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Calif. town rattled by gang rape case

RICHMOND, Calif. – The gang rape and beating of a 15-year-old girl on school grounds after her homecoming dance was horrific enough. But even more shocking, police say, was that up to 20 people watched and did nothing to stop it.

The attack over the weekend rattled this crime-ridden city of 120,000 in the San Francisco Bay area, where one police official called it one of the most heinous crimes he has ever seen. Some students have already left the school district in response to the attack.

“It’s not safe there at all,” said 16-year-old Jennie Steinberg, whose mother let her transfer out of the district Tuesday. “I’m not going back.”

The victim, a sophomore, had left the dance and was drinking in a school courtyard with a group of students when she was attacked, police said.

Two suspects were in custody Monday, but police said as many as five others ranging in age from 15 to mid-20s attacked the girl for more than two hours at a dimly lit area near benches Saturday night. More than a dozen people saw the rape without notifying police.

The girl was found naked from the waist down near a picnic table. She remains hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries.

“This was a barbaric act. I still cannot get my head around the fact that numerous people either watched, walked away or participated in her assault,” Lt. Mark Gagan said Tuesday. “It’s one of the most disturbing crimes in my 15 years as a police officer.”

Gagan would not comment on rumors that observers took video of the attack on cell phones and may have posted it online.

Manuel Ortega, a 19-year-old former student, was arrested after trying to flee the scene. He is being held on $800,000 bail for investigation of rape and robbery. A 15-year-old student also was booked late Monday on one count of sexual assault, Gagan said.

Even though he said as many as 20 people were witnesses, Gagan said officials are still trying to determine the exact number of people involved. “I’m confident that the list will expand and at the end of our investigation we will get a clear indication of who was there and who did what,” Gagan said.

The attack occurred in a city that has dealt with its share of vicious crimes in recent years, and the school recently approved surveillance cameras after a series of violent crimes. In one case a few years back, a student was shot outside the school, ran inside and died in the then-principal’s hands, said Marin Trujillo, a spokesman for the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Richmond is an industrialized conclave near the San Francisco Bay that is known as one nation’s most dangerous cities. In 2007, Richmond had 47 homicides, and the murder rate led the state for cities with populations of 100,000 or more, surpassing Los Angeles and Oakland.

That number dropped to 27 in 2008, but has spiked to 44 killings so far this year, amid drug dealing and gang activity that has engulfed the town, Gagan said.

Gagan said the girl left the dance and was walking to meet her father for a ride home when a classmate invited her to join a group drinking in the courtyard. The girl had consumed a large amount of alcohol by the time the assault began, police said. Gagan said the girl’s father tried to call her cell phone, but no one answered.

Gagan said police received a tip about a possible assault on campus from a young woman who heard two males bragging about it. Officers found the girl semiconscious near a picnic table.

Trujillo said there were four police officers and 15 school site supervisors monitoring the dance. He said there were no problems during the dance inside the school gym, calling it “a success.”