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

“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," said DA Jack Stollsteimer.

Delaware County district attorney Jack Stollsteimer during a press conference outside the Delaware County Courthouse on Thursday.  He faulted accounts of  Oct. 13 rape that took place as a El car approached the SEPTA 69th Street Station in Upper Darby.
Delaware County district attorney Jack Stollsteimer during a press conference outside the Delaware County Courthouse on Thursday. He faulted accounts of Oct. 13 rape that took place as a El car approached the SEPTA 69th Street Station in Upper Darby.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

The Delaware County district attorney said Thursday that it was “simply not true” that several SEPTA passengers last week took cellphone videos of a man raping a woman on the train instead of deciding to intervene or call police.

Responding to days of intense media coverage of the crime, Jack Stollsteimer, the county’s top prosecutor, said it was incorrect for public officials or news outlets to suggest that groups of bystanders on the train were “callously sitting there filming and didn’t act.”

That notion had initially been advanced in the days after the incident, when some police and SEPTA officials expressed frustration over the lack of bystander intervention and said that passengers had appeared to point their phones in the direction of the attack. The story quickly generated outrage and became national news, with some reports quoting frightened passengers appalled by the apparent apathy.

But Stollsteimer on Thursday called that “misinformation,” saying he wanted to “calm the community down.” Though he declined to blame police or specific SEPTA officials or news outlets for pushing a false narrative, he was visibly frustrated while speaking with reporters, saying he wanted to make sure the public did not have an incorrect impression of what took place on the train.

“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.

At the same news conference, however, the district attorney also revealed that prosecutors are in possession of a new video that was, in fact, shot by a passenger. Stollsteimer said he had yet to watch it and was unsure whether the footage included the actual assault.

The announcement was the latest twist in a crime that has generated widespread shock and even disgust. And it came as Stollsteimer also announced charges in another attempted sexual assault. That case, which happened at the 69th Street station Wednesday evening, was reported by a bystander, the DA said. And in a twist, the suspect was apprehended by the same officer who arrested Fiston Ngoy in last week’s alleged rape.

Still, Stollsteimer mainly focused on last week’s attack.

Speaking outside the Delaware County Courthouse, Stollsteimer reiterated that he would not seek to charge any witnesses because it’s not permitted by state law. And he added that it probably wouldn’t be appropriate anyway: Ngoy and the victim were seated next to each other for more than a half hour before the assault began, he said, and many passengers who entered and exited were likely unaware of what was happening during their encounter.

“This is the El, guys. We’ve all ridden it. People get off and on at every single stop,” he said. “That doesn’t mean when they get on and they see people interacting that they know a rape is occurring.”

He said he wanted to reassure members of the public that their neighbors hadn’t sat idly by as a woman was attacked. He drew explicit comparisons to Kitty Genovese, the woman stabbed to death in Queens in 1964. Reporters at the time said that nearly 40 people heard but ignored Genovese’s cries for help — a narrative that Stollsteimer pointed out was eventually debunked as an urban legend.

“The picture that people have gotten, that this crowd of people sitting there were filming and not doing anything, isn’t true,” Stollsteimer said.

Police said in the initial aftermath of the alleged rape that as the victim was being assaulted on a westbound train Oct. 13 around 10 p.m., the only person to call 911 was an off-duty SEPTA employee who happened to be on board.

Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt said Saturday: “There was a lot of people, in my opinion, that should have intervened. Somebody should have done something,” calling the lack of action by passengers “troubling.”

On Monday, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III said at a news conference: “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.”

SEPTA officials on Thursday declined to respond to Stollsteimer’s assertions that they may have been involved in advancing an incorrect version of events.

Bernhardt said he remained disappointed that no one else intervened but said his concern has shifted to identifying witnesses who might be able to assist in prosecuting Ngoy.

“We don’t want to scare any witnesses into not coming forward,” he said.

Ngoy, 35, was taken into custody by responding SEPTA officers after the train pulled into the 69th Street station in Upper Darby. He remains in custody on charges including rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and sexual assault.

Ngoy has been arrested several times before, including in Washington, D.C., several years ago. After pleading guilty to a misdemeanor sex offense there in 2017, court records show, the native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — who had overstayed his student visa in the United States — was held in immigration detention. Records did not provide details about his actions in the sex-offense case.

But in December 2018, records show, the Board of Immigration Appeals found that Ngoy’s offense was not a “serious crime” and ruled that he should not be deported.

Last year, in Philadelphia, court records show, he was arrested and accused of simple assault, also a misdemeanor. In that case, court records show, a SEPTA Transit officer broke a finger when Ngoy allegedly tried to resist arrest. He was released without bail, records show, and the case stalled in court in the months since. It is now listed as “inactive.”

Jane Roh, spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said neither Ngoy nor his arresting officer appeared at a July court hearing in the case. A judge agreed to issue a bench warrant for Ngoy, Roh said, which remains active.

Beyond discussing Ngoy’s case Thursday, Stollsteimer also announced that another man had been charged in a sexual assault that happened Wednesday evening at the 69th Street station.

In that case, according to charging documents, a woman approached Edwin Allen, 28, of Philadelphia, around 5:30 p.m. and asked him how she could get to another side of the station. Allen offered to accompany her, the documents say, and as they were walking, he grabbed and groped her before pushing her into a secluded area, pulling his pants down, and attempting to pull her pants down.

A passerby heard the woman yelling “rape,” the documents say, and — after seeing the assault in progress — also began yelling at Allen to stop.

A SEPTA Transit officer who heard screaming responded and took Allen into custody, the documents say. Allen was charged with attempted sexual assault and two counts of indecent assault, the documents say. He did not have an attorney listed in the documents.

A SEPTA spokesperson said officers had already been looking for Allen over accusations that he had groped two women in separate incidents Monday. The spokesperson, Andrew Busch, said officers had been in the process of getting arrest warrants approved when he was apprehended Wednesday in Upper Darby.

Stollsteimer, in disputing the narrative that passengers failed to intervene in the alleged rape by Ngoy, stressed that Allen’s arrest came only after a bystander alerted police.

“That’s how people are in Delaware County,” he said. “If people need help we stand up and help.”

Staff writer Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.