LIBERTY COUNTY, TEXAS – One of more than a dozen men and boys accused in the repeated sexual assault of an 11-year-old Texas girl escaped from the courthouse during a break in his trial after the child tearfully testified and jurors watched a video showing one of the alleged assaults.
Eric McGowen, 20, is the first of 14 adults to face trial, accused of sexually assaulting the girl during three months in 2010. Six juveniles also are charged in the attacks in Cleveland, a small town about 45 miles northeast of Houston.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys huddled briefly with Judge Mark Morefield after McGowen failed to return to the courtroom in nearby Liberty following an afternoon break Wednesday.
Morefield said a bench warrant had been issued and that the trial would go on without McGowen. Bail was increased from $35,000 to $250,000.
Defense attorney Matthew Poston and prosecutors did not comment on McGowen’s disappearance because of a gag order. The Liberty County Sheriff’s Office had no update early Thursday on whether the suspect had been found.
McGowen is charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child and faces up to life in prison if convicted.
The girl, testifying using a pseudonym, told jurors about two incidents, one 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.
The girl briefly broke down in tears as jurors were shown a few minutes of video of an alleged October 2010 sexual assault in a house in Cleveland where she and the defendants lived.
The girl, who was 11 at the time, 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.
The girl seemed calm for most of the roughly 1½ hours she testified. She mostly gave short answers, often pausing to stare at the floor or ceiling of the courtroom before responding.
She described another alleged sexual assault 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.
Jurors were shown police photos of used condoms and condom wrappers found inside and outside the house after the alleged November 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.
Prosecutors say the girl was assaulted on at least five occasions from mid-September through early December of 2010.
Eight of the 20 defendants accused in the case have pleaded guilty, including all six juveniles.
Authorities began investigating that December, after one of the girl’s friends told a teacher he had seen a cellphone video of her being attacked in an abandoned trailer.
Three people who have pleaded guilty — two adults and a juvenile who has since turned 18 — also testified Wednesday.
Isaiah Ross, 22, told jurors he saw McGowen sexually assault the girl with a beer bottle. The other adult, Marcus Porchia, 28, and the teen testified they saw others assault the girl but not McGowen.
Ross and Porchia each received 15-year prison terms. The six juveniles who pleaded guilty each received suspended seven-year prison terms.
The case sparked outrage in the roughly 9,000-strong community of Cleveland. Early in the investigation, 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.
Warren later showed jurors a video and read a written confession in which McGowen admitted to receiving oral sex from the girl.
“What took place to this girl was nothing better than a pack of animals attacking,” Warren said.
On Tuesday, Poston tried but failed to get the confessions thrown out, arguing that police had improperly questioned McGowen.
During his opening statement, Poston told jurors that the video evidence in the case doesn’t show McGowen sexually assaulting the girl.
“The truth in this case is not always what it seems,” he said.
Most of the adult defendants in the case face charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child, while four face a charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child.