LIBERTY, Texas (AP) — Testimony resumed Thursday with the defendant a no-show in the first trial over the alleged repeated sexual assault of a young girl by men and boys from her small Texas community.
Eric McGowen, who was out on $35,000 bail, disappeared during a break in proceedings, Wednesday, which was the trial’s first day. He is charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child and faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Before testimony resumed Thusday, District Judge Mark Morefield told jurors that the case would continue even though McGowen wasn’t there. He issued a bench warrant for McGowen’s arrest and raised his bail to $250,000. Most adults charged in the case are free on bail.
McGowen is one of 20 men and boys accused of sexually assaulting a then-11-year-old girl over a nearly three-month stretch of 2010 in Cleveland, a town of about 9,000 residents 45 miles northeast of Houston. All six juveniles and two of the 14 adults charged pleaded guilty, and McGowen’s trial was expected to yield new details about the investigation, which prosecutors and defense lawyers can’t discuss because of a gag order.
The gag order also prevented defense attorney Matthew Poston and prosecutors from commenting on McGowen’s absence. The Liberty County Sheriff’s Office had no update early Thursday on whether he had been found.
The trial resumed Thursday with testimony from Ashley Huyah, a forensic nurse examiner who interviewed the girl and examined her.
Huyah told jurors that the girl in an interview said that McGowen and several of the defendants in the case had sexually assaulted her.
McGowen was in court Wednesday when the girl, now 13, spoke about her ordeal. Testifying using a pseudonym, she told jurors about an encounter in October 2010 and one the following month in which she said McGowen and several other men and boys took turns sexually assaulting her while recording the encounters on video.
Prosecutors say the girl was assaulted on at least five occasions from mid-September through early December of 2010. All of those charged, like the girl, were from Cleveland.
The girl briefly broke down in tears as jurors were shown video of what prosecutors said was an encounter that October at a Cleveland house.
She said she was brought into what she described as the “baby room,” and that McGowen and others took turns sexually assaulting her. She said the video, which several jurors turned away from, was of her being assaulted by another man charged in the case.
“Did the guys just take turns with you?” prosecutor Joe Warren asked.
“Yes, sir,” the girl said.
Warren later showed jurors video of a police interview and read a written confession in which McGowen admitted to receiving oral sex from the girl.
The girl appeared calm for most of the roughly 1½ hours she testified. She gave short answers to most questions, and she often paused to stare at the courtroom floor or ceiling before responding.
She described another encounter that November that started in a different Cleveland home and continued at a nearby abandoned trailer.
Asked by Warren if more than 20 males might have assaulted her that day, the girl responded, “Probably.”
She also told jurors that McGowen assaulted her with a beer bottle during that incident.
Poston questioned the girl for about six minutes, asking whether she twice had told police early in the investigation that McGowen had never sexually assaulted her. The girl said she didn’t remember saying that.
Like McGowen, most of the remaining 11 defendants in the case face charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Four face a charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child.
The two men who pleaded guilty and one of the juveniles, who has since turned 18, also testified Wednesday.
Isaiah Ross, 22, told jurors he saw McGowen sexually assault the girl with a beer bottle. Marcus Porchia, 28, and the teen testified that they saw others assault the girl, but not McGowen.
Ross and Porchia each received 15-year prison terms. The six juveniles each received suspended seven-year prison terms.
Police began investigating in December 2010 after a classmate told a teacher he saw video of the girl getting sexually assaulted in an abandoned trailer.
The case sparked outrage in Cleveland, and early on, some residents suggested the girl was partly responsible because they say she wore makeup, looked older than her age and wasn’t properly supervised by her parents, drawing widespread condemnation.
The case also has been complicated by a belief among many in the predominantly black neighborhood where several of the suspects live that the arrests were racially motivated. All of the suspects are black, while the girl is Hispanic.
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