THE RAPE CASE IN BRENHAM ATTRACTED NATIONAL attention for all the wrong reasons. It appeared to be a predictable melodrama, shocking and familiar at the same time. There was the setting of the sweetest town in Texas, the home of Blue Bell Ice Cream. There were the high school villains masquerading as hometown heroes: three senior boys, including a star quarterback, Matt Kenjura, and a star baseball player, Matt McIntyre, all charged with aggravated sexual assault, a felony, for raping a thirteen-year-old girl at a graduation party last June. (A sixteen-year-old boy, who has not been charged, was also allegedly involved in the incident.) Finally, there was the victim, her identity protected according to tradition, who had been tragically taken advantage of and was now—also according to tradition—being run out of town for speaking out. “Anytime you have a gang rape, that’s of interest,” a tabloid TV producer who subscribed to this version of events told me.

It was not until a pivotal day last December that another, far more complicated version of the story began to emerge. The occasion was a hearing in the Washington County courthouse to dismiss charges against one of the boys, Bryce Pflughaupt, a pug-nosed, slick-haired kid who kibitzed confidently with his parents and his attorneys before court began. Nearby, under the soaring art deco ceiling, sat Matt Kenjura, a high school heartthrob out of central casting, his blond hair lank and his starched white shirt gleaming. Kenjura’s anxious parents were there too, along with those of Matt McIntyre, who grimly waited for the proceedings to begin. The first hint of a deviation from the script came when the victim, Sara Evans, dressed for a picnic in khakis and a sleeveless denim shirt, her hair in a jaunty ponytail, scooted out of the courtroom as the hearing began. (The names of the girl and her family have been changed.) As it turned out, that was a good thing: She exited just before Pflughaupt’s attorney Jim James launched an attack on her character that would have made TV movie producers tear up their contracts.

Adopting a thespian’s stance, James began reading from notes Sara Evans had written to her close friends. “I had another dream where I f—ed M and M and M.K. separately,” he read in a monotone that in no way diminished the impact of the notes, which referenced both Kenjura and McIntyre as well as his client. “I remember that I was at the country club with M.K. and he was a lifeguard and I had just got done swimming and went to take a shower and it wouldn’t turn on and the water wouldn’t come out. So I had to get M.K. and he came and helped me and we f—ed.” After reading several more letters that reduced to rubble the image of a helpless thirteen-year-old victim (“I am going to f— who I want…and no one can stop me”), James called a series of anti—character witnesses from the high school.

Before court had begun, these kids had been sitting in the back, laughing and flipping through Mademoiselle (“Real Men Talk About Love, Sex, Dating, Their Egos & Why They Dump Great Women”). They were all white, all attractive, all neatly groomed, and in what would become a theme of the case, mostly present without parental supervision. They approached the stand and trashed Sara Evans’ reputation with gusto—making statements she would later hotly contest. She had never been trustworthy, one senior girl insisted. She had a list of boys she intended to sleep with, another testified. She wanted to extract $10,000 from each of the accused boys’ families, another swore. From the body language of Charles Sebesta, Washington County’s lean, loquacious prosecutor, you could sense a case going all to hell.

But more important, the hearing that day provided a startling glimpse of a lot more than the sexual fantasies of a thirteen-year-old girl. Something was going on in Brenham, something that revealed the true and darkest heart of this case. In that courtroom, sex was on parade. There was, for instance, the handsome young senior, another boy with his dark hair slicked off his face, who was not involved in the incident but nevertheless came with his own lawyer. Asked if he too had had sex with Sara Evans on the night in question, he took the Fifth. There was the eighth grader Sara had exchanged notes with, none too convincingly insisting that while Sara had used obscenities, she herself had not. (The courtroom that day was filled with teen witness after teen witness suddenly grown prudish, describing sexual intercourse as “effing.”) There was, finally, yet another ludicrously handsome senior who was pressed to admit that he had been guilty of inappropriate behavior at another party with another girl. “Did y’all do something against her wishes?” the district attorney asked. “I don’t think so,” the boy replied, as if the idea had never occurred to him.

Indeed, if you listened carefully to the testimony that day, it was clear that this story had little to do with small town life or high school sports stars or ravaged virgins or loss of virtue. This tragedy had more to do with a loss of values, with the effects of mass culture, the shift of what had once been considered abnormal behavior toward something rapidly approaching the norm—in Brenham and in so many places around Texas and beyond. It was as if some insidious Pied Piper of downwardly defined deviancy had come to steal the children while their parents—and all the other adults responsible for them—had been fast, fast asleep.

“MOMMY, WHAT’S SEX?” MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD SON, Sam, asked me a few months ago while we were driving to the grocery store. I looked into his eyes, which, magnified by his glasses, made him look even more wide-eyed, and saw no trace of guile.

“Why do you want to know?” I asked.

“Priscilla says she wants to have sex with me,” he said. Priscilla was a friend of his from the playground.

“What does Priscilla say sex is?” I asked, trying to remain both neutral and hopeful.

“It’s when you take off all your clothes and kiss each other all over.” I mumbled something about sex being a good thing but a grown-up thing—not the playground subject it had already become—while I wrestled with a profound sense of disappointment. Why couldn’t my son live just a few more years without having to confront the issue of sex? But just as quickly, I realized that the culture made that impossible. No matter how hard I tried to protect him, sexual experimentation was going to begin at a younger and younger age. This fact was made even clearer to me a few weeks later, when I took a friend’s eight-year-old son to the movies; I had to interrupt him before he could finish telling Sam, who was grinning uncomprehendingly, a dirty joke involving sexual intercourse. The boundaries of appropriate behavior, I sensed, had expanded exponentially.

So, as it turned out, I went to Brenham not just as a reporter but also as a parent. It was my generation, of course, who had believed in the liberating power of sex and thought that seeing it all and doing it all would produce nothing but benefits for society. We are the ones who created the sexualized culture that now permeates so much of America—the world of sex available constantly on cable TV, in magazines, movies, videos, and on the Internet—and now we are the ones who are discovering that our actions have had consequences we never imagined. Brenham, so superficially benign—so religious, homogeneous, and deeply rooted—might seem an odd place to witness this devolution, but I felt that if such a world had taken hold here, then there really was no place to run. What was it like, I wondered, when the bills came due? In the words of district attorney Charles Sebesta, this was “a story with no winners”—for the people of Brenham or anywhere else.

“WE’RE REALLY KNOWN FOR BLUE BELL, baseball, and bluebonnets,” one resident said to me, bemoaning the devastation this case has brought to his hometown. “We don’t want to be known for rape—we’ll let Houston be known for that.” Indeed, Brenham is one of the prettiest and friendliest of all Texas towns, with rolling hills, lovingly restored turn-of-the-century bed and breakfasts, a central square full of antiques shops, and near the outskirts of town, an 89-year-old ice cream factory. The names of many of the businesses are still those of the original German settlers from four or five generations back. The town has no mall. It is populated by families who are proud that they have never left and escapees from the city who also feel blessed to be there. Nestled in a bucolic area between Austin and Houston, Brenham seems to hold out the promise of a gentle life, a wonderful place to raise kids. “I guess people have the idea that nothing happens here,” says Washington County sheriff’s investigator Billy Ruemke, who, with an office full of recovered stolen merchandise that includes high-powered rifles and handguns, knows otherwise.

What Brenham has become, perhaps without its citizens’ even noticing, is something entirely different from the romantic small town of memory. It is less a rural community than a suburb. Many of its residents work in Houston, and many of the amenities available in Houston are now available in Brenham: the same movies, the same videos, the same cable channels, the same magazines. The social ills that afflict big cities afflict Brenham too: divorce, child abuse, crime. A once-pristine statue of a white horse near a ranch gate on the outskirts of town has been defiled with graffiti, a near perfect symbol for the passage from rural past to urban present. And sometimes, what’s left of the small-town isolation can make the social problems worse. Drinking is a way of life in this German community: In 1995 and again in 1996, the joy of high school graduation was muted by mourning as the town lost a child to an alcohol-related accident. But Brenham’s parents looked the other way and held their collective breath. Just like big-city parents.

“I DIDN’T WANT TO ACCEPT that it had happened,” Sara Evans said from a chair on the back porch of her home last December, in a soft, lilting voice that belied her X-rated prose. “I about blamed myself because I had been drinking. But I was thirteen, and these guys should have had more common sense.” Looking at this unusually calm child in her ponytail and hip clunky shoes, it was almost impossible to think of her as only fourteen; she was physically mature, her style and manner were those of a much older girl, and here we sat, discussing a very grown-up thing. Only the frequent trips to the refrigerator for Snickers bars, which she devoured defiantly in front of her mother, revealed her anxiety. Sara didn’t resemble at all the scheming vixen described at the hearing; rather, she seemed utterly dependent on prevailing winds to tell her which way to move.

Anyone with some distance from the facts of this case could see that Sara was a social casualty long before she arrived at the graduation party last June. Brenham had been home to her mother’s family for several generations; Susan Evans’ father, Anson, was well regarded there. But Susan’s talents in sales had few applications in a small town, and she moved to Houston to work. At 24 she married a man named Frank Wade, who left her soon after Sara was born, giving up all parental rights. There followed for Sara the kind of life increasingly common in America: She was raised by a well-meaning, overburdened single parent. Later, after opportunity took Susan to Dallas, she married a man who adored Sara until Susan gave birth to his own daughter. Sara grew up hungry, no doubt, for male attention while being clueless as to its proper form. She was athletic and pretty; not surprisingly, she was drawn to modeling, big-city work that can result in big-time attention. (Sara’s goal, written on the application form for a modeling school, was “to be more confident in myself. I wasn’t sure in trying out for cheerleader but to make myself more confident I did.”) But in August 1995 Susan, now divorced, moved the family back home to Brenham in search of a simpler life. For Sara, the move would be a difficult new beginning.

On the night of June 28, she had gone to the graduation party at a place called Bilski’s Camphouse with a senior boy and his father, but they had to leave early. They allowed Sara to stay on after she assured them that she had called her mother and had found another ride home from the party. She had one drink and then another—the adults responsible for the party left or looked the other way as the kids started bringing out Jell-O shots and a watermelon soaked in 190 proof Everclear. The next thing Sara knew, her fantasies were coming true, though not quite as she had imagined: She found herself in Bryce Pflughaupt’s Ford Explorer, headed for the country club golf course with the four boys. “I asked them where we were going,” Sara told me, “and they told me just lay back and don’t worry.” She remembered sitting on the grass later. “And,” she said, “I remember them laughing.”

”I JUST REALLY SEE THIS CASE AS ILLUSTRATING a moral and spiritual failure on the part of our society,” Scot Stolz, a youth minister at Brenham’s First Baptist church, told me. “This one happens to be one that everyone knows about, but I don’t think it’s unique to this community.” So he was not entirely surprised when, at church camp last July, his wife told him that Sara Evans had something she needed to talk about. Stolz had grown up in Brenham and believed that parents these days, in Brenham as in big cities, were unable or unwilling to provide boundaries for their children. The result had been a growing tide of sexual confusion that his church’s True Love Waits program could do little about. Too often, the kids were already damaged by their experiences by the time they arrived on his doorstep.

And now here was another one. Stolz didn’t know Sara well—she was new to the community—but her mother had warned him that something had been wrong with Sara ever since she had come home from a party a few nights before. She had been anxious and evasive, spending long periods in her room. (Stolz revealed Sara’s confidences with her permission and that of her mother.) In front of Stolz, Sara stammered through an account of that night: She told the minister that she had been a virgin, she had been drinking, she had had sex with some boys, and she had not enjoyed it. Stolz tried to provide some comfort while also trying to figure out what, exactly, had occurred. Gently, he persuaded Sara to tell her mother what had happened. Then he called Susan and asked her to come to the Lake Travis camp the next morning. At that meeting Susan hugged her daughter and cried with her and then allowed her to stay on at camp as she had requested. Sara felt safe there. During share night on the last evening, she stood before her friends and took responsibility for her drinking at the party. She did not say she had had sex. She said only that she regretted her behavior and warned others to learn from her experience. Sara was young enough and optimistic enough to think that her hard times were over.

In fact, of course, they were just beginning. Within days of returning home from camp, Sara’s answering machine was filled with obscene messages, mostly from girls in the senior class. “Are you pregnant, Sara?” “Who’s the father?” Kids drove by the Evans house and shouted obscenities; they came at night and wrapped the place in toilet paper and planted hundreds of plastic forks in the ground, a bit of vandalism that is hell on a lawn mower and might have been of interest to Sigmund Freud.

The girls Sara had confided in at camp—and the boys in town—had started talking. It wasn’t long before most of Brenham knew something had happened. Decades of feminist indoctrination—males are responsible for their actions, for example—counted for nothing in this case. In the eyes of the community, the boys were not at fault for what had happened; Sara was. With school about to start, Susan Evans was deeply concerned; her daughter was growing increasingly more withdrawn and depressed—she stayed in her room, repeatedly playing a Meat Loaf song about a girl who is raped. Susan decided to call Matt Kenjura. “Matt,” she said, “we’ve got a problem.” (Matt Kenjura disputes Susan Evans’ account. He says he went to her house of his own volition and apologized profusely.)

A week or so later, he came to her house at the end of his shift as a lifeguard at the country club, and Susan Evans, herself a former cheerleader, greeted him not as a criminal but as a high school hero. She even made him a sandwich.

What Susan wanted, simply, was for Matt to get the senior girls to leave her daughter alone. He said he would try. Then, sitting comfortably on the couch while Sara occupied a nearby chair, he began to fill in the blanks from the night Sara could not remember. He and Matt McIntyre were the only boys who had had sexual intercourse with Sara. One boy had called Sara a whore and joked about leaving her by the side of the road. Kenjura apologized for his behavior and that of his friends, but he was certain who had caused the problem. It was her fault, he said, indicating Sara. “She got us together.”

“Matt, was she intoxicated?” Susan asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Sara, is that right?” Susan asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

And then Susan asked the question that would be on any parent’s mind: Why? Why would any boys do something like this to a girl?

“Mrs. Evans,” he said, “I’m seventeen.”

“I’VE BEEN A PRINCIPAL AT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, middle school, junior high, high school, and I’ve been a superintendent,” Jon Forsythe, the principal of Brenham High School, told me, attempting to explain how values have declined. “Twenty years ago, if you found a note from a student, you wouldn’t read those things you read today. It is alarming. My job is not only to educate students but to teach good morals. But society itself has changed the kind of morals and values we have.”

A teacher at the school was even more critical. “Values? They have no values,” she said of her students, adding that trying to teach appropriate behavior to adolescents is likely to be demoralizing for adults. One teacher asked a class to agree or disagree with the statement “Any guy who hasn’t had sex by the time he’s seventeen is weird.” Overwhelmingly, the students agreed.

Their reaction to this case was that Sara Evans had to be punished. Indeed, Sara brought some of the abuse on herself. She developed a private and a public persona—suicidal at home, unrepentant at school—and she tried to draw even more attention to herself by telling friends that she might be pregnant. As anyone who knows kids would expect, the approach backfired.

But as the hazing intensified, it was hard to believe that Sara’s most vicious critics didn’t have another agenda. Sara may have been exceptional in the extent of her sexual preoccupations, but she was far from alone.  Sara’s junior high friends wrote notes to her in language just as offensive as hers. “Everyone thinks I f—ed Josh and now the whole school thinks I’m a whore,” wrote one. Sex seemed more a form of currency tied to power and social progress than a source of pleasure. “So when are you and Matt going to f—?” asked another friend. “I sure as hell hope soon.”

Indeed, a visitor would get the impression that there was a great deal of sex going on, but very little of it enjoyable. The senior girls who were so critical of Sara may have been ambivalent about sex, but they knew they did not want a freshman invading their territory. Her name was linked with Matt Kenjura’s in obscene graffiti; some kids tried to burn signs bearing her name at the homecoming bonfire. At one point a throng of students surrounded her and shouted encouragement to Bryce Pflughaupt to attack her physically. As far as the students were concerned, Sara’s sin wasn’t that she had violated some moral code; it was that she had let out the great secret that there was no moral code, and now not only their parents but the whole world knew it. The students I talked to sounded like beleaguered pros. “It’s been going on but not that bad,” one boy explained of rumors of sex involving multiple partners. “It usually happens with older girls, and they give consent.” “Yeah, we’ve had sex before, but not in a train or anything,” a senior girl told me, perfectly at ease with the street slang for group sex. I don’t think this is what my generation had in mind when we talked about the liberating power of sex.

”WHERE WERE THE PARENTS?” was a question I heard frequently while working on this story. People wanted to know why Susan Evans had let her daughter go to a party for much older kids. (Answer: She trusted the chaperone, and she trusted Brenham.) They wanted to know why the adults left the party. (Answer: That was the norm.) They wanted to know why the parents of the four boys didn’t punish them for their actions. (Answer: The boys’ parents know their children did wrong but do not feel the boys’ suffering fit their crime. The McIntyres, for instance, are devastated that Matt lost his baseball scholarship because of the incident.) In fact, the longer I talked to people in Brenham—the more time I spent with weeping parents who clearly loved their children—the harder it became to understand what went wrong.

Once the crisis arose, the parents’ first instinct was to protect their children. “I have not raised three children without teaching them to be respectful of others,” Pat McIntyre, Matt’s mother, told me. “He’s not guilty of what they said.” That her son could be both respectful and lustily participate in group sex—and even, according to court documents in this case, have sex with the same girl eight days later—was typical of the psychic somersaults required of the parents directly involved in this case: They had to believe they had raised good kids, and that Sara Evans had brought something to town that had not been there before. Only Matt Kenjura’s mother, Cynthia Robinson, seemed willing to sneak up on the truth. “Their whole life is sex, from the time our kids wake up in the morning to before they go to bed at night,” she said. “It’s on TV twenty-four hours a day, it’s in Ladies’ Home Journal. You want to know how to have an orgasm, you can read it right there,” she said. “This is the nineties, and any parent who doesn’t face reality is crazy.” But of course, they hadn’t faced reality, and now they had to save their sons from an unimaginable fate: If this case went to court, the boys could face prison terms and might have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.

The parents of the boys were prominent in town but also people of modest means and modest ambitions—Atwood Kenjura’s homey pharmacy, with its authentic soda fountain and thinly stocked shelves, seems decades removed from a big-city Walgreens. Because they were longtime residents, and because Brenham is a small town where everybody knows everybody else, it seemed as if they could settle the incident among themselves. Matt McIntyre’s father, Dee, for example, didn’t learn of his son’s involvement until August, when he got a call from Anson Evans, Susan’s father, who said, “This is really serious. This is about rape.” It was the first time that word had been used, and Dee McIntyre didn’t flinch. He knew his kid—“It didn’t happen like that,” Matt had told him—and Dee took him at his word. Later that night he attended a meeting at Susan Evans’ house with his wife, Atwood Kenjura, and Kenjura’s ex-wife, Cynthia. The meeting was cordial if awkward, with all the parents in agreement that nothing would be served by going to the sheriff and pressing charges. Again, the Evanses wanted only one thing: that the harassment of Sara should stop. Cynthia Robinson agreed to hold a meeting with the parents of the girls who were most responsible.

But even as the parents looked for an amicable solution, trouble arrived in the form of Frank Wade, Susan’s first husband and Sara’s father. Sara had told her friends that if the harassment did not stop, she would call her father. This might have been a meaningless threat to everyone but the girl who made it: Frank Wade is a tall, imposing Vietnam veteran who is at home in the worlds of high-stakes gambling and Central American intelligence operations. If his participation in Sara’s life up to that point had been minimal, her call had offered him a shot at redemption. Barred from the parents’ meeting, Wade went to Brenham the next morning and met with law officers.

Several days later, the district attorney’s office met with Susan and her daughter, and Sara gave a statement. Now that the authorities were involved, what had been a parental problem became a legal problem. If Sara wanted to say simply that she “had been taken advantage of,” if Susan did not want anyone to go to prison, if the parents of the boys wanted to help pay for Sara’s counseling, it mattered not at all. Under the laws of the state of Texas, Sara Evans had been raped, whether she had given her consent or not. It was illegal for a seventeen-year-old boy to have sex with a girl younger than fourteen, even if she, in the words of one person close to the case, “jumped up and down, took off her shirt, and begged for it.” A thirteen-year-old girl cannot give consent. Case closed.

The law-enforcement officers took their findings to Charles Sebesta. Though only Kenjura and McIntyre had had sex with Sara, Sebesta wanted all three seventeen-year-olds indicted for aggravated sexual assault. The grand jury obliged on September 5. Soon after that, the boys were placed in alternative-education classes at another school, according to state law, and banned from all sports. Now the school was forced to look at its students in a new way. Concerned about rumors of senior boys involved in a Young Male Whores Club—a Brenham version of Lakewood, California’s predatory Spur Posse—school officials consulted the president of the school board about their liability.

Brenham’s parents, too, began to look hard at the children living in their midst. Adults on both sides of the case began frantically collecting rumors, class notes (one of Sara’s close friends gave the now-infamous letters to the defense), and high school yearbooks. “I didn’t know my daughter wrote stuff like this,” Susan Evans confessed. “If you knew these kids, you’d never believe they wrote such smut.” The parents of the boys seemed confounded by the inflexibility of the statutory rape law: “This is a whole world that has never been actively addressed,” Cynthia Robinson said.

As time passed and the two sides polarized, all the parents continued to pay lip service to the notion that there was fault on all sides. But often they did things that sent the message that the incident wasn’t their children’s fault. Susan Evans, for instance, plunged Sara headlong into the world of victimology. She enlisted the aid of victims rights groups like Justice for All and the Bryan rape crisis center, whose staffers went before the press and helped shape the story along conventional lines. High-priced lawyers were brought in to help the boys (Matt Kenjura was represented by famed Houston criminal attorney Dick DeGuerin), and Kenjura and Pflughaupt were sent on a Cayman Islands vacation to escape the pressure. Bewildered and angry, Atwood Kenjura wore his son’s jersey to the homecoming game and borrowed a trailer so that Matt could sit on top and watch the proceedings from afar. They would do anything, now, to save their kids.

”LET ME ASK YOU, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?” the district attorney of Washington County asked me on more than one occasion during the course of this case—which by the end of 1996 had threatened to destroy everyone in its path. Charles Sebesta had been the district attorney for more than twenty years, and until this case had come along, he had been confident of his ability to tackle any dispute and find a just solution for the community at large, the mandate of any district attorney. “I took this thing and literally ran with it,” Sebesta said—until Sara Evans’ letters debuted and a winnable case went due south. If the letters had been introduced to the grand jury, he believed, no indictments would have been returned. The O. J. Simpson trial had proved that juries sometimes make decisions in spite of, rather than because of, the law, and he believed Sara’s letters might demonstrate consent, which would put him on the losing side in a trial. “When you deal with juries, they expect a victim to have clean hands in the same manner they expect a defendant to have dirty hands,” Sebesta explained. “When both the victim and the defendant have dirty hands, that jury is gonna look at a case in a different light.” In other words, law or no law, Sara Evans didn’t have much of a chance.

As the months dragged on, in fact, only one thing became clear: If ever there was a case that should have been kept out of the criminal justice system, it was this one. As if the case wasn’t ambiguous enough, the day after the party was Sara’s fourteenth birthday. The law said that if Sara had sex with the boys at 11:59 p.m., she was incompetent to make her own decisions and the boys were child molesters; if she had sex at 12: 01 a.m. with no evidence of force, well, maybe she got what she deserved. Such an absurd situation left the door open for more absurd behavior: Sensing that the community’s sympathy was shifting toward the boys, the defense lawyers adopted a scorched-earth policy, arguing that because sex had occurred “consensually,” the boys were blameless. In response, Sara’s parents demonized not only the boys but their parents and the district attorney. They took their case to the media, among other tactics spinning a conspiracy theory involving prominent families by trying to link Sebesta to Atwood Kenjura.

In spite of the bitterness on both sides, Sebesta had arranged a plea bargain with the two boys who actually had had intercourse with Sara—probation, a $1,000 fine, community service, and a letter of apology drafted by the DA—but that plan has been endangered since attorney Jim James brought the letters into court and put Sara on trial the old-fashioned way, dramatically swaying local attitudes. (Pflughaupt’s indictment has been set aside.) Facing dissatisfaction on all fronts, Sebesta withdrew in favor of a special prosecutor, who was appointed in January. It is possible a new grand jury will be called, and the case will start all over again. Meanwhile, Sebesta has cooled to the issues: “We’re looking at a situation that happens hundreds of times every Saturday night,” he told me in a confidential tone, without realizing that that was precisely the problem. I was tired of Brenham too. Tired of trying to assess blame, to identify a villain, to find a satisfying solution for all concerned—a misguided young girl who saw sex as a route to popularity and a group of boys who had behaved abominably but did not deserve to be treated like career criminals. Things had gone too far; it was too late for answers, and too late for justice.

Long lost in all the name calling and all the rancor was the fact that something had happened the night of June 28, something that may or may not have been illegal but that was surely wrong. The growing acceptance of the defense lawyers’ description of the events of that night as consensual sex had served to bring them into the realm of the norm, where—until recently at least—they certainly did not belong. Sara’s remorse and Matt Kenjura’s apology showed that they knew, on some level, that they had been involved in something inappropriate and ugly. Four older boys and one younger girl engaging in sexual activity was a recipe for disaster, and disaster had struck.

Leaving Brenham, I pictured the scene at the country club golf course. I imagined children grappling in the dark, children who might have liked a grown-up to step in before things went too far. But, of course, no one was there.