After a New York Times story sparked outrage for its blame-the-victim tenor, the brutal gang rape of an 11-year-old girl is tearing apart the town where it happened. By Christine Pelisek
In 2009, the small town of Cleveland, Texas, provided the setting for Cook County, an indie film about the meltdown of a family struggling with meth addiction and its effects on a six-year-old girl.
Now Cleveland, once known for its saw mills and picturesque woodsy landscape, is in the spotlight again, and again a young girl stands at the center of a morbid and controversial narrative. An alleged sexual assault scandal has ripped through the close-knit East Texas community of 9,000, torn across the blogosphere, and shot right up to the Manhattan offices of The New York Times.
News of the assaults came to light after Thanksgiving weekend when a disturbing, sexually explicit video purported to show various young men engaging in sexual intercourse with an 11-year-old girl inside a filthy, abandoned, beat-up old trailer in the city's northern outskirts, known by the locals as Precinct 20. All in all, 18 teenage boys and men in their twenties are now charged with participating.
The cellphone video of the assault and photographs were passed around from student to student at Cleveland High School, which is located next door to the child's middle school. It ended up in the hands of the Cleveland Police Department after the victim's friend told a teacher about it. The school police quickly determined that the attacks occurred off school property and passed the case along to local authorities. The girl told law enforcement officers that the alleged attacks occurred on at least three different occasions: September 15, October 25, and November 28, and involved different suspects.
"They are trying to make the girl a villain in this. I don't know the rationale except for maybe protecting your own."
"It went viral pretty quickly," said former Cleveland mayor Stan Jones of the video. "Kids were able to look at it on their cellphones. The police are using that to identify the guys."
The incident has sent the small town reeling.
"Cleveland is a good town," said Cleveland Advocate editor Vanesa Brashier, who has broken a series of stories on the case. "The people in Cleveland are good people. This does not define us. This is a painful event that is happening right now, but it can happen anywhere."
Unfortunately, says Jones, "It has created a big rift in the city. It has become a huge issue. We have had calls from all over the country. It is shaming when someone asks where we live. We have to cringe when we say it now."
The case became a national story on March 8, when The New York Times reported on it in a piece that instantly caused controversy because of what critics called its blame-the-victim tenor. The story said that residents of the town noted that the girl dressed "older than her age," and wore makeup and fashions "more appropriate to a woman in her twenties." Angry readers responded with force. In an article entitled "New York Times' Rape-Friendly Reporting," Mother Jones described the story as "a collection of one perpetrator-excusing, victim-blaming insult after another."
The Times quickly issued a statement. "Nothing in our story was in any way intended to imply that the victim was to blame. Neighbors' comments about the girl, which we reported in the story, seemed to reflect concern about what they saw as a lack of supervision that may have left her at risk."
It continued: "As for residents' references to the accused having to ‘live with this for the rest of their lives,' those are views we found in our reporting. They are not our reporter's reactions, but the reactions of disbelief by townspeople over the news of a mass assault on a defenseless 11-year-old."
But unfortunately, any victim-blaming isn't confined to the paper of record. The case has turned citizen against citizen, as some residents of Cleveland have themselves implied that the girl is at fault. In response, other residents have pushed back, horrified that the victim of such a crime, especially one so young, should be considered an accomplice to her own rape.
According to the police affidavit, the victim said the November 28 assault occurred after she got a call from one of the suspects who asked her if she wanted to "ride around." The victim said she was picked up by the suspect and two others at her home, which is located in an area called Trails End, and driven miles away to a blue house with white trim. Inside the house, she was ordered to disrobe and warned if she didn't comply she would be beat up by other girls and not taken back to her house. She was soon having sex with numerous men in the bedroom and the bathroom. At one point, she overheard one of the men inviting other men over to have sex with her. After a relative came home they fled through a rear window to an abandoned trailer where the assaults continued. She said the "acts at the trailer were also videotaped with digital cell phones."
The arrests, which happened over a period of a few weeks, turned the town upside down. It turned out that five of the suspects were juveniles in middle and high school. Two of the suspects were on the Cleveland High School basketball team, including a rising star who went by the nickname Golden Child. Another one is the 21-year-old son of a local school-board member. Some of the others have rap sheets. One of the suspects was arrested along with a friend in January for robbing a grocery store with a gun and a tire tool. That same suspect is also believed to be responsible for a home break-in where a woman was shot in the arm. Another suspect was indicted in June of 2010 for manslaughter in the fatal shooting of his teenaged friend.
In recent days, a picture of the young girl posing on a bed in a tank top and her underwear has appeared on an anonymous Facebook page with a derogatory heading. Under favorite quotations is written: "Kan i sukk yo dikk or give you head." In a category called "About Cleveland" it reads: "im a hoe and I sleep with anybody and anything that has a DIKK." The same photo was shown by a young girl to locals who attended a town hall meeting on Thursday.
"Typical of this type of thing, they are trying to make the girl a villain in this," said Jones. "I don't know the rationale except for maybe protecting your own. They are all being as protective as they can about their kids and trying to pass the blame on to the girl. They are blaming the police department for not doing a proper investigation. The parents are saying my kid is not guilty…It is a child and that is what is so amazing. A child that age is very vulnerable. Imagine how this will have an effect on her."
Even before the alleged attack on the young Hispanic girl, tension in the town was at an all time high. Cleveland is still reeling from Hurricane Ike, mass layoffs, and a hot-button scandal involving a former police department detective who was indicted by federal authorities for stealing guns and ammunition from the department's evidence room.
The town is also in the midst of a recall election that highlights Cleveland's racial discord. The recall involves three of the city's five council members, who are accused of overspending and mismanaging the town's budget. The council members, who are black, say the recall is racially motivated.
Photos of the sexual-assault suspects, who are all African-American, have popped up on Aryan Brotherhood websites.
On Thursday, animosity boiled over when community members gathered inside a building in Cleveland for a town hall meeting to discuss the police handling of the investigation. The meeting was led by Quanell X, an outspoken Houston community activist, who told the standing-room-only crowd -- most of them supporters of the accused boys and men -- that he wasn't in town to "jump on an 11-year-old girl," but then questioned why the girl or her parents didn't contact the police.
The Hispanic community has "a right to be angry with black men who ravaged a young girl…but the first house you need to stop at is her Mama and Daddy's house!" he said, implying that the victim's family was partially at fault.
The outspoken minister also questioned why only African-American men and boys were arrested. "I do believe some of the brothers are guilty as charged, but I don't believe all of the young brothers are guilty," he said. "There is something wrong with this case…It looks like the Ku Klu Klan is leading the investigation."
Others were quick to condemn such comments. "Whether she was Hispanic, black, or white, the fact of the matter is that she was 11 and put in a compromised position for whatever reason, and for whatever reason it is not healthy and there is no turning back the clock," said Misty Howell, owner of Circle H General Store and a board member with the local chamber of commerce, who attended the meeting. "It is a community trying to figure out what to do and pull together and move forward."
On Saturday, Mujeres Unidas, or Women United, a support service for sexual-assault victims, held a news conference in Houston to show support for the young girl.
"This was an 11-year-old child and no matter what she did, did not do, how she dressed, how she talked, how she acted, does not matter," said community activist Linda Morales. "This was a brutal and savage rape."
Holding white carnations as a symbol of the young girl's innocence taken, Morales criticized Quanell X for blaming the child and her family.
"It was asked where the parents of the young girl were," said Morales. "We can easily and stupidly say, 'Where were the parents of the accused?' We caution those who blame the victim that it will only serve to hurt our communities."
It is too late. The Cleveland community is already hurt. The young girl has been whisked away to a "safe house" by child protective services. It is unclear where she and her family are living now.
"It is just a bad bad time for everyone involved and I can't see anything that will make it better," said former city judge Bob Steely.
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.