When Melissa Noriega moved to a quiet street in this suburb east of Los Angeles five years ago, she thought it was the perfect family place: kids played in the cul-de-sacs, neighbors knew each other and a small park was a stone's throw from her doorstep.
That idyllic vision has been shattered after seven teens stand accused of gang raping and sodomizing an 11-year-old girl who was lured to the park by an older girl as she walked home from school. Police say the teens have ties to a homegrown gang that first attracted the attention of authorities less than three years ago — but Noriega and other residents still can't understand how such a violent crime could unfold in their backyard.
"My house is 50 feet away, my kids play outside. Are you kidding me?" said Noriega, as her three young children rode bicycles in the street. "This neighborhood, since we moved in, has gone up and down. Now it's gotten bad, so bad."
The park where police say the gang rape took place lies within a 4,000-home planned community in this commuter town 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles, a neighborhood built from scratch in the early 1990s for families attracted by less expensive housing and the warmth of suburban living.
An award-winning elementary school abuts the park, which is also a short walk from a manmade lake with free fishing and boating, a golf course, an Olympic-sized pool and a fitness center. Families enjoy outdoor movies on a 20-foot inflatable screen and Easter egg hunts and Oktoberfest.
The brutal attack in the carefully managed community blindsided Dan Rice, president of the Moreno Valley Ranch homeowners' association. He is frustrated that police haven't said if the accused teens were from the neighborhood or were outsiders and he worries that the board hasn't done enough to instill a sense of community in a place sold on the currency of the American dream.
"It was gut-wrenching," Rice said. "You just think everything is good, where you live and what you do, and then when it happens, it's a wake-up call. It makes you realize that it can happen anytime or any place."
At the park on a recent weekday, Rice's 9-year-old daughter skipped in the grass as a swallowtail butterfly flitted past wooden arches draped with purple wisteria blooms. A few teenage girls chatted nearby, but the place was otherwise deserted.
"The hope of everybody seems to be, 'Is it just an isolated case? Did they catch all the culprits?'" Rice said.
Moreno Valley Ranch developers predicted outward sprawl from Los Angeles would eventually bring jobs to match the suburban landscape they were creating — but that never happened.
Now, most residents live in one of seven homeowners associations and commute hours to Los Angeles or Orange County, shop on their way home and collapse into bed without time to socialize, said Rice, head of the largest homeowner group, also called Moreno Valley Ranch.
The downturn in the economy worsened the situation, when many homes fell into foreclosure and were taken over by investors who rented them out — some to halfway houses and sober living facilities. Rice said his own home has lost half its value in the recession.
He is most bothered by the fact that the young victim was new in town, according to authorities, but he doesn't know who she is or anything about her alleged attackers and their families.
"I would love to say we're the epitome of community and we rise above it. We're doing what we can but I still think we do have a way to go," he said. "Here's a case where it's right down the street from me and I don't know if they have brothers or sisters or family members or if there's more to this gang. It makes me quite uneasy."
What happened around twilight March 10 has chilled even veteran detectives and prosecutors. Police waited two weeks to notify the public so they could arrest the last suspect, a 19-year-old named Michael Sykes, the only adult charged in the case.
The 11-year-old girl was walking home from school when an older girl asked her if she would like to get her nails done. Eventually the teenage girl led the victim to the park and somehow alerted the boys, possibly by text message, said Lisa Loyola, a deputy district attorney assigned to Riverside County's juvenile court. The boys, ages 15 to 17, dropped over fences and came through backyards to the park restroom where the attack occurred.
When the girl failed to return home after school, her mother searched for her in vain. When she staggered home later, her parents called police.
"When I read this report, I was shaking. It was — and is — horrendous," Loyola said. "It was heartbreaking and as a mother, it's very difficult to read something like this in this detail."
Three of the four boys denied all allegations, the equivalent of a not guilty plea, at a juvenile court hearing last Monday. Arraignment for the fourth teen and Sykes, who is charged with six felonies, were scheduled later.
Prosecutors want the teens tried as adults because of the severity and premeditated nature of the attack, said John Hall, district attorney spokesman. Probation officers were ordered to prepare a report by April 25 to help a juvenile judge decide.
The older girl and two other boys have not been charged in adult court and authorities declined to say if they have been charged in juvenile court, citing confidentiality laws.
Attorneys for the teens charged did not return calls seeking comment. Police have been tight-lipped about the investigation.
Some in the neighborhood said a surge in vandalism and break-ins in recent months had already put them on edge before the rape. A few had even noticed a new group of teenage boys loitering in the park, fighting and causing trouble.
The homeowners' association has scheduled a May meeting with the police chief and City Council.
Noriega, a stay-at-home mom, said she's seen teens jump a fence next to a foreclosed home at the end of her street and then break into two other homes that were, until recently, vacant. Someone also tried to burglarize her home and her husband witnessed a violent confrontation in front of the couple's home.
"My son used to practice baseball in that park, but now they like to jump people over there," she said, gesturing up the winding sidewalk that leads from her front yard to the picnic tables and barbeque grates.
Because of the rape, the city has police reinstated patrols in city parks, a program that netted five felony arrests and 66 misdemeanor arrests in a two-week period last summer.
Police first noticed the South Side Mafia, the gang implicated in the rape, when graffiti began appearing in late 2008 during a turf battle with another gang. Its members are mostly in their late teens and early 20s and grew out of a social group at Rancho Verde High School.
In the past two years, the gang has focused mostly on residential burglaries, vehicle thefts and marijuana sales — lower-profile activities that make the rape allegations even more shocking, said Lt. Chad Bianco, the lead investigator on the case.
"It's scary, it's sad, it's disgusting," he said. "It's just absolutely amazing to us that we're even having this investigation."