CLEVELAND, Texas — On a cell phone video passed among an 11-year-old girl's classmates, authorities say adolescent boys and men in their 20s could be seen sexually assaulting the girl inside a dingy abandoned trailer.
A friend went to a teacher, investigators went to the girl and her mother, and authorities say they learned the disturbing images depicted just one of several attacks on the girl last year.
Now 18 people — including two of Cleveland's star high school athletes and adults with criminal records — face assault and abuse charges that have horrified and divided their small Texas town.
The investigation began in December after a friend of the girl told a teacher he had seen the lurid cell phone video, said Stacey Gatlin, a spokeswoman for the school district in Cleveland, about 45 miles northeast of Houston.
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Police investigators determined it was recorded inside an abandoned mobile home on the city's northern outskirts, according to a search warrant affidavit obtained by several Houston media outlets. The girl told investigators she was raped at the home Nov. 28, over the Thanksgiving holiday break.
The girl was first assaulted at a house near the trailer, where several young men told her she would be beaten up if she didn't submit, according to the affidavit. When the aunt of one of the alleged attackers returned home, everyone, including the girl, fled. The group moved to the mobile home, where the assault continued, the affidavit said.
The trailer, which sits next to a small, white building that serves as a Baptist church, is surrounded by overgrown weeds, junk and other trash. Inside, debris covers the floor and a stove sits in the middle of the living room. Neighbors said it has been abandoned since being damaged by Hurricane Ike in September 2008.
Residents who live nearby told The Associated Press this week that they had seen the girl, dressed provocatively and in makeup, hanging out near the area both before and after Nov. 28. Some in the town expressed doubts about the case, even suggesting authorities should consider culpability on the part of the girl.
"Maturity or not I'm pretty sure she knew what she was doing," Robin Smith, 24, a cashier in Cleveland, said as she shopped this week.
Others in the town of about 7,900 residents nestled near the Sam Houston National Forest support the investigation and condemned those accused in the attacks.
"She's 11 years old. It shouldn't have happened. That's a child," said Oscar Carter, 56, who is related to an uncle of one 16-year-old charged in the case. "Somebody should have said what we are doing is wrong."
Indictments in the case allege that before the Nov. 28 attack, the girl also was assaulted on Sept. 15 and Oct. 25. Each of those times, at least two individuals were involved.
The indictments say at least three people attacked the girl in November, but records do not clarify how many individuals in total are believed to have assaulted the girl that night. Both police and Liberty County District Attorney Michael Little have declined to comment on details of the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Thirteen adults and five juveniles have been arrested so far. Several have prior criminal records, including arrests for aggravated robbery and manslaughter.
Gatlin, the school district spokeswoman, said seven are Cleveland students. Three are between the ages of 17 and 19, with two of them in high school and one at a learning academy for drop-outs. Three others are juveniles in high school and one is in middle school, she said.
"It's just devastating for the student body," Gatlin said.
James Evans, an attorney representing four people arrested in the case, including two of the Cleveland High School students, said he has been told up to 28 individuals ultimately could be charged.
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"From what I'm getting, there were some warning signs these things were occurring, or about to occur, and (the authorities) didn't move fast enough," he said. "We'll certainly be looking to see what went wrong with that aspect of the system as well as the side where my clients were involved."
The 11-year-old girl's parents have withdrawn her from Cleveland schools, Gatlin said. The AP was unable to locate the family this week, but her mother has told The Houston Chronicle that Child Protective Services placed the girl in a foster home with restricted access to her family.
Gwen Carter, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, declined to discuss whether her agency is involved in the case.
The girl's mother told the Chronicle, which did not publish her full name in order to protect her daughter's identity, that she has received threatening telephone calls at her home. The AP generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.
"They keep calling and asking for her," the mother told the newspaper. "They don't believe me when I say she's not here and cuss us out. They're trying to find her. This is the time when she needs us the most."
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