Small town's football culture in the frame over callous teen rape
IN THE phone video taken sometime after the alleged rapes, the boys are laughing so hard they can barely speak. The one in the frame, an amiable-looking recently graduated high-school baseball player, keeps trying to complete sentences but is ambushed by his own snorts and shrieks. The vision shudders as the boy holding the phone loses it too.
The victim, the baseball player says, was so drunk she may as well have been dead. She was "deader than Obi-Wan Kenobi after Darth Vader cut his head off". She was "deader than OJ's wife". They (other accused boys, not those in the room giggling) raped her "faster than Mike Tyson". They peed on her in the street.
She was so "dead" that when they penetrated her "butt" she did not respond. Off camera a boy asks, "What if it was your daughter?"
"It isn't," says the baseball player with a laugh.
"I wouldn't care," says another boy. They get back to the death and rape analogies.
Although it is hard to understand all that is said in the video - indeed, it is hard to watch any of it - it appears that at one point one of boys leaves the room to check on the victim. It is not clear whether any crimes that may have been committed that night were still going on while it was shot.
THE town of Steubenville sits in a valley on the Ohio River. Like Weirton, just over the river in West Virginia, and many more nearby, Steubenville has been hollowed out and shrunk since the steel mills began to close in the 1980s. But Steubenville has done it tougher than most. In the 1990s, its police developed such a reputation for violence, false arrest and abuse that the federal government was forced to step in. The US Department of Justice found that the people most likely to be targeted were those that dared criticise the police or the city government.
As in many other small American towns, Steubenville revolves around its high-school football team, the Big Red. The Big Red is better than most. In a streak that lasted over three seasons up to 2009, the Big Red won 68 games on the trot. On a home game on Friday night, the school's stadium is sold out - 10,000 of Steubenville's population of 18,000 pack themselves into the stands. Hundreds more gather in nearby parking lots for tailgate parties. When the Big Red scores, a sheet of flame explodes out of the mouth of a sculpture of a rearing red stallion called Man O' War.
"The whole town worships the team," says Alexandria Goddard, the blogger whose research made the rape a national issue. "You ask any little boy in the valley what they want to do when they grow up - they want to play for the Big Red."
August 11 was a big night. Summer had ended and the school year was about to start, and with it the football season. A bunch of parties were planned around town.
About 50 turned up to one of them, where a makeshift bar was set up and kids drank beer and whiskey, rum and vodka from red plastic cups. One of those who attended was a 16-year-old girl from Weirton, the town across the river. She was the former girlfriend of one of the Big Red players.
Over the next few days, news spread that the girl, drunk to the point of unconsciousness, was carried from party to party that night and raped along the way by a couple of team members. This was not idle gossip. The evidence of the assault was spread in images and videos, tweets and text messages taken and distributed during and after.
When news got back to the girl's parents, she said she had no memory of the events. Her parents gathered what electronic evidence they could find and took it to police on an external drive. On August 22, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, both 16, were charged with rape and kidnapping, although the kidnapping charge has been dropped. They deny the allegations. The trial is due in February.
The story might have ended there - another small-town tragedy leaving a shattered victim and two boys in custody. But news had got back to Goddard, a former paralegal (and a former resident of Steubenville), who had forged a new career as a social media analyst. In her spare time she maintained a blog, Prinniefied.com, writing about true crime.
When Goddard began her own online investigation of the night, she was stunned by what she found, and could not believe that the two boys charged were the only ones who had committed a crime that night.
Starting with their names, she mapped out their social networks, taking screen grabs of the photos, texts and tweets she found that were sent that night and in the days later.
Among the images she captured was a picture of the girl, apparently unconscious, being carried by her wrists and ankles by the two boys since charged. Her head lolls back at a sickening angle. It is understood she is being taken from one party to the next.
The boy who posted the photo described her as "sloppy" in the caption and tagged her when he posted the image, ensuring she saw it along with all of her friends.
Goddard discovered that a 12-minute video had been made and posted, but when she found the file on a site she decided not to download it for fear she could be inadvertently downloading child porn, and in doing so commit a crime herself.
At a preliminary hearing witnesses gave evidence that the girl had been stumbling and drunk at a party early in the evening when bystanders called on others to urinate on her; that she had been carried from party to party; that she had been assaulted at both parties and in a car in between; that she had been left outside semi-conscious with her top off after vomiting, and that much of this had been witnessed, and filmed, by people at the parties.
At one point, witnesses testified, she was naked, silent and unmoving on the ground. Mays, who had exposed himself, was next to her, Richmond was behind her.
Goddard began demanding on her blog that police and the school take further action. Her posts prompted a wider debate in the town, which was now being torn apart by the case. "How can standing by watching that go on not be committing a crime?" Goddard said to Fairfax Media this week
Another website, Change.org, began collecting signatures demanding that the coach apologise publicly to the girl and that the Steubenville schools superintendent admit that there was a "rape culture and excessive adulation of male athletes" at Steubenville High. In her blog, Goddard questioned why the school had not disciplined the other boys present, and why they were still playing for the Big Red.
The local police chief, William McCafferty, denied allegations the investigation had been half-hearted. "Everybody on those websites kept saying stuff that wasn't true and saying, 'Why wasn't this person arrested? Why aren't the police doing anything about it?"' he told The New York Times. "Everybody wanted to incriminate more of the football players, some because some of the other schools in the area are simply jealous of Big Red."
The tight fabric that binds the school and the community has made a complicated case even more difficult to investigate and prosecute. It is alleged one of the assaults happened in the home of a county prosecutor who has recused herself from the case. A judge has also recused himself because his granddaughter dated a team member. It is now claimed the other assault happened in the home of an assistant coach.
Eventually the parents of one of the boys whom Goddard had named, and whose image she had captured and posted, began legal proceedings against her and people who had posted comments on her blog. The lawsuit has since been tossed out, but the wider debate it prompted attracted the attention of The New York Times.
Coach Reno Saccoccia is a legend in Steubenville, where the Big Red plays on Reno Field. When the Times asked him why he had taken no action against any players except for the two awaiting trial, he stood "nearly nose to nose" with the reporter and growled: "You're going to get yours. And if you don't get yours, somebody close to you will."
Nate Hubbard, a former Big Red player and one of the team's 19 coaches, told the Times he believed the victim had made up the allegations. "What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?" he said.
"She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it."
The school principal explained that any disciplinary action was up to the coach, and he had asked the boys if they felt they had done anything wrong. They did not, and that was good enough for him.
The New York Times story attracted the attention of the online hacking and activist group Anonymous, which started trawling the internet and posting even more material. Last week it found and posted the 12-minute video of the boys that Goddard had avoided, drawing national attention to the case.
The "star" of the video, Michael Nodianos, 18, who has not been charged, has since issued a public apology saying he was "ashamed and embarrassed by the comments on the video".
Anonymous, along with Occupy Steubenville, also arranged a protest of 1000 people last weekend in the town, and thousands more are expected to converge on the town again this weekend. Anonymous has already published the names and photos of other people it believes should be investigated over the rape.
In December, the group demanded that all those involved turn themselves in, and it says it has begun compiling a dossier on each member of the team, coaching staff, and faculty. It threatens to publish their names, addresses and social security numbers if the demands are not met.
It has already published some material it has hacked from private email accounts, and further damning tweets exchanged after the alleged rapes. Threats have been made against school and local officials, as well as the victim.
This week the FBI began investigating possible cyber crimes, including an online post saying: "The police who protect them [the football team] must be executed." There are fears the national focus and online vigilantism could damage the case against the two boys already charged, although Goddard says she is conflicted when asked how she feels about the Anonymous intervention. "I can't support illegal actions, but at least they got something done."
Like most who have seen it, she is most concerned about the contents of the video. "How can they be that way? Where is their humanity? Where is their empathy?"