Citing the horrifying nature of the crime, Orange County prosecutors on Tuesday charged three Anaheim boys who allegedly took part in a July 3 attack at Black Star Canyon with more than 50 felony counts and announced they would try the defendants as adults.
The teenagers are accused of repeatedly raping two girls--ages 13 and 15--and beating their boyfriends ages 16 and 17--with a metal rod and a rock, fracturing one boy's skull. The girls were driven to an isolated area and dumped, leaving them to crawl naked through the scrub until they found help.
If convicted as adults, the boys--whose ages range from 15 to 17--would face maximum sentences of hundreds of years in prison.
Authorities last weekend arrested a total of five suspects, including two 19-year-old men who have not yet been charged.
Officials said details of the attack were so shocking that the district attorney's office decided that the juveniles deserved to be tried in adult court.
"It's a horrendous compilation of crimes," Senior Assistant Dist. Atty. Claudia Silbar said in a written statement. "It's absolutely horrifying what these victims went through."
Tori Richards, spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said the attack easily falls within the category of serious crimes that state law permits prosecutors to try defendants in adult court even if they're younger than 18.
"This is what the law was intended for--crimes like these," Richards said.
The teen suspects--Veruk Kim, 17, Jesus Rene Green, 16, and Phu Quoc Tran, 15--face charges ranging from kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon to kidnapping and rape.
The three boys were reared within a few blocks of each other in an enclave of working-class immigrants. Their families defended the teens on Tuesday, saying that each had recently fallen in with the wrong crowd.
Phu's mother, Maria Nguyen, said her son told her when she visited him at Juvenile Hall that he watched the attack but did not take part. He told her, she said, that he was terrified as events unfolded and didn't know what to do.
"I am going crazy," said Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant. "I can't sleep. I'm in shock. I can't believe he got involved with an evil and heinous crime."
Tran, she said, acted obedient and well-mannered at home, and devoted himself to study while at school. She proudly showed off a wall of awards won by the Katella High School 10th-grader, including a 1998 certificate signed by President Clinton for outstanding achievement.
It was in the neighborhood that Tran met Kim, a Cambodian immigrant who lived just a few doors down. The two shared a love of video games and basketball--and it was while playing hoops at a local park that Tran began associating with people she didn't approve of, the mother said.
"I watch him as carefully as I can," Nguyen said. "But when he goes to play basketball, I can't sit out there all day long."
Kim's mother, who declined to give her name, said she too blamed her son's friends for the trouble he is in.
"He has too many bad friends," she said, adding that she does not believe he was involved in the violence. "I am so sad."
Green's sister, Maria, said her brother is a good student at Loara High School and that he'd never been in trouble before.
"He was the type of guy who would stay home and listen to music," said Green, 19. "He'd go out and be back by 9."
Green's family befriended one of the adult suspects and his wife, and allowed the couple to live with them until recently when the couple separated, she added.
Prosecutors filed the charges late Tuesday after sheriff's investigators asked the victims to identify the juvenile suspects. Authorities declined to detail the outcome of the lineups.
Authorities said they expect to decide this week what charges they would seek against the adult suspects, Cuahutemoc Torres of Orange, and Erick Oswaldo Dominguez of Anaheim. Both were being held in the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana for alleged probation violations.
The five suspects are believed to be members or associates of Los Traviesos Krew--loosely translated as The Mischievous Ones--whose initials LTK were scrawled recently on a gate just yards from where the attack took place.
Torres and Dominguez, confessed to The Times this week that they and three friends attacked the teenage couples after vandalizing their car. They said it came after a night of drinking and drugs.
Dominguez's estranged wife, Liliana Rivera, expressed disbelief and anger at news of her husband's arrest. She said he was a caring, devoted father and husband.
"I can't believe that he'd rape a girl. It's not Erick," she said. "It makes me mad, because he has no right to do it. . . . It's very difficult for me to believe this."
The assault took place in the rugged hills just east of Orange.
The two teenage couples had driven into the canyon and taken a walk in search of a house that is considered haunted. When they returned to their car, they found the vehicle vandalized and were confronted by five teenagers.
Efforts to contact the victims and their families were unsuccessful Tuesday.
A judge will hear arguments today as to whether the three should be tried as adults.
Charging youths as adults has been the subject of much debate in legal circles in recent years. Proposition 21, approved by voters last year, made it easier for prosecutors to file such charges in serious cases.
When San Diego authorities charged as an adult the teen accused of opening fire at Santee High School this year, the boy's attorneys unsuccessfully tried to block the effort by arguing the move constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
Times Staff Writer Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.