More than a dozen men accused of taking part in a series of sexual assaults on an 11-year-old girl are expected in court Wednesday in a case that has divided and horrified their southeast Texas town.
The 14 men, who along with five juvenile boys are facing charges, are scheduled to be in a state district courtroom in Liberty for status updates. The investigation began in December, after one of the girl's friends told a teacher he had seen a lurid cell phone video that showed the girl being raped in an abandoned trailer.
Authorities say the girl was assaulted on at least five occasions, sometimes by as many as seven or eight young men or boys at a time, from mid-September to early December in Cleveland, a small city about 45 miles northeast of Houston. The suspects range in age from a middle-school student to a 27-year-old, and include two star athletes at the local high school as well as adults with criminal records.
Most of the adult suspects face charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child, while four face a charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child. Most have pleaded not guilty and are free on bond, while one, 26-year-old Marcus Porchia, was charged after his arrest with sexually assaulting another girl in an unrelated case.
The case shined a sometimes unflattering spotlight on Cleveland after some in the town of about 9,000 residents suggested the girl was culpable in part for what happened, claiming she wore makeup and looked older. Some also accused her parents, immigrants from Mexico, of not watching her more closely. Those suggestions were sharply criticized by many Cleveland residents and by community and religious groups outside the city.
Also complicating the case was a belief by many in the predominantly black neighborhood where several of the suspects live that the arrests were racially motivated. All of the suspects are black, while the girl is Hispanic.
The girl, now 12, remains in foster care as her parents, who have health problems and moved out of Cleveland after receiving threatening phone calls, work with state child welfare authorities to get her back.
A gag order is preventing those connected to the case from commenting.
Authorities began investigating after the girl's friend told a teacher he had seen a video that had been passed around among classmates that showed the girl being attacked. Police determined it was recorded inside a mobile home on the city's northern outskirts.
The girl told investigators she was raped Nov. 28, first at a house near the mobile home and then at the trailer. Indictments allege she also was assaulted in September, October and December.