TRENTON, N.J. — A horrifying case – a gang rape of a 7-year-old allegedly sold by her teenage stepsister to armed men – grew more bizarre when the girl's stepfather showed up outside the Trenton courthouse Thursday to say that three of the five accused men had actually tried to help the girl.
He was summoned to the courthouse by family members of the suspects, who have his phone number on speed dial, a seemingly strange alliance amid a crime that has inflamed a poor community.
"These three had nothing to do with nothing; I don't know why they locked them up," the stepfather said of Gregory Leary, 20; Timear Lewis, 19; and a 17-year-old whom authorities have not identified because of his age.
The Associated Press generally does not identify people alleging sex crimes and is not naming the stepfather to avoid identifying the girl.
In all, five men and boys have been arrested on suspicion of raping the girl. The other suspects are ages 13 and 14. The 15-year-old stepsister also has been charged with promoting prostitution.
Lewis is scheduled to make his first court appearance Friday. It was his mother who called the girl's stepfather, imploring him to come to the courthouse to talk to reporters.
"Please tell them my son did not do this," Tracy Lewis said. "He was there but he didn't touch anyone."
Police say there is DNA evidence of the crime, but the prosecution may hinge on the word of a little girl, her troubled stepsister and the other men and boys who watched the crime.
According to police, the 7-year-old was prostituted out by her 15-year-old stepsister, who watched as she was raped by as many as seven men and boys at a party at the Rowan Tower apartments on March 28. As many as a dozen people were at the party, held in a vacant apartment in the crime-plagued public housing complex not far from the New Jersey Statehouse.
Investigators said that soon after arriving, the older girl took money to have sex with several men at a party, including Leary. The teen then gave some of the money she had collected to the younger girl to let the men start touching her. It soon escalated to rape, police said, and the men threatened to kill the child if she screamed or told anyone, according to police.
The girl later put on her clothes and left the apartment; her older stepsister stayed, police say. Two women found the child crying outside the apartment and walked her home, where police were waiting because the girls' parents had reported them missing.
The girl told police what happened and her sister was soon found and arrested.
"She should have never took my daughter there," the father said of his 15-year-old.
While the father thinks that three of the men may have tried to get the young girl out of the apartment, he doesn't dispute the fact that she was raped by several men.
"My daughter said these guys were trying to help her," he said. "If you had a gun pointed to your head, you wouldn't be able to do nothing, either."
The confusing case had already strained relations among police and residents and management of the troubled Rowan Tower downtown apartment building where the crime took place.
"They think because we are poor that they can ruin our lives," Tracy Lewis said.
Following the case, police and the mayor held news conferences and said they were taking the case personally. Days later, police conducted a pre-dawn raid on the public housing complex, arresting 27 people who lived there on warrants for violations such as outstanding parking tickets.
In a contentious meeting, the police director and building managers talked with residents, vowing to increase security at a building that already uses uniformed Trenton police as nighttime doormen.
Mayor Doug Palmer met with the 7-year-old girl and her family in his office last week and gave the girl a stuffed bunny rabbit for Easter. He said the family is getting counseling and indicated it may be permanently relocated away from the city.
Leary's lawyer suggested Thursday in court that the child had been pressured to make up the story.
"She was not raped, was not gang-raped," Robin Lord said, adding that the girl's memory is "forever tainted" because she's been given toys, gifts and money.
Leary is charged with aggravated sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. He made his first court appearance Thursday and was ordered held on $500,000 bail. He is also accused of statutory rape; police and his attorney say he has admitted having sex with the 15-year-old.
Assistant Prosecutor said Jennifer Downing said Leary denied having sex with the younger girl. However, she said several witnesses at the party told police they saw Leary "on top of the 7-year-old," raping her.
Police have said they expect additional arrests.
Associated Press writer Aaron Morrison contributed to this report.