A Liberian teenager charged as an adult in the alleged gang rape of an 8-year-old girl in Phoenix pleaded not guilty Monday, as details of the boy's former life in an Ivory Coast refugee camp emerged.
Yarsiah Sirleaf, who is now a neighbor of the teen in Phoenix and used to teach him Sunday school, told The Associated Press that the boy lived in the camp for about a decade and went through a daily struggle to eat.
"Life for children in refugee camps, like adults, was a little bit deplorable," Sirleaf said. "Kids in refugee camps have to go out looking for food, and sometimes they have to go out to try to work. Everything is a struggle."
Phoenix police allege the 14-year-old along with three other boys, all Liberian refugees ages 10 to 13, lured the girl to an empty storage shed July 16 with the promise of chewing gum, then restrained and raped her.
The teen appeared by video for the hearing in Phoenix, wearing a jail uniform. He leaned close to an interpreter who translated the proceedings for him and only had to say his name and birth date during the hearing. His family members were not there.
Commissioner Brian Rees entered a not guilty plea on his behalf and set his next hearing for Sept. 21.
America 'different from back home'
Sirleaf sat with the teen's family on Sunday for a church service at Africa Faith Expressions in west Phoenix, the same church the victim's family attends.
Sirleaf said the teen came to Phoenix in 2005 with his mother and sister, which is supported by a Phoenix police report of the rape and information from local leaders of the Liberian community.
One-third of Liberia's 3 million people were driven from their homes during 14 years of civil war that ended in 2003. Food was scarce in refugee camps. Many famished children would beg from already impoverished adults, who themselves used leaves from nearby trees to make a thin soup.
Sirleaf said he met the teen and his family in their refugee camp but did not become close with them until seeing them again in Phoenix. The teen's father is still in Africa, and his mother relies on her son to help watch his younger sister, Sirleaf said.
He described the boy as bright and very respectful of his mother and other adults, and that the family had found some happiness in Phoenix.
"Here in America, it's very very different from back home," he said. "Here in America, you come as a refugee, a single mom, you have someone to give you bread at least every day."
Charges include kidnapping, rape, assault
The 14-year-old is the only one charged as an adult in the rape. He's charged with one count each of kidnapping, sexual assault and attempted sexual conduct with a minor, and five counts of sexual conduct with a minor.
Prosecutors are seeking adult charges against the 13-year-old accused in the case, while two 10-year-olds are charged in juvenile court with sexual conduct; one of them also is charged with kidnapping.
The case ignited an international outcry after Phoenix police reported the girl's father said they were ashamed of her and didn't want her back, which led Child Protective Services to take custody of her. Family advocates say the comments were the result of a language barrier and that the girl's family is desperate to have her back.