As the preliminary hearing for seven men and boys accused of gang raping a 16-year-old girl outside the Richmond High School homecoming dance last year enters its fourth week, students and community leaders are trying to move forward amid constant reminders of the alleged attack.
The incident, just one in a string of violent acts that have terrorized the East Bay community, catapulted the city into a media spotlight that has once again been illuminated as the hearing — which will determine whether the case goes to trial — plays out.
Cynthia Peterson, a counselor with Community Violence Solutions, founded in Richmond 36 years ago, said the sometimes-graphic testimony is opening fresh wounds — especially for the sexual assault survivors she counsels.
During the first three weeks of the hearing, officials have testified that defendants and witnesses told them in interviews that the girl was punched in the face, urinated on and robbed as she was raped, sometimes with a foreign object, over a two-hour period.
Defense attorneys have countered with questioning implying that the girl was not attacked and that she became drunk voluntarily.
“A lot of the details related to this case have now become public, some of the acts that happened to this young woman,” Peterson said. “So I think for us, just the brutality along with the additional information is very traumatizing.”
The dramatic testimony is a painful reminder to many that they live in a community that has seen more than its share of violence.
This year, three gunmen entered New Gethsemane Church of God in Christ during a Sunday service and opened fire as the choir sang, spraying the room with bullets and wounding two teenagers.
In 2009, there were 47 homicides in Richmond, according to city data. Nationwide, the city ranked 14th for crime that year, just behind Baltimore and Compton, according to CQ Press, a Washington, D.C.-based publisher that compiles yearly crime ratings based on FBI data. In comparison, Oakland came in third and San Francisco 93rd. Among cities with similar populations, Richmond ranked eighth.
Sandra Dager, a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, whose close-knit congregation includes Richmond High students, said it is difficult not to feel beaten down by the horrifying acts.
“Richmond has so much violence all the time,” she said. “We’re just inundated.”
Dager, who has counseled young sexual assault victims, said last year’s attack remains “a very, very potent reminder for girls and women that we’re always vulnerable.”
Rhonda James, executive director of the crisis center where Peterson works, said if any good has come from the publicity surrounding the trauma it’s that “it brings the conversation up a lot more, which is kind of a good thing.”
But there is also a sense that the city has been unfairly scarred by the high-profile nature of the case.
In a recent post linked to on Richmond High’s website, senior Monica Ramirez chastised the media for focusing “too much on the negative things about RHS and not enough on the good things that the school has to offer.”
“What really happened after the rape was the school was bombarded with news reporters, all looking for the scoop on the story,” Ramirez wrote. “The students felt harassed due to the constant reminder of what had occurred.”
Dager, the Grace Lutheran pastor, said that despite the daily headlines from the hearing, people are talking about the rape less as the months go by. But she knows it’s in the back of everyone’s mind.
“It’s like 9/11,” she said. “After the first few years, it wasn’t as painful, but it’s always there. … I don’t think people are ever going to get over it.”
The hearing will resume Monday at 9 a.m. at Contra Costa Superior County Court in Martinez.
Role of alcohol a key factor in testimony
The teenage victim of a gang rape was so drunk on liquor supplied by her attackers that before she was assaulted, she collapsed in her own vomit, according to police testimony last week in the preliminary hearing to decide whether the accused will go to trial.
Richmond Police Department Detective Eric Haupt said that Elvis Torrentes, 23, one of seven men and boys charged in connection with the rape outside Richmond High School last year, told him in a three-hour interview that the 16-year-old girl was “guzzling brandy” and “basically out of it” when he met her outside the homecoming dance.
Torrentes, according to Haupt, admitted fondling the girl, but said that she was also coming on to him and that she initiated “sexual petting.”
As he left campus, Torrentes witnessed co-defendant Manuel Ortega, 20, rip the girl’s underwear, Haupt testified. Torrentes also saw Ortega attempting to pull the girl, saying “Shut up, b----,” toward the picnic table police would later find her beneath, according to testimony.
Torrentes is the only one of the seven defendants to be facing less than life in prison. Charged with aiding in the rape, he could serve up to 26 years.
In separate testimony, Richmond Detective Terry Miles said a witness later observed the girl screaming as she was held down and assaulted by defendant Jose Montano, 19, and another male while a large group watched.
According to Haupt, Torrentes admitted telling other males on campus that there was a “drunk and naked girl” behind the school and never attempted to get help.
Pressed by defense attorney Cecily Gray to acknowledge that Torrentes was respectful toward the girl in his interview with police, Haupt bristled.
“Absolutely not,” he said, his voice tinged with anger. “He should have been a man out there, and he wasn’t.”
Besides Torrentes, Ortega and Montano, the defendants charged with raping, robbing and beating the girl are Cody Ray Smith, 16, Ari Morales, 17, Marcelles Peter, 18, and John Crane, 43.
The juveniles are being charged as adults.
The legal trail in rape case
Seven men and boys are involved in a preliminary hearing as to whether they must stand trial on charges stemming a 16-year-old’s alleged rape.
Oct. 24, 2009: A 16-year-old girl is raped by a group of young males on the Richmond High School campus during a homecoming dance
Oct. 27, 2009: 21-year-old Salvador Rodriquez arrested
Oct. 28, 2009:
- 19-year-old Manuel Ortega charged with robbery, assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily injury, rape in concert and rape with violence; his bail was set at $1,230,000 and he faces life in prison
- The other three suspects arrested are juveniles, ages 15, 16 and 17, but were to be charged as adults and held without bail on charges of felony sex crimes.
- The victim is released from the hospital
Oct. 29, 2009:
- Students and teachers speak out against the negative image this crime has put on Richmond High School
- The three juveniles — Cody Ray Smith, 16, of San Pablo, Ari Abdallah Morales, 17, of San Pablo and Marcelles James Peter, 18, of Pinole — are arraigned on charges connected to the gang rape. Smith pled not guilty to charges of rape with a foreign object and rape by force. Manual Ortega, 19, appeared separately without an attorney and did not enter a plea.
- 19-year-old Jose Carlos Montano of Richmond was arrested on charges of felony rape, rape in concert with force and penetration with a foreign object
Oct. 30, 2009: Former Richmond High School boys’ basketball coach, Ken Carter, who was played by Samuel L. Jackson in the film “Coach Carter,” told CNN that he could see an attack like this coming while he was a coach at the school 10 years prior
Oct. 31, 2009: Rape victim’s family issues a statement at a Richmond High School community meeting
Nov. 2, 2009: In a CNN interview, Kami Baker, a friend of the gang rape victim, critized Charles Ramsey, a member of the West Contra Costa County Unified School District board, for not taking greater interest in increased security before the Oct. 24 attack
Nov. 5, 2009: 18-year-old Margarita Vargas speaks about the night of Oct. 24 and how she was the one to call the cops and check on the victim
Nov. 10, 2009: Rodriguez described the Oct. 24 event and said he was the only one who tried to help the 16-year-old rape victim
Jan. 20, 2010: 43-year-old John Crane Jr. of Richmond was arrested and held on $100,000 bail on suspicion of felony sexual assault