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Behind the red door

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The crime would have been nightmarish in any setting, but the charge was that this happened in broad daylight, in a school full of students and teachers. 

During the lunch period on Jan. 28 at Jacksonville High School, police said, nine boys forced a 15-year-old sophomore into a closet and gang-raped her, stopping only when her friends interceded. 

Police quickly charged all nine with rape and as adults. Within hours of the arrests, the names of the accused were on the television news. Mug shots, pasted together in a guilty gray block, showed up almost as quickly. The immediate howl of protest from the kin of the accused and their hastily acquired lawyers was rivaled only by television viewers clucking over the state of the world in the imagined blackboard jungle of Pulaski County. 

The swift action by police and prosecutors might normally have been welcomed by anyone with a teen-age daughter or sister or cousin or friend, but a funny thing happened on the way to a speedy hanging. The initial version of events appeared to begin unraveling. Many in the community rallied behind the boys - a phenomenon encouraged by the fact that the boys' parents and friends were publicly declaring their innocence, while the girl and anyone she had in her corner remained conspicuously, if understandably, silent. Fingers were pointed: at the girl for crying rape, at the police for acting too quickly, at the media for helping to damage the boys' reputations - and, in some cases, their chances at athletic scholarships. 

In the debate over whose version of events was true, almost everyone seemed to lose sight of the fact that, best-case scenario, a girl and multiple partners had been engaging in sexual activity on the 850-student Jacksonville High School campus. And it wasn't the first time. 

So what really did happen behind that red door, in a storage room off a short, cramped passageway between the auditorium and the gym? The facts are still cloudy, the girl's version of events shielded by the haze normally afforded cases of rape to protect the identity of the victim, who has not returned to school. But the answer that is emerging is shaping up to be a sad parable about teen-age sex, blame, and the power of the word "rape," not incidentally in a case where the accuser is white and the accused are black. 

 It's Friday, Feb. 7, homecoming night at Jacksonville High School, nine days after new double locks were installed on that closet down the hall from the gym where smiling girls with pompons now cheer on the Red Devils against Jonesboro. 

The place is packed, no doubt with many people who at least know the name of the girl involved, but finding anyone willing to talk about the case is all but impossible. Even Principal Ken Clark won't discuss it, not even to name which four boys have been cleared by school officials or talk about how such a thing could occur within the walls of his school. 

The police report, incomplete as it is with blacked-out names of juveniles and a version of events that lags far behind the rumor mill, is nevertheless the official version of what happened. Its account: 

On Monday, Jan. 27, a girl told police she met student Christopher Elston in the school's auditorium. They went into the boys' bathroom and engaged in consensual oral sex. When they finished, the girl told police, another boy, Jason Bogard, came in the room, told the girl to lie back down on the floor, held her down and had sex with her. 

The next day, the girl said, she was walking through the auditorium again about 12:45 p.m. when Elston stopped her and asked her to go into the storage room with him. She agreed, but while she was in the room, "a lot of guys" came in and forced her to perform oral sex on "a lot of people." She said she was first forced to her knees, then to bend over so several boys could have sex with her. The assault stopped, the girl told police, when four of her friends came in the room and turned on the lights and all the boys ran off. 

The girl named nine boys as her assailants. As a result of her statement, the police charged Devin Woodard, 17; Tremayne Bone, 16; Bogard, 17; Johntae Tucker, 17; Jehan Brown, 16; Elston, 17; Dmon Parker, 16; Bretrick Miles, 16, and Glen King, 18. She named 11 others who she said watched. 

The girl said the boys left semen in her mouth and on her clothes, and she was taken to a hospital for a rape evaluation. The results have not been revealed. A police officer who went to the school found a used condom and two condom wrappers in the storage room - although the security officer who escorted him to the room said he and others had been in it since the incident earlier that day. 

The police report raises one of many intriguing unanswered questions: Teacher Mary Coop told the officer she had come into the auditorium around the time of the incident and saw a lot of students "making out." She then saw three boys come into the auditorium from the hallway where the storage closet is, all pulling up their pants. She saw several other boys in that corner of the auditorium, and yelled "Who's up there?" 

"A reply came, 'A girl,'" the police report said. "All the juveniles fled. Coop then left." 

Coop could not be reached, and Clark refused to comment on this aspect of the incident, citing a promise he made to Jacksonville police not to discuss the case publicly until they'd finished their investigation. "I can't say anything," he said. 

School board member Pat O'Brien, whose zone includes Jacksonville High, said he planned to ask for a more specific answer than that. 

"I had asked about the teacher who the paper had reported on, and as of yet, I haven't received anything substantive about what happened or didn't happen," O'Brien said. 

Pulaski County School District Superintendent Don Henderson said he doesn't know the details either, but "I would have expected her [Coop] to find out what they were doing in there." 

The police report said Assistant Principal Rochelle Cannon learned of the assault at about 1:15 p.m. The report doesn't make clear how the girl found her way to Cannon's office. Cannon won't comment. 

It was almost two hours later, at 3 p.m., that school officials called police. School officials have given no explanation why there was such a lag between when the girl first told her story and when adults at the school called police. 

Nor have they explained why school officials finished their investigation - which cleared four of the boys entirely and determined the others were involved in consensual sex only - within a few days. Police and prosecutors are going into their third week on the case and charges are still pending against all nine. 

Another disturbing fact culled from police reports is the fact that this is not the first time something like this has happened at Jacksonville High School. Last fall, on Sept. 12, police say, a girl was surrounded by four boys and groped. Her breasts, legs, thighs and buttocks were grabbed, and someone ran a hand up her skirt. The police report also says one of the assailants took the victim aside and threatened her with gang rape if she talked, saying that she'd better "shut the fuck up and not say anything, or they were going to gangbang or gang rape me." 

According to published comments by Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Terry Raney, two of the assailants were boys charged in the recent reported attack, Jason Bogard and Johntae Tucker. Both were charged in juvenile court with terroristic threatening and second-degree sexual assault in the September incident. School action in that case is unclear, but sources indicate Bogard was suspended. Tucker apparently was not, apparently because school officials decided the complaint against him was unfounded. 

But after their arrest in connection with the alleged gang rape, Raney asked Judge Robert Batton to move the charges against Bogard and Tucker to adult court, a change that could allow the earlier incident to be used as evidence against the accused in adult court. As a juvenile matter still, that case remains sealed. 

Whatever the status of both criminal cases, all nine of those recently accused are back in class. Five served a four-day suspension for the second sexual incident. The other four - Woodard, Parker, Miles and Brown - were cleared by the school and given no punishment. 

The case has been confusing at every step. School officials initially said one of the five suspended in the second attack had initially been recommended for explusion. They didn't identify that student, but it was most likely Bogard, since he was not allowed back in school in the first days after the second incident. 

But School Board member O'Brien said the expulsion action - the punishment for two incidents of on-campus sex - had been dropped because of "due process:" concerns about the suspension in the first case. 

"It's now my understanding that there was a problem with his first suspension," O'Brien said. "I don't really understand what the problem was, but I was told it had something to do with maybe due process wasn't followed or something of that nature. Basically that [first suspension] was wiped off and this was considered a first offense, so that he was not actually expelled." 

School Board Chairman Jeff Shaneyfelt defended the decision to return the boys to class. "No one can prove they're wrong," Shaneyfelt said. "What do you do, keep them out of school until the girl surfaces?" 

The boys who were involved have been punished appropriately, Superintendent Henderson said. Pulaski County policy requires a four-day out-of-school suspension for the first offense of having consensual sex on campus. (Little Rock schools require at least a 10-day suspension and mandated counseling.) There are no further consequences if it's a group sexual encounter. 

Basketball coach Jerry Wilson apparently cleared Parker, Miles and Brown, who are on the team and were in the gym getting ready for that evening's away game when the alleged rape occurred. 

Larry Dunklin, Tucker's attorney, said there are students who can place Tucker elsewhere at the time of the incident. He was briefly suspended nevertheless. 

Woodard, by all accounts a quiet, deeply religious boy with few friends, was apparently a case of mistaken identity. According to his mother, another boy with a similar name was known to hang around with several of the accused. 

 Many people expect prosecutors to drop charges against the boys, but prosecutors say they will have no decision until they receive the complete police investigation. Police released no new information after the initial report, even canceled a news conference, in part to avoid tough questions already emerging about their handling of the case. The girl has not surfaced, even to make contact with school officials. 

"I don't know when she's coming back to school," Henderson said late last week. Her parents hadn't returned phone calls, he said. If she does come back to Jacksonville High, though, she will face disciplinary action for truancy, he said. 

Little has been said publicly about the girl, though supporters of the accused have plenty to say: that she's known for telling attention-getting stories and that she made up her allegation to cover for being caught in a compromising situation. She moved to Jacksonville, where she lives with her father and stepmother, from Vilonia in October. She's remembered by a Vilonia school official as a "quiet kid." Said Assistant Principal David Bangs, "She didn't have any problems here." 

 In the bleachers last Friday, the mood among students and parents was too quiet by half for a homecoming basketball game. Security was thick. 

A handful of reporter's business cards yielded at best only a few tepid promises to call; at worst, people turning their backs and walking quickly away.

In the middle of the girls' game, two well-dressed women hurried in and found a seat. 

"When does the homecoming start?" one asked, and the reporter told her it would be after the girls' game was done. "Good," she said, adding that she didn't want to sit through the varsity boys' game to come. Her son was an escort in the homecoming festivities, and she promised to point him out. She studied a reporter's business card for a long time before zipping it up in her purse. The friendly chat quickly stopped. She said her son was not on the basketball team. 

"Honey," she said, "my son's got a 4.0. He's not mixed up in all that mess. If he was, I'd still be beating him on TV." Soon after that, she and her companion rose and found seats elsewhere. True to her word, after the homecoming queen and king were crowned, she headed for the door. She was spared seeing the boys' team suffer a 20-plus point defeat, the fourth straight loss since Jan. 28. 

Coach Jerry Wilson blames the arrest of four of his players - and the ensuing rumors that the entire team was involved - for the team's difficulties. 

The arrests, which followed the incident by a day and pulled several boys out of practice, caught the team off guard, Wilson said. The day before, they'd left 45 minutes late for the road game because Wilson was in the school office trying to determine if any of his players was involved. Watching police handcuff the boys left their teammates "numb," Wilson said.

It also left some of their parents irate. 

Both Tucker's attorney and Parker's parents say neither police nor the school notified the boys' parents when they were arrested. 

"A student called my wife and let her know," said Robert McClure, Parker's stepfather. "We went down to the police station and they wouldn't let us talk to him or see him." 

Dunklin, Tucker's attorney, said he and several other boys were called into the principal's office on the day after the assault and asked to give written statements about where they were during the incident. Before Tucker was able to finish, Dunklin said, police arrested him. Tucker's younger sister, also a student, told Tucker's mother of the arrest. The fact that the boys were arrested before detectives could obtain statements is another bone of contention about the police work. Those statements could have made the case easier against some suspects or perhaps prevented charges against the innocent, critics say. 

Soon after the arrests, school officials announced that four of the accused had alibis for the time of the alleged attack. Then, on Jan. 30, senior deputy prosecutor John Johnson requested that all the boys be released on their own recognizance - something rarely seen in cases of rape. 

Johnson (whose office had made the initial recommendation that the boys be charged as adults) cited a phone call from an unnamed counselor who had talked to the girl after the incident, saying that the counselor's information "brings into question the veracity of the circumstances in this matter." Again, a counselor speaking with prosecutors - or anyone for that matter - about a rape is highly unusual. 

The initial police report raised some questions about the girl's allegations. It mentions several letters from the girl to some of the boys, handed over by the girl's stepmother. Reports of notes the girl wrote offering oral sex to numerous boys have been reported by a student and one parent of a suspect. A source close to the school district investigation said that school officials have turned over to police a stack of letters the girl wrote to boys involved in this incident, and in previous sexual encounters the girl supposedly had orchestrated. The source said the stack is "between one-half and two inches thick" and contains "thank you notes" to the girl's previous sex partners and sexually explicit invitations to boys she wanted to have sex with. 

How important could those notes be? They may call into question the girl's initial version of events, but they shouldn't be taken as proof that no rape occurred, said Katherine Daniel, a counselor with the Sexual Assault Center in Little Rock. 

"You can always change your mind," Daniel said. "You can say yes to sex with one person and no to a group." 

She said she also wouldn't be surprised if the girl changed her story in the days after she reported the assault. That's common with rape victims, whose body chemistry is so traumatized that it can take awhile for memories to clear up, Daniel said. 

Still, the girl remained hidden - and, at least officially, anonymous. But a sad fact of rape cases remains. The credibility and willing participation of the victim inevitably become issues. As one law enforcement official put it: "We all know a prostitute can be raped, but convincing the average Joe on a jury of that is a tough proposition." 

 Soon after the arrests at Jacksonville High School, relatives of the accused cried foul, saying that the police had acted too hastily in arresting the boys, and expressed outrage that the news media had broadcast pictures of the accused. 

"When you're dealing with something that can cause irreparable harm, like a rape charge, you need to move a little slower," Dunklin said. Dunklin's sentiments are echoed by the other defense attorneys involved in the case: Chantal Mullen, R.S. McCullough and Mark Leverett. High-profile civil rights attorney John Walker represented all nine when they faced punishment from the school. 

Civil litigation hasn't been ruled out by some of the defendants. Leverett, who represents Parker, said his client is "exploring all options." 

"As long as they have criminal charges, that will be our focus," said Mullen, who represents Bogard and Brown. 

Asked why police determined to charge the boys as adults, public information officer Kelley Smiley passed the buck to the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office. "We can call them and tell them the facts of the case," Smiley said. "Usually they ask if there was any criminal act by these people in the past, and they ask us the ages, and that type of thing, but ultimately the decision of whether someone is charged as a juvenile or an adult comes from the prosecuting attorney's office." 

The prosecutors' defense: Given the severity of the allegations, and the fact that condoms and condom wrappers had been found in the storage room, the office felt the adult charges were justified. 

"The nature of the crime as reported by the victim and the degree of evidence that had been recovered at the scene indicated that in fact, there had been sex that was being had on the school campus, and with her saying it was multiple participants and by force," Johnson said. 

Johnson said that soon after the Jacksonville police talked to the victim on Jan. 28, they called to ask if the prosecuting attorney's office felt that arresting the accused as adults was warranted. 

The prosecuting attorney's office did not interview the victim before making its recommendation, which Johnson said is standard. Because of the fragility of victims immediately after a rape, his office almost never interviews rape victims before recommending charges, Johnson said. 

"You can imagine a rape victim who has had this horrible thing happen to them, and she's having to tell it first to the investigative agency," Johnson said. "You know, you hate to make them go back over and back over and back over the same thing." 

Too, Johnson said that even though there were multiple offenders, the identities of the perpetrators were little in question. 

"It's different than if she was in a bar, and people she had never met raped her, and we're relying just on photo spread information of people she had never seen before," Johnson said. "That's not what we had here. You have a victim who said 'I know these guys, I go to school with them every day, this is what they did to me.'" 

"With the nature of the crime that was being reported," said Johnson, charging the boys as adults " was the correct choice to make." 

Bill Robinson, a Little Rock defense attorney who specializes in juvenile cases, agreed. He said the decision to arrest or charge juveniles as adults is often based on the severity of the crime, and that in this case, it appears to have been more than justified. "From what I've read in the paper, we're talking about a teen-age girl who alleged that nine boys lured her into a locked place and raped her, gang rape," Robinson said. "That's sensational. And if taken for true, and they were all 16 or 17, then that's a rather serious crime." 

Robinson said that given the allegations, no one can blame the police for charging the defendants as adults, or the prosecuting attorney's office for making the recommendation. "You have to understand that law enforcement does its job by taking serious allegations, investigating and filing charges. The prosecuting attorney's office is the same," Robinson said. "It's up to the court system and further investigation to determine whether those charges are well founded or not." 

 Right, wrong or somewhere in between, the decision to charge as adults appears to have come back to haunt law officers. 

Though Johnson couldn't talk about what the counselor had to say, it was damaging enough that he soon drafted a letter to Jacksonville Municipal Judge Robert Batton, requesting that the nine accused be released on their own recognizance, and questioning the truthfulness of the statement the victim gave to police. 

"Normally we don't release, until an investigation is complete, any statements or information in a case," Johnson said. "This was information that we were getting that was going to affect the outcome of the bond hearing, and information that the defense counsel and the judge needed to be made aware of." 

Though Robinson didn't want to speculate on the possible ramifications of the prosecutor's letter to Judge Batton, he did say that if his client were released on his own recognizance after being charged with rape, he might assume that Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley didn't see the client as much of a threat. 

"Not many rape defendants are [released on their own recognizance]. And as soon as it came to Mr. Jegley's attention that perhaps there was more to it than what they initially thought, then he asked the court to release the boys on their own recognizance, without posting any bond. That's a pretty mighty step for charges as serious as rape." 

Robinson agreed the charges would tarnish the reputations of the boys, especially those who were apparently accused wrongly, especially in the eyes of the general public. "To those people who know them it shouldn't alter it at all," Robinson said. "But to those people who don't know them who read the paper, it's always going to be a stigma. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, it takes one second to lose it." 

Johnson wouldn't say as late as Wednesday whether his office would drop the charges against any or all of the nine boys, but he said the idea of a person being wrongfully accused of such a heinous crime in front of the public and the press was "terrible." 

 As for how school officials handled the situation, the verdict is still out. School board member O'Brien said he, for one, wanted a detailed accounting of all that went on. But, with the police investigation still open, the board avoided the subject at its regular meeting Tuesday night. Superintendent Henderson, in fact, declared the episode closed. 

"If there's not enough answers, then they're going to have to go back and get some answers," O'Brien said in an interview. "We do need to know how the administration and the teachers handled the situation. Did they do a good job? A bad job? We need to know, so this doesn't ever happen again, bottom line." 

And the young woman who's at the center of it all? The rumor mill offers much about her reputation, but little else. She's not talking. And if anyone is doing anything to offer her any assistance, they're not talking either.

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