ACWORTH, Ga. – They could barely see over the courtroom table, and their legs were too short to reach the floor: An 8-year-old and two 9-year-old boys, accused of raping an 11-year-old neighbor.
The case sent shockwaves through this community some 30 miles north of Atlanta, particularly in the working class apartment complex where the children live.
"It's just hard to understand," said Chris Ware, who has lived in the complex three years.
The boys are accused of forcing a girl they were playing with into a litter-strewn wooded area behind the complex Thursday. She said she was threatened with a rock, and that one of the boys raped her, according to Acworth Police Chief Mike Wilkie.
Authorities said the girl waited until Saturday to tell her family, who then reported it to police.
Reporters were briefly allowed in the courtroom where the tiny suspects sat Monday in restraints and navy blue jumpsuits.
Juvenile Court Judge A. Gregory Poole ruled against media requests for access, then closed off the hearing to determine whether there was probable cause to hold the boys. Poole also issued a sweeping gag order instructing participants in the case not to talk to the press.
Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head said the boys could not be charged with felonies because of their age but could be tried for alleged delinquent acts that could place them in a juvenile facility for up to five years. The next step will be for the court to schedule a hearing to determine how to proceed, Head said.
Wilkie also said the investigation is "far from over," and investigators are looking into claims that after the alleged attack, the girl talked about it with her friends at a slumber party.
The girl's mother told WGCL-TV in Atlanta, "They do need to be taught a lesson because if they do it to her, they could do it to somebody else. And who knows when they become teenagers what they can do to other girls."
Police in this town of about 17,000 along the shores of Lake Allatoona said they have never investigated rape allegations where all the parties were so young.
"This wouldn't be normal anywhere, but especially not Acworth," police Capt. Wayne Dennard said.