By Alan Feuer and Colin Moynihan (New York Times)
June 2, 2012
There were mornings when the women at Mama’s Senegalese hair salon received an unusual guest: a 13-year-old Jewish girl from the neighborhood’s Chabad Lubavitch community. She had an unusual request: to change clothes in the bathroom.
She would walk in wearing the long traditional dresses she put on for school, then walk out wearing something less traditional: clothes that one might wear to work the streets.
“I’d say, ‘Baby, you a good Jewish girl,’ ” said Annie Allen, a beautician at the shop, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. “ ‘What you doing?’ ”
Now, nine years later, the question of what she was doing — or what was being done to her — lingers at the center of a haunting criminal case in the Brooklyn courts. On one side is the girl, who is now a woman of 22 and says that for the better part of a decade, a group of local thugs forced her into prostitution, ensuring her submissiveness with a steady diet of beatings, threats and rapes. On the other side are the accused — four older black men — who deny the woman’s charges and contend that she herself was a kind of predator: a troubled teenager who crossed Crown Heights’s racial divide with an appetite for sex.
All of this played out one block from the intersection where, in 1991, a black child was killed by the motorcade of the Lubavitch leader, igniting days of riots — and so an overlay of race has been placed atop the already fraught charges. While there is no indication of a racial motivation in the case, Crown Heights history hovers over everything and everyone: from the victim’s father, who said his daughter had met the men, in part, because she had “less reserve about conversing with African-Americans than is the norm in our community,” to the main defendant’s brother, who said he thought her presence could lead to trouble: “I never liked hanging out with her. She was the only white girl out there with a bunch of black kids.”
As in many sex-crime cases, the defense has questioned the victim’s credibility, quoting records that indicate a history of mental illness. The story has been tangled by the young woman herself, who repeatedly came forward to accuse the men, only — in a classic pattern, experts say — to continue to see her ostensible tormentors and withdraw some of her charges.
The usual place to sort out such disputes is the courthouse, but — to add a layer of complexity — the prosecution of “People v. Damien Crooks, et al.” has been marred by conduct that has also turned the suspects into victims. In April, nearly a year after Mr. Crooks and a co-defendant, Darrell Dula, were jailed awaiting trial, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office announced that it had not turned over an exculpatory report that said the woman had partly recanted.
Departures followed; so did an ethics investigation of Lauren Hersh, chief of the district attorney’s sex-trafficking unit, who did not face sanctions and was one of those who resigned. Some current and former prosecutors say that, on a legal basis, the case should never have been brought, but a spokesman for the district attorney’s office said last week that it would continue.
“When people see me, they see innocence,” the girl once wrote in an autobiographical letter to psychiatrists. “They see a young white woman; a typical American. Yet there is me beyond that.”
Indeed, there is a picture of her from the height of her involvement with the men. The picture is undated and, in it, she is wearing a crimson dress and smiling on a sidewalk with one of the defendants and his friends. She is a small white girl surrounded by a scrum of larger black men; one of them is holding up her leg. Her hand, like theirs, is cupped into a “C,” for Crips, the authorities say.
It is as hard to interpret this picture as it is to unpack her story. Is this participation or coercion? Are the men her friends or something else?
What was going on?
SHORT, slight, with flaming orange hair, the girl was raised on President Street, at the boundary of Orthodox Crown Heights. The neighborhood has been a mix of Hasidic and Caribbean since the early 1940s, when Lubavitch leaders made their headquarters in a former hospital at 770 Eastern Parkway. Around that building, the neighborhood is split — blacks to the north, Jews to the south — though where she grew up, jerk-chicken joints are pressed against mezuza stores. The populations have long lived side by side in a kind of harmonic discord, like the notes in a Stravinsky piece.
She attended a Jewish day school, as did her nine brothers and sisters. Hers was a pious, but outward-looking, family: her father was a connoisseur of East German music and the Cuban Revolution; her siblings’ wedding announcements appeared in the “Mazal Tovs” section of CrownHeights.info.
Carroll Street, where the defendants lived, was less Jewish than President Street, a block away; and neighbors recall that the girl first showed up there in 2003. She befriended a man named Barry Ellington, a stoop-sitting character whom she liked to challenge to push-up competitions. When Mr. Ellington died, she went to the wake, said his daughter, Brittny Ellington: “She cried and said she was going to miss him.”
Mr. Crooks lived in the house directly behind the girl’s — their backyards touched in that neighborly Brooklyn way. When she was 13, he was 23, a bagger at a grocery store and recently out of prison on a gun charge.
One day in January 2003, the woman later testified to a grand jury, she accompanied Mr. Crooks and his friend Jamali Brockett, also a defendant, to Lincoln Terrace Park. She knew them from the neighborhood, she said: “We used to talk — not really talk, but just like hi and bye.” Mr. Brockett, then 19, was a high-school dropout with a $100-a-day marijuana habit, court papers said. Within a few years, he would be in prison on unrelated charges of trafficking prostitutes — some of them underage.
When they reached the park, she said, two more men were waiting on a hill. There, without warning, she testified, “Jamali held my head to Crooks” and forced her to give him oral sex. Moments later, she said, Mr. Brockett raped her, after which, she said, she was beaten on the ground. It was, she said, her first experience with sex.
Advocates for trafficked women say that on average prostitutes enter the business at age 13.
Before they left the park, she testified, the two men threatened to expose her to her family and to rape her best friend. Within months, she was turning tricks, doing “incalls” and “outcalls” in the neighborhood, she said. In her testimony, she mentioned group encounters (“like five people sometimes”) and numerous attacks (“they pushed me down into the snow, and bashed my head in the snow, and started kicking me”).
Perhaps the hardest thing to understand is why, as she wrote in her autobiographical letter, she began “to identify” with the men. It is a phenomenon, experts say, reminiscent of battered wives who stay with violent husbands.
“It’s called traumatic bonding,” said Dorchen Leidholdt, a director of Sanctuary for Families, which treats abused women. “Victims attach themselves to their tormentors because they know they will be shamed and stigmatized.”
It may have been a silencing shame that pushed the girl into her double life: attending school even, she says, while she was prostituted, changing worlds as she changed clothes in that salon. She seemed, for a while, to have kept its separate sides a secret from each other. She mentioned nothing to her family until late 2003, when she partially confided in a sister. Even then, her father said, she frustrated efforts to help her. “She would open up with fragments,” he wrote in an e-mail, “then slam the door on further inquiries.”
She tried getting help from the police. In 2003, she went several times to officers on the street, but “the cops didn’t do anything,” said her best friend, who, like many, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Their attitude was: ‘You put yourself in this situation, you get yourself out.’ ”
Police records show that in 2003 and 2004, the girl complained at least four times by phone about assault. She was 13, then 14, and provided her address. “One would think we would have gotten a call or a visit from a detective,” her father wrote. “This did not happen.”
The father said he met with the commander of the local police precinct in November 2003. “He laid out his concerns,” said Yanki Prager, a member of the Crown Heights neighborhood watch who attended the meeting. Again, the family said, nothing happened.
The police said that one arrest was made on the victim’s complaints in 2003 and that no commanders remembered meeting her father. In the meantime, she said, she was sold for sex in a Carroll Street basement. She said she was forced into oral, anal and vaginal sex — simultaneously — in a garage near Utica Avenue. She said she went one day to Mr. Brockett’s house “to get something” for her brother (marijuana, defense lawyers said) and was made to have sex with three men on a roof — including the fourth defendant, Mr. Brockett’s brother, Jawara — while her own brother waited downstairs.
Then, in September 2004, there was a breaking point: the girl said a “client” stabbed her on Eastern Parkway. “My sweatshirt,” she testified, “was filling with blood because of the knife wound.” Her letter says: “It was 3 in the morning when I came home, and my parents were at the door distraught.”
After this attack, her parents sent her to a psychiatric hospital, from which she returned in late 2006, determined to pull her life together. She finished high school, worked with children with autism, enrolled in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Mr. Crooks, she wrote, “expected me to continue my old lifestyle,” and when she avoided him, he followed her in his car, she said, and stole her college ID. There were also threats, she said, more menacing than before.
“He threatened to get with my sister,” she testified. “He was saying that I’m old” — she was 16 — “and my sister’s younger.”
Disillusioned by the police, unable to escape her backyard neighbor, the woman contends it started again — Mr. Crooks, she says, offered her to a homeless man with “yellow eyes” — until another turning point in March 2010. Mr. Crooks took her to a party, she said, where she was meant to teach underage girls the art of sex. When she refused, she says, he and Mr. Dula raped her. Mr. Crooks hit her, she said: “I wasn’t wearing anything and he was beating on me.”
She escaped and called her best friend, who took her to the police, who sent her to the hospital, where, at 6:30 the following morning, she filed a formal complaint. She talked about the rapes, the beating, how Mr. Crooks had “pimped” her out for years, how she was “afraid for her life.”
By 10:45 a.m., she had already made a second statement to a second detective, altering her story: the sex at the party was now “consensual”; she “likes” Mr. Crooks; “Can’t a ho,” she said, “change her ways?” That same day, she signed a statement recanting the rapes at the party. She later told prosecutors she did so only after being told by the police that if she pressed charges, she herself would be charged with prostitution. On the statement, she also scratched out the section indicating that her first complaint had been “untrue.”
Next day, the police shut down their investigation.
It took another year, in fact, until prosecutors finally made a case and the woman, recanting nothing, testified in front of a grand jury, squeezing a stress ball and telling the jurors she was nervous.
THE defendants’ account of this bears almost no relationship to hers. That alleged encounter in the park? Never happened, they said. The rest? “It’s a lie,” Jamali Brockett said in an interview on Rikers Island, where he is being held.
In his own interview, Mr. Crooks said he first saw the girl in 2005, but denies having contact with her until 2007, when she was 17. (New York’s statutory rape law forbids sex with those 16 or younger.) “She used to hang out with me and my friends,” he said, adding that she would give them gas money — and often oral sex. He acknowledged he had slept with her “a couple times,” but quickly said: “She wanted to give it up.”
Jamali Brockett said he didn’t know her.
Beyond these denials, the defense’s narrative posits a sexually rebellious girl crossing cultures by crossing a city street. Brittny Ellington recalled her “goofing around, trying to grope on the guys.” The girl, she added, was “a little loose, a little open.” A police report from 2010 says that she was sometimes seen “on rooftops” with various men.
Mr. Crooks and his brother, Joel, suggested that there must have been some trouble in her home, driving her onto the streets, and evidence exists, in part, to support this. In her letter, the victim wrote that she was sexually molested at age 12. Last year, medical records say, she told a doctor the abuser was a 30-year-old man inside her home. (Neither her father nor her brothers were 30 at that time.)
“I was confused and hurt,” she wrote, “and showed this by being defiant. I did not understand the concept of rules because mine were broken.”
THE prosecution took this muddy case and muddied it further.
Last June, Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, held a news conference announcing the indictment of the men. “If you are a victim, we will protect you,” he said. “If you are a pimp, we will catch you.”
Ten months later, his office announced that it had mistakenly failed to turn over exculpatory evidence.
The woman’s recanting of the rapes at the party was initially withheld from the defense; so was a report from her first encounter with the district attorney’s office, in November 2009, when one of her college professors, a former prosecutor, was with her. In that report, she complained, in whipsawing fashion, that she wanted Mr. Crooks “out of her life” but not arrested. She was “fearful” but didn’t mind having sex with other men, she said, because she was “promiscuous.”
According to a letter by the defense, there were also undisclosed records indicating that the girl had been given a diagnosis of “schizophreniform disorder” and had complained about amnesia.
Mr. Hynes’s spokesman said the office learned about these documents this spring, after Ms. Hersh, the chief prosecutor, was replaced by a colleague. But a law enforcement officer on the case, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the proceedings’ delicate nature, said a co-worker, Detective Steven Litwin, called Ms. Hersh a year ago and mentioned the recantation. Notes from an interview with the woman also seem to indicate that Ms. Hersh was aware that she had partly recanted before the case went to the grand jury.
“At no time during Lauren’s portion of the investigation did the witness change her story,” a family member said, speaking on Ms. Hersh’s behalf. “Lauren had no reason to doubt her.” Detective Litwin declined to comment.
Furthermore, Ms. Hersh chastised two subordinates who expressed early doubts about the case, current and former prosecutors said. One of the subordinates, Abbie Greenberger, quit her job in April and was quoted by The Daily News as saying, “When I brought the inconsistencies to Lauren Hersh, I was told that I didn’t do my job right.”
Then, on May 24, Ms. Hersh resigned herself after four hours in front of an ethics panel, which found there was “insufficient evidence” to sanction her, the district attorney said. Because Mr. Crooks and Mr. Dula had sat in jail for months — they have since been released — the ruling has embittered some prosecutors, who believe she had put the men in jail despite evidence they may not have committed a crime.
The charges against the four men stand. Jamali Brockett said prosecutors had offered a reduction of the sentence he is serving on federal sex-crimes charges if he would testify against Mr. Crooks. It seems unlikely. “I don’t know anything,” he said.
Mr. Hynes has been criticized for letting Hasidic constituents influence his office’s sex-crimes cases, although no evidence exists that he did so in this case. The defendants said their hopes had been buoyed by the revelations of prosecutorial error.
When Mr. Crooks got out of jail, his brother said a police officer congratulated him on his release. “We told him who the girl was,” Joel Crooks, said, “and he said, ‘I thought you guys were dating.’ I feel he’s being railroaded.”
As for the girl, now a woman, she no longer lives in Brooklyn. She plans to attend law school — somewhere else.