Re-posted by Nicholas Stix
The Girl from Trails End
By Kathy Dobie
Photographs [sic] by Matt Eich [There’s only one.]
4 years ago [September, 2011]
[Absolutely no comments permitted at GQ!]
Three teenagers were clustered around the cell phone, heads almost touching as they peered at the video. "Eww...that’s nasty." A surge of excitement, of almost electric disgust, passed between them. It was Monday after the long Thanksgiving weekend. The Texas morning was warm and overcast, the air spongy. In the cafeteria of Cleveland High School, the students jockeyed with one another to get a better view of the tiny screen. They could see a naked girl lying on a mattress. A guy moving on top of her. A wall of legs surrounded the couple, like a slatted fence. The faces of the others in the room weren’t visible, only their legs and feet, shifting impatiently. It looked like there were eight to ten guys watching the girl, watching and waiting their turn. Each time the guys switched places, another face was revealed—some of them were boys in their school. (One later told a female classmate that he’d stuck a beer bottle into the girl.) Others were older and unfamiliar. But as the video flew from phone to phone that day, almost everyone recognized the girl on the mattress—that long ink black hair, the brown eyes and baby cheeks. She was a sixth grader from the middle school next door. An 11-year-old.
Two and a half months later, the arrests began. On February 18, four Cleveland men were picked up and charged with "continuous sexual abuse" of a child. In court documents, she was referred to as "Regina D. Stewart," a pseudonym. Over the next three weeks, fifteen more men and boys, ranging in age from 16 to 27, were indicted for "aggravated sexual abuse" of a child, bringing the total number of defendants to nineteen. Nineteen men and boys who, if the charges were true, had gathered in a place where no one lived but them—no police, no girlfriends, no fathers, no mothers or grandmothers—and what was wrong became, if not exactly right, then all right. They would all plead not guilty.
Even before the arrests, the press descended on this East Texas town of 8,000 where half the population is white, a quarter is black, and a quarter, Hispanic. Located just forty-five miles north of Houston, Cleveland is both rural and citified. [Hispanic] Families keep chickens and donkeys while fast-food restaurants pull in traffic off the main drag. The crime rate is high, the faces are friendly, and the air smells of crispy chicken, toasted ancho peppers, fresh-cut grass, manure, truck fumes, lilacs, pine sap, and mud.
By mid-December, TV-news trucks were gathered outside the high school. Reporters ducked into pews at church services and, notebooks in hand, grimly worked the playgrounds. Each new development brought another wave of media attention. Frustrated, a Cleveland teenager posted on Facebook, "man yall y r we still on the fuckin news they need to let that shit go." The story, already red-hot, became inflammatory when it was reported that all of the suspects were black and the victim Hispanic. Friends and relatives of the men and boys were quoted defending them and blaming the girl, who they said acted much older than 11, wearing makeup and sexy clothes. They speculated that she had probably lied about her age, so how were the males to know? The New York Times was roundly castigated for its "rape-friendly" coverage of the assault, which was heavy on sympathetic quotes about the defendants and uncritical of malicious comments about the victim. After receiving tens of thousands of readers’ complaints, the Times took the extraordinary step of sending its reporter back to Cleveland for a do-over, and the media began to cover its own coverage. Clearly no one was planning to "let that shit go" anytime soon.
A chicken scratches in the dusty yard of the house in Trails End where Regina grew up with her mother and father, Maria and Juan; her sisters, 16-year-old Elisa and 15-year-old Anna; and their 8-year-old brother, Thomas.1 It’s early April. An empty container of Cup Noodles sits on the windowsill of the now abandoned home, left there by Anna, who points triumphantly every time the house is shown on the news—"My noodles!"—as if some part of this story still belongs to them.
For every well-kept home in Trails End, there’s one with a barbed-wire fence and a yard full of broken toys, tires, and rusted appliances. It’s a suburban frontier, the kind of place where you could keep horses (as some people do) or meth labs (ditto). The woods creep up behind the homes, and by late afternoon the pine trees are already drinking in the darkness.
Juan used to work in construction, but he’s been unemployed for a year and a half because of a back injury and vague stomach problems. Since then Maria has been the sole breadwinner, making change in a game room for the customers playing the slots. Almost two years ago, Maria was diagnosed with brain tumors after collapsing at work. She has no health insurance, so she hasn’t received any treatment for the tumors, nor can she pay for her insulin prescription for her diabetes. Every few months, she lands in the hospital again, most recently for a minor stroke. She’s a tall, big-boned 44-year-old woman with long, thick hair who goes to work, comes home, lies in her bed, and then goes back to work. She is often exhausted but almost always good-humored.
"My wild child" is what Maria calls Regina, laughing tenderly. Her voice is cracked, her laughter a soft rumble. "That girl could live on mirrors," she says. "That girl could live taking pictures of herself. She wants to be a model." Her photos show a pretty girl with large brown eyes slightly slanted at the corners and raven black hair that falls over her left eye like a bird’s wing. Regina was physically affectionate, exuberant, always clowning around, Maria says; she was stubborn, too, and when she got mad, she got "snotty." She wouldn’t talk or even look at you for hours.
Not long ago, Regina was a preppy; then she adopted the slang and style of the hood. She was a quick learner, a chameleon. She loved her phone, loved her Facebook. Her pages are filled with newly learned gangsta talk ("straiqqh Hood ! Love Mhyy Niqqhas !") and studded with hearts and smiley faces, like crowded Christmas cookies.
In many ways, she reminded Maria of herself when she was a kid. "Even if she was mad, she was still happy," Maria says. "That’s why you couldn’t tell if something happened to her. She was always laughing, laughing." She seemed to be spurring herself on and hustling everyone else along with her, relentlessly nudging her sisters, Come on! Let’s go do something! Let’s go somewhere!
Regina was deeply loyal, too, unable to hold a grudge. She’d stick with you and keep loving you—best friend, blood sister, boo—through every offense. You’d practically have to kill her to lose her love.
Eight miles away, in downtown Cleveland, is where all nineteen defendants lived. Depending on who’s talking, this area is referred to as Precinct 20, the hood, Checkahoe or "the Check," the Quarters, or simply home. This is where the incident in the video took place, first in a single-story house with a cement-slab porch and then in an abandoned trailer a few blocks away.
The Check was once a world of its own, with corner grocery stores, nightclubs, beauty shops, and rec rooms where kids could play pool and drink sodas while the adults partied at the juke joint next door. Now almost every business in Cleveland lies on the west side of the railroad tracks: the government offices and Walmart, the Mexican restaurants and barbecue shacks, the town’s new civic center and the offices of The Cleveland Advocate. Cross the tracks going east and there’s nothing but houses: ranch houses with well-tended lawns; small wooden ones with covered porches; abandoned homes hunched blindly behind seas of knee-high grass and brambles; even some sagging one-room shacks left over from forever but still lived in. In the Check, middle-class people live side by side with poor people. There are no sidewalks, no borderlines between home and street; porches and front yards are the neighborhood’s living room. In the evenings the local park is lit, noisy with basketball games, teens hanging, young moms flirting. If you grew up here, every member of your family lives within hollering distance—aunts, cousins, grandmas, and grandchildren—and if they’re not your blood, they’re married to your uncle or tight with your oldest brother.
Eleven-year-old Regina often visited, drawn by the energy, the intricately woven web of relationships. My cuzzin, my bro, my babyboy, ma nigga. This familial atmosphere also explains how it came to be that on November 28, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a 19-year-old could allegedly start working his cell phone and within minutes assemble a group of guys that included 16-year-old boys as well as 26- and 27-year-old men.
According to police documents, Eric McGowen called Regina and asked if she wanted to go for a ride. McGowen and two others—Jared Cruse, 18, and a 16-year-old boy whose identity has been protected because he’s a minor—picked Regina up in Trails End. The four then drove to a blue, white-trimmed house on North Travis Avenue in the hood, the home of the aunt of Timothy "Tim-Tim" Ellis. Tim-Tim was there, as well as Jared McPherson, also known as J-Mac. Regina told the police that Tim-Tim told her to take her clothes off, saying that if she refused, he would have some girls beat her up. "The victim states that while at the location she engaged in sexual intercourse and oral sex with multiple individuals named above." Later she was taken into the bathroom. "Victim states that while she was in the bathroom engaging in sexual intercourse and oral sexual intercourse with Jared Cruse and Jared McPherson, she heard Eric McGowen talking to some unknown person on the telephone and invite them to come to the residence to have sex with the victim." When Regina stepped out of the bathroom, according to the affidavit, there were four more guys in the house.
When Tim-Tim’s aunt arrived home, the affidavit states, everyone including Regina escaped out a rear window, leaving Regina’s panties and bra behind. "The victim states that she suffered vaginal tearing during the acts and blood could possibly be at the location." The group then moved to the trailer two blocks away, where a mattress lay on the floor.
Beige and chocolate-colored siding, plastic sheets covering some of the windows, too sad-looking to even be called ugly, the trailer is set upon cement blocks with no steps to reach the front door. Inside, a disconnected stove sits in the middle of the living room; couches and tables are strewn with papers. Bills? Eviction and turnoff notices? It looks like a hurricane hit an already desperate life.
1. Names of siblings have been changed.
In the trailer, "sexual acts continued with multiple individuals." Some of the men took photographs; some made videos. The next day at school, at least one of these videos began to be passed around.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday... As the days wore on and the news flashed through the high school and over to the middle school, Regina must’ve felt like she was being dragged through water on a hook. Most of the teenagers and children who knew kept it among themselves, but someone reported it to the principal. By Wednesday, the incident had the attention of the police chief for the school district, Antonio Ford. He took Regina aside and spoke to her. Over the next two days, he interviewed school staff who had heard the rumors and the student who had reported the video. "The juvenile witness stated the video depicted one of the males ejaculate onto the victim’s face." On Friday, December 3, Ford called the city police.
Maria was just returning home from getting her Dodge Durango inspected that afternoon when her cell phone rang. It was the middle-school counselor telling her she needed to come in right away. When Maria walked into the counselor’s office, Regina was sitting there, but so was Chief Ford, looking drop-dead serious. "What she do?" Maria asked in her rough, energetic way. "She get into a fight?" (It had happened once before.) Ford couldn’t come right out and say it. As he started taking her through the investigation—the rumors, the video—Maria grew confused. She felt her brusque defenses give way. What was he getting at? But then Ford spit it out: Your daughter has been raped. Maria didn’t gape; she didn’t grapple with the news. She broke down and sobbed. And then with a jerk of breath and a sound like a cat mewing, Regina started crying, too.
Regina was often seen out and about in Trails End, sometimes walking and talking with her little brother, sometimes wandering alone. In the summer of 2010, her bangs were cut straight across her forehead, and her hair fell straight and shiny halfway down her back. A neighbor named José says she was always smiling, always talkative. When he spoke to her about boys, "she told me she didn’t like Mexicans, she only liked blacks." In fact, she told him Mexicans were ugly, but said it so lightly that José couldn’t help but grin at the memory. It was like being swatted by a kitten.
According to her sister Elisa, "Regina’s actually ashamed to be Mexican." Anna adds, "Yeah, she thinks she’s black." Their father, Juan, dislikes black men—"They’re lazy, and I don’t know why they exist," he says—so Regina told him she was going to marry one.
In June, Regina joined Facebook and fell hard for James,2 a 20-year-old man from Houston, and began a Facebook/texting/cell-phone relationship that was largely imaginary. "I lovee youu!" she told him over and over again. "Yuur mhyy ee’rythinqq!" James, a curiously childlike man, occasionally replied to her passionate declarations with an "Ily 2" or "te amo sweetie," letting Regina’s feelings bloom and fester with no need for further encouragement.
That summer Maria landed in the hospital again. One of the tumors was pushing up behind her eye, swelling it shut. To Regina and her siblings, the possibility of their mother’s death seeped into their lives like a stain. A friend who often slept over noticed that when Maria wasn’t working, she was usually in her bedroom, coming out only to eat and once, memorably, to play Guitar Hero with them. Juan didn’t do much when he was there except watch TV and drive the kids places they needed to go. Elisa and Anna felt like they were raising Regina and Thomas on their own. Sometimes Regina called 15-year-old Anna "Mom."
In August, James came down from Houston with his friend Steve. Regina seemed young, but James wasn’t sure. Every time James tried to put his arm around her, she pulled away. While the two men talked with her in the front yard, a 14-year-old boy bicycled in circles on the street, watching them in a friendly way. The boy had once been Regina’s sweetheart.
James didn’t know how old Regina was that day, he says, but on his second visit, when he found out she was 11, he backed off. "I mean, that’s just a baby!" he says. They kept texting each other, though, and communicating by Facebook. In September, they both posted that they were in a relationship. "I just let her do all that stuff, just to go along with it," James explains. "But I couldn’t hook up with the girl. She’s too young." He calls it "just a little Facebook-relationship thing." After a few weeks, it was over. But the real breakup to their imaginary relationship was brutal, and it’s easy to picture James almost lazily typing out his lines on the screen. "I dnt want u baq I’m sick of ya shit."
"I aintt datt sprunqq on youu!! HA BYEEEEEE," Regina replied.
"dnt kal me an txt me ok diz iz gud bye. I dnt eva wanna c u or hear 4rum u or b ya friend eva agin," James wrote.
"Haha owk :)"
"Dat rite bytch so fukk u."
His last lines were delivered with a flourish but no hostility. For James, the play had merely come to an end. Regina, however, had gotten a schooling in the turmoil and nastiness of grown-up relationships. Her love meant shit. She could be rejected. Roughly, soundly. Months after their breakup, Regina would write to him: "...wen wee brokee upp iht went CRAZYY ! :))."
In the fall, high school boys started asking Elisa and Anna how old their little sister was. "She’s 11," the girls told them. And the boys would go: "Uh-uh! Naw!" The sisters repeated: "She’s in sixth grade!"
When Elisa and Anna would tell Regina to wear more clothes, cover up, put on a T-shirt!, Maria would say, "Well, she’s got the body, so leave her alone." Her daughter was so pretty, and Maria couldn’t see how spaghetti-strap shirts and short shorts were "grown-up." "She’s a little girl!" she exclaims. It’s as if Maria couldn’t bear to dampen such butterfly preening and posing, to crush such unspoiled lightness.
Her sisters say Regina used to sneak out of the house, but Maria snorts: "She didn’t sneak out. She just walked out the door." Sometimes Regina said she was off to visit a friend in Trails End, a girl with a horse that they would ride. Maria never doubted her. Or never wanted to. Maria was raised strictly and beaten often, she says, sometimes with electrical cords, and she wanted her kids to have a better childhood. She just didn’t have the heart to discipline them.
Even when Maria would specifically tell her daughter to stay home while she was at work, Juan would take Regina where she wanted to go. "That was Daddy’s little girl," she says. "He spoiled her and let her do whatever she wanted." Of course, guys would drive into Trails End to pick up Regina, traveling in pairs or groups, as if without one another they lacked confidence, even motivation. Or perhaps being seen alone in a car with a sixth grader would just be too embarrassing. And the girl? She’d probably start thinking she was your girlfriend.
According to the criminal indictments, Regina was assaulted on four separate occasions: the first in September, followed by three more throughout the fall. All four involved more than one male. Around Halloween, Brenda Myers, who runs various youth activities through her Community and Children’s Impact Center, noticed that Regina, who was always "bubbly," seemed subdued. "Hey, baby girl, is there something going on?" Brenda asked her one night. "You seem kind of sad."
"I can’t really talk about it, Miss Brenda," Regina replied. She continued to post messages to this boy or that man, flattering all of them: "Lewknqq Guhdd!!" "T2 Damn Sexyyy Baee !" She expanded her Facebook circle to include rappers in Houston and the sisters and mothers of boys she liked, as if trying to build a home and a self in midair.
The police are not saying how many of the nineteen defendants were involved in the November 28 assault, but a number of other guys walked away from the house on North Travis Avenue once they understood what was about to go down. No one called the law, though, or tried to get Regina home. Of the males who were later arrested, the high schoolers and the one middle schooler had clean records, and most were well-liked athletes. Twenty-one-year-old Isaiah Ross, who had never gotten into trouble with the police, worked at Walmart at the time of his arrest and was "one of the few guys of our generation who had a job," says one of his old Cleveland High classmates.
Seven of the adults had criminal records or charges pending. Cedrick Scott did time for selling cocaine. Jared Cruse, a former choirboy and McDonald’s employee, was arrested twice this past winter: for an alleged home invasion, during which the homeowner was shot in the arm, and for allegedly holding up a grocery store. Kelvin King, known as Poppa, still faced an old sexual-assault charge involving a 14-year-old girl as well as a robbery charge for allegedly stealing his sister’s car at gunpoint. [That’s not “stealing,” which is a non-violent crime, but the violent, federal felony offense of carjacking.] Rayford Ellis Jr., also known as Mookie, has fathered at least five children and was charged with manslaughter in 2008 in what appears to be the accidental shooting of a friend. Anthony Porchia, 26, was indicted in June for the sexual abuse [that’s statutory rape, though he may have enjoyed criminal justice affirmative action, already at the charging level] of another child, after a 14-year-old gave birth to his baby. The weight of their individual experiences—sexually, criminally, even their high school education and their work experience, fatherhood, lives already on the skid or in frustrating limbo—all of this put these men years and years ahead [or behind?] of a sixth grader. Compared to her, they had a terrible gravity.
Regina returned home to Trails End early that Sunday evening. Her father, Juan, told The New York Times that she didn’t get home until 3 or 4 A.M., falling into the house, crying, but her sisters say that’s not true. When I asked Juan, he admitted that he didn’t know what time she got home that night. He wasn’t there.
Actually, Regina tried to act as if nothing had happened. Her exuberance had always been, in part, a ladder to climb up, up, up—far above every bad feeling and ugly situation that was beyond her capacity to handle.
A couple of nights later, a neighborhood woman named Tiffany had a disturbing encounter with Regina in Trails End. It was around eight thirty; a quarter moon hung crookedly in the sky, barely lighting Devin Road, where Tiffany walked with her teenage son. They spotted a young girl with waist-long hair standing at the edge of the road, talking ferociously on a cell phone. Tiffany could hear a male voice yelling on the other end of the line. "I’m standing right the fuck here," the girl said. She’s fronting, Tiffany thought. She’s trying to act cool. Then the girl hung up on the caller.
"I know her. She goes to middle school," her son said, but he didn’t know her name. When they walked up to her, Tiffany noticed tired circles under her eyes. The girl told them a couple of guys were trying to pick her up but that they kept getting lost. "We’re going to Houston," she added, as if that were a glamorous destination. As they talked, the girl’s cell rang again, Tiffany heard the guy yelling, and once more the girl hung up on him.
"Walk with us to that streetlight," Tiffany said. When they got to the bright place in the road, Tiffany gave the girl directions, which she relayed to the guy on the phone. Then Tiffany and her son walked away. They hadn’t gotten far before a two-door Grand Am pulled up. A man got out of the passenger seat and knocked the girl down to the ground. At the sound of her scream, Tiffany headed back. The girl ran to her and hugged her tightly. "You like hitting women?" Tiffany said to the passenger, who made a sucking sound and shook his head in weary disgust. "Is there a problem here?"
"No, ma’am," he said, while the driver sat in the car smirking.
"Are you sure you want to go with them?" she asked the girl. "You can come home with me and we’ll figure things out."
"Yeah, I’m okay," the girl said. Then she climbed into the backseat, the driver did a swift U-ey, and they drove away.
After the investigation began on December 3, Regina and her mom spent many afternoons at the Cleveland police station. "I would sit outside while she would be in there talking to detectives," Maria remembers. "She didn’t feel comfortable telling the story in front of me. They would talk for hours and hours." If only Maria could run away, escape as she had from the hospital after she had her stroke. She had sneaked past the nurses, dragging the heart monitor with her. It was such a funny story the way she told it, it always made her daughters laugh. But Regina’s rape trapped her. She could hardly bear to sit still outside the interview room. She felt strapped to the chair, jolted by memories. She was 5, she says, when her stepfather started telling her to touch him. Hand here, mouth there. The abuse went on and on, became her childhood, really. At 12, when she finally worked up the desperate courage to report the abuse and was placed in foster care, she says her mother begged her to recant—the family needed the stepdad’s paycheck. So Maria complied. She was returned home, where her stepdad continued to molest her. When she talks about it, tears stream down her face.
At Cleveland High, the police were pulling students out of class for questioning. On December 9, the house on North Travis Avenue and the abandoned trailer home were searched. Regina was still going to classes, writing on Facebook "uqqh dhnt wanna go tuu skool."
On the tenth, the news first broke. "Iff Diss Gurll...Gettss Myy Kuzzin In Troublee Witt Dees Lawss I Promise you there iss goinn too bee a major problum !" wrote a high school girl on her Facebook page. She then forwarded that message to Regina. On the eleventh, Regina messaged her 24-year-old half sister, Julia, who lives outside Houston: "Mom is aht work doee ’d ihh dhnt really wanna b here alone!" As the investigation crawled along, Maria began getting calls from strangers saying, "You all better watch your backs!" Some nights, Regina thought she saw figures slipping through the pine trees behind their house. Maria was scared, too. "I would hear shots outside somewhere, and the first thing I would think of was the kids, because they would play outside."
Regina’s sisters noticed that she wasn’t on the cell phone much anymore, but she still spent a lot of time on Facebook. Mostly she seemed to be reaching outside the tight circle of people who now hated her, leaving messages of love: "HAPPY BIRFFDAY KINFOLK !" she wrote to her cousin. "I Love Youu Mommy !" she posted to the mother of a good friend. "ihh love youu Besss Frahnd!" went out to a neighborhood boy.
In early January, Regina and her parents were at their house, sitting with two detectives and a social worker from Child Protective Services, when they were informed that Regina was to be handed over to a foster family that lived in another town. It was for her own safety, the officers told them. With so many suspects, so much prison time waiting at the end of any conviction, Regina was in danger. "I’m not going!" Regina yelled. "You can’t make me!" And then she ran straight out of the house and into the street. She must have run fast, because the police officer who went after her in his squad car couldn’t find her. After he returned empty-handed, Juan went to look for her. When he brought Regina back into the room, she was furious. "Leave me alone!" she shouted. "Get away from me!"
If even the police couldn’t hold her, Maria asks, how could she be expected to keep her girl under lock and key? "Supervise her? You turn your eyes for a second and she’s gone! She did it in front of them! In front of them!"
A week or so later, on January 14, Juan and Maria turned their daughter over to her foster mom in the parking lot of Walmart. Her new family was white; to Maria, they seemed rich. Maria and Juan still thought they were handing Regina over to protect her from the suspects. Only later would they be charged with parental neglect. Family court would now decide when and if they could get their daughter back. The day before leaving, Regina had cried constantly, but that morning she was dry-eyed. She hugged and kissed her mom and then climbed in the foster mother’s jeep. Maria couldn’t see her face as they drove away.
On February 18, Jared Cruse, Isaiah Ross, Timothy Ellis, and Rayford Ellis Jr. were picked up and charged with continuous sexual abuse of a young child, a first-degree felony with a sentence of twenty-five years to life. The arrests continued throughout that month. One night two police officers came to check on the family, because they’d gotten a tip that someone was skulking around outside. Soon the detectives were pressuring Juan and Maria to get the rest of the family out of town. They wanted them gone before they began arresting the minors.
Anna and Elisa didn’t want to leave. Both girls were A students and enrolled in the ROTC program. Elisa was a cheerleader with plans to enter the air force after high school. Anna played in the school band and expected to go to college. On February 14, Elisa wrote on Facebook, "Man I miss my little sis.... let us see what life brings for us because all we seem to be getting is crap...." At times she was angry at her youngest sister, who "ruined our lives," and at Child Protective Services, now threatening to take all of Maria’s kids away if they were not properly supervised. She hated the reporters who wouldn’t leave them alone: "STALKERS!!!" And finally, she blamed her mother when the family had to move to an apartment in another town.
On March 4, four Cleveland high school and middle school students were taken into custody, plucked from the school’s athletic field, where a baseball game was in progress. One of the boys shouted to a friend, "Call my mom!" as he was led away.
While the suspects were locked up awaiting arraignment, friends and relatives poured out their support on FB pages, letting the men and boys know that the Check was with them: "man thats real messed up how they tryna railroad these boys.... hold yall head up da checc guna hold yall down.... free erbody n let these boys go."
"keep ya head up bro, god wnt put too much on yu that yu cnt bare! Love yu bro (No Homo) imma hold yu down!"
"i love yhu fool! i pray that this ishh gets better man. The check is behind yhu 100%."
A minister at New Bethel Baptist Church took the entire youth choir to visit Jared Cruse in jail. "And they all just cried, they loved him so," his great-aunt Bertha says.
When word got out that Quanell X, head of the [Nation of Islam division, the] New Black Panther Nation, was coming up from Houston to hold a rally, reporters were given a new angle to the story: Racial tensions now divided Cleveland. On the evening of March 10, locals filled the big log cabin at Stancil Park to hear Quanell X speak. There were sharp, approving cries of "Yeah!" and "Amen!," applause, even some tears. The crowd was almost entirely African-American, with a few white reporters sitting up in the front row. Some of the people had come "to see the show," as they laughingly told the police officers stationed outside. Most had come for comfort and support, and Quanell X did not disappoint. With four bodyguards standing behind him, he started his speech off with a Shakespearean flair for language but a tin ear for the situation: "I did not come here this evening to jump on an 11-year-old child...." But jump he did—on the girl, on the girl’s parents, on the Cleveland police, on "some of our young brothers, who are so mentally and spiritually and psychologically dead that they’ll take a cell phone and video-record such a heinous act." Quanell didn’t doubt that some of the accused were guilty of this crime, but he had a barrelful of questions.
"This rape did not happen in one night," he thundered. "It did not happen in two days. This was going on for a protracted period of time. So I ask the question: If this young girl did not live in that neighborhood, at 11 years of age how is that child in that community experiencing so much sex with so many African-American men? Where was the mother?" The applause and grateful shouts of "Yeah!" almost drowned out his next question: "Where was the father?"
A high school girl handed him a printout of Regina’s Facebook page in which she is standing in an oversize Hooters T-shirt, taking her own picture with her cell phone. That seemed to be enough to reassure the crowd that this was no ordinary 11-year-old girl. For some in the audience, though, it could’ve had the opposite effect, reminding them of all the posing they did when they were that age, the trying on of personae: wannabe gangstas, baby mamas. The headlong rush to grow up.
The press, for the most part, kept reporting the case as a single gang rape involving nineteen men—and that story repeated itself over and over again on the Internet.
On March 15, Liberty County district court judge Mark Morefield imposed a sweeping gag order on anyone who might be connected to the upcoming trials of the suspects, scheduled to begin in early October—not only the prosecutor, police, defense attorneys, investigators, and defendants but also all the relatives of each defendant and anyone who might be called as a witness in the case. Joe Larsen, an attorney for The Houston Chronicle, argued that "this could include anyone living in the entire town of Cleveland. This order is really gagging the public." Some people thought this wasn’t a bad idea.
But while the gag order did silence the defendants and the officials, it didn’t come close to quieting the rumors and accusations, the ill-informed but passionate opinions, the confusion and muddy thinking that obscured what should’ve been a clear-cut case of statutory rape: An 11-year-old child cannot consent to having sex. But a deep misunderstanding of the law persisted—of why it exists and the morality it is meant to express, as did an even deeper ignorance of children’s brains and the true nature of vulnerability.
[This is the stuff of “diversity.” Blacks and Hispanics neither understand nor accept America’s laws, “the white man’s laws.”]
The most confused of all were the young people of Cleveland, the vast majority of whom sided with the boys and men and blamed Regina. The peer pressure to take sides—if you can even call it that, for at times it seemed like a mob versus one girl, all alone—was immense. Even the kind ones, the ones who called themselves her friends, had decided against her. In a Facebook conversation, a 13-year-old who was a cousin of one of the defendants said that Regina was "like my best friend n i love her" but went on to write that "she ask for them to do that to her i do not care becuss thats just gross n i will never do that.... she like a slut type of girl." At 13, this girl could no more grasp the susceptibility of an 11-year-old than an anorexic can see herself clearly in a mirror.
[That’s a bad analogy, because it lacks parallelism. Instead of comparting one case of an observer to another such case, Dobie switches from an observer to an afflicted person.]
As the months rolled by, it began to dawn on people that November 28 was one event—an extreme and extremely ugly one—in a series of statutory rapes. But many were waiting for evidence of physical force, of men with weapons, a girl restrained and hollering for help. And when none came, they found it harder to find fault with the men and boys. Oh, it was legally wrong, they got that. But morally reprehensible? A lot of people wavered on that point. They couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the fact that the girl had seemingly agreed to have sex with at least some of the men. Couldn’t dismiss an attitude that used to be expressed as "Boys will be boys" but that I heard stated quite a bit more colorfully in Cleveland, first by a great-grandmother who said, "A hard dick has no conscience," and then by a young woman who told me rather cheerfully that "a jackrabbit will jump in any hole that’s open." There was a general consensus that this girl was a victim but not a very sympathetic one, when in fact the girl is an almost perfect illustration of why the law forbids sex with minors. Not because she was a rosy-cheeked schoolgirl still sleeping with teddy bears, not because she was that clichéd and sentimental picture of innocence, but because she was so obviously in need of protection. Here was a girl who dreamed of being a model and took photos of herself in a Hooters T-shirt. A girl who would become "Bess Frahnd!!!" with a dozen people a week. Who clung to women and could turn any one of them into her temporary mommy and thought males loved her when all they really wanted was a blow job. Who climbed into cars with guys who abused her. Who thought she was tough, thought she didn’t care. A girl who played happy like it might substitute for the real thing.
An April afternoon. An apartment in an undisclosed location. Juan has left the family, taking all his clothes out of the bedroom closet. Only 8-year-old Thomas seems sorry to have him gone. Elisa, Anna, and even Regina, Daddy’s little girl, have been telling their mother for months to kick their father out. Juan has returned to the apartment this afternoon because the family was supposed to see Regina today, but the biweekly meeting has been canceled. Regina and her foster family have just come home from a vacation in Boston, where they went ice skating, and it’s too late to drive Regina to the appointment.
At the dining-room table, Thomas is watching music videos on a laptop. His father hasn’t greeted him, and Thomas, after glancing at Juan a few times, now seems intent on ignoring him, too, sitting in stolid silence, like a little bull. The girls aren’t home from school yet. Maria calls the foster mom. Every visit is now supervised by a social worker, and even their phone conversations have to take place on speakerphone so that the foster mother can monitor what is said. They are not allowed to speak Spanish, because neither the social worker nor the foster mom understands the language. Since Juan barely speaks English, father and daughter don’t talk much now.
"Hi," Regina says when the foster mom hands her the phone. Her voice sounds tiny, and she says nothing more.
"What are you doing, mami?" Maria asks.
"Nothin’." A long moment goes by during which Maria, sitting with her head resting on the phone, seems to be listening to her daughter’s breathing. Two months from now, when the diabetes begins to destroy the circulation in her legs, Maria will have to stop working. In July, she’ll go temporarily blind from her tumors before finally getting treatment—emergency surgery that successfully removes the growths and restores her sight. Today, though, her legs ache and she’s exhausted.
"Tell me something good," she says, rousing herself. "What did you do on your trip?"
"Hung around with the skaters."
Maria tries to get Thomas to talk to his sister, but Thomas is staring fidly [sic] at the laptop screen.
"I guess I’ll try to, like, see you tomorrow," Regina says. "Well, probably not."
"Mija, don’t be sad," Maria tells her, but there is only silence on the other end. She motions to Juan to take the phone, whispering, "Ask her what’s wrong."
"¿Qué pasa? ¿Estás [sic] bien?" Juan asks, and it’s like a door has been flung open. Regina starts sobbing wildly and shouting, "¡ [sic] Quiero volver a casa! ¿Cuá [sic] ndo puedo volverme a casa?"
Kathy Dobie’s last GQ story, "The Few, the Proud, the Broken," appeared in the March 2010 issue.