Nearly a year after police said a 7-year-old New Jersey girl was pimped out by her 15-year-old stepsister and gang-raped at a party, prosecutors admit they don't have the evidence to go to trial and have offered plea deals dropping all sex crimes against the six defendants.
On Friday, the last of the six charged with rape was allowed to plead guilty to two counts of child endangerment. The deal calls for Gregory Leary, 21, to receive probation when he is sentenced in April.
At Leary's hearing, Mercer County Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Downing admitted that there was no DNA evidence and that the 7-year-old was unable and unwilling to identify any suspects. Downing also said several other witnesses had recanted their statements.
Leary had spent seven months in jail before he could afford to post bond.
"I knew the truth was going to come out," he said Friday as he left the courthouse, adding that he "feels blessed."
The case wraps up nearly a year after Trenton police announced that they had arrested the teenage girl, who they say brought her younger sibling to a party in a vacant apartment in one of the city's most troubled public housing complexes.
Police said the teen gave the younger girl cash to let men and boys at the party touch her, watching as it escalated to rape.
Authorities called for justice and police said they were looking to arrest everyone at the party. Days later, a SWAT team raided the complex and eventually arrested three boys who lived there, ages 13, 14, and 15.
Leary and another man, Timear Lewis, then 19, were also arrested after the boys talked to police.
All were charged with aggravated sexual assault and child endangerment.
Leary, the oldest of the suspects, faced charges against both girls. He admitted having sex with the 15-year-old, who was too young to consent legally, but said he didn't know her age.
The 15-year-old girl initially was charged with five counts, including aggravated sexual assault, promoting prostitution and endangering the welfare of a minor. In November, she was sentenced to a year in juvenile detention for child endangerment and is due to be released this month.
The three boys pleaded guilty to child endangerment and Lewis pleaded guilty to trespassing _ all served a few months in jail or juvenile detention before being released.
The Associated Press is not identifying any of the juveniles in the case because they were not publicly identified.
The case began to unravel at the first court appearance for one of the suspects, when the father of the 15-year-old defended the three oldest male suspects, telling reporters that they tried to help the 7-year-old girl get out of the apartment.
Then, the case was further weakened when DNA tests came back showing no evidence of semen on the 7-year-old.
Police and prosecutors have said the 15-year-old gave varying accounts of what happened. Friday was the first time that prosecutors mentioned the younger girl couldn't identify the suspects.
Acting Trenton police director Joseph Juniak, who was the lead detective in the case, said he believed there was "more to these charges" than police could ultimately prove and that they did the best with what they had.
"Unfortunately, that's what we got because of the evidence and the recanting of witness statements," Juniak said. "It was a difficult investigation as far as gathering evidence. The outcome is not what we desired."
The mother of the 14-year-old boy arrested has said police didn't fully investigate and only knocked on the doors of people in the building with teenage children.
The mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for her son's safety, said that police tricked her son, who has a fourth-grade reading level, into falsely confessing by telling him he would be able to go home if he told police what they wanted to hear.
"They just wanted to prove that they solved the case," she said at her son's plea hearing months ago.
During a jailhouse interview with The Associated Press in August, Leary said he was at the party but "wouldn't hurt no baby."
"She's somebody's angel," he said of the 7-year-old.