MARTINEZ -- Almost three years after Manuel Ortega ripped a Richmond High School girl's clothes off, punched and kicked her in the head, sexually assaulted her and encouraged others to do the same outside a homecoming dance, the 22-year-old apologized Friday as he was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
Ortega pleaded guilty in September to four felonies -- rape in concert, rape by a foreign object in concert, forced oral copulation in concert resulting in great bodily injury and robbery -- in an agreement that spared a possible life sentence for Ortega, whom a prosecutor described as a "main participant" in the gang rape that made national headlines.
Five other men still face charges in the Oct. 24, 2009, attack on a 16-year-old girl that took place in a darkened courtyard on the Richmond campus.
"The victim obviously has gone through a horrible ordeal and while she remains willing to stand up for herself and she's willing to testify ... her testimony will be even more traumatic for her," senior deputy district attorney John Cope told Judge Barbara Zuniga on Friday, speaking on behalf of the victim, who was not present. "We believe this sentence ... is a balance between deterring this behavior and ... protecting the rights of the victim."
Outside court, Cope explained that the victim had sanctioned the plea deal.
Ortega, dressed in a gray sports coat and tan slacks and wearing glasses, answered questions from the court and attorneys in a soft voice as he sat watching the proceedings.
"If he could turn the clock back he would, but he can't, so the best he can do is ... plead guilty to spare the victim and his own family the stress of a trial," said Betty Barker, a deputy public defender. Outside court, she said Ortega's underage drinking, while not an excuse, played a "major part" in his involvement in the rape.
"He hopes other people learn from his drinking problem," she said.
After friends and family spoke on Ortega's behalf, Zuniga sentenced him to 32 years.
"This is what you did, sir," Zuniga said. "You can't describe what you did and I think you're finally understanding what you did."
The gang rape was a national story and angered many in the community.
"What struck a chord with the community was the horrific nature of the case," said Cynthia Peterson, director of the rape crisis center for San Pablo-based Community Violence Solutions, which provided education and support for the district after the rape. "So many people were involved and nobody stepped up to help this victim."
The high school girl was leaving the dance on campus when she began hanging out with a group of boys and men in a dark corner of the school courtyard. She became heavily intoxicated and was beaten, robbed and raped over a two-hour period while others watched, according to preliminary hearing testimony.
The community was particularly incensed that no one called police or tried to intervene. Eventually, police were dispatched to the scene by a young woman in the area who had heard of the attack through secondhand reports.
When officers arrived just before midnight, they found the partially nude and unconscious girl under a picnic table with a near-fatal blood-alcohol level of .355, a concussion, hypothermia, and brain and facial swelling. She also was covered with scrapes and bruises, according to preliminary hearing testimony.
Prosecutors called Ortega an instigator of the attack.
The charges to which he pleaded guilty are "a good indication of how he was not just a follower, he was a main participant," Cope said.
Following the rape, the West Contra Costa Unified School District spent about $2 million on campus security, adding lights, fencing, security cameras and other enhancements. Neighborhood walking patrols began surveying the school and chaperoning dances.
Also, legislation was introduced to require people to call police if they believe they witnessed a murder, rape, or lewd or lascivious act with a child under the age of 18.
The victim and her family have moved from Richmond, and the school district agreed in 2011 to pay her a $4 million civil settlement.
"She's doing as well as expected under the circumstances," Cope said.
The remaining five defendants are Ari Morales, 18, of San Pablo; Marcelles Peter, 20, of Pinole; and Richmond residents Elvis Torrentes, 24, Jose Montano, 21, and John Crane, 45. A judge dismissed charges against a seventh defendant, a classmate of the victim, at the preliminary hearing.
Morales, Peter, Montano and Crane face life in prison; Torrentes faces up to eight years. Hearings are set next week in their cases.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.