La Ciudad de los Mojados-the City of the Wetbacks-is what hundreds of illegal immigrants from Mexico call their community of rundown houses and apartments near 16th Street and Van Buren. And Maria Robles and her 13-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth Robles, know practically everyone in that community because Robles owns Kuki's Store.

Maria Robles boasts that Kuki's, at 1465 East Van Buren, is one of the few places in Phoenix where a homesick person can buy such items as Mexican Coca-Cola (which contains less carbonation and sugar than the American variety).

Elizabeth grew up in Kuki's, where she routinely came each day after school to snack, watch videos and help her grandmother stock shelves. She often ran errands, too, like going down to the local Jack in the Box to get change when Maria Robles found she was running short.

On September 21, 1991, Maria Robles sent Elizabeth down to Jack in the Box on a change run.

She did not see her granddaughter again for five months. The 13-year-old, who is a U.S. citizen, had been taken to Mexico City and kept by a 21-year-old man named Javier Hernandez, Phoenix police later reported.

The seventh-grader says she had sex with the man and was put to work as a housekeeper and cook. But things soured and Hernandez, a Mexican citizen, dropped her off last February in the border city of Nogales.

Shortly after that, Hernandez also reportedly returned to Phoenix and now works as a dishwasher. (He could not be reached for comment.)

Maria Robles views the episode as a kidnaping and she points out that sex with children is a felony. But to her dismay, it is unlikely that Javier Hernandez will be prosecuted by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. The Phoenix police have not submitted sufficient evidence that crimes were committed, says Bill FitzGerald, a spokesman for the County Attorney's Office.

In fact, investigators, according to police records, seemed to paint Elizabeth as a 13-year-old Lolita-one cop even wrote that Elizabeth had sex for herself"-and Javier Hernandez as an affable fellow who succumbed to the child's advances. The police stopped their investigation in March.

The police said I had a good time with him," says Elizabeth. All I can say is that's a laugh."

The case raises troubling questions in an era when prosecutors and police say they vigorously enforce Arizona's strict laws against sex with minors. Under the state's Dangerous Crimes Against Children statutes, an 18-year-old can be sent to prison for 12 years for fondling his 14-year-old girlfriendÏeven if the child is a willing partner.

The most notorious case of an adult seducing a willing" child occurred in 1987, when Mesa schoolteacher Kenneth Lamberton stole off to Colorado with a 14-year-old student. Lamberton is now serving a 12-year prison term for having sex with the child.

After ¯New Times queried police last week about Elizabeth's case, the department reopened the investigation. Detectives have refused comment on the department's previous work on the case.

Maria Robles is not appeased by the reopened investigation. No one cares that my granddaughter, an American citizen, was taken down to Mexico by an adult and kept there for five months," she says.

MARIA ROBLES SAYS she always tried to keep a sharp eye on her granddaughter. She has raised Elizabeth, her son's daughter, since she was a baby. I knew then and know now what she is doing at all times," the grandmother says. If she goes to a movie, I take her. If she goes to a dance, I take her. If she goes shopping, I take her."

That attentiveness did not always sit well with Elizabeth, who calls her grandmother mom." Sometimes I fought with my mom," Elizabeth says. Sometimes she wanted me to do chores, and I didn't want to because I was lazy. Sometimes I'd ignore her, and sometimes I'd back-talk her."

None of this mother-daughter squabbling, Elizabeth says, escaped dishwasher Javier Hernandez, who struck up a friendship with the girl during his frequent visits to the store.

He told me," the girl recalls, that he wouldn't yell at me. `I'll never hit you,' he said. `I'll buy you things-I'll give you everything, clothes, jewelry, everything,' he said. I had a crush on him."

Hernandez, she says, dressed like a cholo, with clothes that were all baggy. He talked to me perfect, he never used no swear words. You know how rich guys talk, they don't swear. He talked like that."

After Hernandez formally asked Maria Robles if her granddaughter could be his novia, or girlfriend, the grandmother banished the dishwasher from Kuki's. She also forbade Elizabeth to see or talk to Hernandez.

The girl and the dishwasher continued secretly talking on the telephone.
One day, Elizabeth went with a family friend to get change at Jack in the Box. Javier Hernandez showed up at the fast-food joint in a used Thunderbird, which he had just purchased that day. (He later told police that Elizabeth had summoned him to the Jack in the Box.)

Elizabeth got in the car with Javier Hernandez. But they didn't go to Kuki's Store. They went to Mexico.

The girl recalls: ÔI said, `Where are we going?' and he said `Mexico,' and I said, `Please take me back,' and he said, `No,' and I fell asleep crying. We went to Agua Prieta and stayed in a hotel. At five or six in the morning, he went to the bus stop. I said, `Now where are we going?' and he said, `Mexico City.'"

In Mexico City, Elizabeth and Hernandez lived together in houses with other adults. Their relationship deteriorated. He didn't want me to drink pop," she says. Just Gatorade. He said I'd get fat. If I cleaned and missed a spot, he'd get mad. He didn't like me to cook soup, he said that gets you fat. He wouldn't let me eat chips. No taquitos. No candy. No popcorn. All I can say is he was a party-pooper."

Elizabeth says Hernandez scolded her for shaming" him in front of his friends because she was a lousy cook and housekeeper and she spent too much time hanging out with other kids. He hit me hard with his closed fist," she says. He slapped me."

The girl says she asked to telephone her grandmother, but Hernandez told her that Maria Robles no longer wanted to see her. Once, after Elizabeth pleaded, Hernandez allowed her to telephone her grandmother, but she was instructed not to let on where she was or that she was unhappy. If she disobeyed, she would never see her grandmother again, Elizabeth remembers Hernandez saying.

After five months in Mexico, Hernandez finally agreed to take her home. At the border, Elizabeth, an American citizen, was allowed to pass into Nogales, Arizona. Hernandez, who had no passport, was turned back.

Elizabeth called her grandmother, and Maria Robles rushed to Nogales to pick her up. Then Maria Robles called the police.

What happened during the investigation is under dispute. The police reports indicate that the girl told investigators that she did not want Hernandez prosecuted. The police concluded that the 13-year-old was not held in Mexico City against her will. They also concluded that Elizabeth did not want to cooperate with prosecutors. She says that is not true.

I'll testify against him," says Elizabeth. Any time."
When Javier Hernandez returned to Phoenix, he cooperated fully with police, according to records. He told detectives that Elizabeth pursued" him and planned the trip to Mexico. He also said Elizabeth did not want to be returned to her grandmother, but finally agreed after Hernandez and Maria Robles had several telephone conversations. (Maria Robles says Hernandez called a couple of times but wouldn't tell her where the girl was and never offered to return the girl.)

As to Elizabeth's accusation that Hernandez hit her, detectives who interviewed the dishwasher wrote: The suspect said he did not hit the victim but only played slapping around with the victim."

As to sex between the 13-year-old girl and the man, the police noted: The suspect did not want to comment on the sexual relations part of the relationship."

Police can send their reports to the County Attorney's Office for either prosecution or for a review that could lead to prosecution. In this case, police asked only for a review. According to police records, deputy county attorney Miles Nelson returned the case to investigators, saying that Hernandez could not be prosecuted on charges of custodial interference or sexual conduct with a minor. The case is muddied by the fact that Maria Robles does not have legal custody of her granddaughter. Elizabeth's natural mother, who had not seen Elizabeth since she was a baby, did not want to press custodial-interference charges, according to police.

FitzGerald, the spokesman for the County Attorney's Office, says there was not enough evidence in the report to prove kidnaping. And sexual abuse charges could not be filed based on events in Mexico, he says.

Deputy county attorney Nelson told police that the Phoenix prosecutor's office might consider filing unlawful imprisonment charges," according to police records. But Tyler Rich, the city prosecutor, refused prosecution because the victim went with the suspect willingly" and the victim was free to come and go [in Mexico City] as she pleased," according to the police report. (The city prosecutor did not return telephone calls seeking comment.)

We never officially turned the case down," says FitzGerald. We turned the case back to the Phoenix police for possible further investigation. We said the case was not there, based on the information they gave us."

MARIA ROBLES HAS little hope that, although the police have reopened the case, Javier Hernandez will ever go to court. The law isn't worth a thing here," she says. It's the same here as in Mexico. You have to buy justice with money and I don't have any money."

She says she is more concerned with getting her granddaughter back on track in school. Because of the long stay in Mexico City, Elizabeth will have to repeat seventh grade. She is going to go to summer school to try to catch up with her classmates. Elizabeth is especially behind in math.

I can't even divide yet," she says.


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Terry Greene