It was a shocking story splashed on headlines across the country: Five teenage boys had approached a man and his daughter at night on a Brooklyn playground, ordering the man away at gunpoint before gang raping the 18-year-old woman in public.
Video footage of the teens laughing and joking inside a deli just before the alleged Jan. 7, 2016, attack only added to the outrage. The five boys were quickly arrested, two of them turned in by their own parents. New York’s mayor and other critics demanded to know why the police hadn’t acted sooner.
Before that public anger could even cool, the case began to fall apart as questions mounted.
Did the teens truly have a gun? Did they really force themselves on the 18-year-old woman?
Most perplexing of all: What were a father and daughter doing on a children’s playground at 9 o’clock at night?
On Wednesday, the ugly answers tumbled into the light.
Prosecutors announced that they were dropping all of the charges against the five teens, ages 14 to 17. The woman and her father had provided inconsistent and unreliable stories, said Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. Snippets of cellphone videos suggested the sex was consensual, prosecutors said.
Worst of all, the father himself had been “engaging in sexual conduct” with his own daughter when the incident began, Thompson said.
The real story was even more shocking than the original accusations, but it had spun 180 sickening degrees.
To some critics, the bizarre, lurid case and rush to judgment recalled in some respects another controversial New York City rape case.
In 1989, a woman was brutally raped while jogging through Central Park. The New York Times described the attack as “one of the most widely publicized crimes” of the decade. Five minority juveniles — four blacks and one Hispanic — were arrested. Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in four New York newspapers with the title: “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”
— Lanre Bakare (@Lanre_Bakare) February 18, 2016
The five teens were convicted of a slew of charges and sentenced to between five and 15 years in prison, only for another man to confess in 2002 to raping the jogger. The five men were exonerated and received a $40million settlement from the city. The case was memorialized in a 2012 documentary named after the news media’s moniker for the defendants: “The Central Park Five.”
As problems emerged in the alleged Jan. 7 Brooklyn rape, people began drawing parallels with the Central Park Five.
“What are we really doing here?” Kenneth Montgomery, an attorney for a 14-year-old charged for the rape, told the New York Times. “Have we not learned our lessons from the Central Park Five?”
“It is an overwhelming feeling to be facing these charges,” he told the New York Post, “and it is an overwhelming feeling to be exonerated of them.”
The case began to unravel almost immediately, long before Wednesday’s announcement.
The father and daughter initially claimed they had been set upon by the teenagers, who brandished a gun and ordered the father to leave. As he went to find the police, the teenagers forced her at gunpoint to have sex with at least one suspect and to perform oral sex on two others, the woman told investigators.
But when investigators interviewed the teenagers, they claimed that there was no gun and that the woman had willingly had sex. Within a day of their arrest, the teens’ lawyers claimed cellphone videos showed the encounter was consensual.
Most shocking of all, the teens told police they had encountered the father and daughter having sex in the park that night. The teenagers then joined in the act.
“She said yeah,” a man’s voice can be heard saying on the video, according to the Times.
“If you said yeah, it’s lit, like, you know what I mean,” a man then says on the video. “I could tell you a freak.”
Confronted by police, the father and daughter reversed course, admitting that there was no gun. The woman admitted that she had consented to the group sex.
The father and daughter also both eventually admitted to drinking alcohol and having sex with one another, according to the Times.
On Wednesday, Thompson lamented that he could not charge the father for incest because his daughter was not cooperating with investigators.
“The complainant, as well as her father, provided multiple inconsistent accounts to NYPD Detectives and to experienced Special Victims prosecutors about important material facts in this case,” he said in a statement, according to PIX11. “The complainant has recanted her allegations of forcible sexual assault and the existence of a gun, and she does not wish to pursue criminal charges against any of the defendants. She also refuses to cooperate with any prosecution against her father, who was engaging in sexual conduct with her.”
Thompson said that just because the charges were being dropped, however, doesn’t mean the boys did nothing wrong.
“That night, this young woman’s father and the five young men engaged in conduct that was reprehensible and wrong, but because of the lack of reliable evidence, criminal charges simply cannot be sustained,” he said.
That comment drew a mixed reaction from attorneys representing the exonerated teenagers.
Several said their clients had done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law. One called the district attorney’s statement “a little bit of a smear on their character.”
At least one attorney, however, agreed with Thompson’s statement.
“I think that is a way, from a policy and social standpoint, to say, ‘Young men should exercise a little bit better judgment in dealing with certain things,’ but what they did didn’t rise to criminality,” attorney Ken Montgomery told the Times. “I would agree, in a sense, that we live in a country and a world where we have a lot of unhealthy ideas of what appropriate sexual relationships are.”
With the focus off the five boys, it shifted to the father and his daughter, who prosecutors have stressed is still a victim, even if she consented to the sex.
“It is my fervent hope that this young woman gets all the support that she needs going forward,” Thompson said. “My office, including our victim advocates who have been working with this young woman, stand ready to provide her with any assistance she may need.”
How she came to have sex with her own father, unleashing a torrid and tragic series of events, is, in part, a story of the failings of the American foster-care system.
She and her father had been separated for much of her life, officials told the Times. He lost custody of her when she was 2-years-old, as did her mother, who was a drug user.
The woman lived in California with a foster family, then in a series of group homes and facilities, developing emotional problems along the way, officials told the newspaper.
By the time the woman turned 18, her mother had died. She learned her biological father’s identity and tracked him down on Facebook, coming to New York City last summer to meet him.
The woman is not currently living with her father, officials told the Times.
As for the five teenage boys, four of them had already been released in mid-January. The fifth remains in jail on assault charges from a prior incident.
Even with the charges dropped, however, the high-profile case is likely to leave marks on their lives.
As with the Central Park Five nearly 30 years ago, the five boys received a flood of death and rape threats before they were cleared of wrongdoing.
“Time to bring back the death penalty,” one woman wrote online days after the arrest, echoing Trump, “and enforce it immediately not 20 years down the road.”
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