LOWER TOWNSHIP —Teen parties in the woods are a reality in this township, with its large teenage population and 32 square miles of rural and wooded land.

Police Chief Brian Marker knows he never will eliminate the backwoods parties entirely, but steps are being taken to avoid incidents such as a March 15 gathering of teenagers at a publicly owned forest in North Cape May called the Rutherford tract. That party resulted in eight teenagers facing charges, including the alleged aggravated sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl who was legally drunk and had to be hospitalized.

Part of the problem is that the Rutherford tract is only one of several hotspots where teenagers party outdoors, far from adult supervision.

“We do have more than one. Woods are part of the community. It’s a rural setting. You hate to take away that wholesomeness of semicountry living when everybody isn’t doing wrong,” Marker said.

Marker said he isn’t trying to make the publicly owned woods off-limits. He just wants more control. He has instituted a number of measures in response to the events of March 15.

The measures include an increased police presence in the neighborhood near the Rutherford tract, including “dismounted patrols,” in which the officers get out of their cruisers and check out the neighborhood. Police even went back into the Rutherford tract one recent night with night-vision goggles.

A physical barrier was installed at the entrance to the wooded tract, and better lighting is on order for a key street-end leading to the party spot. Working with the Department of Public Works, a fort the teens built in the woods was destroyed. Racist graffiti written on the trees was covered over with black spray paint. Marker said the goal was to make the site less attractive to underage drinking.

So far, it has been successful. There haven’t been any other incidents. Part of the success could be that Marker enlisted residents in the area for help, with a plea to report anything suspicious immediately.

Marker is asking residents if they see teenagers carrying cases of beer into the woods, or anything else suspicious, to report it right away. Since the March 15 incident, the police have received calls and emails from residents in the neighborhood.

“Usually after something happens, people say, ‘Yeah, we’ve been seeing the kids.’ We’ve re-established communications with citizens in that neighborhood. Our job is not just arresting people — it’s saving lives,” Marker said.

No lives were lost the night of March 15, but some were certainly changed. One girl was allegedly punched, set on fire and sexually assaulted by a 16-year-old boy. She ended up at a hospital with alcohol poisoning and a low body temperature after being naked in the woods on a cold night.

A cellphone picture was taken of a second naked juvenile female, leading to other charges, though one parent maintained the image was doctored on a computer. Seven juveniles were ultimately charged. Some spent time in a juvenile detention facility and are now out of school.

One adult, 18-year-old Brittany Hearon, who lives nearby on Willow Drive, was charged in the case. Hearon, who said she tried to help the 14-year-old alleged victim, is charged with endangering the welfare of a child and conspiracy to commit endangering an injured victim.

The police report states Hearon exited the woods leaving behind an “unconscious, unclothed victim, in the outdoor elements” and that led to bodily injury. The report says Hearon left knowing the victim was “physically helpless and mentally incapacitated.”

Hannah Hearon, Brittany Hearon’s 16-year-old sister who was charged with aggravated assault in the alleged punching of the 14-year-old girl, said the younger teenagers at the party were drunk on 151-proof Bacardi rum when they arrived.

Charles Hearon, the father of the sisters, said he agrees with what the police are doing, though he remains nervous about whether his older daughter will be indicted by a grand jury and he disagrees about many of the charges.

“What they (police) are doing there is fine. The kids shouldn’t be back there at all,” Hearon said.

Residents in the neighborhood are happy with the law-enforcement effort thus far. Glade Drive resident Marguerite Smith, who has three children under age 11, said she sees police on the streets at least three times a day and has witnessed them walk into the woods. Smith said she has lived there seven years and the woods parties have gone on all that time.

“It had calmed down, but the last few months it was out of control,” Smith said.

Fences help. The Army Corps of Engineers put a fence around another popular party spot, a dredge spoils site south of the Cape May Canal, and it seems to have worked. Middle Township Police Chief Chris Leusner said public works put up a gate at a party spot in the woods in Whitesboro and it “solved that problem.”

A new danger from teenage parties is social media. There have been cases recently in the country in which teenage girls committed suicide after they felt stigmatized by posts on social media sites after they were sexually assaulted at parties.

Several parents of the accused in the North Cape May case have banned their children from social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

“I had her delete her Facebook page. She doesn’t go on anymore,” Charles Hearon said of daughter Hannah.

Nichole Hamilton, the mother of one of the juveniles facing charges, said her son deleted his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The network was initially buzzing after the party. Three days after, Hannah sent a text message to the alleged victim that may ultimately help her case.

“I didn’t do anything to you! All I did was helped you out the woods and we couldn’t get you out so we got your mom,” she wrote.

“I know now thank you I appreciate it a lot!” was the reply.

Leusner said social media “changes everything.”

“Now you have something uploaded to the Internet, and it’s there forever. I think everybody can look back at their own life when they were a kid, a high school or college student, and think about everything you were involved with on the Internet. Kids growing up now have to understand the social media, the advantage and disadvantages,” Leusner said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711