Inside the Search for the Truth About Steubenville — 1,000 Tips at a Time

Ahead of next month's rape trial of two Ohio high-school football players, the secretive editors, hackers, and lawyers behind LocalLeaks disclose to The Atlantic Wire how they're enhancing their operation — and the "huge revelations" still on the way.

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When the case surrounding the alleged August rape of a 16-year-old girl by two high-school football players in a small Ohio city went viral last week, the attention of a nation turned to a little-known outfit called LocalLeaks, a website styling itself after WikiLeaks and partnering with the do-gooder hacking collective Anonymous on a document and video dump that it calls The Steubenville Files. Now, as the secretive editors, hackers, and lawyers behind LocalLeaks prepare to release "huge revelations" in anticipation of next month's trial, they've disclosed to The Atlantic Wire how they're enhancing their operation to transform a flood of local tips into evidence in the court of public opinion — and what they're about to reveal next, about the controversial county sheriff's alleged involvement in a gambling ring and beyond.

Overwhelmed, and Inventing a Leak Process 'on the Fly'

LocalLeaks' editor-in-chief, who remained anonymous while exchanging emails with The Atlantic Wire this week, says the site is "very similar to WikiLeaks." But the group have no interest in the high public profile of Julian Assange: LocalLeaks members are not revealing their identities, and not just because of its "working relationship" with the KnightSec branch of the Anonymous collective. A far cry from hackers and activists in Guy Fawkes masks, LocalLeaks is a smaller clan of "truth-seekers" spread across the globe; KnightSec "is NOT responsible and has no control over what we publish on LocalLeaks," the editor wrote. When asked where the group was located, the editor responded "Planet Earth," adding that he and a chief analyst live outside of the United States, working alongside a California-based lawyer and a group of 10 volunteers that may soon grow to 20 or 25, along with considerations of "adding a fourth permanent staff person as well, possibly a professional journalist."

But in a case where even the tight-knit city's police chief has "begged" witnesses to come forward, the group's anonymity has led to a flood of leaks — "well over 1,000" so far from in and around the city of 18,000, and between 50-100 more coming in each day. So far information on the case that was first published by LocaLeaks includes a detailed account of the alleged rape itself, as well as character profiles and damaging videos. The editor described the LocalLeaks workflow as "a bit chaotic and a work in progress at this point," and admitted that "we are actually having a difficult time even storing the leaks electronically." If storing the information is a problem, what about trying to confirm the tips? This is how the LocalLeaks editor described their verification process:

This gigantic volume of material has caused us literally have to invent an analysis process on the fly. We set as our initial goal in the disclosure to identify the key people and places involved in the story, and use that as an initial framework for the disclosure. To do that, we literally used the wall of our office space, printing out and hanging material on the wall and using colored string to make connections. Sounds messy I know, but for our initial analysis it worked we were able to see the basic outlines of the story and do a global release. Eventually we plan on trying to find some sort of software and projection technology to accomplish the same thing, but right now if we had to do it again we would probably just use the wall!

The editor added that his team was handling documents and photographs with "a sort of forensic analysis that we as hackers are pretty comfortable performing," but that so-called "testimonial leaks" were verified with multiple sources — and LocalLeaks has more sources every day. LocalLeaks's editor said that "For a particular fact to be determined to be true, it requires that enough material be leaked on it for us to be able to say with relative assurance that it is true."

The editor says he does not "spend a lot of time worrying about what the consequences of that revelation will be." But his lawyer does. "Oh my gosh, does this make me nervous," attorney Jay Leiderman told The Atlantic Wire in a phone interview. "This is a new frontier that we're seeing here — we've seen what happened with WikiLeaks." Leiderman added that LocalLeaks has informed him they are actually "holding back on some stuff until they verify it one way or another. The crew is working 24/7 to get things right." LocalLeaks has entered the uncharted waters while handling tips that involve minors accused of major crimes and even more information that group has yet to reveal as its fact-checkers gather more "evidence" for verification.

'No One Say Anything, No One Talks to Anybody'

Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla has publicly accused LocalLeaks and its informal partnership with Anonymous of interfering with official police investigations, including the release of information about the suspects, who are being tried as minors. (Attorneys for the suspects have not responded to requests by The Atlantic Wire for comment on how the leaks have affected their case, and the sheriff's office did not immediately respond to request for comment for this story.) Abdalla said he was "coming after" Anonymous in an interview Friday night, then appeared at an Occupy Steubenville rally organized by the hackers on Saturday afternoon.

And, of course, it is Sheriff Abdalla who LocalLeaks has accused of not wanting to aggressively pursue the rape investigation. The reason, they've alleged, is that Sheriff Abdalla is involved in illegal gambling having to do with Steubenville High football games. It's one of those explosive but not exactly sourced revelations that LocalLeaks has made throughout its work on the story. The editor explains how they've come to that conclusion:

So let's say some of the more controversial "facts" like the fact that Abdalla runs a huge gambling ring. We received documents — anonymous and attributed testimony — from well over 50 sources. We thus feel pretty comfortable in stating: "Abdalla runs a gambling ring".

In 1991, Sheriff Abdalla was acquitted on federal charges of protecting an illegal gambling operation in the area. LocalLeaks says that many of the tips they've received ("about half," estimates the editor) have been related to Sheriff Abdalla and gambling, including allegations that Abdalla protects bookies who take bets on high-school football games. Since The Atlantic Wire has been covering the Steubenville case, some of those tips have reached us. On Monday, we were contacted by two separate Steubenville locals who made similar allegations. The editor describes the kinds of tips they've received:

We have sources in his department (and other law enforcement agencies), in his bar and even in his own HOME. We mention one other venue for this in the disclosure, and we are in the process of verifying leaks involving a half dozen other establishments used as covers for Abdalla's gambling kingdom. They include everything from sports equipment outlets to an ice cream shop used to launder the proceeds. Eventually as we process, analyze, and fact check what we have we will reveal more on the disclosure page. My general opinion is that if your source seems consistent and sound then the info is almost certainly true. Here's a leak and exclusive that you can print with attribution to LocalLeaks:

We have been working with a source who is an employee at the Spot Bar in Steubenville who we trust to provide us with solid material. This source reported that last Friday, as the "Steubenville Files" disclosure was really beginning to go global — Abdalla stormed into the Spot Bar and announced out loud: "No one says anything, no one talks to anybody." He then proceeded to the back room of the bar to have a meeting with his "business partners." Our source also added that far from shutting down, business continues as usual and is brisk.

Sheriff Abdalla has not spoken publicly about his personal involvement in the case or with regard to LocalLeaks' allegations that he's involved in gambling on Steubenville High's Big Red sports. At the Saturday rally, Abdalla stood before the crowd and said, "I'm not going to stand here and try to convince you that I'm not the bad guy. You've already made your minds up."

'If it were not true, it would not be on our web site'

Sensing a national story unfolding from outside Steubenville, and tacitly acknowledging the city's reputation for corruption, local officials on Saturday set up their own site, Steubenville Facts, attempting to set the record straight. "When people are saying that our police department did not follow procedure, that the football team runs the city, that is not the case," city manager Cathy Davidson said at a press conference.

An ocean away, the LocalLeaks editor is not backing down over the debate on what's legal fact and what's local rumor. Asked what he would say to someone who did not trust the site's fact-checking, he wrote: "If you look at the right hand corner of your browser tab, there's a little 'x' — click it." The editor said that the site's mission is "to reveal the truth," adding, "If it were not true, it would not be on our web site."

Leiderman, the LocalLeaks lawyer, while concerned, was also confident: "If they're going to sue 'em for defamation, good luck with it," he said.

Of course, if defamation lawsuits don't intimidate this growing group, there are always death threats. "We have received to date two viable death threats, one against LocalLeaks staff and one against Knight Sec," the editor wrote.

The lawyer for one of the two rape suspects has also cited threats — "threats to individuals, perhaps witnesses, and also defendants and even defense counsel" — in attempting to push back a preliminary hearing date of February 13. Whether any of the LocalLeaks information spreading across the web will end up as trial evidence, at any point or in any form, remains to be seen.

"We have to trust the justice system," Leiderman said. "When it hits the Internet and goes viral — you can't really complain about that."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.