FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – An 11-year old girl faces felony assault charges after seeking emergency help for a boy whom she says she accidentally injured after he bullied her with water balloons.
Maribel Cuevas was arrested, handcuffed and taken by police to juvenile hall, where she spent five days with only minimal contact with her parents.
Her family says Maribel meant no harm when she accidentally hit the Elijah Vang, the 9-year-old neighborhood boy, in the forehead with a rock. They say she was simply defending herself after Vang and several other boys pummeled her with water balloons outside her home in a poor Fresno neighborhood in April. Vang’s family isn’t pressing charges and has since moved away.
Police contend Maribel was the main suspect in a felony assault and they treated her appropriately.
“We responded. We determined a felony assault had taken place and the officers took the actions that were necessary,” said Fresno Police Sgt. Anthony Martinez.
No matter the boy admitted to officers he started the fight and was quickly released from the hospital after getting his head stitched up. No matter the girl herself ran for help.
“She’s 11 … they’re treating her like she’s a violent parole offender,” said Robert Beshwate, Jr., Maribel’s lawyer.
Maribel, who speaks limited English, spent five days in juvenile hall with just one half-hour visit from her parents. She then spent about 30 days under house arrest, forced to wear a GPS ankle bracelet to monitor her whereabouts. She’s charged with assault with a deadly weapon and is due in court Aug. 3.
Officers said their response was not excessive, and was not motivated by the low-income, largely minority neighborhood.
“We arrested the main suspect,” Martinez said. “It was the appropriate response.”
Assistant Fresno County District Attorney Bob Ellis said he couldn’t comment on the case because it involves children.
Maribel’s family said the soft-spoken girl, who turned 11 in March, is terrified. She’s a good student who struggles sometimes because English is her second language, but in a neighborhood where kids grow up fast, she keeps close to home, helping her mother take care of her four younger siblings. Maribel attends school with Elijah, and says she’s been taunted by him in the past.
With help from their church, the family hired Beshwate to represent Maribel at her upcoming trial. The attorney says prosecutors aren’t interested in a deal.
Maribel says she was playing on the sidewalk with her 6-year-old brother and other younger children on April 29, when the boys rode by on their bikes.
They started teasing her, calling her names and hitting her with water balloons, she said, holding her 1-year-old brother in her lap in her family’s modest living room, where a couch and dining table share space with a crib and a bed.
When the boys refused to leave, Maribel threw a rock at them, hitting Elijah.
The aunt of one of Maribel’s playmates saw the boy’s forehead was cut. She got him a towel to stop the bleeding, and called 911, the family said.
Maribel ran to the boy’s house, two blocks from her own, to tell his parents she was sorry, she said.
Police responded to the call ready to tackle a hardened criminal.
The officers “grabbed me from behind, by my shirt” the girl said in Spanish. “I was so scared. … I didn’t know what they were doing.”
Maribel panicked. The officers had the slight girl down on the ground, and one of them put his knee to her back to restrain her, her mother said in Spanish.
Guadalupe Cuevas couldn’t communicate with the officers, because she doesn’t speak English, and was pushed away when she tried to reach her daughter.
Maribel was crying, the police report said, but Officer Christopher Green, who handcuffed her, wrote, “We were able to get Cuevas into the back of the patrol vehicle.”
Guadalupe Cuevas said didn’t understand what was happening.
“The officer was just saying, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care,”’ Guadalupe Cuevas said in Spanish. “He told my nephew he didn’t speak his kind of English.”
None of the responding officers spoke Spanish, and none who did were called to communicate with the family before the girl was taken to juvenile hall. The police report said Green read Maribel her Miranda rights twice, in English.
The report also lists the girl’s emotional state as “apologetic” and “hysterical.”
Maribel’s mother and her father, Martin, were able to see their daughter for half an hour the day after the incident. The girl’s wrists were bruised, her mother said, and she was scared.
Maribel was kept in juvenile hall without seeing her parents again for five nights. When she was released, she had to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet that kept her under house arrest.
She was only able to leave the family’s tiny, cluttered home to go to school, but the thought she might not make it home on time, violating her 3 p.m. curfew, terrified her. Arrangements had to be made with her teachers so she could leave class early, her mother said.
Guadalupe Cuevas said watching the other children play outside depressed Maribel, and the child went for periods of not wanting to eat, and not sleeping well.
This is a case where the police department “overreacted and won’t back down,” Beshwate said. “I don’t know if they don’t like Spanish speakers, if it’s racism, or if they were having a bad day. But how can you defend this kind of behavior?” © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005