As Friday’s dropping of charges against a 17-year-old boy accused of raping a fellow student at Rockville High School reignited controversy over the incident, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett expressed his confidence in the investigation and displeasure with the political discourse that surrounded the case.
“I think people were quick to castigate all immigrants and stereotype them in a way that was unfair,” Leggett said Friday in a phone interview with Bethesda Beat. “The system worked. You have the charges and that’s beginning, not the end. The appropriate authorities—the State’s Attorney’s Office and police—did their investigative work to examine the case.”
On Friday, the county’s State’s Attorney John McCarthy said prosecutors were dropping rape charges against 17-year-old Jose Montano during a hearing in Montgomery County District Court. Montano and 18-year-old Henry Sanchez Milian are the two Central American immigrants who had been charged with raping a 14-year-old girl in a bathroom during school hours in March. Both had entered the country illegally last year.
Sanchez Milian’s attorney Andrew Jezic told Bethesda Beat on Friday that he expects the rape charge against his client to be dropped next week. Sanchez Milian is scheduled to appear for a hearing May 12 in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
The case drew national attention, spurring an outpouring of anti-immigrant sentiment, when details of the alleged attack emerged and the charges against the teens were first announced in mid-March. Fox News dedicated a significant amount of primetime coverage to the case, Gov. Larry Hogan pressed for more information about it and President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, addressed the alleged rape during a White House briefing. Spicer called the case “horrific” and said, “Part of the reason the president has made illegal immigration and [a] crackdown such a big deal is because of tragedies like this.”
During Friday’s hearing, McCarthy said the facts in the case didn’t support the charges filed against Montano. However, prosecutors are moving forward with a child pornography charge against Sanchez Milian because nude photos and an explicit video of the girl were found by police on his phone. Sanchez Milian’s attorney, Maria Mena, says the girl sent the photos and video to Montano, who then sent them to Sanchez Milian.
The results of Friday’s court hearing served to once again inflame the rhetoric surrounding the case, resulting in some backlash on social media against the decision to drop the rape charge.
Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner joined Leggett in saying he believed law enforcement authorities acted appropriately.
“I have no reason to doubt that the State’s Attorney’s Office did a thorough analysis of the evidence in this case,” Berliner said. “That is their job.”
However, the dropping of the charge against Montano belied the police department’s initial confidence in the strength of their case against the teens. On March 22, Police Chief Tom Manger described the alleged attack as “brutal” and said he was “confident that we have a strong case.” In charging documents, police described a harrowing attack on the girl, in which she said she was pushed into the bathroom and forcibly raped by the teens, leaving behind blood.
On Friday, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked during a briefing about the dropped charge and whether the White House should retract Spicer’s earlier comments about the case.
“I think we’re always trying to protect the American people,” Sanders said. “Sean was speaking about what he knew at the time.”
She said that she had not spoken to Spicer on Friday because he is on Navy duty as a reservist at the Pentagon. When asked whether she thought that the rhetoric from White House officials may have caused people to jump to conclusions about immigrants, whether they’re law-abiding or not, Sanders responded, “not at all.”
“The president has been incredibly outspoken against crime in any form or fashion,” Sanders said. “This is a law-and-order president. He’s focused on law and order.”
Leggett, however, said the county suffered damage to its reputation as a result of the heated discourse surrounding the case, although he said it was repairable.
“That was unfortunate and people did an awful lot of things from a political and community standpoint that I think were not appropriate,” Leggett said. “That’s different from what the legal system did. Outside the legal system, people were very discriminatory. In many ways they stereotyped an entire community for the alleged acts of the individuals who were initially charged.”
Sanchez Milian and Montano are still enrolled as students, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith said Friday afternoon. The school system is legally required to accept students who are between the ages of 5 and 21, regardless of immigration status. If Sanchez Milian and Montano reenter the community, Smith said MCPS will continue their education. However, the students will not attend classes at Rockville High or in any other school building and will receive their education in an alternative setting, he said.
In a Friday morning statement released after the court hearing, Smith said school officials’ thoughts and prayers were with Rockville High, “particularly the female student who has been at the center of this.” His statement didn’t describe his sentiments toward Sanchez Milian and Montano.
In an interview later in the day, Smith noted the case is still moving through the judicial process.
“As they face these charges, I always want justice to be done. … And certainly, I want good things for all kids,” he said. “I think as a community and as a society we need to really all understand that when an allegation is made, that’s just the beginning of an investigation and not the end.”
The situation has also underscored the importance of conducting regular safety audits at county schools, he said.