1st of 12 men sentenced in sex assault case

This undated booking photo provided by the Liberty County Sheriff's Department in Liberty, Texas, shows Eric McGowen. Opening statements were scheduled to begin Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, in Liberty in a trial for McGowen, who is charged with aggravated sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl in 2010 in Cleveland, Texas. McGowen is among 14 adults charged in the case. He faces up to life in prison if convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child. (AP Photo/Courtesy the Liberty County Sheriff's Department)

LIBERTY, Texas — A jury deliberated for about 20 minutes Thursday before convicting a man of sexually assaulting a middle school student who prosecutors say was raped by 20 men and boys from her town over a matter of months two years ago.

Eric McGowen wasn’t in court when he was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child. The 20-year-old had been free on bail and he skipped out during a break in proceedings Wednesday, the first day of testimony.

The judge issued an arrest warrant for McGowen Wednesday and allowed testimony to resume Thursday. The sentencing portion of the trial was scheduled to resume Thursday after a short break. McGowen faces from 25 years to life in prison.

Prosecutors say the girl—  who was 11 years old at the time—  was sexually assaulted on at least five occasions from mid-September through early December of 2010 by 20 men and boys from her town, Cleveland, which is about 45 miles northeast of Houston.

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.

All six of the juveniles and two of the 14 adults charged in the case pleaded guilty. McGowen was the first defendant to stand trial.

Liberty County Sheriff’s Capt. Steve Green declined in an email Wednesday to comment on the search for McGowen. Greene said since McGowen was free on bail, a security detail was not required to watch or follow him. He also said McGowen “should be considered armed and dangerous.”

Prosecutors and defense attorney are not commenting on the case because of a gag order.

After prosecutors concluded their case Thursday following the testimony of nearly a dozen witnesses over a day and a half, defense attorney Matthew Poston rested his case without presenting any witnesses or evidence.

McGowen was in court Wednesday when the girl now 13 spoke about her ordeal. Testifying using a pseudonym, she told jurors about two encounters one in October 2010 and one the following month in which she said McGowen and several other men and boys took turns sexually assaulting her while recording the encounters on video.

The girl 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 encounter that November that started in a different Cleveland home and continued at a nearby abandoned trailer. She told jurors that McGowen assaulted her with a beer bottle during that incident.

Like McGowen, most of the remaining 11 defendants in the case face charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Four of who face a charge of continuous sexual abuse of a child.

The two men who pleaded guilty and one of the juveniles, who has since turned 18, also testified against McGowen. The two men are serving 15-year prison terms while the juveniles in the case each received suspended seven-year prison terms.

The case sparked outrage in Cleveland, and early on, some residents suggested the girl was partly responsible because they say she wore makeup, looked older than her age and wasn’t properly supervised by her parents, which drew widespread condemnation.

The case also has been complicated by a belief among many in the predominantly Black neighborhood where several of the suspects live that the arrests were racially motivated. All of the suspects are Black; the girl is Hispanic.

— Associated Press