SARATOGA, Calif. (AP) — Fifteen-year-old Audrie Pott passed out drunk at a friend’s house, woke up and concluded she had been sexually abused.
In the days that followed, she was shocked to see an explicit photo of herself circulating among her classmates along with emails and text messages about the episode. And she was horrified to discover that her attackers were three of her friends, her family’s lawyer says.
Eight days after the party, she hanged herself.
“She pieced together with emails and texts who had done this to her. They were her friends. Her friends!” said family attorney Robert Allard. “That was the worst”
On Thursday, sheriff’s officials arrested three 16-year-old boys on suspicion of sexual battery against Audrie, who committed suicide in September. Lawyers for the three, whose names have not been released because they are minors, released a statement Friday asking the public to withhold judgment until their clients can give their side of the story, the San Jose Mercury News reported.
“Much of what has been reported over the last several days is inaccurate. Most disturbing is the attempt to link (Audrie’s) suicide to the specific actions of these three boys,” the statement from San Jose attorneys Eric Geffon, Alan Lagod and Benjamin Williams reads. “We are hopeful that everyone understands that these boys, none of whom have ever been in trouble with the law, are to be regarded as innocent.”
The arrests and the details that came spilling out shocked many in this prosperous Silicon Valley suburb of 30,000. And together with two other episodes recently in the news — a suicide in Canada and a rape in Steubenville, Ohio — the case underscored the seeming callousness with which some young people use technology.
“The problem with digital technologies is they can expand the harm that people suffer greatly,” said Nancy Willard, an Oregon-based cyberbullying expert and creator of a prevention program for schools.
Allard said Audrie had been drinking at a sleepover at a friend’s house, passed out and “woke up to the worst nightmare imaginable.” She knew she had been assaulted, he said.
She soon found an abundance of material online about that night, including a picture.
“We are talking about a systematic distributing of a photo involving an intimate body part of hers,” Allard said. He said distributing the photo was “equally insidious as the assault.”
She also discovered that her attackers were three boys she considered friends — young men in whom she had confided, the lawyer said.
On Facebook, Audrie said the whole school knew what happened, and she complained that her life was ruined — “worst day ever,” Allard said.
Her parents did not learn about the assault until after her death, when Audrie’s friends approached them, Allard said.
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith told the Mercury News that investigators for her department started looking into the circumstances surrounding Audrie’s Sept. 10 suicide in the days immediately following it. A deputy assigned to Saratoga High heard rumors about the sexual assault and possible photographic evidence, and detectives spent months interviewing students and subpoenaing cell phone records, Smith said.
“We still have more interviews to do. We have more phones to get,” the sheriff said. “We have good evidence to justify the criminal charges even though the investigation is ongoing.”
Family members also believe the attackers tried to destroy evidence. That claim was posted on a Facebook page for a foundation set up in the girl’s name.
It didn’t provide further details on what type of evidence might have been targeted by the suspects. However, it asked any students with information to come forward.
In Canada, meanwhile, police said Friday they have received new information and are reopening their investigation in the case of 17-year-old suicide victim Rehtaeh Parsons.
Parsons was photographed while being sexually assaulted in 2011 and was then bullied after the photo was shared on the Web, authorities said. Police initially concluded there were no grounds to charge anyone.
In Steubenville, Ohio, two high school football players were convicted last month of raping a drunken 16-year-old girl in a crime that was recorded on cellphones by students and gossiped about online. The victim herself realized she had been attacked after seeing text messages, a photo of herself naked and a video that mocked her.
The suspects in the Saratoga case were booked into juvenile hall, where they still were being held on Friday.
The news surprised residents of the town.
“People in this town are involved, parents advocate for their kids to get the best education, the best teachers, the best sports,” said Jamie Perez, who was walking her baby and her dog on Friday past a coffee shop.
Perez graduated from the local school system, which has one of the top high schools in the state.
Family videos of Audrie show a bright, cheerful girl standing on a cantering horse, boogie boarding at the beach, playing her violin and singing.
Interviewed for her high school newspaper Saratoga Falcon when she started as a freshman in 2011, Audrie was optimistic and said she was looking forward to playing on the soccer team.
“I’m really excited to meet new people; there are a lot more people in high school than in middle school,” she said. “However, I’m not looking forward to all the extra homework. Another thing I’m really excited about is that in high school, the dances seem so much more fun.”
Allard, who hired two former San Jose police officers to investigate what happened, said Thursday’s arrests “reopened a wound” for the girl’s family members, and they have gone into seclusion. But they want to see the boys prosecuted as adults and action taken again those who passed the photo around. Her mother, father and step-mother have scheduled a Monday news conference where they plan to discuss how they found out about the attack.
“If anybody was involved in the ruthless forwarding of this information involving an intimate body part of her, we want to make sure they’re held accountable,” he said.