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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

Police say Ohio runaway's helpers broke laws

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rifqa Bary listens to the judge during a hearing to settle disputes between Bary and her parents in Columbus last March. Rifqa Bary listens to the judge during a hearing to settle disputes between Bary and her parents in Columbus last March.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Police recommended charges against six of the people who helped a teenage Christian convert run away from her Muslim parents in Ohio in 2009, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.

But prosecutors in Ohio and Florida have declined to file charges against anyone who helped 16-year-old Rifqa Bary leave Columbus on a Greyhound bus and shelter her for two weeks in Orlando without notifying authorities went too far, according to police reports obtained by the AP through freedom of information requests.

The six include a Kansas City minister, a Columbus family friend, an Orlando pastor and his wife and two members of the pastor's church.

A lawyer for Rifqa, now an adult, says prosecutors made the right choice.

"They'd have a very difficult time with any of those charges, given that Rifqa would say she was in fear for her life, and so they acted in what they thought were in her best interests," said Kort Gatterdam, a Columbus attorney who has represented her in juvenile custody hearings.

The case of Rifqa Bary resonated nationally at a time of tense Muslim-Christian relations in the U.S. that included one pastor's threat to burn a copy of the Quran. One of Rifqa's primary supporters is a blogger who a year later led a campaign against the development of an Islamic center in New York City near ground zero.

Christians who supported Rifqa rallied outside the county courthouse during one hearing. Others said Rifqa was being manipulated by conservative Christians to flame anti-Muslim sentiments and they questioned her version of the events that led her to flee.

Rifqa, who lives out of state and isn't commenting, alleged she feared harm or even death from her father for converting to Christianity, a charge her parents adamantly denied — and which police could not corroborate — according to the documents reviewed by the AP. But documents did show evidence of deep family tension over her conversion, including a threat by the girl's mother that they might send her back to her native Sri Lanka.

One summer 2009 incident involving Rifqa's laptop, when her father confronted her about her Christian comments on Facebook, underscored the emotions of the case.

Mohamed Bary "picked up the laptop and he was about to beat me with it," Rifqa said in an interview with Columbus police and prosecutors. "And he said, 'Tell me the truth, I will kill you.'"

Mohamed Bary told Columbus and Florida police he was just trying to take the computer away.

"That's not my intention," he said, when asked if he planned to strike his daughter. "I wanted the laptop away and took it away from her."

Police who investigated Rifqa Bary's disappearance said it was alarming that adults helped an underage girl run away without alerting authorities.

"We're spending all sorts of time and effort and energy looking for a child who may be in danger, and had we had that information up front, we could have maybe gotten this thing resolved a lot quicker than we did," said Columbus detective Sgt. John Hurst.

When Rifqa ran away, she ended up at the nearby house of a school friend, where the friend's mother, Fanchon Nicole Hopson, let her stay briefly, then later moved her to a relative's home overnight to keep police from finding her, according to a Columbus police report obtained by the AP and interviews with Hurst.

Hopson told police she knew the girl was leaving but didn't know where she was going.

The day after Hopson took in Rifqa, Brian Williams, a Kansas City, Mo., pastor who had previously baptized Bary in Columbus, drove 11 hours to Columbus to take Bary to the Greyhound station, according to Hurst's investigation.

Hurst recommended Hopson and Williams be charged with interfering with a child's custody and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, both low-level felonies.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien declined to file charges in either case, basing his decision on "a combination of things," including difficulties re-interviewing Williams and Hopson.

Neither Williams nor Hopson returned phone and email messages and written letters seeking comment. In one interview with police, Williams, 26, told police, "We were just trying to make sure she was safe."

Hopson, 41, told police that she told Bary to call authorities. She also accused police of trying to create a case against her.

"There is no case to be built and I am a little bit aggravated," she told investigators.

O'Brien also declined to file charges against Rifqa's father after one of Rifqa's court-ordered counselors said he'd threatened the counselor with comments made to another person. O'Brien said an investigation couldn't confirm the allegation.

As Rifqa prepared to leave Columbus, Facebook friends in Florida swung into action to help, records show.

On July 20, 2009, Blake Lorenz, the pastor of the Global Revolution Church in Orlando, and John Law, a church member, went to the Orlando bus station where Law used a false name to purchase a $191 bus ticket for Rifqa, paying cash and reserving it with the code name "Ezekiel," according to a charging affidavit prepared by Florida investigator David Lee, as well as interviews Lee conducted with Lorenz and Law.

Rifqa had met Lorenz' wife, Beverly Lorenz, through Facebook, and had sent her a message three days earlier asking for help.

Law told Florida investigators he felt that if there was someone in need and the issue was important to his pastor, "I'm going to help him."

Beverly Lorenz then gave the code word to Williams, who passed it on to Rifqa Bary, Lee's affidavit said.

After John Law and his wife, Wendy Law, picked Rifqa up at the Greyhound station, they took her to a Denny's restaurant, then dropped her off at the Lorenzes' house after midnight.

There, she found a bedroom that the Lorenzes had decorated for her, Rifqa told investigators.

Blake Lorenz said they acted out of fear the girl could be in danger.

"Bottom line is she's crying out for help, help me, save my life, I gotta get out of this community," he told Florida investigators. "And so we were like, well, we deal with helping people all the time in ministry, we'll help her."

Over the next few days, Blake Lorenz tried to find attorneys who would take the girl's case pro bono. He also called the Florida Department of Children but didn't provide Rifqa's name or location. Finally, on Aug. 5, Blake Lorenz reported Rifqa to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Orlando police took her into custody Aug. 7.

Orange and Osceola County State Attorney Lawson Lamar closed the case in Florida earlier this year, saying he couldn't establish the elements of the charges.

Reached for comment, John Law said he had things he could share about the case, but didn't comment further.

Shayan Elahi, an Orlando lawyer who has represented Rifqa's parents, said Lamar abused his prosecutor's discretion by not pressing charges.

Rifqa, who turned 18 last year, remains estranged from her parents and two brothers.

A Florida lawyer who represented the Lorenzes said Lamar's office did the right thing. Blake and Beverly Lorenz had a legitimate reason to believe Rifqa Bary was in fear of her life because she'd converted to Christianity, said Mat Staver, a lawyer and professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.



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