MEDIA, Pa. (AP) — The narrative that passengers watched a man rape a woman on a train in suburban Philadelphia last week and “filmed it for their own gratification instead of calling the police” is false, the prosecutor handling the case said Thursday as he asked witnesses to come forward.
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer made the assertion during a news conference in which he also stressed any witness to the Oct. 13 attack should share information without fear that they would be charged. He said Wednesday that Pennsylvania law does not allow for the prosecution of someone for simply witnessing a crime.
The news conference comes after days of police and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority officials saying multiple passengers were present for the assault, with some appearing to hold their phones in the direction of the attack as police allege 35-year-old Fiston Ngoy raped the woman in a train seat.
Authorities initially expressed dismay that most passengers did not call 911 or report the attack, even if they didn’t understand the seriousness of what was happening.
Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt told reporters over the weekend there were passengers present who “should have done something,” in his opinion.
Nevertheless, “the narrative that there is a group of people callously filming and didn’t act, is simply not true,” Stollsteimer said Thursday in his plea for witnesses to come forward, adding that surveillance video shows two passengers holding phones up.
One of those people gave video to authorities as part of the investigation, he said.
Requests by The Associated Press for surveillance video from the Oct. 13 attack on the Market-Frankford line have been denied by SEPTA, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
In an arrest affidavit for Ngoy, police said he boarded the train shortly after the woman, quickly sitting next to her, and repeatedly tried to touch and grope her over the next almost 40 minutes. Investigators say surveillance video also shows the woman pushing Ngoy away several times.
Ngoy, who told police he had seen the woman before and that the sexual encounter was consensual, is charged with rape and several related offenses and is being held on $180,000 bail. The woman, who was taken to the hospital, said she had never met Ngoy and did not give him permission to touch her.
A public defender assigned to represent Ngoy declined to comment, saying it was still very early in the case. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III’s best estimate was there were about 10 passengers in the close vicinity of Ngoy and the woman during the rape, which started about 9:52 p.m. and ended when SEPTA police pulled Ngoy off of the woman about 10 p.m., authority spokesman Andrew Busch said Wednesday.
An off-duty SEPTA employee was one of those 10 people. That employee alerted SEPTA police because he believed something wasn’t right with the interaction, Busch said. He praised the employee’s actions, saying he likely prevented Ngoy from being able to walk off the train and escape arrest.
Three minutes after the employee reported the assault, SEPTA officers stationed at the 69th Street terminal responded to the train car and stopped it.
Both Busch and Stollsteimer stressed that the other passengers were not present for the entire 40-minute interaction and may not have understood they were witnessing a rape.
“People get off and on at every single stop,” Stollsteimer said. “That doesn’t mean when they get on and they see people interacting that they know a rape is occurring.”
Bernhardt also spoke at the news conference Thursday but stuck to information about a second arrest Wednesday night for a sexual assault at the 69th Street terminal.
Bernhardt said a woman had missed her stop and asked the suspect how to get to the platform to go in the opposite direction. As he showed her, Bernhardt said he groped the woman and pushed her into a secluded area.
A passenger on the platform heard her screams for help and intervened. SEPTA police ultimately stopped the attack and took the man into custody.