In the past 24 hours, the story of an alleged rape in the small, football-driven Ohio town of Steubenville has transformed from a local controversy with a curious social-media angle to an all-out Internet crusade, with potential cover-ups, allegations of prosecutors colluding with coaches, disgusting new video, and hackers to the rescue. Here's a primer on what looks like it may become one of the most emotional and controversial news narratives of the new year:
Update, Monday: Click here for continuing coverage of the Steubenvile rape case.
Update, Saturday, 3:29 p.m.: In the midst of an Occupy Steubenville rally, Sheriff Fred Abdalla and Anonymous came face-to-face, and city leaders set up their own "facts" website.
Update, Friday, 5:13 p.m.: Ohio State University has released a statement regarding the student portrayed in this week's viral video and identified by Anonymous.
Update, Friday, 12:08 p.m.: Tipsters have come forward, and the site LiveLeaks has put together what they believe is an account of what happened the night of August 11 when the alleged gang rape took place, which involves the alleged victim being drugged.
So there was a rape in this small town?
Well, it's not that simple, but allegedly yes: Two 16-year-old boys from Steubenville High are each facing a rape charge for the assault in August of a 16-year-old girl apparently from across the Ohio River in Weirton, West Virginia.
How come we're only hearing about this now?
Because a lengthy New York Times story on the case last month got lost in the spotlight on the Newtown school shootings, maybe, or because the Anonymous hacking collective started calling major attention to it this week.
But what makes this rape case different?
You see, Steubenville is the stuff of Friday Night Lights. The 19,000-person eastern Ohio town is a giant football community, and this alleged rape involves member of their storied Big Red team. "Everybody around here goes to games on Friday nights, and I mean everybody — people come for miles," a local told the Times's Juliet Macur and Nate Schweber. "It's basically the small-town effect. People live and die based on Big Red because they usually win and it makes everybody feel good about themselves when times are tough."
So how did this assault take place?
Well, back on the night of August 11, the alleged victim was at an end-of-summer party and had a lot to drink, police said, when Trent Mays and Malik Richmond allegedly approached her: "Richmond was behind her, with his hands between her legs, penetrating her with his fingers, a witness said," reported the The Times.
And how is that different from all the other assaults against young women in this country?
Here's the chilling part: the alleged victim didn't know she was assaulted until she started to find out about it on social media the next day.
Really? That's pretty gross. How did she find out?
Instagram, YouTube, and some pretty disgusting tweets. And the girl's mother told The Times that her daughter didn't even know the full extent of the attack until a local paper wrote about it the next day. On August 22, Mays and Richmond were arrested on charges of rape and kidnapping. The kidnapping charge has been dropped, and Mays is also facing a charge involving illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material. (Defense attorneys did not respond to requests for comment from The Atlantic Wire.)
Why only those two? They were at a party, right? And there were all those tweets?
Well, word spread among the students at or around the party quickly, and as the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported, "Before the 16-year-old girl’s parents reported the crime to Steubenville police, many of the online posts had been deleted — or so students thought."
We live in an age when social media exists as evidence that can't just disappear, and Alexandria Goddard, who runs a crime blog called Prinniefied.com, turned up those deleted pictures from the night in question. Like this one:
What happened when that got out?
Goddard started posting on August 26, and attorneys for the student involved threatened her with a lawsuit October 25 — it was dismissed on December 27. But the local press had already picked up the story, and Goddard's site now carries the student Instagram photographer's apology:
“I deeply regret my actions on the night of August 11, 2012. While I wasn’t at the home where the alleged assault took place, there is no doubt that I was wrong to post that picture from an earlier party and tweet those awful comments. Not a moment goes by that I don’t wish I would have never posted that picture or tweeted those comments. I want to sincerely apologize to the victim and her family for these actions. I also want to acknowledge the work of several bloggers, especially Ms. Goddard at Prinniefied.com, in their efforts to make sure the full truth about that terrible night eventually comes out. At no time did my family mean to stop anyone from expressing themselves online – we only wanted to correct what we believed were misstatements that appeared on Ms. Goddard’s blog. I am glad that we have resolved our differences with Ms. Goddard and that she and her contributors can continue their work.” – Cody Saltsman
How come the other kids at the party didn't get in trouble? Isn't that aiding and abetting?
It's not like the cops didn't try: "The thing I found most disturbing about this is that there were other people around when this was going on," Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty told the Times. "Nobody had the morals to say, 'Hey, stop it, that isn’t right.' ... If you could charge people for not being decent human beings, a lot of people could have been charged that night."
So what happened to the social media evidence? Isn't this supposed to be a case of our times?
That's where the investigation — a preliminary trial is scheduled for February 13 — runs into problems. Despite all the Instagramming and social media sharing, Chief McCafferty told the Times that witnesses failed to come forward:
The city’s police chief begged for witnesses to come forward, but received little response. In time, the county prosecutor and the judge in charge of handling crimes by juveniles recused themselves from the case because they had ties to the football team.
And, well, some of the evidence went "missing":
That player told the police that he was in the back seat of his Volkswagen Jetta with Mays and the girl when Mays proceeded to flash the girl’s breasts and penetrate her with his fingers, while the player videotaped it on his phone. The player, who shared the video with at least one person, testified that he videotaped Mays and the girl “because he was being stupid, not making the right choices.” He said he later deleted the recording.
Is anyone questioning the two boys' guilt?
Yes. About half the town of Steubenville, actually. Five months later, locals are still blaming the alleged victim for bringing the attack upon herself — she has been referred to on Facebook as "train whore":
During a court hearing on November 2, the alleged victim's mother told the court that her family and her daughter have received threats and were currently under police protection. And some, like one of Steubenville High's 19 football coaches, are blaming her for shaming the storied program:
"The rape was just an excuse, I think," said the 27-year-old Hubbard, who is No. 2 on the Big Red’s career rushing list.
"What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?” said Hubbard, who is one of the team’s 19 coaches. "She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it."
If not everyone believes the rape happened, aren't the town's football allegiances going to get in the way of a fair trial?
Well, yes, there's this from the Times report: "the county prosecutor and the judge in charge of handling crimes by juveniles recused themselves from the case because they had ties to the football team."
Wait, is this some sort of cover-up?
Well, that's why the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous — and, more specifically, one of its cells known as Knightsec — got involved. The hackers, and their partners at the site Local Leaks, are "giving a voice to the victim of this horrible crime" by rounding up new information that the police haven't been able to — or at least that hasn't been made publicly available in advance of next month's trial. They seem to believe that there are more people involved, that there are more victims, that the accused are getting special treatment because they are football players, and that there's a bigger group of boys involved, which Anonymous has dubbed the "Rape Crew." Oh, and they've set up Occupy Steubenville protests too.
Why do they think there's a cover-up, exactly?
For starters, Steubenville High head coach Reno Saccoccia didn't even bench the players involved. The Times wrote:
Saccoccia, pronounced SOCK-otch, told the principal and school superintendent that the players who posted online photographs and comments about the girl the night of the parties said they did not think they had done anything wrong. Because of that, he said, he had no basis for benching those players.
Approached in November to be interviewed about the case, Saccoccia said he did not "do the Internet," so he had not seen the comments and photographs posted online from that night. When asked again about the players involved and why he chose not to discipline them, he became agitated.
"You made me mad now," he said, throwing in several expletives as he walked from the high school to his car.
Nearly nose to nose with a reporter, he growled: "You're going to get yours. And if you don't get yours, somebody close to you will."
So is the country prosecutor trying to get her son and his teammates off the hook?
That's one of many new alleged details Anonymous and Local Leaks claim they have evidence of, in a document dump that started Wednesday, which they're calling The Steubenville Files. We detailed the findings already, and we're not sure of their sourcing, but their leaks suggest that the football coach and the country Sheriff are friends. And even though the boys will now be tried as juveniles, they allege that Saccoccia has ties in the juvenile court system.
Wait, how many more people are involved in the assault?
The hackers allege that there are more than two boys who perpetrated the alleged crime and that there are more victims. On September 4, a second alleged victim of Steubenville High's "Rape Crew" came forward. Anonymous also suggest that one of the parties that the unconscious girl was dragged to actually took place at the county prosecutor's house. The leaks read:
When the family of the victim went to file the charges, Jane Hanlin [the prosecutor] was present. She strongly discouraged them from filing. Hanlin frightened not only the victim, but the parents as well. Telling them that her name was going to be dragged through the mud, she will be in and out of court for well over two years, the press wouldn’t leave any of the family alone once the crime was made public. Scared out of their wits, the parents said they didn’t want that and Hanlin then said not to worry just leave it up to her and the detectives on the case.
And the hackers even dug up this video that had been deleted, which we showed and warned you about yesterday, of a former Steubenville student laughing about the attack (warning: this is disgusting):
Should we trust this new info?
Anonymous is notorious for doing borderline criminal fact-finding with good intentions. Just by bringing more Internet attention to the case, they've already pushed it forward. They continue to ask for the witness accounts that the town police chief had been asking for but did not get.
But the kid in that video up there will have his name attached to this case for years to come. And while he might deserve it, there's also a question of vigilanteism, since Anonymous has already published the personal information of certain other students it's convinced belong to this "Rape Crew":
How emotional should everyone get about all this before the trial?
Well, just this week Congress failed to pass the Violence Against Women Act, which is supposed to help protect women against assault and encourage them to come out in public when assaults do happen. The bill's failure, for the first time since 1994, is sort of poetic.
But they may be coincidence. What's not is that Anonymous is claiming that CNN is about to add a lot more national news presence, for the first time since the Times story:
@cnn is in fact launching an investigation into steubenville the rumors are true, they are on the ground there now.— #KnightSec (@KYAnonymous) January 3, 2013
CNN probably won't be the only major organization booking flights to Ohio this week. Get ready for a lot more people to get emotionally invested in this case, and stay tuned as more details emerge.