LIBERTY, Texas — The trial is over. There's a conviction and a steep prison sentence. But justice is on hold for a young Texas girl who prosecutors say was repeatedly sexually assaulted by 20 people.
The first man convicted in the case – Eric McGowen – is still on the lam after disappearing from the trial after the victim gave an emotional account of the attacks. While there's a warrant out for his arrest and authorities are searching, it puts the end of a horrific case on hold.
Prosecutors say the girl was sexually assaulted on at least five occasions from mid-September through early December of 2010 by 20 men and boys in Cleveland, 45 miles northeast of Houston.
McGowen, 20, was found guilty Thursday of aggravated sexual assault of a child and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
The defendant was free on bail when he disappeared during a Wednesday afternoon break in proceedings, so authorities say a security detail was not required to watch or follow him. The Liberty County Sheriff's Office has declined to release any details about the search for McGowen, other than to say that he is believed to be armed and dangerous.
His disappearance is the latest twist in a case that has divided the small town of Cleveland, both because of the horrific allegations and suggestions from some residents that the girl was partly responsible because of her appearance. Police began investigating after one of the girl's classmates told a teacher he saw video of her being sexually assaulted in an abandoned trailer.
Prosecutors' case against McGowen included a videotaped confession and testimony from nearly a dozen witnesses, including the girl, who is now 13.
The girl, who testified using a pseudonym, briefly broke down in tears as jurors were shown a few minutes of video of the alleged sexual assault in October 2010. She described another attack that November, in a home then an abandoned trailer, during which she said McGowen assaulted her with a beer bottle.
Defense attorneys did not present any witnesses or evidence.
Jurors were swift in their decisions. They deliberated for just 20 minutes before finding him guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Then, after brief testimony in the punishment phase, they decided his sentence in less than 30 minutes.
The girl, her family and McGowen's relatives were not in the courtroom when the jury's decisions were announced. The Associated Press could not reach the girl's mother for comment. The girl has been in foster care since police began to investigate the sexual assaults.
McGowen's attorney, Matthew Poston, said he didn't know where his client had gone but that his mid-trial escape must have influenced the jury members. McGowen had faced a maximum life sentence.
All six of the juveniles and two of the 14 adults charged pleaded guilty. Trial dates have not been set for the 11 remaining defendants.
Asked how McGowen's guilty verdict might affect the other defendants' cases, Warren told reporters, "They better get their business straight."