FRESNO, CA Police apparently came prepared for gang warfare when they sent three squad cars and a helicopter in response to a 911 call. Instead, they found an 11-year-old girl who had thrown a rock to defend herself as neighborhood boys pelted her with water balloons.
What happened next stunned Maribel Cuevas and her family.
Maribel says she didn't mean to hurt the boy who admitted to officers that he started the fight and was quickly released from the hospital after getting his head stitched up.
But police insist she's a criminal she's being prosecuted on a felony charge of assault with a deadly weapon. "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.
Her family says Maribel was simply defending herself when 9-year-old Elijah Vang and several other boys pummeled her with water balloons outside her home in a poor Fresno neighborhood in April. They say she quickly sought help and tried to apologize to the boy and his family. The Vangs have since moved away.
"She's 11 ... they're treating her like she's a violent parole offender," said Richard 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 due in court Aug. 3.
Officers denied that their response was influenced by the setting a low-income, largely minority neighborhood or language difficulties Maribel's family speaks limited English, and the responding don't speak Spanish.
With help from their church, the family hired Beshwate to represent Maribel at her upcoming trial. The lawyer says prosecutors aren't interested in a deal. 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, remains 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 the boy, and says she's been taunted by him in the past.
She says 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, 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."
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 for about three more weeks, leaving school early to make it home before the 3 p.m. curfew.
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?"
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