CLEVELAND, Texas — The abandoned mobile home where an 11-year-old girl was sexually assaulted had become a symbolic reminder of a horrific crime that brewed racial tensions in this Southeast Texas community.
It's now gone, razed earlier this summer by city officials trying to move forward from a case in which 20 men and boys were charged with repeatedly attacking the girl. But the divide the crime created among residents when it first became public last year still lingers. And with the first suspect convicted in the case at large and several more defendants still facing trial, it could be some time before Cleveland is able to put the crime behind it.
Prosecutors say the girl was sexually assaulted on at least five occasions from mid-September through early December of 2010, at the mobile home and elsewhere. Some in Cleveland, located about 45 miles northwest of Houston, have suggested the girl was partly responsible because of her appearance, sparking widespread condemnation. Some also believe the arrests were racially motivated; all of the suspects are black, while the girl is Hispanic.
Others, however, anxiously await the capture of the first person tried and convicted in the case who ran off in the middle of his trial.
"She was just 11," said Charles Armstrong, as he watched his 3 and 4 year old grandsons play in his front yard across the street from where the mobile home once stood.
"I'm not going to stand behind them (the defendants). I'm going to stand behind a jury," said Armstrong, sitting in a plastic chair outside his mobile home following an overnight shift at his maintenance job at Wal-Mart.
Despite evidence at Eric McGowen's trial that included a confession, DNA evidence, the girl's tearful testimony and a video of her being assaulted, others haven't been swayed.
Caroline King, who lives down the street, insisted Friday that people still "don't know the facts of the case" and said authorities were just "harassing people" by knocking on doors in the town of about 7,700 people as they searched for McGowen.
"It's not as bad as what they are saying. Nobody tied (the girl) up," said King, 59.
McGowen, who had been out on bail, fled Wednesday after the girl testified that he sexually assaulted her multiple times, including once with a beer bottle. The trial went on without him, and jurors found him guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child and then sentenced McGowen, 20, to 99 years in prison.
It's unclear if divisions in the town may be complicating efforts to find McGowen. Authorities are saying little about the search. Interim police Chief Darrel Broussard said his agency was working with the Liberty County Sheriff's Office to try to find McGowen, including checking places he previously lived in Cleveland.
The mayor did not return a message Friday seeking comment about the case.
McGowen was the first defendant to stand trial in the case. All six of the juveniles and two of the 14 adults charged pleaded guilty. Trial dates have not been set for the 11 remaining defendants.
Police began investigating after one of the girl's classmates told a teacher he saw video of her being sexually assaulted in the abandoned trailer.
Some suggested early on that the girl was partly responsible because they say she wore makeup, looked older than her age and wasn't properly supervised by her parents.
But Comeka Robinson, who knows McGowen, described the girl as a "baby." She said what happened to the girl was wrong, but she also has doubts about the guilt of McGowen and some of the others charged.
"I would not recommend (he) turn himself in," Robinson, 25, said.
Kim Shelton, a member of the Unity Committee in Cleveland, which was created several years ago to promote the city, said the community is working to deal with the crime and trying to ensure something like that never happens again.
Recently, a local church sponsored a conference to teach girls to respect themselves, for example. Shelton also believes parents are talking more to their children.
Earlier this summer, Shelton's committee began selling bumper stickers that say "I (Heart) Cleveland, TX" as a way to promote the city and tell others it's a good place to live.
"We consider ourselves family and we are moving forward," she said.
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