Indian Takers

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin