LIBERTY, Texas – One of the men accused in a series of repeated sexual assaults of a young Texas girl disappeared from his trial Wednesday, following a day of emotional testimony from the now 13-year-old girl who cried as a video of one of the encounters was played for jurors.
Testimony continued despite the absence of 20-year-old defendant Eric McGowen, who is one of 14 adults accused of having sex with the girl during a nearly three-month span two years ago. Six boys also are charged in the case.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys huddled briefly with District Judge Mark Morefield in front of his bench when defendant Eric McGowen, 20, failed to return to the courtroom following an afternoon break. The judge then told jurors the trial would go on without him.
Morefield later said a bench warrant had been issued, and McGowen's bond was increased from $35,000 to $250,000. The judge denied a defense motion for a continuance in the case and said the trial would resume Thursday morning.
McGowen is charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child and faces up to life in prison if convicted.
The girl, testifying under a pseudonym, told jurors about two incidents, one in October 2010 and one the next month, in which McGowen and several other men and boys took turns having sex with 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, a small southeast Texas town 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" in the house, and that McGowen and others took turns having sex with 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 1 1/2 hours she testified. She mostly gave short answers to questions, often pausing to stare at the floor or ceiling of the Liberty courtroom before responding.
She described another alleged rape that November that started in a different Cleveland home the defendants called the "boom boom" room, according to prosecutors, and that continued later 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 used a beer bottle on her during that incident.
Jurors were later shown police photos of used condoms and condom wrappers found inside and outside the house in the November incident.
McGowen's attorney, Matthew Poston, questioned the girl for about six minutes, during which he asked whether she twice told police early in the investigation that she never had sex with McGowen. 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. A gag order has prevented prosecutors and defense attorneys from commenting.
Authorities began investigating that December after one of the girl's friends told a teacher he watched a cellphone video of her being raped in an abandoned trailer.
The case sparked outrage in Cleveland, a community of roughly 9,000 residents 45 miles northeast of Houston. 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.
During opening statements Wednesday, Warren told jurors he would present them with videotaped and written confessions in which McGowen admitted to raping 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 improperly questioned McGowen.
During his opening statement, Poston told jurors that the video evidence in the case doesn't show McGowen having sex with the girl.
"The truth in this case is not always what it seems," he said.
One of the two adults who pleaded guilty in the case received a 15-year prison term and the other is awaiting sentencing. The six juveniles each received 7-year prison terms that were suspended, putting them on probation for that amount of time.
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.