TRENTON, N.J. – The allegations were unthinkable, the outrage immediate, justice promised: A 7-year-old girl had been handed over to a group of men and boys by her older 15-year-old stepsister and gang-raped.
"What happened to this 7-year-old angel ... by a group of depraved, animal pedophiles ranks in a place where I could never imagine. This is not the Congo," said then-Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer three days after the March 28 party in a vacant apartment in one of Trenton's toughest neighborhoods.
Police said they were taking the case personally. Palmer vowed everyone in the apartment would "suffer the full weight of the legal system." Activists promised to patrol the neighborhood to protect the troubled public housing complex. The stepsister was immediately arrested and, within days, so were five males — three of them juveniles.
Nearly five months later, vows for legal vengeance are falling short and officials aren't talking. Calls for justice have quieted and defense attorneys are raising questions about what happened — or didn't happen — that day.
"The case is falling apart and I think it's time to address that," said Bruce Throckmorton, the attorney for one of the juvenile defendants.
The girls were outside their apartment building with other kids that Sunday afternoon. When they didn't come inside by 4:30 p.m., their parents called police, saying they were concerned the older girl had run away from home, taking her younger sister with her.
An officer arrived. Before long, so did the 7-year-old. She said she and her sister had been at Rowan Towers, the apartment complex next door.
Police said two women found the little girl crying outside an apartment and walked her home. The girl told her parents that her stepsister gave her money to let men touch her, which led to sexual assault.
Officers quickly located the 15-year-old and arrested her for promoting prostitution, aggravated sexual assault and other charges.
Police said they wanted to talk to everyone who had been in the apartment when the 7-year-old was there — as many as a dozen people — and warned they all could be culpable.
Within a week, five more arrests in the alleged assault had been made: Gregory Leary, 20; Tiemare Lewis, 19; and three juveniles ages 17, 14 and 13. Leary and the 13- and 14-year-old remain in custody.
The county prosecutor said he would move to have the underage suspects tried as adults, including the stepsister.
Police said they had DNA evidence and expected more arrests.
Yet no other arrests have materialized. The three juveniles haven't been moved up to adult court and instead have been offered plea deals in exchange for testimony against the two men.
And prosecutors have revealed in court papers that preliminary DNA tests showed no semen was found in samples taken from the girl.
Trenton police Sgt. Pedro Medina said police do not have enough probable cause to make any more arrests. He would not discuss other elements of the case.
Defense attorney Robin Lord, who represents Leary, said police "started from a false premise." At Leary's first court appearance, Lord bluntly told the judge that she doesn't believe the girl was raped at all.
"At this point, they should give up and apologize to Mr. Leary and the other defendants for this horrific false allegation," Lord later said.
Prosecutors say they plan to bring the case to a grand jury next month. In the meantime, they agreed to lower bail for Leary and Lewis. Lewis has made bail and the 17-year-old, his cousin, was released with a GPS monitoring bracelet.
Lord said the bail reduction indicates weak evidence.
"If they had physical evidence that was consistent with what they said, there is no way the prosecutor would consent to reducing the bail by more than a third," Lord said.
Mercer County prosecutor Joseph Bocchini declined to comment.
"Every decision we have made has been based upon the evidence as we knew it to be and the law governing the case," said his spokeswoman, Casey DeBlasio.
In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press from jail, Leary denied touching the young girl.
"I wouldn't hurt no baby. She's somebody's angel," Leary said.
Prosecutors said they have witnesses, including the juvenile suspects, who said they saw him "on top of her."
But Leary said the two youngest boys weren't at the party and Throckmorton said his client, the 14-year-old, told him he wasn't at the party.
Leary is charged with aggravated sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. He is also accused of statutory rape of the 15-year-old.
Police and his attorney say he admitted having sex with the 15-year-old — he said she claimed to be 18 — but denied he had sex with the younger girl.
Attorneys for the youngest juveniles say they were pressured into talking to police and may have lied because they were scared.
Attorney Mark Fury, who represents the 13-year-old, said the police used "inappropriate methods" to get information from the younger boys.
"Every child has the right of access to their parent or guardian at every step of the judicial process."
Lewis also denies the charges. His mother, Tracy Lewis, has said he was in the apartment but "he didn't touch anyone" — a claim supported by the 7-year-old's stepfather.
The stepfather has defended the three oldest male suspects, saying they tried to help the little girl get out of the apartment. The Associated Press does not identify sex crime victims and is not naming the stepfather so as not to identify the sisters.
Lord said she will argue the rape never happened. She believes the little girl was describing sex acts she saw her sister participate in, telling police and her parents it happened to her so she wouldn't get into trouble for staying out too late.
In a May 28 court filing, Mercer County Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Downing said other physical evidence in this case is consistent with sexual assault. Most of the state's cases are prosecuted without DNA evidence, she said.