The ashen, slim, 22-year-old woman with dark brown curly hair stunned the jammed Bristol County Superior Court as she described in a soft, emotionless monotone the lurid events of that cold March night in New Bedford, Mass. a year ago. At about 9:30 p.m. she had gone out to get a pack of cigarettes, leaving her two young children at home with her boyfriend. Two local stores were closed, so she walked a block to Big Dan’s Tavern. She bought the cigarettes, then had a 7 & 7 highball with a woman at a table and chatted with two men shooting pool. The other woman left. After she put her glass on the bar, she walked toward the door to leave. Suddenly, she testified, a man in back of her grabbed the collar of her jacket while another tripped her and held her feet. They dragged her across the floor to the pool table, banging her head and hip against its side, and stripped off her jeans. “I could hear people laughing, cheering and yelling from near the bar,” the woman recalled in court. “My head was hanging off the edge of the pool table…. I was begging for help. I was pleading. I was screaming…. The man that was holding me down had grabbed me by the hair. The more I screamed, the tighter he pulled.” Then, reportedly, began a terrifying, 90-minute gang rape attack by six men. The woman could hear men laughing and shouting, “Do it! Do it!” Prosecutors later said they “cheered like it was a baseball game,” and a detective described the accused rapists as acting “like a pack of sharks on a feeding frenzy.” A bartender and three other men witnessed the rape, but two maintain they were threatened and afraid to call police.
After one alleged rapist stepped away to talk with his pals, the woman bolted over the other side of the pool table, fleeing into the street at about 12:30 a.m. wearing only an unzipped jacket and a sock. She flagged down three men in a passing pickup truck, who heard her screaming that she had been raped. Cut and bruised, the woman was so traumatized she threw her arms around the neck of passenger Daniel O’Neil and wouldn’t let go for at least five minutes.
But after regaining some composure, she didn’t react like many rape victims. Instead of feeling guilt and shame, she was furious—a far healthier response. Cursing her assailants, she was eager to go back inside later that night with the police to try to point them out.
Within days the woman’s ordeal became a national cause célèbre. Feminists saw the attack as a horrific example of sexual violence against women. Ethnic slurs against the old whaling town’s Portuguese community (more than 50 percent of New Bedford’s 98,000 population) mounted in virulence when it was revealed that the woman’s accused attackers were all Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. The trial that began two weeks ago in nearby Fall River, Mass. seemed certain to inflame the community once again.
All six defendants have pleaded innocent to charges of aggravated rape, which carries a maximum life sentence. They are Daniel C. Silvia, 27, a garment presser; Joseph Vieira, 27, a partner in a farm; Victor M. Raposo, 24, a fishcutter who in 1979 was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and assault with intent to commit murder in a gang fight, and three years later paid a $250 fine for indecent exposure in Leominster, Mass.; John M. Cordeiro, 24, a welder; Virgilio Medeiros, 24, a mold designer for yachts who had been arrested both for drunken driving and assault and battery; and Jose Medeiros (no relation), 24, a landscaper once charged with drunken driving and driving to endanger.
While the case unfolds inside the turn-of-the-century Victorian courthouse, it continues to be tried by the locals in their cafes, social clubs and colleges, and on the streets and waterfront of New Bedford, which boasts the largest fishing fleet in the East.
After the incident, local residents were outraged both by the reported gang rape and by the release on only $1,000 bail of the four original defendants—two others were later indicted as accessories for pinning the alleged victim down on the pool table. The New Bedford Women’s Center and the YWCA rallied mainstream support, forming the Coalition Against Sexist Violence. Shortly after the attack, the group staged an evening candlelight protest march that drew more than 2,500 men, women and children. Network television news programs showed scenes of the vigil to 50 million viewers.
The case also launched the women’s movement in the city. “It’s fair to say that if you called a meeting of feminists in New Bedford before the alleged rape, you would have been lucky to get five women,” notes activist Rita Moniz, an associate professor at Southeastern Massachusetts University. With the ground swell of new support, the women opened a local Rape Crisis Center, which in the past six months has counseled about 50 other victims. Another positive result of the case was the passage in Massachusetts of a witness law making it a misdemeanor carrying a $1,000 fine not to report a felony. Neighboring Rhode Island reacted even more strongly. Failure on the part of witnesses to report a sexual assault or an attempted attack is now a misdemeanor punishable by one year’s imprisonment or a fine of not more than $500, or both.
The most destructive fallout from Big Dan’s was the public airing of bigotry against the town’s hardworking and family-oriented Portuguese immigrants. “There were literally thousands of calls to radio station WBSM blaming the Portuguese and saying things like ‘They should all be put on a boat and shipped the hell out of here,’ ” remembers Alda Melo, 37, a substitute teacher. Many in the community are also angry about exaggerated media reports of the event. The original police report listed 12 to 15 men in the “cheering squad” at the bar. That led Glamour magazine, for example, to editorialize that “dozens…leered, cheered and yelled, ‘Go for it!’ ”
As the publicity and local pressure escalated, so did the defendants’ bail. It jumped to $50,000 for five of the defendants and $200,000 double surety for Daniel Silvia after he attempted to flee to the Azores five days after his arrest. Disturbed that the defendants—several of whom barely understand English—might not get a fair trial, members of the Portuguese community formed the Committee for Justice last June. The group raised $150,000 bail and continues to counsel the men.
Meanwhile, the victim remained in seclusion (her relatives live in the area), sending a message through a spokesman that she would “see this through not only for myself but for other women as well.” She reportedly underwent psychiatric counseling after the alleged incident and had trouble eating and sleeping, refusing tranquilizers because she was afraid of not hearing her children cry. “Taking care of her kids has gotten her mind off what happened,” says her attorney, Scott Charnas, 32, who has so far ignored offers for a book and film rights.” As the trial opened, the defense attacked the woman’s character, pointing out that she never wed the machinist she lives with, who fathered her children (now 2 and 4). She also admitted to defrauding the state welfare department for three years.
Many Portuguese immigrants, who complain bitterly about the ethnic slurs, have themselves besmirched the reputation of the alleged victim, herself of Portuguese descent. One vicious misconception is that she is a prostitute. Some local men condemn her for entering what one fisherman termed “that whorehouse,” even though it was for the first time. “I don’t think a clean woman would go into a place like that bar,” says Carlos Valente, a soccer coach at a social club. (When questioned, however, other neighborhood women say they also were unaware of the tavern’s bad reputation.)
The tragic case has devastated the families of the defendants—working people who for the most part don’t speak English well or understand the legal labyrinth. Daniel Silvia’s mother, Maria, a stitcher in a textile mill, endured her son’s eight-month imprisonment before the Committee for Justice met his bail. Her husband, Manuel, died of cancer while their son was jailed. “Silvia’s family is kind of poor,” says neighbor Aminda Cunha, a secretary. “His mother is always crying. She says, ‘It’s not my fault.’ ”
No matter the outcome of the trial, few in New Bedford will rejoice. “This is a sad case,” says Antonio Casimiro, 46, a baker on the Committee for Justice. “There will be no winners. If the guys are guilty, the girl has suffered tremendously. And they feel that their lives already are ruined forever.”