Six of the 19 men and boys accused of taking part in a series of sexual assaults on an 11-year-old girl pleaded not guilty Monday in a case that has horrified and divided a small Texas town.
Other defendants also appeared in court — meaning nearly all of the 14 adults charged in the case went before a judge.
The hearings Monday were brief and businesslike, with the defendants saying little, if anything. Most had family members in the large courtroom, and most defendants left after their individual cases were settled. A few of the defendants and their families stayed throughout the hearings.
'Please leave me alone'
Family members of the defendants who were in court Monday declined to comment. A gag order in the case is preventing the defendants, as well as defense attorneys, prosecutors and other officials from commenting.
"I don't want to talk to you people. Please leave me alone," Anita Ellis Hancock, whose 19-year-old son Timothy Ellis appeared in court Monday, told reporters as they left the courthouse.
The six indicted individuals — Tyrone Ellis, Jr., 19; Devo Green, 20; Carlos Ligons, 22; Jamarcus Napper, 18; Walter Harrison, 26; and Cedrick Scott, 27 — entered their not guilty pleas during arraignment hearings.
Seven others who had previously pleaded not guilty — Timothy Ellis; Kelvin King, 21; Xavier King, 17; Eric McGowen, 19; Jared McPherson, 18; Marcus Porchia, 26; and Isaiah Ross, 21 — were also in court.
All had their next court hearings set for July 6, except for Ligons, who was set to appear again on May 2.
One defendant who is in custody — Jared Cruse, 18 — had been scheduled to be in court but did not appear.
In addition to Cruse, McGowen, Harrison, Kelvin King and Scott, also remain in custody. The other defendants are free on bond.
Most of the adults face charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Four face a charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child. Five juveniles have also been charged.
Since February, police have arrested men and boys ranging from a middle-school student to a 27-year-old, accusing them of sexually assaulting the girl on at least four occasions starting in September. Those arrested include two of the small town of Cleveland's star high school athletes as well as adults with criminal records.
The case has divided the 8,000-resident town of Cleveland, located about 40 miles northeast of Houston. A few in the town had expressed doubts about the case, even suggesting authorities should consider culpability on the part of the girl. Many supported the investigation and condemned those accused in the sexual assaults.
Authorities began investigating in December after a friend of the girl told a teacher he had seen a lurid cell phone video that showed her being raped inside a dingy abandoned trailer. The video had been passed around among the 11-year-old girl's classmates, authorities said.
Police investigators determined the video was recorded inside a mobile home on the city's northern outskirts. The girl told investigators she was raped on Nov. 28, first at a house near the mobile home and then at the trailer. Indictments in the case allege that in addition to the Nov. 28 attack, the girl also was assaulted on Sept. 15, Oct. 25 and Dec. 1. Each of those times, at least two individuals were involved, authorities said.
Monday's court hearings took place in Liberty, located about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland.