Belmont-Cragin sex assault suspect faced similar, dropped charges

The young woman from the Northwest Side had stopped paying attention to the news. Ever since last summer, she didn't want to hear it.
January 7, 2014 3:30:49 PM PST
The man charged with the sexual assault and attempted murder of a 15-year-old girl last month is no stranger to police and prosecutors: He was charged with another sex crime last summer.

The victim was found beaten in the back yard of a home in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood on the Northwest Side Dec. 17 in the 2400 block of North Long. The teenager remains hospitalized. She had been in a coma after undergoing several brain surgeries. Now, prosecutors say, she is relearning to feed herself and walk.

The honors student was walking to catch a bus to school early to work on a class project.

"The defendant grabbed the victim, struck her on the head with a blunt object and dragged her through a gangway," said Jennifer Gonzalez, Cook County State's Attorney Sex Crimes.

Charged is Luis Pantoja, 25. He's deaf and goes by the nickname "Silent." In court, he required the assistance of a sign-language interpreter as prosecutors provided graphic details of a young girl beaten, raped, then left to die.

"Chicago police officers arrived at 8:16 a.m. and found the victim awake but very lethargic, and appeared to be suffering from hypothermia. The victim's only words to the police officers were that she was on the way to school," said Gonzalez.

"I have two sisters who walk to school," said Guillermo Avila. "It makes me worry about my sisters."

Pantoja and the victim lived just blocks from each other. Adding extra anger in the Cragin neighborhood is the fact that last August, Pantoja was arrested and charged with the criminal sexual assault of a 24-year-old woman. She picked him out of a lineup. But weeks later, court records show, the judge tossed the case out, saying there was "no probable cause" a crime had been committed.

"I'd like to hear more why there was no evidence. The thing I read in the paper said the woman was saying she reported it and there was a rape kit and the judge dismisses it, and I just don't know why," said Tom Zanarini.

Prosecutors say in the case of the rape of the 15-year-old, they have DNA from a condom left at the scene, plus bloody clothes and other items found in Pantoja's home. His bond is set at $2.5 million. Pantoja previously spent less than six years in prison for failure to report a fatal accident. That's how investigators had his DNA and what they used to link him to this case.

A Spanish-speaking woman from the Northwest Side said in court last summer she didn't fully understand English and asked for an interpreter while being questioned about her claim that she'd been raped by Pantoja.

The 24-year-old woman didn't make her request until well after her testimony in the preliminary hearing began - not until she was being cross-examined by a public defender representing Pantoja.

But there's no indication in a transcript obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times that an interpreter was called to help the woman complete her testimony, and the woman tripped over questions about a key part of the case - whether she wanted to have sex with Pantoja at his home.

When the hearing ended, Cook County Judge Laura M. Sullivan made a finding of no probable cause, effectively dismissing the criminal sexual assault charge Pantoja faced. He was released from Cook County Jail the same day, according to authorities.

The woman spoke, in Spanish, to the Sun-Times Monday and told a reporter she initially made a mistake while being questioned because of a language barrier.

"I wanted an interpreter but they didn't bring one," she said.

Pantoja's attorney had no objection to the woman's request for an interpreter during that Sept. 17 hearing, according to the transcript. The woman made the request while Pantoja's public defender questioned her about whether she had sex with Pantoja at his home.

The public defender told Judge Sullivan "you can get the interpreter." Instead, the judge asked the public defender to rephrase the question, and the hearing carried on.

The transcript does mention the presence of a sign-language interpreter.

Later, when the public defender finished, the woman clarified for the prosecutor that she did not, nor did she want to, have sex with Pantoja in his bedroom. She said she didn't understand the public defender's question.

Police reports indicate her alleged attack occurred about 1:30 a.m. Aug. 15. Those records accuse Pantoja of grabbing the 24-year-old woman by her arm, pulling her into an alley and raping her.

She described the alleged assault under direct examination and answered several of the lawyers' questions as if she understood. Other times she seemed to struggle. When Pantoja's lawyer asked if Pantoja ever choked her, the woman said, "What's that mean?"

The woman testified she originally met Pantoja on Aug. 12, when she was walking home in the area of Central and Diversey. She said Pantoja was on a bike and began trying to communicate with her using mouth movements and hand gestures.

On Aug. 15, she said, she saw Pantoja while she was walking from work to her aunt's home. She said she told him where she was going, and he told her he'd meet her later at a bus stop.

She later saw him near the bus stop, she said, and he persuaded her to go to his house. There, she said at least one of Pantoja's relatives was present. She said she went to Pantoja's room, where he used a laptop and tablet to communicate with her and show her pictures of his son.

The woman said Pantoja kept trying to kiss her, and eventually she kissed him, too. She said they hugged and laid down, but when Pantoja tried to take things further she said she got up and said it was getting late.

The woman said Pantoja insisted on taking her home on his bike. She said she agreed, but when he began taking her a strange route, she insisted he take her back.

She said Pantoja took her back to his home and tried to persuade her to go inside to get a sweater. She said she refused and began to walk away. She said Pantoja followed.

Then she said Pantoja began to hold her hand and led her into an alley. That's where she said the rape occurred. When it was over she said she lied and told him she was going home. Instead, she said she went to her aunt's home. She said her aunt took her to a police station, and detectives took her to a hospital.

Under cross-examination, according to the transcript, the woman conceded she went to Pantoja's home willingly and didn't yell for help when he kissed her.

When both sides rested, Sullivan made her finding of no probable cause.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.