Janna and Brian Bentley are facing child-neglect charges after their son ran away and hid in his neighbor’s bushes for more than 12 hours last year.

The morning Janna and Brian Bentley’s jury trial was set to begin, the Mesa City Prosecutor’s Office offered them a sweetheart deal.

The city would drop the charges against the couple if they agreed to complete a minimal, undisclosed disciplinary action, their attorney said.

The couple was charged with misdemeanor child neglect after failing to call the cops for more than 10 hours after their young son went missing in March 2016.

The Bentleys swiftly rejected the offer, choosing instead to win their innocence before a jury.

So began a five-day trial packed with testimony by first responders, experts and community residents. Each day, dozens of friends and family members of the Bentleys crammed into a tiny courtroom on the third floor of Mesa Municipal Court to watch the proceedings unfold.

After about three hours of deliberations, the jury found the Bentleys not guilty on all charges.

In a battle over parental rights and governmental concern for child safety, the parents won.

The courtroom audience erupted in cheers and sighs of relief as the trial concluded, and the Bentleys wrapped themselves around their seven children in an embrace that lasted at least a minute.

16 months earlier

On March 31, 2016, one of the Bentley’s children hid from his parents sometime after 9 p.m., dead set against completing his kitchen chores.

The boy, who was younger than 10 years old, wasn’t found until after 10 a.m. the next morning. He had been hiding, at least part of the night, in bushes in a neighbor’s yard as temperatures dipped into the 40s.

It was the Bentley’s actions — or lack of action — during the 13 hours their son was missing that led to their criminal charges.

According to police reports and court testimony, Janna Bentley realized her son was missing around 10:15 p.m.

The boy, according to his parents and family friends, is a “hider” and it was not abnormal for him to relocate to a hidden nook or cranny in the house during the middle of the night.

The mother searched her home and yard, along with her neighbors’ properties, until around 2 a.m. when her husband got home.

The Bentleys searched for about another hour. At that point, they both fell asleep.

‘Fell asleep’ or ‘went to bed’?

One of the major elements of the criminal trial against the Bentleys was whether the couple made a conscious decision to stop looking for their hidden son.

Police reports from the day the boy went missing describe Janna Bentley saying that she and her husband went to bed around 2:30 a.m.

Mesa Assistant City Prosecutor Paul Hawkins used that information to suggest to the jury that the Bentleys stopped looking for their son and intentionally went to bed even though their kid was missing.

“Choosing to go to sleep … is not acceptable. That is neglect,” Hawkins said during opening arguments.

But the Bentleys’ attorney painted a much different picture of how the Bentleys ended up asleep that night.

Defense Attorney Ryan Tait told jurors that Janna Bentley fell asleep while nursing her young daughter in a dark room around 2:30 a.m.

Brian Bentley, who had worked 19 hours the day his son went missing, sat down for a moment beside the front door to collect his thoughts when exhaustion took over and he too fell asleep.

The Bentleys did not make a conscious decision to stop looking for their kid, Tait argued.

Dangerous conditions?

The young boy was found the next morning around 10:15 a.m., more than an hour after the police arrived on the scene, using a helicopter at one point to call out for the boy.

The boy was frightened and acting out when first discovered, but appeared to be physically fine.

But even though the child was OK, things easily could have turned out differently that night, the prosecution argued.

Temperatures were in the 40s overnight. Long exposure to that weather could have resulted in hypothermia.

About 600 feet from the Bentley home was a canal where the child could have fallen and drowned.

A dangerous intersection and the U.S. 60 freeway are in walking distance of the home. The boy could have wandered into traffic.

A group home that houses male juveniles — some with sexually abusive behavior — was two doors down from the Bentleys. Had one of those boys escaped and encountered the Bentley child, the consequence could have been serious.

But none of those things happened. By all known accounts, the child camped out in a neighbor’s yard with a blanket, pillow, loaf of bread and some carrots. He never encountered another individual that night and his body temperature was stable when he was discovered.

Tait called the prosecutor’s account of dangerous possibilities “hypothetical boogeymen.” The child was found unharmed, just as his parents believed he would be, he said.

“You’re going to consider whether Brian and Janna committed a crime because they exercised their judgment as parents — and were right,” Tait told the jury.

New legal battle 

The Bentleys’ criminal trial may be over but a separate legal battle, which centers on the hours after the child was discovered, is just beginning. 

The Bentleys and their children filed a $1 million federal lawsuit in March claiming Mesa police and Department of Child Safety workers violated the family’s constitutional rights.

After the boy was discovered, havoc ensued inside the Bentley home, according to the Bentleys’ complaint. 

Mesa police officers demanded the child be taken by ambulance to a hospital for evaluation although paramedics on scene had already determined the boy was in good health, according to court documents. 

As the Bentleys argued with police over the necessity of a hospital visit, officers prohibited the parents from being alone with their child and would not allow Brian Bentley to make a private phone call to a lawyer, according to the complaint.

Officers told the Bentleys that DCS issued a temporary custody order allowing the state to take the boy. That was later proved false, according to court documents.

Later that morning, police officers retrieved two of the Bentleys’ older children from school without notifying the parents. Officers interviewed the children. 

The lawsuit alleges Mesa police and DCS violated the family’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the home without permission, forcing an unwanted medical evaluation, removing children from school without notification and preventing the Bentleys from freely moving about their home.

The suit also accuses the city and state of religious discrimination — a violation of the First Amendment. 

In police and DCS reports, various comments were made regarding the Bentleys faith, including one comment by a DCS employee that, “there is concern that the family’s religion/faith impairs their judgment.” 

These remarks show an “underlying discrimination and bigotry,” according to the complaint.

The federal lawsuit is in the earliest stages.

A sense of relief

After the jury announced its decision Wednesday, about 60 of the Bentleys’ friends and family members gathered in the hallway outside the courtroom to celebrate.

Many of them burst into tears upon hugging the Bentleys and their children.

Brian and Janna Bentley spoke to the group, thanking them for their sacrifices and support throughout their legal journey.

“If we were up to it, we would throw a big party for all of you tonight,” Janna Bentley said.

Kemp Morris, an older man with a big mustache and a cowboy hat, is unrelated to the Bentleys — but the kids call the neighbor grandpa.  

He said he was “relieved and full of love,” after the conclusion of the trial. 

Morris testified during the trial about the search for the boy and his insights about the family.

He said the police made a huge mistake by recommending charges against the family.

“They just took a beautiful thing (finding the boy) and now it turned up ugly,” he said. 


Charges against Mesa parents raise community concern

Lawsuit accuses former Phoenix bishop of abusing boy

Woman sentenced to death for child cousin’s murder

Why DCS takes kids away is too often unknown

Read or Share this story: