The crime would have been nightmarish in any setting, but the charge was that this happened in broad daylight, in a school full of students and teachers.
During the lunch period on Jan. 28 at Jacksonville High School, police said, nine boys forced a 15-year-old sophomore into a closet and gang-raped her, stopping only when her friends interceded.
Police quickly charged all nine with rape and as adults. Within hours of the arrests, the names of the accused were on the television news. Mug shots, pasted together in a guilty gray block, showed up almost as quickly. The immediate howl of protest from the kin of the accused and their hastily acquired lawyers was rivaled only by television viewers clucking over the state of the world in the imagined blackboard jungle of Pulaski County.
The swift action by police and prosecutors might normally have been welcomed by anyone with a teen-age daughter or sister or cousin or friend, but a funny thing happened on the way to a speedy hanging. The initial version of events appeared to begin unraveling. Many in the community rallied behind the boys - a phenomenon encouraged by the fact that the boys' parents and friends were publicly declaring their innocence, while the girl and anyone she had in her corner remained conspicuously, if understandably, silent. Fingers were pointed: at the girl for crying rape, at the police for acting too quickly, at the media for helping to damage the boys' reputations - and, in some cases, their chances at athletic scholarships.
In the debate over whose version of events was true, almost everyone seemed to lose sight of the fact that, best-case scenario, a girl and multiple partners had been engaging in sexual activity on the 850-student Jacksonville High School campus. And it wasn't the first time.
So what really did happen behind that red door, in a storage room off a short, cramped passageway between the auditorium and the gym? The facts are still cloudy, the girl's version of events shielded by the haze normally afforded cases of rape to protect the identity of the victim, who has not returned to school. But the answer that is emerging is shaping up to be a sad parable about teen-age sex, blame, and the power of the word "rape," not incidentally in a case where the accuser is white and the accused are black.
It's Friday, Feb. 7, homecoming night at Jacksonville High School, nine days after new double locks were installed on that closet down the hall from the gym where smiling girls with pompons now cheer on the Red Devils against Jonesboro.
The place is packed, no doubt with many people who at least know the name of the girl involved, but finding anyone willing to talk about the case is all but impossible. Even Principal Ken Clark won't discuss it, not even to name which four boys have been cleared by school officials or talk about how such a thing could occur within the walls of his school.
The police report, incomplete as it is with blacked-out names of juveniles and a version of events that lags far behind the rumor mill, is nevertheless the official version of what happened. Its account:
On Monday, Jan. 27, a girl told police she met student Christopher Elston in the school's auditorium. They went into the boys' bathroom and engaged in consensual oral sex. When they finished, the girl told police, another boy, Jason Bogard, came in the room, told the girl to lie back down on the floor, held her down and had sex with her.
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