to the United States, came to Phoenix the following month at Sirleaf's request to talk to local Liberian community leaders and defend his country's reputation. 

While investigating the case, police found what they believed was evidence of child abuse by parents Hemie and Wedeh Dio. The couple had hit their daughter with fists and sticks since she was 4, police alleged. Each parent was charged in 2009 with seven counts of child abuse, and served a few weeks in jail before being released with court dates pending.

Records show that a deferred prosecution plan was being discussed between the parents and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery in late 2013.

The refugee couple received financial assistance from the state's Child Protective Services agency (now called the Department of Child Safety) "to secure new housing," say court minutes from an April 2014 hearing. It was anticipated that the girl, who then would have been about 13, would return to the care of her parents.

"My client is harsher than the typical American parent, but he's normal where they come from," — Gerald Gavin, lawyer for Liberian refugee Hemie Dio.

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In November, an "issue between the child and an adult brother" resulted in the girl being placed back in foster care, and the state began seeking a long-term guardian for her.

With the help of a Grebo-speaking court interpreter, negotiations concluded on March 31. A long-term guardian had been found for the girl, the parents had complied with terms required by Montgomery's office, and the prosecutor's office agreed to drop the child-abuse charges.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Bruce Cohen accepted the prosecutor's motion to dismiss during a court hearing this morning.

"During the pendency of this matter, while we struggled to find an interpreter who could effectively communicate in the illiterate defendants' dialect, we directed the defendants to comply with all orders of the juvenile court in dependency proceedings," Montgomery tells New Times. "Following full compliance with juvenile court proceedings for the last year and full compliance with pretrial services for the last six years, we agreed to dismiss the case without prejudice having established the necessary conditions for child safety that we could mandate. Proceeding with a prosecution would have required interpreter resources not available in the United States and would not have added much more to the supervision that had taken place over the last six years."

Hemie Dio's Mesa attorney, Gerald Gavin, says he and the Dios are "extremely happy" with the resolution of the case.

"They fled a country where people were hacking each other up with machetes, then they got embroiled in our legal system," Gavin says.

Phoenix and child-safety workers thought the girl might be in danger with her parents, but the concerns came from cultural differences, the lawyer maintains.

"My client is harsher than the typical American parent, but he's normal where they come from," he says. "They are strict, but good people."

Still, the girl "doesn't feel comfortable living with them" any longer, Gavin says. "Their relationship has been destroyed by everything that took place."

Gavin says he has "zero concern" that the Dios would fail to live up to the terms of the deferred-prosecution deal, which typically requires some level of monitoring and attendance of parenting classes. The parents will likely continue to play at least a small role in the girl's life, he says.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.