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Prosecutors, alleged victim differ on language-barrier issue in dismissed rape case

Luis AlberPantoj25 5500 block West Wrightwood Ave. was  charged January with sexually assaulting 15-year-old girl December 2013 Chicago's Northwest

Luis Alberto Pantoja, 25, of the 5500 block of West Wrightwood Ave., was charged in January with sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl in December 2013 on Chicago's Northwest Side. | Chicago Police photo

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Updated: February 9, 2014 6:24AM

Stumbling over a defense attorney’s questions after revealing intimate details of a rape she said she suffered in August at the hands of a Belmont-Cragin man, a Hispanic woman testified in front of a Cook County judge last summer that she didn’t fully understand English.

The attorney cross-examining the Spanish-speaking woman asked if it would be easier for her to answer with an interpreter, and she said, “Yes, please.” Instead, Cook County Judge Laura M. Sullivan asked the defense attorney to rephrase the question, and the Sept. 17 preliminary hearing continued, according to a transcript obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

When it ended, records show, the judge found there was no probable cause and effectively dismissed a criminal sexual-assault charge against Luis Pantoja, 25. He was released from the Cook County jail the same day, authorities said, but on Tuesday, he was ordered held again in lieu of $2.5 million bail.

Prosecutors now say he’s responsible for the brutal sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl last month on the Northwest Side.

The woman from the alleged August attack told the Sun-Times, in Spanish, she warned prosecutors she might need an interpreter. The transcript indicates she previously told a lawyer about her trouble with English.

“That’s why they dropped my case, because I didn’t understand well,” she said Tuesday. “I needed to understand.”

But Dan Kirk, chief of staff to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, said there seemed to be no need for an interpreter — despite the alleged victim’s interactions with multiple prosecutors — until that “blistering” cross-examination.

“From what I can glean, nobody in that courtroom, you know, came to the conclusion that an interpreter was legitimately needed,” Kirk said.

And at that point, he said, the judge was in charge of the courtroom.

On Tuesday, the Cook County chief judge’s office said in an email that judges can’t comment on pending matters. It sent that note after the Sun-Times sought comment this week from Sullivan and her presiding judge.

Kirk acknowledged that prosecutors have the option of seeking an indictment in the alleged August rape. But he said they would have to do so while acknowledging the victim’s testimony in the preliminary hearing and the finding of no probable cause.

“We’re not saying we didn’t believe the victim,” Kirk said. “We’re just saying the preliminary hearing didn’t go well.”

Pantoja’s criminal history includes a 2008 conviction for failure to report an accident involving a death and possession of a stolen vehicle, for which he was sentenced to six years in prison, records show. He was charged in 2011 with domestic battery in the alleged molestation of a 10-year-old cousin, according to records, but that charge was dropped.

His latest charges, stemming from the alleged Dec. 17 attack on the 15-year-old girl, include attempted murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated battery and unlawful possession of a weapon.

A prosecutor said he attacked an honor student that day after she left home early to work on a project at school. He allegedly hit the girl on the head with a blunt object and raped her in a backyard in the 2400 block of North Long, the prosecutor said. The girl was bleeding profusely from the head when he left, the prosecutor said, and the girl has since had several brain surgeries.

Police records show the earlier attack of the Spanish-speaking woman occurred about 1:30 a.m. Aug. 15. Those records accuse Pantoja of grabbing the 24-year-old woman by her arm, pulling her into an alley and raping her.

She testified it happened after she willingly went with Pantoja to his relative’s home, where she went to his room, looked at pictures of his son and kissed and hugged him. She said she insisted on leaving when Pantoja tried to take things further, but she said Pantoja later followed her as she tried to walk home. That’s when she said she was attacked.

The woman made her request for an interpreter while Pantoja’s lawyer questioned her about whether she had sex with Pantoja at the home. The following is an excerpt:

Public Defender: “Isn’t it true that you wanted to have sex with him and you wanted him to wear a condom?”

Woman: “Yes.”

PD: “And he did wear a condom, didn’t he?”

Woman: “He didn’t.”

PD: “He did not?”

Woman: “No.”

PD: “Then you wanted to have sex a second time; isn’t that right?”

Woman: “No.”

PD: “Did you have sex a second time?”

Woman: “No.”

PD: “You only had sex one time at the [relative’s] house?”

Woman: “No. Never.”

PD: “I thought you said that you did have sex?”

Woman: “No, because I didn’t, that’s why I told my lawyer that sometimes I don’t understand because I don’t completely speak English. I’m trying to explain the best I can.”

PD: “Would it be easier for you if you had an interpreter?”

Woman: “Yes, please.”

The public defender told Judge Sullivan “you can get the interpreter.” Instead, the judge asked the public defender to rephrase the question, and the hearing carried on.

The woman later told the prosecutor she did not, nor did she want to, have sex with Pantoja in his bedroom. She said she didn’t understand the public defender’s question.

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