Indian Takers

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"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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin