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Prosecutors reject charges in Venice High sexual assault case

L.A. County prosecutors decline to file charges against 15 Venice High School in alleged sex crimes case

The students were led from Venice High School in handcuffs. Television trucks camped out in front of the school as police held a news conference about allegations of sex crimes. Parents were stunned. The superintendent called it a “painful moment” for the school.

But on Wednesday, two months after Los Angeles police announced their high-profile investigation, prosecutors said there was “insufficient evidence” to file charges against any of the 15 students who had been arrested.

Police and prosecutors declined to provide details about the case because it involved both juveniles and allegations of sex crimes. Legal experts acknowledged the difficulty in prosecuting those types of cases, but said the LAPD may have moved too quickly.

“This is a very embarrassing episode for the investigators,” said Dmitry Gorin, a defense attorney who once prosecuted sex crimes. “In high-profile cases like this, it is best for the police to coordinate with prosecutors and get them to review the allegations before making any arrests.”

LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said the department “stands by our decision to make arrests based on the information we had and circumstances at that time.”

Smith, a department spokesman, said the investigation began with a report about a series of sexual assaults that occurred at and around the school. He said the department acted “to ensure that we protected the victims and to prevent any possible further sexual assaults from occurring.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District said in a statement that it had completed an “administrative review” of the allegations. The district declined to say what actions, if any, were taken against the students, citing confidentiality rules.

The Oarsman, the school’s newspaper, reported last month that the boys no longer attended Venice High.

The case unfolded in mid-March, when school officials notified the LAPD about possible sex crimes involving students. Three days later, police arrested eight of the teenagers at the school. Part of the reason detectives moved so quickly, officials said at the time, was to prevent any other girls from becoming victims.

Police offered few details about the investigation, but said detectives were responding to allegations that dated to 2013, when a group of male teenagers worked together to pressure two female classmates into numerous sex acts. Police said most of the incidents occurred in the weeks leading up to the arrests.

The LAPD said some of the sexual encounters were coerced and others were consensual.

Sources familiar with the allegations told The Times that several boys were present during some of the sex acts and that they had threatened the girls with harm to their reputations if they did not comply.

During their investigation, detectives discovered at least one photo showing sex acts, according to law enforcement sources. One photo that appeared to show two teenagers engaged in a sex act had circulated on social media.

Smith said Wednesday that the LAPD had closed the investigation.

Leonard Levine, a veteran defense attorney in sex crimes cases, said unless investigators could prove there was a forcible act, it can be difficult to prosecute cases involving sexual encounters between teenagers who are near the legal age of consent.

“They’d have to prosecute every high school couple in America,” he said. “You are not going to criminalize sexual conduct of 16 and 17 year olds with each other.”

The allegations roiled the 2,000-student high school, causing district and school officials to convene a meeting to address parent concerns about safety. Students started their own social media campaign to combat the negative attention by promoting their school’s achievements.

Robin Rudisill, a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council whose daughter attends the school, said the episode upset some students.

“I know my daughter and her friends are particularly angry that this damaged the reputation of Venice High School,” she said. “This was in the news internationally.”

Christopher Recinos, 17, who attends the World Language Magnet School at Venice High, said he was surprised at the district attorney’s decision.

“I am thankful they were not charged,” he said. “Most all of them are good kids.”

David Kent, a 1979 graduate of Venice High with two boys in another magnet program at the school, said he believed the LAPD had overreacted.

“The police handled it very poorly,” he said. “The students saw the boys leaving in handcuffs.”

For more breaking crime news, follow @katemather and @lacrimes.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:34 p.m.: This post was updated throughout with additional reporting.

6:24 p.m.: This post was updated to include responses from the Los Angeles Unified School District and an LAPD spokesman.

This post was originally published at 4:19 p.m.

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