Nobody knows exactly what investigators were looking for when they raided Steubenville High School in Ohio this week, as well as the local school board and a local computer forensics firm. But as the grand jury kicks off next week looking for charges in the aftermath of the Steubenville rape case looked upon by a nation, all signs point to something big. Or at least big enough to bring another social media uproar about rape, cover-ups, and big-time high school football. And guess which Big Red football coach decided to speak out again?
The Secret Search Warrants: A Digital Trail at School?
Toward the end of the school day Thursday, more than eight months after a Steubenville Big Red pre-season game turned into a serious of house parties and a series of attacks on a 16-year-old girl, local police and investigators showed up — as if out of nowhere — at Steubenville High. They stayed on campus into the night, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told the Associated Press, executing search warrants that were either new or unheard of — and certainly fascinating. "Steubenville Police assisted the Attorney General in the search warrants," said William McCafferty, the local police chief who "begged" for evidence when the initial crime was reported. Officials for Steubenville city schools, who have been publicly silent (save for one brief statement) since that fateful August night that brought a social media and judicial storm upon the Ohio town, confirmed the search in a a statement released Friday reading in part that "we have been from the beginning and are continuing to fully cooperate with the authorities in this investigation."
But this is a new investigation, and this week's search appears to have an urgency of its own, as DeWine's grand jury prepares to convene on Tuesday. The attorney general said the searches at Steubenville city schools were "just part of that effort" — an effort he announced after two Steubenville High students and football players, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, were found guilty of rape. "We cannot bring finality to this matter without the convening of a grand jury," DeWine said at the time. "I anticipate numerous witnesses will be called. The grand jury, quite frankly, could meet for a number of days."
Grand juries, by their nature, are conducted in secret, and the warrants executed on Thursday remain sealed — and so it remains unclear whether investigators were searching computers, paperwork, or physical evidence. DeWine has said the grand jury will be looking for, among other things, at the crimes of failure to report a felony, tampering with evidence. DeWine explained that "indictments could be returned and additional charges could be filed" in light of the jury, the nine members of which were seated last week but will begin hearing testimony and reviewing evidence on April 30. He also called the grand jury "a very good investigative tool as well as a very deliberative body," which makes the timing of the school search all the more interesting.
The attacks happened on the night of August 11, and Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond were arrested on August 22, the first day of school. Many students were at the parties that night, but key witnesses were granted immunity in the rape trial, and DeWine has said it would take extraordinary circumstances for that not to apply in any grand jury findings. As to who might be in trouble next, attention may shifting to adults, both educators at Steubenville High and the parents involved in the parties. Could electronic records at the school and elsewhere provide evidence for charges?
The search on Thursday, after all, wasn't limited to the school: The AP reports that the offices of the city school board were also searched, along with "Vestige Ltd., a digital evidence company in northeastern Ohio." According to its website, Vestige aspires to be "the leading provider of Computer Forensic services for the use in civil litigation, law enforcement, criminal proceedings and corporate policy administration." In short, they help their clients and attorneys with digital data. That could point to possible Internet correspondence or smartphone usage, which became a signature of a rape trial full of tweets, text messages, and lurid videos. Specifics will be hard to come by in the week ahead, and while DeWine has dismissed rumors of a police cover-up, his grand jury investigation may now turn to focus on policed finding new details about other adults — perhaps the most famous one in all of Steubenville.
The Powerful Coach Speaks: A Centerpiece of the New Investigation?
Steubenville head football coach Reno Saccoccia (right; by WTRF-TV), fresh off a two-year renewal of his contract in a secondary role as Steubenville High's director of administrative services, granted a rare (if brief) interview this week to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Christopher Evans. Saccoccia did not confirm or deny the suggestion—raised in court and playing out across social media and many online protests calling for him to be investigated or fired by the school—that he knew about the attack and tried to protect his players:
"Do you think I knew about it,?" Saccoccia asks me.
"Evidence suggests you did," I tell him.
"I have no comment," Saccoccia says.
That isn't very revealing. But, considering Saccoccia's past run-ins with reporters, like when he got "nearly nose to nose" with the The New York Times last fall — "You're going to get yours," he said, "and if you don't get yours, somebody close to you will" — the new interview is actually pretty civil. But it leaves open the question about how much Saccoccia knew, when he knew it, and whether he reported anything to the school or the authorities. During the trial last month, evidence pointed to Mays, the Steubenville quarterback convicted on multiple counts, had sent this text message to a friend:
I got Reno. He took care of it and shit ain't gonna happen, even if they did take it to court. Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried.
Again, this is just a text message. It could be just a bluff from a nervous young man who would become a convicted of rape in juvenile court. After all, Mays appears to have grossly exaggerated his account of the night over text message to the family of the Jane Doe victim in the morning after of the attack. He had texted Doe's father: "I just took care of your daughter when she was drunk and made sure she was safe."
As we have outlined in detail, Saccoccia appears bound by Ohio law, as a school authority, to report "that a child under eighteen years of age ... has suffered or faces a threat of suffering any physical or mental wound, injury, disability, or condition of a nature that reasonably indicates abuse or neglect of the child." And it appears he was not quick to act: He suspended two other players who filmed and photographed the rape of the 16-year-old girl, but not until eight games into Big Red's 10-game regular season. Saccoccia also served as a character witness for Mays and Richmond during a pretrial hearing.
The national spotlight will shine on Steubenville again next week, however secret the grand jury proceedings remain. The 135,000-plus signatures on a petition for the school to fire Saccoccia may grow. Saccoccia will also have a chance to clear his name. "No one is a target at this point," DeWine said after calling the grand jury. But he added: "We are not excluding anyone, either." Indeed, whatever is in those boxes at Steubenville High — or the untold text messages and emails the nine members of the new jury are about to review — will only make the spotlight shine brighter. Stay tuned to our Steubenville coverage for the latest.