WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Mother and son huddled together, battered and beaten, in the bathroom — sobbing, wondering why no one came to help.
Surely the neighbors had heard their screams. The walls are thin, the screen doors flimsy in this violence-plagued housing project on the edge of downtown.
For three hours, the pair say, they endured sheer terror as the 35-year-old Haitian immigrant was raped and sodomized by up to 10 masked teenagers and her 12-year-old son was beaten in another room.
Then, mother and son were reunited to endure the unspeakable: At gunpoint, the woman was forced to perform oral sex on the boy, she later told a TV station.
Afterward, they were doused with household cleansers, perhaps in a haphazard attempt to scrub the crime scene, or maybe simply to torture the victims even more. The solutions burned the boy’s eyes.
The thugs then fled, taking with them a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of cash, jewelry and cell phones.
In the interview with WPTV, the mother described how she and her son sobbed in the bathroom, too shocked to move. Then, in the dark of night, they walked a mile to the hospital because they had no phone to call for help.
Two teenagers — a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old — have been arrested. Eight others are being sought.
Welcome to Dunbar Village, a place residents call hell.
“So a lady was raped. Big deal,” resident Paticiea Matlock said with disgust. “There’s too much other crime happening here.”
Built in 1940 to house poor blacks in then-segregated West Palm Beach, Dunbar Village’s 226 units sit just blocks from million-dollar condos on the Intracoastal Waterway. Billionaires lounge on beachfront property just a few miles away on Palm Beach.
The public housing project’s one- and two-story barracks-style buildings are spread across 17 grassy, tree-lined acres surrounded by an 8-foot iron fence. The average rent is about $150 a month.
Almost 60 percent of the households in the area that includes Dunbar Village were below the poverty level in 2000, according to Census figures. Only 19 percent of the area’s residents had high school degrees. About 9 percent of the adults were unemployed, nearly triple the state average.
Teenagers with gold-plated teeth wander the streets. Drug dealers hang out on nearby sidewalks. Trash bin lids are open. Flies hover over dirty diapers. Clothes dry on sagging lines.
In the year leading up to the rape, police were called to Dunbar Village 717 times, or almost twice a day.
Since the June 18 attack, police have increased patrols in the area, blocked off one entrance and will soon install surveillance cameras.
“It took this to make that happen?” Matlock, a 32-year-old single mother of three, snarled.
As in other blighted neighborhoods across the country where criminals seem to have free rein, residents here live in fear. Snitches get stitches, they say. Or worse.
“I try to be in my house no later than 7, and I don’t come out,” said Citoya Greenwood, 33, who lives in Dunbar with her 4-year-old daughter. “I don’t even answer my door anymore.” On the Fourth of July, “we didn’t know if we was hearing gunshots or fireworks.”
'We've never really had a real home'
Avion Lawson, 14, and Nathan Walker, 16, will be charged as adults in the assault and gang rape, prosecutors said. They are jailed without bail.
Lawson’s DNA was found in a condom at the crime scene, and he admitted involvement, authorities say. Police say Walker’s palm print was discovered inside the home. He denies being there. His attorney says he will plead not guilty. Lawson’s public defender did not return telephone messages.
Walker and Lawson did not live at Dunbar but visited often. Lawson stayed with his grandmother there. Walker came to hang out and play basketball. Dunbar has become the place to be for wayward black teens, residents and neighborhood kids say.
Walker and Lawson both grew up mostly fatherless, bouncing between homes. Walker’s family sometimes lived in old cars or abandoned houses, said his mother, Ruby Nell Walker.
“We’ve never really had a real home,” said Naporcha Walker, Nathan’s 15-year-old sister.
He dropped out of school after spending three years in seventh grade. The family lives on food stamps and recently had to pawn their television and radio, Ruby Walker said.
“I just feel like he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. ... My son is not a rapist,” she said.
Ruby Walker said she herself was raped twice, at ages 7 and 12. She said that just days before the Dunbar attack, someone tried to rape her again, and “my son came to me crying and said he wouldn’t ever do that to anyone.”
She has had her own problems with the law — at least nine arrests on charges such as disorderly conduct, aggravated assault and battery, according to state records.
Avion Lawson was a headstrong kid, never listening to his mother, said his cousin, Cassandra Ellis.
“I knew he was bad, but I never pictured him to be that type of bad,” Ellis said. She said one traumatic experience may have scarred him — watching his older sister fatally stab a boyfriend.
“It was an accident. She killed her boyfriend. They was fighting, there was a knife,” Ellis said. “He was there when it happened.”
No safe spots
City officials are quick to note that neither Lawson nor Walker lived at Dunbar, and say they are doing their best to make the place safe.
As quickly as overhead lights can be replaced, they are shot out, so officials are now considering bulletproof lighting.
“Isn’t that quite a commentary on what the situation is there?” said City Commissioner Molly Douglas, whose district includes part of Dunbar. “Dunbar Village is a hell hole. They shouldn’t have to live in fear.”
More officers are hitting the streets, but “I just bow my head sometimes and think we just couldn’t possibly have enough officers ever to take care of all of this,” Douglas said.
Laurel Robinson, head of the city’s housing authority, said that up until about four years ago, the federal government provided the city with $160,000 a year for security in public housing projects, but Congress did away with the money.
“Every family housing project in the country has suffered because of it,” she said.
Dreams of a better life in the U.S.
The rape victim and her son have not returned to Building 1843, Unit 2, since the attack.
The woman fled Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with her son seven years ago in search of a better life. With no money, they landed in Dunbar. The two almost instantly became targets for crime, standing out as Haitians among the mostly American-born blacks in the housing project. Her car and the boy’s bicycle were stolen. Their house was ransacked.
On the night of the attack, she was lured outside by a teenager who knocked on the door and said her car had a flat. Nine more teens, their faces shrouded with T-shirts, barged in, she told authorities. They brandished guns and demanded money, then went beyond the imaginable.
“I was so scared,” the woman told WPTV. “Some of them had sex with me twice, some of them had sex with me three times. They’re beating me up. They make me do those things over and over. The man with the big gun, he put the gun inside of me.”
She said that when she was forced to perform oral sex on her own son, she told the boy: “I know you love me, and I love you, too.”
Investigators say it is not clear exactly why the thugs picked her house.
The boy’s sight has returned. Both mother and son are seeking counseling.
“I have to try and talk to him every day. He’s so angry,” the woman said. “He said we never should have moved to Dunbar Village.”
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