TRENTON, N.J. — Rowan Tower has a bad reputation. Gangs walk the streets nearby, and police are a constant presence at the 15-story apartment building a stone's throw from the State House's golden dome.
A 13-year-old girl was killed last year in a drive-by shooting a block away, and not a single person stepped forward to help police identify the shooters. This week, though, the mothers, grandmothers and children who live in the tower saw crime there sink to a new depth.
The reported gang rape of a 7-year-old girl who police say was offered for sale by her 15-year-old stepsister to a group of grown men has shocked residents and put them in a quandary. If they identify the men responsible, they risk violent retaliation from the street gangs that stalk the neighborhood.
"We are mothers," said tenant Shawntel Abner. "If we aren't here, there is no one to watch our children. You are asking a lot of us. You are asking us to put our lives on the line."
Police said the rape unfolded this way:
The 15-year-old went to a party Sunday with some young men on the 13th floor of the building; her 7-year-old stepsister tagged along because she was worried about the older girl's safety.
The 15-year-old sold sex to men in the room, then took money to let them touch the younger girl. Touching turned to forcible sex as at least seven men raped the 7-year-old. The little girl then put her clothes on and left the apartment. That's when two women found her crying and took her home.
The 15-year-old has been charged with promoting prostitution, aggravated sexual assault and other crimes. Police have not released her name.
A 20-year-old man has been charged with having sex with the 15-year-old, but police don't know who might have raped the 7-year-old. Officials say, though, that someone in Rowan Tower does know, and they are urging, even threatening, neighbors to identify them.
"People absolutely know who these men are," Mayor Doug Palmer said Friday. "If you were there and didn't participate, you really need to come forward. If you don't come forward, then you are going to be charged like you participated."