August 30th, 2012, 04:06 PM
Defendant on trial in Cleveland gang rape case disappears
Eric McGowen, one of 14 adults charged in the case, vanished Wednesday after a break in the trial.
Photo: Courtesy The Liberty County Sheriff's Department / AP
LIBERTY - For the first time since lurid accusations surfaced two years ago of an 11-year-old Cleveland girl being gang raped, the victim took the witness stand Wednesday to publicly accuse one of her 20 attackers.
But before the day was over, that defendant, Eric Bernard McGowen, vanished.
State District Judge Mark Morefield issued a warrant for McGowen's arrest and increased his bail by $250,000. He was still reported missing late Wednesday.
McGowen, dressed in a white dress shirt, light-colored jeans and tennis shoes, disappeared during a 10-minute recess in court proceedings about 4 p.m.
When the trial reconvened, McGowen's attorney realized his client had not returned to his seat. He thought his client was in the bathroom. Constables searched the courthouse and surrounding grounds without success, and the judge ordered the trial to resume.
Before McGowen disappeared, the girl, who uses the pseudonym "Regina," had faced the 21-year-old and for the first time shared publicly what had happened.
Regina, dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt with a gold cross around her neck, smiled nervously and softly answered questions about several sexual encounters that occurred over a five-month period in 2010. But her demeanor changed, a tear sliding down one cheek, when the prosecutor showed a graphic video of her.
That was one of the cellphone videos of the alleged assaults that went viral around the Cleveland school district that triggered the investigation. In it, a young man appears to be having anal sex with her.
She identified McGowen as the voice laughing in the background, shouting "beat that ho!"
Regina, now 13, often had difficulty remembering names and how all the assaults occurred, but she did recall having oral sex with McGowen and identified him as the one in another video sexually assaulting her with a beer bottle.
After pausing and straining to remember, she acknowledged that she had probably been violated by 20 individuals over a 10-hour period on one occasion.
McGowen's attorney questioned how Regina knew his client's name since she was only familiar with his street name, Clyde. She told him that she had learned McGowen's real name from a school police officer.
Eight of the 20 accused have pleaded guilty.
On Wednesday, three of those who pleaded testified, including Brad Lewis, who was 16 when he assaulted the girl.
Lewis told jurors that McGowen had threatened to kill him if he testified against him.
"I've known him ever since I was a kid. We used to ride bikes together," said Lewis, now 18. "We all liked to go and do things together."
Prosecutor Joe Warren asked, "Did you all rape together, too?"
Lewis paused and was unable to speak for a moment. His voice cracked and tears flowed into his eyes and then he mumbled, "Yeah."
'A girl in the hood'
Lewis said McGowen and another young man had given him $5 for gas to drive them to pick up Regina and bring her back to the "hood."
He and others had sex with the girl on that occasion, but Lewis did not see any sexual encounter with McGowen.
Isaiah "Ike" Ross, 22, who also has already entered a guilty plea in exchange for a recommended 15-year sentence, testified he saw McGowen assaulting Regina with a beer bottle.
Ross and Marcus Porchia, who also entered a guilty plea, testified about how the word would often be spread that "there was a girl in the hood," the predominantly black area of Cleveland.
"That meant come to the party," Ross said.
Warren told the jury in opening arguments that McGowen and his friends were acting like a "pack of animals."
While the girl may be seen smiling and even laughing on some videos, Warren told jurors that she had been "duped, tricked and talked into doing things against her best interest."
Defense attorney Matthew Poston argued in his opening remarks that the "most unsettling parts of the videos do not contain pictures of McGowen having intercourse with that girl." He urged the jury to remember that "the truth is not always what it seems."