March 10, 2011 — -- The alleged gang rape of an 11-year-old girl by at least 18 boys and young men has sparked shame and outrage in a tiny Texas town, but it has also stirred racial tensions that threaten to split the East Texas hamlet.
All of the defendants arrested are African-American and the girl is Hispanic.
The hardscrabble town of Cleveland, which is 45 miles from Houston, has fewer than 8,000 residents and since the saw mill closed the biggest employers are Wal-Mart and a nearby prison. In a town this small, everyone is a neighbor, but that small town ambience is being severely strained.
The rape allegedly occurred last November, and the list of suspects has been growing as arrests keep coming. It's not clear whether more arrests are in the works.
The suspects range in age from 14 to 26, include stars on the high school's basketball team as well as the son of a school board member.
But as the investigation drags on, the shock and indignation has been tinged with an undercurrent of racial tension.
"I feel sorry for the little girl. I feel sorry for everyone involved...the city is in turmoil," Inez Dickerson said.
Dickerson, 68, is the great-grandmother of one of the defendants in the case. Her grandson has not been publicly identified by police because he is a minor.
Dickerson remembers when her great-grandson called to tell her the crime he's accused of committing.
"When I got on the phone, he was crying. He said, 'Granny, I've been accused of something. I'm scared,'" Dickerson said. "He's pretty tore up about it."
"I'm not going to play the race card on this because my grandson and all the rest were very young men and they could have given a second thought on this," Dickerson said.
While Dickerson believes the flaring of racial tensions isn't warranted, others disagree.
Houston community activist Quanell X will host a town hall meeting this evening called "What's the real truth behind the rape allegations?"
"Every adult male that had sex with this child should go to prison, I don't care what the color is. But I do not believe black males are the only ones that had contact with this young child," said Quanell X, the leader of Houston's New Black Panther Party. "It appears to me there's only been the selective prosecution of one community, which is African American."
Quannell X said the rally has been moved from a church to a community center because, "The church received some death threats."
Gang Rape Charges Raise Race Tensions in Texas Town
The village has a history of racial violence. In 1988, an African American man was arrested in Cleveland for allegedly stealing a fountain pen. The man, 30-year-old Kenneth Simpson, was allegedly beaten to death by white police officers while in prison. The officers were acquitted of murder charges and returned to work.
In addition, Cleveland is embroiled in a political scandal where three city council members are facing a recall election following complaints of corruption. All three of those city council members are African American.
More than half of the town is white, with the rest of the residents split between blacks and Hispanics.
Most of the defendants have ties to Precinct 20, the nickname for the predominantly African-American neighborhood in Cleveland.
Cleveland police began investigating the rape in December of last year after cell phone video showing the alleged sex attack started circulating among students at Cleveland schools, according to court documents. The video shows the girl engaged in sexual acts with several men.
The girl told authorities that the weekend after Thanksgiving she was asked if she wanted to ride around with three of the defendants in the case. The girl, described as a straight A student by those who know her, rode with the young men to a blue house with white trim, according to court documents.
As the night unfolded, numerous men came to the house and later an abandoned trailer to have sex with the girl, according to court documents.
The video surfaced because some of the girl's attackers used their cell phones to take photographs and to film the assaults.
The girl, who has not been identified because she is a minor and the alleged victim of a sex crime, said that she was told by the men that they "would have some girls 'beat her up' or she would not be taken back to her residence" if she didn't have sex with them, according to court documents.
When a relative of one of the defendants was heard returning to the blue house, the group hurriedly moved to an abandoned trailer. The girl left behind her bra and panties, according to the court documents.
The girl has been removed from the custody of her parents.
Racial Tensions in Cleveland, Texas
Brenda Myers knows the girl and her family. Myers runs the Community and Children's Impact Center in Cleveland, one of the few programs for Cleveland's youth.
The 11-year-old girl and her two sisters frequently attended meetings held by Myers' organization. Myers said the girl was a happy and talkative girl, but something abruptly changed last October.
"This little girl was always hugging and loving and in October, she was really, really quiet," Myers said.
When Myers asked the girl what was bothering her, she said, "It's just something I can't tell you," Myers said.
When Myers heard the news of the alleged crime, she cried.
"I got angry and then...thought where were the parents?" she said.
The girl's mother was recently in the hospital and her father is an unemployed construction worker, Myers said. She said that the family cares deeply about the children.
"The mother was in tears. She feels extremely bad about what happened. She's devastated for her family," Myers said.
"It's becoming a black and white issue because it happened over in the quarters. It's segregating our community again," Myers said. "The reaction is anger, devastation."
Lance Blackwell helps organize weekly prayer sessions for the Cleveland Prayer Center. Recently, an impromptu prayer session included both defendants and family members of the girl.
"It's clear these family members and friends know one another and are in a deep amount of pain," Blackwell said. "The young men that were involved were very emotional...obviously we didn't discuss details, that wasn't what it was about."