Indian Takers

Steve Bison of Alabama's Cherokee River Indian Community says the war over 4-year-old Raven Laws may be traced back to the legendary Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

"It's a long story," he says.

Fought during the War of 1812, it pitted soldiers under the leadership of General Andrew Jackson and their Cherokee Indian allies against the Creeks. After his victory, Jackson forced the Creeks to cede about half of Alabama and part of Georgia. The Cherokees claimed a chunk of that land, for a time.

The connection between a cute little Apache Junction girl and the seventh president of the United States does require a certain leap of logic, or illogic.

But the issues aren't nearly so obscure to most everyone else involved in one of Maricopa County's more unusual custody battles.

To Superior Court Judge Lisa Daniel Flores, it would come down to this:

Yes, Raven's mother, Rochelle Walters, had a record of committing crimes and abusing methamphetamine. Police had arrested Walters on forgery and identity theft charges while she was pregnant with Raven, and returned her to jail from a Valley hospital bed soon after she gave birth.

Raven's father, Marty Laws, also a convicted felon and a tweaker, couldn't take care of himself, much less a small child.

And, yes, the judge would conclude, Jack and Aneta Bessinger, a Cave Creek couple who had assumed surrogate parenting duties of Raven, had done a fine job (and without financial compensation).

The Bessingers operate Embrace, a home for at-risk children in the desert north of Phoenix. Raven had lived there since shortly after her birth, except for eight months that ended in April 2005, when Shelly Walters was jailed on a probation violation for continuing to do meth and a shoplifting conviction.

But to the Bessingers' dismay, Flores ruled last November 14 that Walters, apparently drug-free for almost a year by then, had earned a shot at being a real mother to Raven, who was two weeks short of her fourth birthday.

Earlier, the judge had given everyone a good idea of where she was headed.

"I don't question the good motivation that you have to help people and trying to help Ms. Walters," Flores told the Bessingers in June 2006, six months after the couple won temporary legal custody of Raven.

"But you need to understand that she is Mom, and she is going to get the child back as soon as her life is together . . . If Ms. Walters does have her act together — and Child Protective Services clearly thinks she does — there is absolutely no basis for her to be with you."

In other words, natural parents legally hold sway in custody cases, even over folks who may have done a better job with a child than the biological parents.

In this instance, the Bessingers had bonded with Raven as if she were their own.

"No one paid a dime to these people, including the mom," says their attorney, Greg Riebesehl. "As a society, we should feel blessed to have people out there like them. It's very sad what happened."

Trouble was, according to the ample public records produced during this case, the Bessingers took desperate measures to ensure that Raven never again would live under her mother's roof.

Those measures began a few months after Walters was released from prison in early 2004, when the couple filed court documents accusing her of abandoning Raven. That first legal attempt to convince a judge that Walters' parental rights should be terminated didn't work.

But the Bessingers remained steadfast, often with good reason, that they could better provide for Raven than her mother.

They upped the ante in late 2005, alleging that Walters had sexually abused Raven during a Christmas Day visit. However, a forensic examiner at ChildHelp failed to substantiate the claims.

Unfortunately, allegations (true or not) of abuse are commonplace in Family Court and rarely become newsworthy. The Raven Laws custody battle would have stayed out of the media but for a bizarre turn of events in late January.

It hit the news on January 23, after two Native American women, somehow connected with Alabama's Cherokee River Indian Community (CRIC), kidnapped Raven from her mother's home in Apache Junction.

The women took Raven while Shelly Walters was in a Mesa courtroom trying to persuade Judge Flores to end visitation privileges approved for the Bessingers after the couple grudgingly had returned the child in November.

Accompanied by a Maricopa County sheriff's deputy, the women flashed papers at Walters' 14-year-old daughter, who was home alone with her half-sister Raven.

Signed by an alleged "juvenile judge pro tem" with the Cherokee River Indian Community, the paperwork said the group was assuming control over Raven's case under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

Enacted in 1978, that law allows tribes to assume control over certain custody matters involving Native American kids. Congress created the Act after alarmingly high numbers of Indian children were taken from their families and placed into non-tribal foster and adoptive homes, where they often lost touch with their cultural heritage.

The law covers only children who belong to any of the 562 tribes officially recognized by the U.S. government, or those eligible for membership in one of those tribes.

Raven Laws is about 5 percent Indian, according to genetic testing that the Bessingers commissioned last year (at a cost of about $7,000, according to court records).

But the Cherokee River Indian Community isn't a recognized tribe. It explains on its Web site (www.cric.org) that it isn't "a social club or a tribe, but a community of American Indian people who desire to build a better life for themselves and their children."

That alone should have spelled the end of any legal intervention by the community in Raven's case at the Maricopa County courthouse. Also, Raven Laws' natural parents have no known connection with any Indian tribe, recognized or not.

Undaunted, the Alabama group "enrolled" the little girl on November 15, 2006, the day after Judge Flores had ordered Raven's immediate return to Walters. More important, nothing stopped the two Native American women representing the group from taking Raven.

According to Steve Bison, a former Phoenix resident who is the CRIC's director of emergency services, school superintendent, court clerk, fire chief and, yes, head horse trainer, the community numbers about 60 people who live on private land in north Alabama's Lawrence County, about 1,700 miles from Arizona.

He says the Cherokee River community has its own constitution, bylaws, volunteer fire department, tribal council, and court system.

"We're legitimate," the affable Bison tells New Times by phone. "We just want what's best for Raven, and that's the honest truth. I was shocked when the ladies went in and picked up that little girl. It wasn't supposed to happen like that. It was an administrative error, and we're sorry for that."

Bison says his group got involved in the Laws case because of the Bessingers.

"We learned about the situation and did our homework," he says. "I went out to Arizona to the [Bessingers'] home and spoke with the kids there, to get a feeling of how they were being treated. It went from there."

The Native American women kept Raven at a west Phoenix home for two days, until police tracked her down on the evening of January 24 after getting a tip.

The girl was unharmed, and authorities immediately returned her to her mother in Apache Junction.

Brenda Byers and Iva Marie Badoni, both Phoenix residents, were charged with kidnapping and custodial interference.

The media soon went away.

But the profound issues raised during this quirky case decidedly did not.

If history is any indicator, the odds of Shelly Walters holding it together — staying off meth, keeping a job, and following through on CPS services — may be slim.

She is a twice-divorced 40-year-old (she and Marty Laws never married) whose drug troubles often have overwhelmed her ability to adequately parent her three children, Raven and two teens.

But Walters has fared surprisingly well since getting Raven back from the Bessingers in November, according to available child-welfare reports.

As for the Bessingers, they also have much to answer for, especially their role in Raven's kidnapping. But at heart, they seem to be guilty mostly of having exercised poor judgment about their evolving role in Raven's life.

"It is clear that Raven is well-cared for and very much loved by [the Bessingers]," an attorney appointed as a court adviser in the case told Judge Flores last year.

But, as the judge recently noted, "the Bessingers are not the parents. It is not an equal situation. They are not on equal footing with the mom."

The judge made a critical distinction.

Arizona and federal law make it difficult for judges to terminate parental rights, even when a case involves parents who seem unfit to care for anything.

The entrenched concept of "family preservation" means child-welfare officials must make "reasonable efforts" to give natural parents every opportunity to win back their children.

For example, on November 14, the same day Flores ordered Raven back into the custody of Shelly Walters, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed termination of a mother's parental rights involving her two children.

A trial judge had ruled earlier that the mother showed "poor parenting skills, poor decision-making and inadequate protection of children."

But the appellate court said "the best-interest standard does not permit termination because a child might be better off living elsewhere. Termination should not be used to merely reallocate children to better and more prosperous parents."

How to balance "family reunification" with a child's health and safety is a slippery slope for state legislatures, governors and judges. For starters, it can be political suicide to oppose anything with the word "family" attached to it (with the exception of the Manson Family).

By law, CPS must investigate when it learns of alleged wrongdoing against a child by a parent or guardian, whether it's neglect or outright abuse. But the agency doesn't just grab kids willy-nilly on the sole basis of an allegation and spirit them away into mysterious foster-care homes.

CPS files "dependency petitions" only if it finds evidence of immediate danger to a child and if the parents seem unable or unwilling to provide minimally adequate care.

But terminating the rights of parents in Arizona and elsewhere remains the exception rather than the rule, according to the Child Welfare League of America.

Certainly, though, CPS would have stepped in had it gotten wind of what was happening in the self-destructive lives of Raven Laws' parents shortly before her birth in 2002.

But Raven would slip under the radar of CPS and its foster-care system when Shelly Walters went the private route for her new daughter, after happening onto Jack and Aneta Bessinger.

Shelly Walters and Marty Laws were in dire straits when Raven was born on November 28, 2002.

Laws was an unemployed 42-year-old tweaker with serious physical problems. He apparently didn't even know he was Raven's father until after the little girl's birth.

Walters told a probation officer in 2002 that she'd started tweaking at the age of 21, which would have been in 1987, before meth became an evil drug of choice for many. She said she tweaked daily starting in the mid-1990s.

A county grand jury indicted Walters in early 2002 on forgery and identity theft charges. Later that year, police re-arrested her on additional charges of possessing meth.

By then, she was pregnant with Raven.

A question arose of who would take care of the newborn if Walters was sentenced to prison, which appeared likely after she pleaded guilty in October 2002 to two counts of forgery.

For various reasons, her family members were unavailable.

Another female inmate at the county jail offered Walters a possible solution. The woman mentioned that her mother ran an unofficial group home for at-risk children in the desert north of Phoenix.

Called Embrace, the 4,500-square-foot residence isn't part of the state Department of Economic Security's foster-care system. As such, it hasn't been subject to CPS oversight, which is supposed to include training, background checks and monitoring.

Embrace receives no government funding and relies on donations from churches and private individuals. The owner of a small Phoenix business, Jack Bessinger has poured thousands of dollars into the home, which his wife operates.

The home finds its children (two or three live there at a time, according to court testimony) by word of mouth. Some kids stay there short-term, while others call Embrace home for years.

By all accounts, the Bessingers have created a nurturing and safe place.

Shelly Walters and Aneta Bessinger first spoke by phone shortly before Raven's birth. They struck an unwritten agreement that the Bessingers would assume parental and financial responsibilities for the baby while Walters was incarcerated.

Raven's birth was without complications, but the intense mother-daughter relationship lasted only until authorities soon returned Shelly Walters to jail.

The Bessingers took Raven into Embrace, where she would live for about the first year and a half of her life.

Shortly before Walters was sentenced on January 22, 2003, she wrote to county Judge John Gaylord that "sending me to the DOC will only keep a family separated longer and deny a newborn baby that chance to bond to her mother. She's in a foster home now only because her father has cancer and can hardly take care of himself much less a newborn baby. But I will get her back when I'm released to go home."

The judge didn't bite and sentenced her to 18 months in prison, with credit for time already served.

Walters was released on probation in January 2004. Aneta Bessinger later testified that she learned of Walters' release only after prison officials returned unopened letters the Bessingers had mailed to her.

That March, Aneta informed CPS that Walters had "abandoned" Raven, a possible first step toward termination of the mother's parental rights.

But a subsequent CPS investigation sided with Walters.

Caseworkers apparently believed Walters when she claimed she hadn't immediately visited Raven because she first wanted to get her feet on the ground — drug rehab, a place to live, community-service hours and employment.

Embrace was the only home that Raven had ever known. She had bonded with everyone there, including her surrogate parents and siblings (the other at-risk kids), and with a horse named Miracle.

She was healthy and safe.

But in late June 2004, the Bessingers — with no legal hold on the child — unhappily turned over Raven to Shelly Walters.

Within a month, however, the couple filed a dependency petition against Walters in county court, saying she was incapable of adequately parenting Raven, then nearing her second birthday.

The Bessingers alleged in part that Walters wrongly had reported Raven as kidnapped when she was trying to get her child back, and that 10 sheriff's deputies had come to Embrace after authorities issued an Amber Alert.

Aneta Bessinger also claimed she had seen Shelly Walters pull Raven's hair and fling the little girl against the furniture at Embrace.

CPS again investigated and learned that Walters had called the sheriff's office but that no patrol cars had been dispatched to Embrace and no Amber Alert issued.

CPS recommended dismissal of the Bessingers' petition, and a judge agreed.

Shelly Walters was allowed to keep her daughter.

But she couldn't hold herself together.

In January 2005, Walters and her teenage son were charged with shoplifting at a Mesa store and later pleaded guilty. That April, court officials sought to revoke Walters' probation, alleging that she had used meth at least six times since the previous September, among other misdeeds.

A judge ordered her back to jail for a few months.

Marty Laws tried briefly to take care of his daughter, but he had other pressing matters, including a trial scheduled that summer on a methamphetamine possession charge (he was convicted and placed on probation).

Laws asked the Bessingers if they would take Raven back, which they gladly did.

Shelly Walters visited her daughter weekly at Embrace after she got out of jail in the summer of 2005. But she wasn't in control of the situation — the Bessingers and Marty Laws were.

Last year, Walters insisted to Judge Flores that her relationship with Laws was solid and enduring.

But, in October 2005, she had written in court papers that, "Marty told me that I will never see Raven again and he would do physical harm to me if I attempted to take her back."

All this laid the groundwork for what happened in 2006, a year of increasingly contentious courtroom battles.

In 1997, the Arizona Legislature passed a law that allows stepparents (blood relatives or not) who have acted in place of a natural parent to gain legal custody or visitation with a child.

Courts use the term in loco parentis to describe the situation, and loco doesn't mean crazy.

The law authorizes county judges to approve visitation and even award custody to non-parents under certain circumstances.

But the legislators didn't make it easy for non-parents, who must convince a judge with "clear and convincing" evidence that it would be "significantly detrimental" to leave a child with his or her biological parents.

Still, on December 28, 2005, the Bessingers asked county Judge Arthur Anderson for legal custody of Raven, who had just celebrated her third birthday.

"It would be significantly detrimental to the child to remain or be placed in the custody of either of the child's natural living parents," their attorney wrote. "Both have substantial criminal histories, current criminal charges pending against them, [and] the minor child has been neglected while in their care and physically abused."

The Bessingers now claimed someone had smacked Raven during a visit at Shelly Walters' home that Christmas Day, leaving bruises on the girl's face and torso. They quoted from a report by psychologist Madeline Modrak, who had spoken to Raven on December 26.

Modrak had written that "it is [my] opinion that Raven is a child in significant imminent physical danger, in addition to ongoing emotional trauma when in her parents' care [with] the potential to result in severe injury or death."

Walters responded by angrily denying wrongdoing and asked Judge Anderson to order Raven's removal from Embrace until he decided on custody.

An emergency hearing on January 12 included inflammatory new allegations by the Bessingers that Walters had performed oral sex on her daughter, or vice versa.

CPS caseworker Charlotte Driver informed the judge that her agency was investigating the allegations of abuse.

"My job now and always is to put something in place that's in the child's best interest," she testified. "Right now, I have concerns about mother and father being able to provide a safe, stable placement."

But Driver also expressed concern that no one had informed CPS about the alleged abuse of Raven for five days after supposedly learning about it.

Still, Driver concluded that "the best thing for Raven at this time while I am trying to conduct my investigation . . . is to stay [at Embrace]."

Marty Laws showed up at this hearing (the only one he's ever attended in the custody case) to testify that "my daughter is my entire life. These people [the Bessingers] know it. Everybody knows it. I don't know what they think they're trying to do with this. Aneta feels that because she's had my daughter since birth that it's her kid. I don't know what's wrong with her, but that is what she believes."

Shelly Walters testified that she had been working as a waitress in east Mesa and had been off drugs for months, which the CPS caseworker confirmed.

Each parent agreed to take a urinalysis that day.

Walters did, and passed. Laws never took the test.

The next day, January 13, 2006, Judge Anderson wrote that Raven "appears to have developed stable and consistent relationships" at Embrace and gave temporary sole legal custody of the child to the Bessingers.

The judge also suspended visitation of Raven by either natural parent until further notice.

It was a smashing win for the Bessingers.

Then, for reasons never sufficiently explained, CPS officials showed up unannounced at Embrace one week later and took Raven into their custody. They did so under an Arizona law that allows the agency to put at-risk children into emergency foster care for up to 72 hours, not including weekends or holidays.

The Bessingers' attorney went ballistic, telling Anderson in a pleading that "CPS has unlawfully retained this child as an act of vengeance for [the Bessingers] failing to go to CPS before seeking emergency custody through this court. Why was this child ripped from her home?"

With Raven in a CPS-sanctioned foster home, Anderson set another emergency hearing for January 27.

Charlotte Driver of CPS told the judge that Shelly Walters had signed an agreement to allow the agency to keep Raven in foster care for at least 30 days as "family preservation" services were put into place.

Driver said it now troubled CPS that Embrace is unlicensed and unregulated, and that its owners had failed to promptly report the allegations of abuse toward Raven. She also said CPS was unhappy that the Bessingers had allowed drug felon Marty Laws to live at the home for a time in late 2005.

"Right now, we're going to try reunifying the child with the mother," the caseworker testified, sounding far more favorably disposed toward Walters than she had just two weeks earlier.

"We strongly recommend that Raven not be returned to the Bessingers. I know the Bessingers have placed a lot of judgments, which is completely natural, toward the natural mother and father. But that doesn't nix the parents from getting a right to parent their child."

Greg Riebesehl argued that Shelly Walters had lost her authority to sign Raven into foster care when the judge granted custody of Raven to the Bessingers, an intriguing point.

"Bottom line, they are the only parents that this child has ever known," the attorney said of his clients.

Judge Anderson noted that "the only people who've ever stepped up in this child's life [were the Bessingers]."

He then ordered CPS to return Raven to Embrace within 24 hours.

Shelly Walters wouldn't see her little girl for another six months.

Lisa Daniel Flores reported to Family Court in March 2006 after Governor Janet Napolitano appointed her to the bench.

The new judge was well-suited to the assignment, having spent two years of a decade-long stint with the Arizona Attorney General's Office representing CPS in dependency cases.

On June 19, Flores heard testimony for the first time about Raven's custody case, which she had taken over from Judge Anderson.

By then, CPS caseworker Driver had become an outright fan of Shelly Walters, who was living with her two teenagers and an older couple at the couple's home in Apache Junction.

Driver told the judge that she had been visiting Walters, had done background checks on the elderly couple and couldn't be happier with the woman's attitude and progress.

"Your Honor, we have a problem," she testified, "because Mom's done [drug tests]. Mom's been clean, Mom's got a stable job, Mom's got a stable home . . . I strongly feel that Rochelle deserves the chance to be a parent to her child. And this whole thing has turned into quite a mess."

The judge expressed deep displeasure that Walters had been denied access to Raven for months.

"Parents have a fundamental right to parent their own children," Flores told attorney Riebesehl. "And as well-meaning and bonded as your clients may be to this child, and they may have provided a wonderful service and taken good care of her for a significant period of time, as long as the child's mother is able to parent her, the child's mother has absolute preference over anybody else — mother or father . . . The only way [the child's] better off in [the Bessingers'] care is if [the mother is] unable to parent."

Riebesehl responded that "it seems like you're prejudging the matter, that it's an automatic [that] the child is going to be back with Mother, without hearing evidence."

Flores ignored the jibe, and set the case for a full evidentiary hearing on October 4.

Though the judge decided not to immediately remove Raven from the Bessingers' custody, she approved weekly visitations and daily phone calls between mother and daughter.

"The longer Raven goes without seeing Mom, the more difficult the transition will be," Flores said.

Walters' weekly three-hour visitations with her daughter occurred at CPS offices in northwest Phoenix, about 40 miles from her home in Apache Junction. Her only mode of transportation was a series of city buses, but she got there faithfully and on time.

But the Bessingers proved less than accommodating, often showing up late with Raven and making things generally unpleasant, according to CPS accounts.

"This whole case is confusing to me," Charlotte Driver wrote in an e-mail that later became part of the court record. "I can't imagine what little Raven feels like!"

Driver also wrote that Aneta Bessinger had asked her during one visitation, "How could we let a child molester have a three-hour visit with a 3-year-old child?"

That alleged "molester" was Shelly Walters, against whom no charges had been filed nor any wrongdoing substantiated.

In another e-mail, Driver said that "Aneta is saying things to confuse Raven a lot. I think at this point she is trying to pull out all the stops to keep Raven."

During a visitation that July, Aneta Bessinger introduced the CPS workers to Brenda Byers, a Native American woman from Phoenix.

Byers apparently informed them that Raven's DNA was going to be tested to see if the little girl had Indian blood and was eligible for benefits from an unspecified tribe.

"They strongly believe that if the [Indian Child Welfare Act] gets involved, then this whole thing will go away," Driver wrote at the time.

Raven's neophyte Native American connection threw a new wrinkle into the already-complex custody case.

"Oh, yes, the Indians," says Greg Riebesehl, in a way that suggests they aren't his favorite subject.

"Their involvement made it look like the whole thing was staged by the Bessingers to keep the mother from getting Raven."

By the end of last summer, both CPS and Judge Flores' court adviser were recommending increased visits between Raven and her mother in supervised and unsupervised settings.

"[Walters] has fought hard to try and gain custody of her daughter and has agreed to do whatever it takes to have her daughter in her care," Driver wrote positively to the judge on July 31, 2006.

That night, state police stopped Marty Laws and another man in a pickup truck on U.S. 60, less than an hour after a break-in at a Rent-A-Center store in south Phoenix. Inside the truck, the cops found a television set, three laptop computers and ripped-up price tags from the store.

They booked the men on theft charges.

As the evidentiary hearing in Raven's custody case neared last September, the Bessingers' attorney hurled a curveball at Flores.

Greg Riebesehl asked the judge to cancel the crucial hearing because Raven had tested positively for Indian blood — all of 5 percent — and that a Native American tribe should take over the custody case in its own court system.

"Marty Laws' ancestry traces to the Cherokee people," the lawyer wrote, noting that the Cherokee Nation had assigned a caseworker to investigate the Laws case.

The only accurate piece of the account was that the Cherokees — an officially recognized, 250,000-strong tribe based in Oklahoma and North Carolina — had assigned a caseworker.

But as early as October 2004, that caseworker had written to an associate of the Bessingers, "[Raven] will not be considered an 'Indian child' in relationship to the Cherokee Nation as defined in the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. Therefore, the Cherokee Nation is not empowered to intervene in this matter."

Flores also didn't buy the Bessingers' Indian ploy and ordered the evidentiary hearing to go forward.

Attorney Stephanie Stromfors, the court adviser to Flores in the case, best summed up the knotty situation toward the end of the emotionally charged hearing.

"While Mother has a history," she said, "Mother is trying her best to overcome that history . . . While I genuinely believe [the Bessingers] care for Raven, and I genuinely believe Raven cares for the Bessingers, their judgment is clouded and they are not [allowing] Mom to have the relationship that she should have with this child."

On November 14, Flores issued an eight-page ruling in favor of Shelly Walters.

"At some point after Raven's birth, Mother was released from incarceration and sought the return of Raven," the judge wrote. "A tug of war began, with Raven caught in the middle."

That was it in a nutshell.

Flores concluded that the Bessingers "are not credible. There are examples in both the CPS reports and in testimony to this court of [the couple] greatly exaggerating the truth to support their efforts to keep Raven."

The judge scoffed at the "last-minute" efforts by the Bessingers to try to preempt her with the Indian Child Welfare Act, "notwithstanding the fact that no Indian tribe had sought to intervene."

Flores' order gave Shelly Walters permission to take immediate custody of Raven from the Bessingers.

She also ordered Walters to participate in services offered by CPS, though she wouldn't allow Marty Laws to have contact with his daughter until further notice.

Despite ruling for Walters, the judge said the Bessingers were entitled by law to visitation rights for a few hours every other weekend in a public place.

That arrangement would last for all of two months.

New Times recently asked Brenda Byers what she was thinking when she and a accomplice took Raven Laws from her mother's home.

"As an officer of the court, I cannot comment," Byers replied in a phone interview.

She was asked, in what jurisdiction does that court sit?

"The Cherokee River Indian Community. I work with the juvenile court, and so I cannot comment. Please talk to Dr. Steve Bison in Alabama, and he can answer your questions."

The 55-year-old Bison was an important figure in the events that led to Raven's kidnapping on January 23, and its aftermath.

He says he used to live on Arizona's Gila River Indian Reservation, worked as a chaplain at the state's Adobe Mountain juvenile detention facility, and is a permanently disabled veteran of Operation Desert Storm.

Bison also says he earned a doctorate at Arizona State University "in criminal law, with a specialty in Indian law."

However, an admissions official at ASU could find no record of Bison's matriculation there.

Bison's name and correct e-mail address did pop up on a Web site dedicated to creating phony degrees from a phony institution called Gesellschaft University.

A note ostensibly written by Bison on the site says, "I did my best to bullshit everyone I have met and owe my special talent to Gesellschaft University. I am a master at everything decietful [sic], lowdown, dirty and shameful."

What is true is that Steve Bison serves in many capacities for the Cherokee River Indian Community.

Public records in Lawrence County, Alabama, show that Gene and Klieta Bagwell bought 40 acres in the Bankhead National Forest in 1979. The CRIC was founded in 1998, with Gene Bagwell as its chairman.

Over time, the Bagwells have sold parcels of their property to their own organization.

The community has established several non-profits, including a funeral and cemetery/cremation firm, the Silverwolf Horse Sanctuary, the Black Warrior Mountain American-Indian Church, and the Alabama Minority Consumer Council.

Through its Web site, the group also offers a prepaid Visa card with a tagline on it that says, "Building a future for our children."

The sales pitch says 3 percent of the loaded card value will be "donated" to the CRIC for "economic development and housing."

A March 2005 story in an Alabama newspaper described how Bucks County, Pennsylvania, firefighters had donated about $15,000 of equipment to "Chief Bison" and the CRIC's fledgling volunteer department.

However, a curious attempt in 2004 to get bulletproof vests through a U.S. Justice Department program fell short.

Steve Bison tells New Times that he first heard about Raven Laws last year.

"Our children are the only future that Indians have," he says. "All we have left is our kids. Our concern is not the parents; it's the child. I told the Bessingers that our involvement might mean that neither they nor the mother would have contact with the child. They were okay with that. All we want is for Raven to be protected. You know, Ms. Walters is not the mother of the year."

In early January, Shelly Walters filed a handwritten request with Flores to stop the twice-monthly visitations between Raven and the Bessingers.

Among other things, she alleged that Aneta Bessinger was continually telling Raven that "I'm the bad person that took her away from them [and] that she is Raven's mom."

On the morning of January 23, the judge prepared to hear testimony on the issue of the Bessingers' continued visitation. But first, she announced from the bench that, the day before, she had gotten a missive on the CRIC's letterhead from Charles T. Brandle, who said he was a tribal Juvenile Court judge pro tem based in Arizona.

Brandle had alerted Flores that the Alabama tribe was going to intervene in the case because Raven was an "enrolled" member.

Flores didn't buy it.

"This is a Family Court proceeding, and there is no possibility of foster-care placement or of termination of parental rights," she said, which alone would have rendered the Indian Child Welfare Act inapplicable.

The judge certainly wasn't the Bessingers' ally, but she also didn't seem eager to totally sever their connection with Raven.

"It strikes me, Ms. Walters," Flores said, "that you voluntarily placed Raven with the Bessingers when you found yourself in the position of being incarcerated and being pregnant. They did help out in a difficult time."

"Yeah, they did," Walters replied.

"You were using them as your backup when you were unable to take care of [Raven] for whatever the reason was, so she developed a bond with them. I don't know if it's unfair to Raven to say, 'I'm fine, the Bessingers can go away.' "

That said, the judge disallowed any more visits between Raven and the Bessingers until after a court-appointed psychologist rendered an opinion.

Shelly Walters returned to her Apache Junction home after the hearing to check in on her older daughter and Raven.

That's when she learned about the two Native American women and the sheriff's deputy who'd knocked on the door, showed her 14-year-old daughter the Alabama Indian community's paperwork, and quickly left with Raven — all as the hearing had been going on in Mesa.

Extremely upset, Walters contacted both law enforcement and Flores' staff. The judge ordered the Bessingers and Walters to return to court at 4 p.m., before which she wrote a memorandum about the wild turn of events:

"The tribal representatives took custody of the child without legal authority and with knowledge that their actions violated the custody order of this Arizona court. The Bessingers have proven themselves again to be unwilling to abide by this Court's orders. The tragic result of this latest effort is the 4-year-old child was taken from her home by complete strangers and is being held in a 'safe house,' the location of which is unknown to all the people who love and care about her."

Flores said she would be conducting hearings every day until Raven's safe return to her mother.

News of the bizarre kidnapping (and, of all things, while using an apparently unwitting sheriff's deputy as a dupe and a prop) was the lead story on Phoenix television on the evening of January 23.

The next afternoon, attorney Kimberly Pugh appeared for the first time on behalf of Shelly Walters. Pugh said she had actually spoken by phone a few hours earlier to one of the kidnappers, Marie Badoni.

Pugh said Badoni claimed to be a court advocate for "17 tribes," and that the Bessingers had hired her and Brenda to grab Raven.

"She swears up and down that she doesn't know where the child is," Pugh told the judge. "She said, yes, the child left with Brenda . . . they have both helped kidnap the child."

During the hearing, the judge learned from the bench that Brenda Byers had been taken into custody in west Phoenix.

But little Raven still was unaccounted for.

"Another sleepless night for you, Mom," Flores told Shelly Walters at the end of the hearing.

Sheriff's deputies recovered Raven later that evening at a home near 39th Avenue and Glendale. The cops also arrested Marie Badoni on kidnapping charges.

The judge held yet another hearing on the morning of January 25, and Shelly Walters' attorney soon brought up a sticky subject.

Kimberly Pugh said Walters' teenage daughter didn't want to be home alone anymore with Raven (according to Pugh, the girl is "home-schooled over the Internet.")

In turn, Walters was worrying about what to do with Raven while working as a waitress during the day.

Remarkably, Pugh suggested that Marty Laws, Raven's wayward dad, be allowed to babysit the child at Walters' residence.

Pugh informed the judge that Laws was on probation "from old drug charges" and that "he is in obeyance with all the terms of his probation."


Laws is facing a long prison term if convicted on the pending July 2006 theft charges.

But attorney Pugh wasn't alone in trumpeting Marty Laws as the solution.

An attorney representing Raven Laws at the hearing said she, too, had no problem with Laws' being in charge of the child's welfare during the day.

"I'm really in a quandary here," Flores said. "Isn't there any other option?"

"There really isn't, Your Honor," Kimberly Pugh replied. "I understand the circumstances are horrible . . . but [it's] a controlled environment with Mom [working] across the street."

CPS caseworker Charlotte Driver joined the chorus, saying she had met Laws once or twice, and "I honestly do not feel that he would ever harm his daughter or put his daughter in jeopardy in Mother's home."

Flores agreed to allow Laws to "provide care of [Raven] in Mother's home only. Father's ability to care for the child is conditioned upon Father's completion of his participation in services through CPS."

Also through CPS, the judge ordered Laws to participate in twice-weekly random drug testing, and "if Father tests positive for drugs, Father's authorization to provide care for the child will be revoked."

Before adjourning, Flores told Walters that she had seen a photo of Raven on television the previous evening.

"She's a beautiful child, and I'm just so happy that she's back with you," the judge said. "I want you to take good care of her."

Jack and Aneta Bessinger declined to discuss Raven's case at length with New Times.

"I don't know what could be gained by speaking," Jack Bessinger said last week by phone. "We'll always love that little girl, and we feel betrayed by [Flores] and by the whole system that's all up to reward messed-up parents."

Bessinger also said that he didn't put the Native American women up to kidnapping Raven, saying "that's not our way of doing things."

The couple's attorney, Greg Riebesehl, waxes philosophically about the situation: "Time may heal all pain, but that doesn't make it the right thing to do."

In hindsight, Riebesehl concedes that "to Mom's credit, she really did step up to the plate and wanted back in her child's life. And, realistically, she should [be] back in her child's life if she stays straight."

Judge Flores tells New Times she has heard nothing negative about Raven's parents since the little girl's safe return.

And as for the two women who took Raven Laws?

Both were released from custody shortly after their arrests, and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has yet to seek an indictment against either.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin