Police defend their arrest of 11-year-old girl


By JULIANA BARBASSA
Associated Press

FRESNO, Calif.- Fresno police defended their arrest of an 11-year-old girl on a felony assault charge for throwing a rock at a neighborhood boy who had pelted her with a water balloon.

The department on Tuesday also released more details, color photos and a testimonial from Fresno's mayor.

"This incident has been distorted and misrepresented," Mayor Alan Autry said in a statement. "In Fresno we love our children too much to treat this like it was just a childhood dispute, when in fact the consequences could have been tragic."

Police said an Associated Press story last week should have mentioned that the rock was "jagged-edged" and weighed 2 pounds, and that that the gash to the boy's head was "deep." Police also said the girl physically resisted while being handcuffed and put in a patrol car, scratching an officer's arm. The scratches were documented in two police photos.

"It is unfortunate that The Associated Press released one-sided information containing numerous inaccuracies," Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said in the statement.

"The simple fact is that we have an 11-year-old girl who struck a boy in the head with a jagged-edged, two-pound river rock, that required him to have stitches," he added in an interview. "That is a felony, assault with a deadly weapon, and we are very fortunate that that act did not cause a more serious injury, even death."

The story was reported over the course of two days last week while the AP sought details from police. Ultimately, a spokesman said simply that officers had responded appropriately, and denied that racism had anything to do with it, despite the suspicions of the girl's lawyer.

"I understand the difficulty of this situation for police, but the story was accurately reported, and we made substantial efforts to get fair comment from everyone involved," said John Raess, AP's bureau chief for Northern California.

The AP story was based on the police report and interviews with Maribel Cuevas, her family and their attorney, Richard Beshwate Jr., who suggested that the arresting officers' inability to communicate with either family in their native languages — Spanish and Hmong — may have been a factor in what he called an overreaction by police.

The police report said the boy acknowledged throwing the water balloon and was released from a hospital after getting stitches in his forehead. But the boy's family couldn't be reached for comment. The family has moved away, and neither neighbors nor Hmong community leaders were aware of their whereabouts. Dyer said Tuesday that police also don't know where the Vang family is.

The case began in April as children's play between Maribel and Elijah Vang, who lived around the block from the Cuevas family. Maribel was in the fourth grade at the time, and Elijah was in third grade at the same elementary school.

Maribel said she was playing on the sidewalk with her 6-year-old brother when Elijah rode by on his bike with a half-dozen neighborhood boys, who splattered them with water balloons. Police said Tuesday that there is no indication that any other boys were involved, but the police report also notes that no other boys were around to be interviewed when officers arrived.

Maribel threw a rock that hit Elijah on the head, opening a gash. While she ran to find Elijah's parents, a neighbor called 911. Police responded, arresting the girl. She was held in juvenile hall for five days, then released under house arrest for nearly a month. She's scheduled to appear on a charge of felony assault with a deadly weapon on Aug. 3. Prosecutors have declined to comment on the case since it's being handled in juvenile court.

Police said Tuesday that the AP story minimized the severity of the assault by failing to mention the size of the rock (5.5 inches by 3.75 inches) or the gash (the police report said it was four inches long; it turned out to be 1.2 inches long, according to hospital records cited by Beshwate) or the fact that Maribel scratched the officer's arm.

Several other key facts remain in dispute. For example, police say Maribel weighs 130 pounds. Her family says she's 90 pounds. Police say they believe Elijah is 6 years old; hospital records show he's 8 and a half, Beshwate said.

Dyer also took issue with the phrasing in last week's AP story that "police apparently came prepared for gang warfare" in response to the 911 call. Witnesses said three squad cars and a helicopter were at the scene, but Dyer said that initially, only two officers were dispatched, and they called for backup only after the girl resisted arrest.

Ultimately, the department said Tuesday, it sent six people, including three officers. The helicopter witnesses saw hovering above wasn't dispatched based on the 911 call, but it's not unusual for law enforcement helicopters to fly over disturbances, police said.

Read Fresno girl arrested in water balloon incident from the Fresno PD

Related:

Fresno, Calif., girl arrested after balloon incident

An 11-year old Fresno girl is facing felony assault charges after she says she accidentally injured a neighborhood boy after he bullied her with water balloons.

Maribel Cuevas' family says she meant no harm when she accidentally hit the nine-year-old Elijah Vang in the forehead with a rock.

Maribel was arrested, handcuffed and taken by police to juvenile hall, where she spent five days with only minimal contact with her parents.

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.

The girl is charged with assault with a deadly weapon and is due in court August Third.

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