Steubenville, Ohio—As a handful of residents of this town of 18,000 gathered at the Spot Bar on Saturday, a crowd of easily a thousand people was just a few blocks away, outside the Jefferson County courthouse on Saturday, “occupying” downtown.
The protesters had converged on this gritty steel town on the banks of the Ohio River to protest the local authorities’ handling of a sexual-assault case that has ensnared two star members of the Steubenville High School football team—often referred to as “Big Red,” the name of its mascot—and that has ripped this town of 18,000 into two furious camps. On one side are those who say Big Red and its coach got off easy, and on the other are those who say their town’s reputation is being destroyed by ignorant naysayers who know very little about what happened at a party last August or the partying high-school kids accused of doing some repugnant things there.
Thanks in large part to social media, a debate that might have been confined to this town, murmured about in barbershops and on barstools, exploded into a national phenomenon when The New York Times and CNN picked up the story.
Those who attended Saturday’s rally say the story is about an American rape epidemic that remains too terrifying for many of its victims to publicly discuss, thanks to a culture that celebrates high-school football players as celebrities and a good-ol’-boy network that protects that culture above all else. Steubenville High School has as many physical education, athletic education, and “weight training” teachers as it does those who teach English, according to its website.
Others call it a story of revenge, of a new brand of online vigilantism that requires no evidence, no attorneys, judge, or jury.
First, the facts as they’re known: At some point on the night of Aug. 11, authorities charge that sophomore Steubenville High School players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond dragged a very drunk 16-year-old girl from house to house while taking liberties with her, using their cellphones to snap photographs and shoot videos along the way. The two boys, who have maintained their innocence, have been charged in juvenile court with rape—which under Ohio law applies to coerced penetration with any part of the body or instrument—and are under house arrest while awaiting trial next month.
(While The Daily Beast does not generally name juvenile suspects or offenders, their names and the charges against them have been widely disseminated not only online and in media reports, but also in statements issued by the city of Steubenville and its police department.)
If you could charge people for not being decent human beings, a lot of people could have been charged that night.
The case caught media wildfire after a crime blogger named Alexandria Goddard began writing about it, and criticizing local law enforcement officers for not prosecuting more of the youngsters in attendance. Last month, The New York Times ran a 5,800-word piece on the case that revealed a slew of disgusting details about that night with details from testimony in an October probable-cause hearing (other court records are sealed because it’s a juvenile case): that the girl had so much to drink that night that she couldn’t remember much past midnight, but that witnesses saw her taunted, urinated upon, carried around while “sleeping,” vomiting in the street, photographed nude, and videotaped while being digitally penetrated.
The town prosecutor, Jane Hanlin, and Jefferson County Juvenile Judge Samuel W. Kerr, recused themselves from the case because they had ties to the football program. Prosecutors did file charges against Mays and Richmond but told the Times they found the case “challenging” because the girl says several days passed before she or her parents even knew what happened—they found out about what was done to her while she was intoxicated from texts, photos, and videos posted publicly about the incident. No semen was collected, no toxicology tests could be administered to determine whether she had been drugged.
“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.”
And then things got really ugly.
Two hackers, who go by the Twitter handles @KYAnonymous and @JustBatcat, apparently decided the football players who attended that party in August were not sufficiently punished for their crimes. They set up websites including stopbigred.com and launched an investigation, posting incriminating tweets, pictures, videos, and emails to it, and they made associated allegations: that there’d been another rape involving football players the night of senior prom, that some members of the team were referring to themselves as #rapecrew on Twitter, that their anthem was the Nirvana song “Rape Me,” that they had openly tweeting about the “whore” who was violated and urinated on that night, that they even went so far as to post pictures and videos of the girl’s unconscious, naked body on YouTube, and to send some of that material to the girl’s parents. The hackers shut down a fan site run by Big Red booster Jim Parks, broke into his email, and uploaded thousands of his alleged messages, some of which they say contained pornographic images, and they publicly accused Parks of being the #rapecrew’s chief, claiming he paid football players to take advantage of girls and take pictures as they did so. One tweet the hackers posted a screen shot of, and that they said belonged to Parks, read:
“Enoguh [sic] with the hyperbole how can she be scarred for life [if she] supposedly can’t remember anything. and then played a soccer game a few days later?”
Parks did not return a text message and a phone call from The Daily Beast, but he vehemently denied the charges on his website, after he had wrested control of it back from what he called the “terrorist group.”
“The outrageous claims they made while controlling this site were totally false, completely absurd, and totally unfounded,” Parks wrote. “They were clearly both libelous and slanderous, and were not even intended to reveal truth, but rather simply to get media attention and terrorize the Steubenville community.”
The hackers also released a 12-minute-long video, showing the drunken diatribe of Michael Nodianos, a former Steubenville student who now attends Ohio State University. In the video the student can be seen ranting about the rape victim and referring to her as “dead,” again and again.
“Why isn’t she waking up? She’s dead,” the teenager cackles. “I’m going to tell you this, she’s deader than Obi Wan Kanobi after Darth Vader cut his head off. They peed on her. That’s how you know she’s dead, because someone pissed on her ... She’s deader than Kaylee Anthony ... they raped her harder than that cop raped Marcellis Wallace in Pulp Fiction ... She is so raped right now.”
While that video played a major role in galvanizing the public against Big Red, Nodianos, never admits either being at the party or committing any crime. Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla made this point at Saturday’s rally, saying that while he found the video “disgusting,” it wasn’t criminal.
“You can’t arrest somebody for being stupid,” Abdalla said, a teal ribbon signifying his support for victims of rape pinned to his uniform.
On the website Steubenville Facts, sponsored by the city and its police department “to disseminate the most accurate information” about the case, the city adds:
“Nothing in Ohio’s criminal statutes makes it a crime for someone to ridicule a rape victim on a video or otherwise say horrible things about another person. Further, nothing in the law allows someone who says repugnant things on Twitter, Facebook, or other Internet sites to be criminally charged for such statements. Steubenville Police investigators are caring humans who recoil and are repulsed by many of the things they observe during an investigation. Like detectives in every part of America and the world, they are often frustrated when they emotionally want to hold people accountable for certain detestable behavior but realize that there is no statute that allows a criminal charge to be made.”
The hackers, though, apparently did want to punish what they saw as detestable behavior, demanding that every single member of the football team step forward and apologize for what they did to that girl in August—or else they would publicly post “dox,” meaning personal information about people found on the Internet including Social Security and phone numbers, on all of the team’s players, their coach Reno Saccoccia, parents, and others.
“This is a warning shot to the faculty, the parents of those involved and those involved especially,” a Guy Fawkes–masked person read in a video posted on the hackers’ site. “You have attracted the attention of the hive … You now have the world looking directly at you.”
While the hackers didn’t make good on their threat to release the dox on New Year’s day unless all the players apologized for their actions, Batcat—in an exclusive interview conducted online with The Daily Beast—made no apology for the information he’s releasing, and said he’s not finished yet.
Batcat told The Daily Beast that he learned of the case from KYAnonymous and that they’re both part of a group of hackers who “work together to achieve a common goal” called KnightSec, that’s aligned or affiliated with Anonymous and that he now leads. Batcat, who claimed to work for the federal government as a cybersecurity contractor, says he got involved in Steubenville because “it had been brushed under the table and was being taken so lightly. It honestly pissed me off. I have a younger sister, and if that would have happened to her I would be in jail right now.”
Batcat says more of the young men should be charged with crimes, though he’s not exactly sure what those crimes would be.
His bottom line: “They knew what was going on and they did nothing to stop or report it.” If the two boys who have been charged aren’t convicted, he said that “we won’t hunt them down in a physical sense—no pitchforks.”
But, he added: “I know we could make their lives very difficult.”
Mays’s attorney, Adam Nemann, says that he’d be powerless to stop the hackers if they were to follow through on that threat:
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who Anonymous is. I feel helpless, in some regards. I don’t know who I’m arguing with. It could be a kid on a computer in Hawaii,” he said. “This case, the social media aspect, has really turned a new page. And this is only the beginning.”
Attorney Walter Madison represents Richmond, whom he described as an “exceptional kid” and an “honors student, exceptional athlete, and by all accounts a polite and courteous young man.”
Madison says his client did nothing wrong that night in August, and that the Internet fervor has come “dangerously close to hijacking” his client’s right to a fair trial. He and Nemann also told The Daily Beast—as did two of the victim’s friends, separately—that the other accused football player, Trent Mays, was dating the victim. Any sexual activity that night was “consensual,” Madison said.
Added Nemann: “My client asserts his innocence. He is looking forward to the trial.”
He added that the picture that seems to show Mays and his client carrying the girl from one room to the next as she’s seemingly unconscious is not what it seems.
“Out of context, it’s outrageous,” Madison said. “In context, maybe the shutter flashed when her eyes were blinking. I can tell you she was not unconscious.”
Madison also said that there was an adult present at that party, one of the parents of Jake Howard, a Steubenville High School student who hosted that particular party. But that’s not where the kids got drunk, he said. That happened at a different setting, where “there was no adult present.”
Nemann said he feared that his client and Richmond may not get a fair trial because witnesses who had agreed to testify on their behalf are now “reluctant,” fearful they’ll be targeted by the hackers.
Beyond their online activities, the hackers have also organized, via Twitter and Facebook, two in-person protests, including the one Saturday.
At that gathering, women who said they too had been victims of rape took their turn at the microphone and demanded justice. They talked of reporting their crimes only to be ostracized by their friends and told they “wanted it.” They talked of having to live in the same communities with their attackers, of watching those men accept awards for volunteering with young girls and of seeing their rapists approach their own children, decades later. One 11-year-old girl took the microphone and said she was afraid she would be raped someday and then broke down crying. A woman from Harrison County, the mother of a 9-year-old boy, said she told her son earlier that day that if he ever rapes anyone, “I will cut your penis off, shove it down your throat and watch you die slowly.”
Seventeen-year-old Haleigh Poch drove from nearby Rayland to attend Saturday’s protest. When it was her turn with the microphone, she said she had been raped by a football player three years ago, at age 14. She had developed a crush on him, she told the crowd, and one night at a party he lured her into a room and raped her after she fell asleep.
“I woke up with him inside me,” she told the crowd.
Poch didn’t file charges, she said, because she didn’t think anyone would believe her. And when she told her friends, they proved her right.
“We believe you!” someone in the crowd shouted back.
“I got new friends,” Poch said, sobbing.
Down the street, at The Spot Bar, loyal Big Red fans and Steubenville residents were every bit as impassioned—about the small town and coach and football program they say has become the unfair crux of a national conversation about rape.
“I’m a Big Red alumni and I’m embarrassed now,” said a stone-faced Larry Cutri. We’re in a small town here, and football is like our pleasure. I’ve known Coach Saccoccia all my life. His job is to have these kids’ trust. A lot of them come from crack houses.”
Longtime Steubenville resident Rocco Duco, 72, called his town “the safest joint in the world,” and the coach “the greatest coach in the world.” The anonymous people leveling charges on the Internet, he said, are “making a mockery of his town.” A few stools down, local Joe Mort said of the rape: “There’s people that does this shit all over the country. It doesn’t mean the whole town is bad.”
The boys that were charged, let the court system work that out, added Kenny Fazi, another Big Red alum and retired mill worker.
“Nobody knows what happened except the people who were there,” he said. “This will all come out in a court of law, just like any other case.”
Even before the case is heard, the hackers have gotten some of what they wanted. Big Red football player Cody Saltsman—targeted by them in part because he tweeted this summer “I have no sympathy for whores”—issued a three-tweet apology on Dec. 24:
“Although I was not at the home where the alleged rape took place, I would like to sincerely apology to the victim and to her family for posting an Instagram picture (of the girl being carried) and making rude comments on twitter. That was the worst decision I have ever made in my entire life and I regret it deeply. I was in the wrong by posting that Instagram picture and making those comments.”
When Saltsman first sent out those tweets, his account was private, his messages protected. Then, KYAnonymous tweeted at him, chiding the boy for hiding.
“If cody saltsman really wants to apologize publicly for this, tell him to unlock his twitter account for the public to read.”
Saltsman quickly wrote back:
“no longer private”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story opened with two quotes from a man who identified himself as “Joe Ovlitti.” That man appears to have used a false name, and those quotes have been removed.
The story also gave an incorrect Twitter handle for one of the hackers, and incorrectly stated that the hackers had created a Facebook page about the players who were at the party. The hackers created a website, but not a Facebook page. Those errors have been corrected.
Finally, an attorney for Michael Nodianos says his client has not continued to tweet about the alleged assault. An earlier version of the story stated that he did.