Her eyes were burning.
She reached up, screaming, wrapping her arms around her head.
The kicks were unrelenting, hard and punishing.
They were spitting on her.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“You’re a dumb bitch,’’ the girls spat.
“You a ho, and if you don’t do what we say, we are going to keep beating you.’’
They dragged her by her hair down a stairwell and smashed her head into the concrete.
She pleaded again to be let go, wailing as they yanked her by the hair into a bedroom.
And then, recording it all on a cell phone video, they stripped her of her clothes, along with her last shred of dignity.
Betrayed by the ones she had trusted
Stephanie somehow survived the scars of a brutal childhood only to be betrayed by one of the few people she trusted, her best friend. Police say the girl, a fellow 10th grader at South Broward High School in Hollywood — and another girlfriend, a 16-year-old dropout, along with three young men — ambushed, then mercilessly attacked her, telling her they would kill her if she didn’t agree to have sex with one of the teenage men.
“I still really don’t understand how they could have done this,’’ Stephanie said softly. “She was my best friend.’’
Her eyes are swollen, black and blue, and she has bruises up and down her arms and legs. The whites of her eyes are bright red from broken blood vessels.
The beating, she said, felt like it lasted for hours. At one point, she thought she might die.
“I just kept my arms over my face and begged for them to stop, but that only made them kick me harder,’’ she said, her brown hair wrapped in a bun on top of her head, dark sunglasses on her lap.
For most of her adolescent life, Stephanie has lived on the streets, skipping school and hanging with other homeless or semi-homeless teenagers who drink and take drugs, and survive by prostituting themselves, stealing and hustling. Some of them have been arrested so many times that they can recite the names of all the juvenile judges in Broward County.
At 16, she is among an alarming number of high school kids in South Florida forgotten by their parents, family, schools and teachers. If they are lucky enough to make it through elementary and middle school, odds are that by high school they will disappear into a young subculture of delinquency, crime and addiction.
Ironically, Stephanie’s story may not be all that different from the teenage girls now charged in connection with her Nov. 2 beating and gang-rape. In fact, experts say it is the common bond of their troubled families — abuse and abandonment — that often brings them together.
“A lot of these girls have witnessed a lot of trauma and abuse from a very early age,’’ said Aggie Pappas, executive director of Pace Center for girls in Broward County. “They’ve been exposed to substance abuse, sexual abuse, a lack of continuity and structure and these kinds of risk factors lead to destructive behavior.’’
A home spiraling
out of control
Stephanie’s family was broken long before she was born.
Her mother, a drug addict, has lived from boyfriend to boyfriend, motel to motel, selling herself for drugs and food, according to Stephanie and police records. Her father, who is now in jail, tried to pimp her out for $200 when she was 15, she said. Both parents have police records for battery and abuse.
Her maternal grandfather has been jailed on drug charges more times than Stephanie can count. Her grandmother is an alcoholic who was once charged with prostitution and deserting her children, according to her police record.
Stephanie doesn’t remember a time when life felt safe. Her idea of normal was coming home to find her mother high on drugs and no food in the refrigerator.
“I decided that I didn’t want to be like my mom. I didn’t want to hustle money to eat,’’ she said.
But as her parents spiraled into lives of drugs and crime, she found herself with no one — and nowhere — to go.
About a year ago, she ended up homeless in Hollywood. She said she tried to avoid people who did drugs but, like her mother, was essentially living in a different place from week to week, with people she did not know.
“I kind of am a loner. I don’t talk to people much. I kind of keep to myself,’’ she said.
She didn’t attend school and no one seemed to notice.
She was free to do what she wanted, when she wanted. Yet she was imprisoned by shame, loneliness and fear.
It was something she rarely shared with anyone, except her closest friends.
“I still really don’t understand how they could have done this,’’ she says quietly.
The slight, fair-skinned brunette weeps as she recalls how she went to hang out with the girls at a house on McKinley Street in a quiet neighborhood of east Hollywood two Friday nights ago. It was late, and Stephanie had promised her caretaker — a friend of her family whom she calls mom — that she would be home in time for curfew. But the curfew came and went, and her caretaker had made it clear that if she broke curfew, she had better find somewhere else to sleep that night.
About 1 a.m. Saturday, they were listening to music when the two girls suddenly pounced on her, without warning, she said. They sprayed her face with Mace and dragged her by her hair into the backyard, kicking and screaming.
“They spit on me and called me a dumb bitch,’’ she said. “They just kept kicking me — they were all kicking me and telling me that they wouldn’t stop unless I had sex with Jayvon.’’
At one point, she recalls, she broke away and locked herself in a bathroom, as they pounded on the door, threatening her. The window was too small for her to climb through, so she unlocked the door and tried to make a break for it.
“If you leave, I am going to f--- you up,’’ one of the young men allegedly said when she tried to escape, according to the police report.
Jayvon Woolfork, 19, lived in the one-story house with his older sister. He was arrested later that day, along with Lanelyn Singleton, 18, a former student at South Broward, on charges of sexual assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment. Another 17-year-old male was also arrested.
Her two girlfriends, 15 and 16, were also arrested on felony battery charges. All five remain incarcerated, pending their next court appearances. The Herald is not using the names of the juveniles because they are minors.
“It’s disgusting, totally disgusting,’’ said her caretaker, who spoke on the condition the Herald not use her name for fear of retaliation against Stephanie and her.
Since the arrests, the suspects’ friends and family members have posted threats against Stephanie on Facebook, her caretaker said. Hollywood police have beefed up patrols in her neighborhood to keep an eye on the family.
Stephanie was taken in by her caretaker over the summer. Though the caretaker and her husband have several children of their own to support, they saw something that made them believe in Stephanie. She is good with their younger children and seemed to settle in to her new life of family movie nights and gatherings at the dinner table.
Stephanie’s biological mother agreed to give her custody of her daughter, the caretaker said, though the paperwork has not yet been filed.
Her biological mother appeared briefly at the hospital to visit her after the attack.
“She said ‘oh my baby, my baby!’ ’’ Stephanie recalls without a hint of emotion. “I never got any attention from my mom.’’
An aunt, related by marriage, has been at her side. And some of her other friends have messaged and called her.
“She has had a lot of friends wanting to come and support her, but we don’t trust anyone,’’ said her caretaker. “She is just not sure who is doing what. Never in her wildest dreams did she think her best friend would set her up.’’
Stephanie’s two friends had dinner at their home many times. But there was something about them, the caretaker said, that made her think that they were jealous of Stephanie’s new family life.
“I told her ‘those girls are not your friends.’ ’’
Dazed and wandering
along a dark highway
She wasn’t tied down, but their hands were pinched tightly around her wrists as if she was bound to the bed.
The two girls and two boys pinned her then held her legs apart.
“Why are you doing this?’’ she screamed.
Their laughing and cajoling was drowned out by the voice of her caretaker.
“These girls are not your friends, these girls are not your friends,’’’ she kept hearing in her head.
The rape lasted about 10 minutes.
“You can go now, but leave your sandals here,’’ the girls said, according to the police report.
She managed to get dressed, then stumbled barefoot outside into the predawn darkness. Her eyes were still burning. She could barely see. She was bloody. She wandered toward Federal Highway, where she ran into an acquaintance she had known from her days on the street. He took her to the closest place she knew, her grandmother’s house.
Somewhere along the way, she lost consciousness. She says she woke up in Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, where she stayed for three days.
Her physical injuries are quickly healing.
But she is plagued by sweating, panic and nightmares.
“I say to myself,’’ her caretaker said, “Do they not have a sister, do they not have a mother? What I say then is Don’t they have a soul?’’
Character, conscience and a lack thereof
By the time she entered South Broward this past fall, Stephanie had finally turned a corner.
“She was really doing great,’’ her caretaker said. “She entered her sophomore year with no credits at all, but was working hard, taking virtual classes and staying after school to make up work.’’
She had also broken up with her on-and-off-again boyfriend, but they remained friends, even after he began seeing her best friend. Just days before the attack, her best friend, a 15 year-old, approached her telling her she had missed them hanging together. The two had squabbled about the boyfriend a week or so before, and Stephanie said she was happy to reconcile.
“She was jealous, I think, because he was calling me. But she came to me later and said ‘hey, we’ve been friends since kindergarten. Let’s make up.’ ’’ Stephanie recalled.
Days later, the friend invited her to hang out at a friend’s house on McKinley Street.
“I never should have gone,’’ Stephanie said. “She set me up.’’
Experts say that children who go through trauma can become powerfully dependent on alienated peers who share their anger and distrust toward authority.
Dr. Larry Brendro, a noted psychologist and author of No Disposable Kids, said that if children, as they grow up, are not given a safe, loving environment, it disrupts normal brain development.
“Being raised by caring adults is essential to the development of character and conscience,’’ said Brendro, who has worked with at-risk children for four decades.
“If the bonds of a family are broken, then a child’s capacity to control emotions, particularly anger, is also disrupted.’’
Brendro suggests that the teenagers who assaulted Stephanie may have experienced similar traumatic childhoods. Often, those kind of kids have failed to develop empathy and self-control.
“If you deny them love, a sense of belonging, it creates an immense kind of rage.’’
Maria Schneider, Broward County’s chief juvenile prosecutor, has said the case is among the worst examples of cruelty she has seen during her 27-year career.
“I am very concerned for the victim, not only because of what she has suffered, but also for all the difficulty that lies ahead. It’s going to be very, very trying. I hope she has the courage to see it through.’’
Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to try the juveniles as adults. They will make their first court appearances on Nov. 20 and 21.
The video, seized by police, is so chilling, that hardened law enforcement officials have described it as making them ill.
Stephanie has taken down her Facebook page and is avoiding contact with all but a few people she still trusts.
She now knows she needs more than the bravado of her Facebook page to protect her from the violent, exploitative and hostile world she had been living in.
She breaks down in tears thinking about her two younger brothers, who are living with their grandmother. She dreams of becoming a pediatric nurse and being able to take care of her brothers. She worries about them.
Pappas and Brendro say that helping these kinds of children can be as simple as just one person — a teacher, a mentor, a minister — making them believe they are worth something.
“The people who have the most regular contact with these kids have a more profound ability to impact them than they realize,’’ Brendro said. “They don’t have to fix everything that is broken; all that kids need is one person to believe in them, and then they will believe in themselves.’’