Payback is hell when a Johnson County teenager crosses her girlfriends.

Tough Love 

Payback is hell when a Johnson County teenager crosses her girlfriends.

Jessica Brake returned to the Kansas City, Kansas, party house after receiving a phone call about the girl she'd left behind. "You need to come back and get Nicole (not her real name)," the caller said. "They're messing her up bad." As Jessica waited in the driveway, she glimpsed a stranger stumbling among a group of teenagers in the front yard.

"Who's that?" she asked one of the teenagers.

"That's Nicole."

A girl from the house covered Jessica's front passenger seat with trash bags to catch the victim's blood. Others shoved Nicole inside: "Get her out of here."

As they sped away, Jessica glanced at Nicole's blackened eyes. Dried blood covered the girl's face. What remained of her once-long hair was ragged and matted. She moaned that her head hurt; she had a gash on her scalp, caused when someone punched her nose with enough force to slam her head against a brick wall.

"I pulled over six times so she could throw up," recalls Jessica. Eventually, Nicole stopped moaning. She curled up on the seat, and Jessica couldn't rouse her. "I kept calling her name, but she didn't respond," Jessica says. "I started to cry. I thought she was dead."

The run-down rental house near Parallel Parkway had been a torture compound for several hours that night, Wednesday, September 20, 2000, as up to ten people, mostly teenagers, terrorized the sixteen-year-old girl in the basement and in the backyard.

"It was like a big show for everyone," Jessica says, recalling how teenage girls sprawled on the stairs and around the basement, whooping as Nicole was beaten and humiliated. "I left when they brought down the gun."

What the people in the basement did that night would shock and horrify their parents and leave police stunned, in part because all but one of the attackers were female. Some were good students and athletes. And some were the victim's friends.

That afternoon, Nicole had loaned some clothes to Jessica after letting the girl take a shower at her house after work. Nicole felt close to Jessica, eighteen, whom she'd met three years earlier while both were students at a Shawnee Mission school. They left Nicole's house around 5 p.m., ostensibly for a few hours of aimless cruising on a late-summer night.

Instead, Jessica -- with Nicole's clothes on her back -- drove to the house in Kansas City, Kansas. There, fulfilling a Judas pact with three angry women, Jessica delivered Nicole. The three young women at the house planned to confront Nicole, whom they suspected of stealing stereo equipment and CDs from one of their cars the previous night.

Stephanie Grimes, twenty, seemed to be the nucleus of the group. The stolen car stereo equipment was hers, a gift from Nicole. After their friendship ended, Nicole dated one of Stephanie's ex-boyfriends, and Stephanie's resentment toward Nicole festered into rage. Unfinished business remained between the two, so when Stephanie's car was burglarized, she contrived a scheme to confront Nicole.

The driver, Jessica, also held a grudge against Nicole for a similar reason: Nicole had dated a couple of Jessica's ex-boyfriends a year earlier.

But the driver had another motive: By tricking the alleged stereo thief and bringing her to the house, Jessica hoped to prove her friendship to Stephanie. Jessica and Stephanie were tight, but "everybody tried to take Stephanie's friendship away from me," Jessica says.

By the time the car pulled up to the house, Nicole had figured out where they were headed. As Stephanie, bent on revenge, ran from the house toward the car, Nicole sat paralyzed. One of Stephanie's friends from the house, eighteen-year-old Courtney Pendergraph, pulled Nicole from the car and began slapping her, trying to get her to admit stealing the stereo equipment and CDs. The other friend from the house, 21-year-old Dawn Black, rifled through Nicole's purse, where she found a check for $149. Jessica drove them to a grocery store, where they forced Nicole to cash the check, which would be split between Dawn and Stephanie.

The evening might have ended then. But a dangerous brew of relationships and retaliation was still simmering as the young women returned to the house. Stephanie had invited her new lover, seventeen-year-old Sara Vanhoozer, to join them at the house. Sara dragged Nicole from the car and pushed the girl toward the back yard with her hand gripping the back of the victim's neck. "I hear you don't like me!" Sara yelled.

The group, which by then had attracted two neighbor girls, thirteen and fourteen years old, followed Sara and her victim into the back yard. Two adults who had never met Nicole showed up unexpectedly. All stood and watched as Sara and Courtney punched Nicole repeatedly in the head and removed her jewelry, which they gave to Stephanie. Someone poured cooking oil on Nicole's long hair. Some took swings at her simply to impress the others.

Sara was sober, but Dawn and Courtney, who were the hostesses of this party, already had downed several beers. So had Stephanie, who encouraged Sara's attacks on Nicole. Courtney and Sara made Nicole remove her shoes and hand over her identification.

The melee attracted attention; neighbors yelled at the girls to take it inside. Sara picked up a dog leash from the grass and strung it around Nicole's neck. Then, with the drunken throng following close behind, Sara led the girl inside and down the steps.

As the punishment progressed, a partylike atmosphere developed. With music blasting throughout the house, revelers would go upstairs to drink for a while between trips downstairs to witness the torture method of the moment. Ten people surrounded the girl. Courtney and Dawn intended to extract a theft confession from Nicole, and Sara didn't mind hurting her lover's former friend.

Sara and Courtney beat Nicole with their fists and the leash for at least fifteen minutes. Then they ordered Nicole to stand in a corner. The girls whispered among themselves, devising new torments for their interrogation.

Sara later admitted to police that she forced Nicole to consume mustard and salad dressing, but she denied forcing the girl to drink large quantities of tequila and vodka. Stephanie, the one who started the humiliation, told police that the two hostesses, Courtney and Dawn, forced Nicole to gulp the alcohol. Courtney and Dawn would claim that Nicole asked for the alcohol and drank it of her own free will.

Dawn and Sara threatened to hit Nicole ten times for each drop of alcohol spilled, several witnesses told police. Other witnesses confirmed that Courtney and Sara hit Nicole with their fists, the leash, a belt and a two-by-four. Stephanie would admit to striking Nicole only once. The driver, Jessica, claims that the others forced her to hit Nicole and that when she finally slapped the girl, Dawn stepped in. "You're not doing it right," Dawn said, punching Nicole's nose so hard that blood splattered onto the victim's shirt, the floor and the wall. Jessica claims that she was afraid that if she helped Nicole, she would become the mob's next victim.

"Everybody was down there," says Jessica, who insists that she and Stephanie kept going upstairs because they were scared. Stephanie told police that she felt sorry for the victim and even took the girl upstairs to the bathroom once to get an aspirin for her pounding headache.

Yet according to her own statement to detectives, Stephanie performed a remarkably degrading act against the girl who'd given her the stereo equipment. In the room directly above Nicole, there was a hole in the floor. Once, while upstairs, Stephanie looked down at the frightened, bruised and bloodied girl and determined that Nicole had not yet been defiled enough. She crouched and peed into a plastic cup and dumped her warm urine onto Nicole's head and face.

Exactly what happened in the last hour is unclear, largely because the victim blacked out from alcohol and pain. And when seven from the group in the basement eventually were arrested -- Courtney, Stephanie, Jessica, Dawn, Sara, twenty-year-old Angela Hagberg and 22-year-old Jason Martin -- each cast the brunt of the blame on the others.

"Stephanie was always thinking about what to do to her next," recalls Angela. "And everybody else was just like, 'Go ahead.'"

As the drinking continued, the sickness of the humiliations escalated. The lone male, Jason, brought his own ingenuity to the torture. As the bleeding victim stood against a pole surrounded by her tormentors (some insist she was tied to the pole; others say she wasn't), someone tossed a few dog biscuits into a bucket. Jason urinated in the bucket, soaking the biscuits. These were shoved into Nicole's mouth until she swallowed them. Someone wrapped a towel around Nicole's head so she couldn't guess what they would do to her next. The victim -- nearly unconscious with pain -- stood bent at the waist, and Jason hit her so hard on her backside with the two-by-four that she vomited on the floor.

Each degrading act attempted to top the last. At one point, Dawn and Angela left to get more beer. When they returned, says Angela, one of Nicole's eyebrows had been shaved.

But that shaving was only a prelude to the evening's finale. At Stephanie's suggestion, Courtney snipped off a bit of the victim's hair. Then Jason, who had grown increasingly out of control, chopped and shaved Nicole's long hair until only half an inch remained.

At one point, Courtney brought a gun down to the basement and made Nicole count the bullets. If Nicole didn't count them loud enough, Courtney warned, Angela would hit her. But Nicole got smart with her, says Angela, who hauled off and punched the victim in the ribs.

"I left right after that," says Angela, when Stephanie "started whaling on" the victim. "I honestly didn't think it would go that far. I knew they weren't going to kill her. They were being stupid, but not that stupid."

Jessica claims that she dropped off the victim at 11 that night next door to the girl's home. "I love you, and I'm sorry for what happened," Jessica told Nicole. Then she drove away to leave her friend -- intoxicated, disoriented, bruised and beaten -- to fend for herself.

Jessica rushed back to Dawn and Courtney's house, where they and Stephanie wiped down the inside of the car with window cleaner. They enlisted a thirteen-year-old neighbor girl (who had been downstairs during the battering) in cleaning evidence from the basement. One girl later told police that she and the others washed Nicole's blood from the pole to which Nicole had been tied and then scrubbed the walls and floor. Hurriedly, one of the girls swept up the scattered tufts of the victim's once-beautiful hair.

Courtney buried the gun. She and Dawn disposed of the victim's blood-spattered clothes, along with some of their own. Jessica tossed Nicole's purse into a deserted field and burned most of her identification, Stephanie later told police. Then the four girls created alibis for themselves and for Sara, who had already gone home.

Jessica, they decided, had gotten into an argument with Nicole and dropped her off in Lawrence. Then Jessica and Stephanie had dined at Olive Garden and gone to a movie. Dawn and Courtney were supposed to have been in Missouri the entire evening, and Sara was out shopping and playing softball.

Nicole was discovered around 3 a.m. when she knocked on a stranger's door four blocks from home. Her shirt was gone, and so were her shoes. She wore only a bra and her pants, which had somehow gotten turned backward.

Nicole and her parents went to the hospital, then two days later reported the attack to police. Officers soon visited Washington High School, looking for Courtney and Sara. The principal phoned Dee Morris, Courtney's mother, who drove to Courtney's house and found her daughter, Stephanie and Dawn in the living room. Courtney and Morris went to the police station.

Morris and her daughter, who played softball and made good grades, had a close relationship, and Courtney had never been in trouble with the law. "I asked her on the way [to the police station] what happened, and she said she didn't do it," Morris recalls. "She was afraid to tell me." They were separated at the police station, and Courtney's alibi quickly unraveled as she spoke with investigators. "The detective told me Courtney had spilled her guts," Morris recalls. "He told me what she had admitted to and said she was a major player."

Morris asked to speak with Courtney for five minutes, but her daughter refused. "I was frantic, mad; she'd never seen me like that," says Morris. "She was crying in a room across the hall. She just looked at me and said, 'I'm sorry.' They took her away in handcuffs."

Morris accompanied police back to her daughter's house. As detectives searched the home, Jessica, Stephanie and Dawn sat all in a row, chain-smoking nervously on the couch.

The police arrested all three. Sara was already in custody, and a week later, Angela and Jason turned themselves in. But trying to get a straight story from the suspects was nearly impossible for detectives. The crimes Nicole recounted were so bizarre that police initially wondered whether the victim had mixed confabulation with fact. But her body bore physical proof. Three days after the attack, Nicole still had purple bruises around both eyes, a gash on the back of her head and bruises and welts along her arms, lower back and legs.

"Personally, we believe the victim is the only one telling the 100 percent truth," says Mike Vega, one of the detectives who investigated. "We did not find one area she was not honest about."

Courtney, Dawn, Jessica, Stephanie, Jason and Angela each were charged with one count of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated battery. For the coerced check-cashing, Courtney, Dawn and Stephanie were charged with aggravated robbery. Because Courtney had pulled the gun, aggravated assault was added to her charges. Bail was set at $250,000 each.

Sara Vanhoozer, seventeen, was released under house arrest while she awaited juvenile hearings. But one week later, she threatened a witness who had cooperated with police; again, she was arrested and released.

Rather than face a jury trial and up to twenty years in prison, all the defendants have pleaded guilty to reduced charges over the past few months: Stephanie and Jason pleaded guilty to one count of attempted kidnapping and one count of aggravated battery; Angela to one count of attempted kidnapping and one count of attempted aggravated assault; and Jessica to one count of attempted kidnapping and one count of aiding a felon. All received three years' probation and forty hours of community service.

Courtney and Dawn each pleaded guilty to one count of kidnapping, one count of robbery and one count of aggravated battery. They each were sentenced to 59 months in prison. Sara, whom the judge handled under juvenile-justice codes, awaits her March 27 sentencing.

As detectives pieced the crime together, one gruesome truth emerged: Everyone at the party seemed to revel in Nicole's degradation. The driving forces, say detectives, were alcohol, peer pressure and a "pack mentality," fueled as the teenagers fed off one another's anger. "In and of themselves," says Lieutenant John Cosgrove, "none of them would have done this stuff."

Indeed, nothing in any of the suspects' lives hinted at a propensity toward such violence. In a letter to the judge, Jessica's former English teacher described her as being "especially effective at expressing her ideas on paper ... an honest writer who was full of voice." As a high school drama student, Jessica volunteered as a puppeteer teaching elementary students about children's disabilities.

And in court, Sara's youth pastor described the girl as a childlike follower, often letting others take the lead. "She just wants to make everyone happy," he said.

A letter to the judge from Courtney's psychologist described the eighteen-year-old as "an extremely bright young woman who has always shown a great deal of independence and introspection" but also "has a quick temper that shows itself in verbal ways." Courtney's actions that night in September were not typical of her normal behavior, the therapist insisted.

At each hearing, Nicole and her parents sat silently as the attackers were praised and defended. Nicole's mom accepted the judge's invitation to speak only once -- when Jessica was sentenced. A lawyer had called Jessica's involvement "minimal."

"The reason this whole tragedy occurred was because Jessica drove her there and remained for quite some time, then drove her back and dropped her off to God knows where," said Nicole's mother. "I don't consider her involvement 'minimal.'"

The mothers of the accused also sat silently on courtroom benches, weeping as their daughters stood accused of one of the most vicious attacks that Kansas City, Kansas, police had ever investigated. "Since September, this has been like a nightmare," says Sara's mother. "The girl they describe, the things they say she did, that's not the daughter I know."

"My sincerest wish for the victim is that she can somehow get past this and it won't affect her forever," says Morris, Courtney's mother. "What is she going to have to live with the rest of her life, the memory of all that? I can only hope for my daughter that she has learned from all this and that she can still make something of her life."

Some people tell Morris she should detach herself from the situation and just walk away from Courtney. That will never happen, she says. "No matter what she did, she will always be my daughter. I will always be there for her."

Morris will never accept that others who joined Courtney in the attack received only probation, while her daughter will spend nearly five years in a penitentiary. "Only they know what they did, and they're the ones that will have to live with it," Morris says. "I hope they can sleep at night."

Detectives who investigated the crime have their own doubts about whether some were more culpable than others. Nicole's case was one of the most heinous they've ever worked because of the number of suspects, their methods and the length of time they tortured the victim. "They should have all gone to prison," says Vega. "But that's not my decision."

"The people on probation didn't walk out of this free," says Wyandotte County assistant district attorney Mike Russell. "All of them risk having to be brought back and going to prison if they violate their probation.

"This was a sick, horrific crime," Russell notes. "There was this gang mentality, and they're all culpable, but my feeling is that Courtney, Dawn and Sara were the most culpable." Jason, who shaved Nicole's head, beat her with a board and urinated on the dog biscuits she was forced to eat, "had a serious part in it but was not as culpable," says Russell.

Courtney was the only defendant to show any emotion at a plea hearing, sobbing uncontrollably as she turned to apologize to the victim and her family, and again as she was led from the courtroom in shackles. Still, the judge, who had heard the awful details at each defendant's hearing, was unmoved.

"I realize that young people do stupid things," the judge said in January at Courtney's sentencing. "But this was just plain meanness. The purpose of the crime was to humiliate the victim, and it was a mean and vicious act."

"I think it's messed up that me and Courtney are the only ones going to prison," says Dawn, who believes that anti-lesbian discrimination figured into her sentence. The oldest of the females, she sits in the Wyandotte County Jail, awaiting transfer to the Topeka Correctional Facility. "Everybody else that looks like females got off, but me and Courtney look like little boys, and we're the only ones going to prison."

Some of the girls' uncertainties about sexuality made their relations all the more volatile. Living together in the rented house, Courtney and Dawn were openly lesbian, but it wasn't an easy existence. Courtney's mother had removed her from one high school after classmates scrawled hateful words on her locker. Later, Courtney had trouble at another school over her sexual orientation.

Stephanie, who had lived at the house for a few weeks over the summer, seemed unsure of her sexual orientation. She had dated several men, but at one point, she was with Courtney. Then Stephanie was with Dawn. Eventually, she was attracted to Nicole, and at the time of the basement attack, she was involved with Sara.

A cousin who has served as an older mentor to Sara since the girl was twelve spoke in court of a long walk they had taken a year earlier, during which Sara confided that she was gay. Sara's deeply religious parents found that fact difficult to accept, and a clinical social worker testified that familial conflicts over Sara's sexuality had contributed to previously unexpressed anger -- a rage that spilled out that night in the form of violence toward Nicole.

"Sara has a continuing conflict with her parents, particularly her father, over her sexual orientation," the social worker testified. In the basement of the house that night, Sara's anger "came to a head and poured out."

Courtney, who will spend nearly five years locked up at Topeka Correctional Facility, insists that she never intended for the situation to escalate to its sadistic extreme and that she tried to stop the torture after Jason started beating the victim.

"If I wasn't drunk and worried about getting my ass beat, I would have stopped it," says Courtney. "Half of the so-called witnesses are people who belong here with me. I can do five years for everybody else, but they know they're out on the street, and it's on their conscience."

Jason and Stephanie declined interviews with the Pitch.

Angela, who still insists she was hardly in the basement at all that night, says that during her jail time, she lay in her cell reading her Bible and praying that her codefendants would "find peace within themselves for what they'd done."

"If I could, I would go to [the victim] and tell her I'm sorry it happened," says Angela. "Nobody deserves that kind of punishment."

After Nicole's bruises had healed, the one remaining sign of the punishment was her chopped hair. She wore a hat to her tormentors' early hearings, but at the later sentencings, her hair had grown out enough to brush the top of her collar. With each courtroom confrontation, Nicole seemed more at ease facing the women who had abused her. Still, emotional wounds take longer to heal; neither Nicole nor the others will soon forget that traumatic night.

Jessica, who betrayed her friend and brought her to her enemies that September night, is haunted occasionally by a dream. She is in the basement once again, and everyone is there. People are drinking, and music blasts throughout the room. Teenage girls are sprawled on the stairs, laughing. But this time, they're all laughing at her.

Jessica is the one tied to the pole. Jessica is the one with urine-soaked clothes, being beaten with a wooden board. And Jessica is the one crying and begging them to stop. But nobody listens. Nobody stops.

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