Bystanders chose to record a horrific incident instead of reporting it last week when a woman was raped for about eight minutes and harassed for over 40 minutes on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) train. According to police officials, despite there being multiple passengers witnessing the incident, only one person chose to call 911 during the attack—an off-duty SEPTA employee.
“I’m appalled by those who did nothing to help this woman,” Timothy Bernhardt, the superintendent of the Upper Darby Township Police Department, said on Sunday. “Anybody that was on that train has to look in the mirror and ask why they didn’t intervene or why they didn’t do something.”
Philadelphia authorities have walked back the initial assertion that SEPTA passengers filmed the sexual assault.
The Daily Beast:
The Delaware County district attorney is challenging assertions made by authorities that straphangers recorded videos of a rape last week on a SEPTA train and failed to stop it or alert authorities.
Riders wouldn’t have been so “inhuman” as to record the attack on public transportation for their “own private enjoyment,” District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said.
According to Stollsteimer, the “narrative” about voyeuristic passengers who not only didn’t stop the rape but “took videos of it for their own gratification” was inaccurate.
“That is simply not true. It did not happen. We have security video from SEPTA that shows that is not the true narrative,” he said.
The off-duty employee’s call allowed Transit Police officers to arrive three minutes later, interrupt the assault, and arrest the alleged rapist, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. While the off-duty employee used quick thinking and reported the incident as soon as they saw it, the incident could have been stopped earlier had other passengers called instead of recording the incident.
“We want everyone to be angry, disgusted, and to join us in being resolute in keeping our system safe,” Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel III said Monday at a news conference. “We need the public to notify us when they see something that seems to be unusual.”
A man identified as Fiston Ngoy was charged in the incident. He faces charges of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, and related offenses.
He told police officials that he recognized the woman on the train and approached her to start a conversation which then led to a consensual sexual encounter. However, according to the affidavit of probable cause for his arrest, the victim did not know the man and repeatedly asked him to go away when he sat near her.
The entire incident including the violent sexual assault that followed was captured on SEPTA surveillance footage, giving investigators enough evidence to charge the perpetrator. “Throughout this time, the victim is obviously struggling with keeping him off of her,” investigators wrote in the affidavit.
According to Bernhardt, the footage also shows how fellow riders did nothing to help the woman being assaulted and instead recorded the incident on their phones. "It's disturbing," he told NBC News. "I'm shocked, I have no words for it. I just can't imagine seeing what you were seeing through your own eyes and seeing what this woman was going through that no one would step in and help her."
While surveillance footage does not include audio, it is clear that the passengers had an opportunity to intervene, Bernhardt said. According to Bernhardt, those who failed to intervene could be criminally charged if they recorded the attack, though pursuing those charges may be difficult as Pennsylvania does not have a good Samaritan law.
"As many as 10 people actually saw some part of the attack on this rider," Nestel said, according to Reuters. "We were watching to see if somebody put a phone up to their ear indicating they might be calling 911. Instead, what we saw was people holding their phone up as if they were recording or taking pictures,” Nestel said in regards to the security footage reviewed by authorities.
Andrew Busch, a spokesman for SEPTA, confirmed that several passengers were in the train car at the time of the incident, yet none intervened. On average the Market-Frankford line, on which the incident took place, carries about 90,000 people daily, he said.
“The onus is really on us as a collective because we can’t always rely on the police,” Alexis Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami, said, noting that many people do not intervene because they assume someone else will instead. “We have to rely on one another.”
By expecting someone else to help, “we’re basically washing our hands and absolving ourselves of that responsibility,” he continued. “We need a world where people are doing the right thing when you see someone assaulted.”
According to The New York Times, Ngoy is being held at the Delaware County Jail in lieu of $180,000 bail and he is awaiting an Oct. 25 preliminary hearing in Upper Darby.
In a statement, SEPTA called the incident a "horrendous criminal act” and encouraged people to speak up when they see violence occur.
"There were other people on the train who witnessed this horrific act, and it may have been stopped sooner if a rider called 911," SEPTA said in the statement.
In the U.S., a report following the #MeToo movement found that more than 77% of women had experienced verbal sexual harassment while at least 51% had been sexually touched without their permission.
It is not your fault if someone touches you in a way that’s not okay, or shows you something that makes you feel you are not safe. If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual harassment or assault, resources are available 24/7 at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization.
In a statement contradicting what police officials said Monday, Delaware County’s top prosecutor Jack Stollsteimer said Thursday that passengers did not sit around and record cellphone video of the rape. The statement follows claims by police officials including Upper Darby Police Department Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt, who said people watched the attack and took cellphone video without calling 911.
“There is a narrative out there that people sat there on the El train and watched this transpire and took videos of it for their own gratification,” Stollsteimer said using the nickname for the Market-Frankford line. “That is simply not true. It did not happen. We have security video from SEPTA that shows that is not the true narrative.”
Stollsteimer added that because people were on and off the train and observed different parts of the incident, it is possible they did not know what was happening.
“This is the El, guys. We’ve all ridden it. People get off and on at every single stop. That doesn’t mean when they get on and they see people interacting that they know a rape is occurring,” he said.
He noted that two people may have recorded the attack on their cell phones, one of which alerted authorities. He also added that the assault happened as the train was moving and that the train car in which it occurred “was not very crowded at all.”
Editor’s Note: This story and its headline has been updated to reflect challenges to the assertion that train riders filmed the sexual assault.