Seven teenagers in California are accused of raping an 11-year-old girl in a park bathroom, the latest in a series of horrifying gang rapes that have hit the news in recent weeks.
The case is the third in a row in which a girl has been attacked by a group of teenage boys and men. In February, 18 teenage boys and men in their 20s were arrested for gang raping an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas. That same month, a 13-year-old middle school student reported that a boy sexually assaulted her while two of his friends held her down in a park in Banning, a small city 80 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
“They obviously care about nothing or no one,” said Moreno Valley Police Department Lt. Chad Bianco about the attacks. "It makes you wonder what they are thinking. It is hard to even imagine. There is no way to describe it.”
This latest assault, which involves a street gang that used a teenage girl to lure the victim, has shocked the 186,000 residents of Moreno Valley, the second-largest city in Riverside County, and whose motto is: “Where dreams soar.”
The March attack was as brazen as it was nervy. It took place in a park replete with picnic tables, grill pits and a soccer field, less than 50 feet from an elementary school and large residential homes.
“The community is up in arms,” said Moreno Valley Mayor Richard Stewart. “I view the kids as unsocialized. I can’t imagine a gang thinking it is macho or OK to pick on a child. I don’t know what type of reputation they would be getting. Even in the bad-guy world this is not acceptable. This is the kind of crime that virtually nobody would take in stride. Nobody was holding back on this one.”
At the time of the attack, the city was boasting the lowest crime rate in its history. “We have our share of crime but not that much of a visible violent presence,” added Stewart.
“I can’t imagine a gang thinking it is macho or OK to pick on a child. Even in the bad-guy world this is not acceptable.”
The rape occurred a short time after the 11-year-old girl finished school. According to police, she was waiting at a bus stop when a 15-year-old girl approached her. The older girl asked her to hang out at a nearby shopping center, and she agreed.
“Instead of getting on the bus they were supposed to they walked and ended up at the shopping center,” said Bianco.
The two girls met the teenaged boys outside the shopping center in the parking lot, and walked to nearby Victoriano Park, where the 11 year old was sexually assaulted inside a restroom. After the assault, she was told to keep her mouth shut, and walked home.
“She got away,” Bianco said. “Exactly how, I don’t know… It is sickening it could happen to a seriously innocent victim. It is absolutely despicable”
The girl told her mother, who immediately reported the attack to the police. Luckily, they had a few leads. “We knew [the 15-year-old girl’s] first name and the boys were claiming Southside Mafia,” said Bianco. “We knew the members so it was a matter of narrowing it down.”
Six of the teenaged boys and the girl were arrested over a three-day period last week. The last suspect, 19-year-old Michael Sykes, was arrested on March 28. Sykes and the six boys are all members of a well-known Moreno Valley gang called the Southside Mafia. The 15-year-old girl is an associate of the gang, say police.
“They claim Victoriano Park as their turf,” said Deputy Sheriff Belgarde, who did not want to use his first name for this story. The 40-plus-member gang first attracted police attention in 2008, when graffiti popped up around the city's south end. Soon afterward, members, who are mostly teens, became involved in residential burglaries and dope sales.
Some gang members wear skinny jeans, ride skateboards, and sport Seattle Mariners baseball hats. “Regular gangs wear bandanas and you can determine they are gang members,” said Belgarde. “[This gang] has evolved over the years. They are hybrid. Some of them appear to be nerds.”
They are into “cyberbanging,” he said. “When I say nontraditional I am saying their appearance. But their crimes are very similar to [other] gangs.” Cyberbanging is the practice in which people post their gang affiliation online—usually YouTube, Facebook and MySpace—and use the Internet to attack rivals.
It is not known whether the girl was attacked as part of a gang initiation. “We are considering whether it is an initiation,” said Bianco. “Some of the guys were new members. It is definitely possible…. We have no indication there are other victims like this girl. There may be girls out there that don’t consider themselves victims because they are associates of the gang.”
Police do not know if the girl was singled out. “We don’t have any reason to believe she was targeted,” added Bianco. “We don’t know why it was her, other than she agreed to go with the girl.”
The Riverside County district attorney’s office charged five of the teens with felonies on Wednesday. At the hearing, prosecutors asked the judge to try four of the juveniles as adults. However, they are not asking to try the 15-year-old girl or the two other boys as adults. It is unclear whether juvenile charges were filed against them.
“This was a particularly horrendous crime in which the defendants took advantage of an extremely vulnerable victim,” said John Hall, a spokesperson for the Riverside County district attorney’s office. “We believe they should be held accountable in adult court.”
The next court hearing for the juveniles is scheduled for Monday. Sykes will be arraigned on April 13.
Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.