Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

What we know and don’t know about the SEPTA rape case

The crime attracted international attention, in part because of reports that bystanders failed to intervene and even filmed the attack without alerting police.

SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel III (left) and SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards held a news conference on Oct. 18 to discuss the rape of a passenger on the Market-Frankford Line days earlier.
SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel III (left) and SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards held a news conference on Oct. 18 to discuss the rape of a passenger on the Market-Frankford Line days earlier.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

A woman was raped on the Market-Frankford Line as the subway car was pulling into Upper Darby’s 69th Street station on Oct. 13, SEPTA Transit Police say. The crime attracted international attention, in part because of reports that bystanders failed to intervene and even filmed the attack without alerting police.

Here’s what is known about the incident, and what remains to be answered:

What we know

An off-duty SEPTA employee called 911 just before 10 p.m. on Oct. 13, according to police. The initial call came in as a man undressing on the train.

Within three minutes, a Transit Police officer boarded the train and discovered a rape in progress, authorities said. Fiston Ngoy, 35, was taken into custody and charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and related offenses.

The victim told police she got on the wrong train at the Frankford Transportation Center in Northeast Philadelphia after having a few beers after work. She said the next thing she remembered was the officer pulling Ngoy away from her. She didn’t know him, she told police, and never gave him permission to touch her.

» READ MORE: Delaware County DA: It is ‘simply not true’ that witnesses took cellphone videos of SEPTA train rape instead of calling police

Surveillance footage recorded inside the train shows the woman boarding the rail car at 9:15 p.m., and Ngoy getting on not long after. He sits down next to her and speaks with her, and touches her multiple times. Each time, she pushes him away, according to the affidavit of probable cause for his arrest.

“Throughout this time, the victim is obviously struggling with keeping him off of her,” investigators wrote in the affidavit.

At 9:52, Ngoy is seen raping the woman, and the assault lasts about six minutes, authorities said.

After his arrest, Ngoy told police he had seen the woman before, and that she had initiated the sexual encounter.

The controversy over bystanders

After the crime was reported, Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt said other people on the train failed to act.

“There was a lot of people in my opinion that should have intervened, somebody should have done something,” Bernhardt said. “It speaks to where we are in society and who would allow something like that to take place. So it’s troubling.”

SEPTA officials called the incident a “horrendous criminal act” and said: “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 Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel III told reporters at a news conference that the surveillance footage from the train showed people pointing their smartphones toward the rape, and that no one called 911, other than the SEPTA employee.

» READ MORE: Women’s groups and supporters call on SEPTA for safety measures after sexual assault on train

“I don’t want to, and I can’t, frankly, speculate as to what was on people’s minds. But from the video it does appear that people were holding their phones up, in the direction of what was happening,” he said.

On Oct. 21, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer called a news conference to push back on that narrative.

Stollsteimer said it was “simply not true” that passengers sat by and ignored a crime in progress.

“People in this region are not, in my experience, so inhuman and callous ... that they’re going to sit there and just watch this happen and videotape it — as one journalist said today — for their own private enjoyment,” Stollsteimer said.

In reality, he said, people were getting on and off the train continuously, and no one person sat and watched the entire encounter and realized what was happening.

Did anyone actually film the rape, as police initially said?

Yes, according to Stollsteimer. He said investigators have two videos of the attack: The surveillance footage from SEPTA and a cell phone video taken by a bystander.

It’s unclear if others recorded the assault and investigators have asked anyone with information about the case to call the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office at 610-891-4227.

» READ MORE: On the SEPTA rape case, we were too quick to believe the worst. As usual, there’s more to the story. | Jenice Armstrong

Will witnesses face any penalties for not reporting the rape?

No, according to Stollsteimer. There is no law in Pennsylvania that would support such a prosecution, he said, and his priority is speaking with witnesses to get a better understanding of what happened on the train.

What happens next?

Ngoy is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing in the case in Upper Darby on Nov. 8.

What is Ngoy’s criminal history?

Ngoy has been arrested several times before, including four years ago in Washington, D.C., when he was apprehended by police twice in two days, including for a sexual assault.

On Sept. 13, 2017, court records show, he was accused of walking into a Cuba Libre restaurant in Chinatown, harassing customers, drinking drinks off tables, and grabbing several people, including a server, before leaving. Police who responded found Ngoy — identified in the records as Jack Falcon — across the street and told him not to go back into the restaurant. A few moments later, as the officers were walking away, he grabbed someone else by the arm. Police arrested him and charged him with two counts of simple assault.

A day later, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, a woman told police she had encountered Ngoy on the street and he grabbed her buttocks and grazed her friend’s breast. He pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor sexual abuse.

» READ MORE: SEPTA rape case is latest in a U.S. pandemic of police lying. There must be consequences. | Will Bunch

That plea triggered an immigration investigation for Ngoy, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who authorities say came to the United States in 2012 on a student visa and stayed in the country after the visa expired. After his conviction, Ngoy was taken into immigrant detention. But in December 2018, records show, the Board of Immigration Appeals found that the sex offense was not a “serious crime,” and ruled that he should not be deported. He was released from custody.

At some point, he moved to the Philadelphia area, where he had multiple encounters with police and was cited for public drunkenness and defecating between train cars at the 69th Street station.

In January 2020, he was charged with simple assault and related offenses after police said he broke a SEPTA Transit Police officer’s finger during a scuffle. Officers said they stopped him because he was illegally selling SEPTA fares at the Market-Frankford Line’s 15th Street Station.

The resulting court case is listed as inactive, because neither Ngoy nor the officer he injured attended initial hearings in the case, according to Jane Roh, a spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner. A judge issued a bench warrant for Ngoy, which remains active, Roh said.

What we don’t know

What did the other passengers on the train do?

Police say there were few people on the train at the time of the rape. And only one, an off-duty SEPTA employee, called police, authorities said.

One person took cell phone video of the assault, but Stollsteimer said it’s unclear if the person did so to provide evidence to investigators.

» READ MORE: It’s time to untangle the inconsistencies in the SEPTA sexual assault case | Editorial

What does the video show?

Neither the surveillance video nor the cell phone footage has been released by SEPTA or Stollsteimer’s office because of the ongoing criminal investigation.

Why did police say people didn’t help the victim?

That is unclear. Bernhardt, the Upper Darby police superintendent, said after Stollsteimer’s news conference that he stood by his initial comments, but that his concern has shifted to identifying witnesses who might be able to assist in prosecuting Ngoy.

At his news conference, Stollsteimer blamed SEPTA officials — whom he did not name — for creating the misconception about the bystanders. A spokesperson for the transit agency declined to respond to those comments.

— Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.