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Liberty, Texas • A man who was a fugitive for nearly two weeks after fleeing his trial a day before being convicted in the repeated group sexual assault of an 11-year-old Southeast Texas girl was told by a judge Thursday that he would spend nearly the next century in prison.
Eric McGowen was formally sentenced to 99 years in prison without parole during a hearing in the same courtroom from which he had fled. He will now be transferred to the Texas prison system.
The 20-year-old did not say anything during the brief court hearing, and mostly looked at the floor. When asked by state District Judge Mark Morefield if there was any legal reason why the sentence shouldn't be imposed, McGowen appeared to mumble something to his attorney, Matthew Poston. Poston said his client objected to the sentence because it was "cruel and unusual."
McGowen was one of 20 men and boys who authorities say repeatedly sexually assaulted the girl on at least five occasions from mid-September through early December of 2010. He was the first defendant to stand trial in the case.
McGowen was dressed Thursday in a red jumpsuit, was handcuffed and had a chain around his waist and legs. He appeared to have dyed his hair while on the run, changing the color from its previous dark hue to a reddish brown. He also appeared to be unshaven.
He did not say anything to reporters as he held up a piece of paper over his face while being led out of the courthouse by officers and loaded into a police car in the pouring rain. Poston and prosecutor Joe Warren declined to comment after the hearing.
On Aug. 29, McGowen was on trial, but never came back to court after a break in testimony. McGowen had been free on bail at the time. He fled the same day the girl tearfully testified about the attacks in her hometown of Cleveland, about 45 miles northeast of Houston.
The trial, held in the nearby county seat of Liberty, went on without him and a jury the next day convicted him of aggravated sexual assault of a child and then sentenced him in absentia.
Authorities tracked McGowen down to an apartment in northeast Houston and arrested him Tuesday. Six law enforcement agencies had coordinated the search for him. McGowen was apparently caught by surprise, as he was sitting on a toilet when authorities entered the apartment and arrested him, officials said.
The investigation regarding individuals who might have helped McGowen elude authorities continues, officials said.
Before his trial, all six juveniles and two of the 14 adults charged had pleaded guilty. Since McGowen's conviction, four other adults have pleaded guilty and are set to be sentenced Sept. 21.
His disappearance was the latest twist in a case that divided the small town of Cleveland, both because of the horrific allegations and suggestions from some residents that the girl was partly responsible because of her appearance. Police began investigating after one of the girl's classmates told a teacher he saw video of her being sexually assaulted in an abandoned trailer.
Prosecutors' case against McGowen included a videotaped confession and testimony from nearly a dozen witnesses, including the girl, who is now 13. Poston did not present any witnesses or evidence.