Neighbors said she dressed and acted like a grown woman, that she wore long dark hair and heavy makeup. She “put up” her age, they said, telling the teenage boys she hung out with a local playground that she was 18. Her Facebook page is riddled with status updates that brag about her sexual exploits, smoky nights fueled with liquor.

Hers was a familiar face in the Quarters, a rough neighborhood in tiny Cleveland, Texas, where resident saw her visiting friends in recent months. One night last year, over the Thanksgiving holidays, retiree Joe Harrison noticed her as he walked past an abandoned trailer to join a friendly round of dominoes.

The mobile home rests near the corner of Ross and Second Street. The concrete walkway that used to lead to a now missing stairway is cracked, broken up and covered in weeds. A blue tarp masks a gaping hole in the roof. The brown and tan structure seems all but ready to fall in on itself. There’s a filthy sofa inside. A broken stereo, a disconnected stove and some old Christmas ornaments lay among piles the trash. The trailer, which has been empty since Hurricane Ike swept through town two years, is a haven for local crack addicts looking for a place to smoke.

The Quarters was certainly no place for a young woman that time of night. Harrison, who assumed she had gone home for the evening, went on about his way. Police now say that “young woman” is just 11 years old and was a sixth grader at Cleveland Middle School. She was repeatedly and viciously sexually assaulted inside the dingy trailer that night and in a little blue house around the corner — by as many as 18 young men and boys. Whatever innocence she had left was drained away in the tracks of her tears and smears of mascara.

WATCH ORIGINAL REPORTING ON THE INCIDENT HERE:
[NBCVIDEO source=”UNIWIDGET” video=”http://widgets.nbcuni.com/singleclip/singleclip_v1.swf?CXNID=1000004.08052NXC&WID=4a784acd2b1a7e80&clipID=1313008″ w=”400″ h=”400″]

The victim had been enticed by a 19-year-old to take a ride in his car. According to police, they first went to a friend’s home. There, several young men forced her to take her clothes off and took turns raping her, first in a bedroom, then in a bathroom. They threatened to beat her if she resisted. A call was made and shortly thereafter four more men arrived. When a relative came home, the boys dragged her through a back window. They left her bra and panties behind. She was taken to the mobile home where her nightmare continued.

The crew recorded their exploits on their cell phones and within days the videos went viral around the school. An elementary school student saw the pictures, recognized the girl and some of the young men, and told a teacher. To their credit, local authorities immediately launched an investigation. All told, there may have been as many as 28 boys and young men in and out of the trailer that night.

Seven of the suspects are students at Cleveland High School, including two members of the state-ranked basketball team, a track star and the 21-year-old son of a school board member. Several have criminal records, including convictions for drug peddling, aggravated robbery and manslaughter. The youngest is in middle school. The oldest is 27 years old.
Some were willing participants, while others stood by and watched. No matter what one believes happened that night, one thing is clear: No one, not one of the men, stepped up to put an end to the little girl’s terror. Nobody said, “this ain’t right, bruh.” Surely, at least one young man in that room has a sister, a cousin, or a somebody who is that little girl’s age. In the town of less than 10,000, at least one of them knew how old the child really was. And if they didn’t know it, one look at her pre-pubescent body should have been the first clue.

“These guys knew she was in middle school,” her mother told a Houston newspaper. “You could tell that whenever you talked to her. She still loves stuffed bears.”

In this case, there is no such thing as an innocent by-stander and this is not merely a case of statutory rape between consenting teenagers. This was a brutal attack on a child. Many are, if the accounts are true, guilty of kidnapping, terroristic threats, aggravated sexual assault, sexual abuse of a minor, and possession and distribution of child pornography, among other charges. And if proven, each and every one of them should spend a very long time behind bars. The ringleaders should receive life sentences.

Unbelievably, many residents of Cleveland have stepped up to defend the perpetrators. James D. Evans III, an attorney who represents three of the defendants, insists: “This is not a case of a child who was enslaved or taken advantage of.” Evans somehow believes an 11-year-old can engage in consensual sex — in Texas where the age of consent is 17. Using a telephone to persuade a minor to become involved in an illicit sexual act is a violation of Federal law. Others blamed the child and her parents.

“Where were they when this girl was seen wandering at all hours with no supervision and pretending to be much older?” Kisha Williams asked a local reporter, without so much as a hint of irony.

As Texas Rangers and local police picked through the trash in the trailer, looking for evidence, the case sent shock waves through the working class neighborhood and ignited conversations across social networks. It is worth noting that African-Americans seem especially angered by the incident. All 18 of the suspects under arrest are black. The victim is reportedly Hispanic. Evans, might be dumb enough (and it seems by the smirk on his face that he might be) to raise so-called “cultural differences” and point to Mexico’s laws where 12 or puberty are the age of consent. Except this child was born and raised in the United States.

“A real man would be outraged!” said one African-American man on Facebook.com. Another suggested attorney Evans should be ashamed of himself. “I realize that everyone is entitled to a defense, but I’d surrender my law license before I would defend [them].

Meanwhile, threats against the child and her family continue to mount. The victim and her siblings have been forced into protective custody and banned from speaking to their parents. Authorities want the entire family to leave town.

“It’s just destroyed our community,” complained Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

It’s difficult to understand Ms. Harrison’s position and, truthfully, I don’t really want to. I agree with Jezebel’s Margaret Hartman when she said those young men weren’t “tricked into gang raping a child.” If anyone was tricked, it was the victim. And if anyone should be in hiding, it should be the 28 monsters that raped her. Where were their parents, Ms. Harrison? Who raised boys who would think it was a good idea to maliciously manipulate and viciously assault somebody else’s child then pass the pictures along to friends? What if she were your child?

For that matter, what if she was mine? As a former Marine, and the mother of three daughters, I can say with all candor that jail would be the very least of their worries.