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Deborah Hamilton-Turnipseed comforts Monquasha Peter outside Contra Costa Superior Court in Richmond, Calif. Oct. 19, 2009. Monquasha's cousin, 17-year-old Marcelles Peter, is one of four males charged in the Richmond High School gang rape case. (Karl Mondon/Staff)
RICHMOND -- Wearing bulletproof vests, three underage boys accused in the gang-rape of a Richmond High School girl stood before a Contra Costa Superior Court judge Thursday to hear charges that could land them behind bars for life.

The court arraigned all three -- San Pablo residents Ari Abdallah Morales, 16, and Cody Ray Smith, 15; and Pinole resident Marcelles James Peter, 17 -- as adults in connection with Saturday's assault outside the homecoming dance that left the 15-year-old girl hospitalized through Wednesday night.

"All of the factors point to no other decision than that they be tried as adults," said Dara Cashman, head of the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office Family Violence Prevention Unit. "There's something about the coldness of it .

.. the attitude of both the people involved, and the people who saw or knew about it. It's just very cold."

The District Attorney's Office has been flooded with "expressions of outrage from all over the country," Cashman said. While no particular threat has been made, the "community's heightened emotions" prompted the county Probation Department, which runs juvenile hall, to dress the teens in bulletproof vests, said Chief Deputy Probation Officer Paula Hernandez.

A fourth defendant, 19-year-old Manuel Ortega of Richmond, was arraigned separately Thursday on charges of robbery, assault causing great bodily injury, rape in concert and an enhancement that makes him eligible for life in prison. The minors, each charged with rape with a foreign object in concert, also could be eligible for life sentences if convicted; Morales, who sported a black eye in court, also is charged with robbery.

Judge Peter A. Berger held all without bail. Only the baby-faced Smith entered a plea at the hearing: not guilty. All four are scheduled to return to court next week.

Police say they and at least a few others participated in a two-hour assault on the semiconscious girl after she collapsed while drinking with a crowd of young people in a secluded courtyard on campus, as the dance continued in the gym.

She left the dance alone about 9:30 p.m. to catch some fresh air and call her father for a ride home, Richmond police Detective Ken Greco said. But before she called, a classmate caught her eye. He escorted her to the hangout spot, on the north edge of campus, where she drank a large amount of brandy quickly.

After she collapsed, several people beat her, robbed her of her belongings, stripped her naked and repeatedly sexually assaulted her. The attack continued until about midnight, when word reached a group of students and former students watching a movie at a house a few blocks away.

They phoned 911, and officers arrived to break up the attack. They arrested Ortega, who was out of custody on a pending misdemeanor weapons and vandalism case, running from the crime scene. Detectives later identified and arrested the other suspects. Peter turned himself in after police raided the home he shares with his grandmother, family members said.

Cashman said her office will consider charging a fifth suspect, 21-year-old Salvador Rodriguez, arrested Tuesday night. Police continue to search for additional suspects, Richmond police Lt. Mark Gagan said.

A crowd turned out at the courthouse on 37th Street on Thursday morning to watch the arraignment. Several young women in the audience wore lavender ribbons, they said to represent their support for the victim.

Others came to support their loved ones among the accused.

"If they give him a life sentence, I guarantee the city of Richmond will be sued. I will sue the pants off them," said Peter's aunt, Monica Peter. "Trust me when I say he was just walking by."

The younger Peter, a senior at North Campus High School on the Richmond High campus, is the only black suspect. His aunt said she believes his ethnicity played a role in his arrest.

"He's a very good kid, never had any problems," Peter said. "He said he heard something, but he just kept moving."

Attorney Ernie Castillo, retained by Morales' parents, described his client as a "young kid with no prior criminal convictions."

"This is a horrible tragedy, and it is hard to understand how something like this could happen at an American high school," Castillo said. "How limited his involvement was, if he had any involvement, I don't know."

Cashman said the investigation continued, with Richmond police devoting a task force of detectives to the case.

"I am sure we will have forensic evidence," she said. "But that has not been completed yet."

Reach Malaika Fraley at mfraley@bayareanewsgroup.com. Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow Fischer at Twitter.com/kfischer510.

how to help
  • Richmond police ask anyone with information about the case to call Detective Ken Greco at 510-620-6618. The department is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.
  • Donations to the victim can be sent to Richmond High School, 1250 23rd St., Richmond, CA 94804. They should be made out to "Richmond High School Student Fund" with "sex assault victim" on the memo line.