The small river town of Steubenville, Ohio, is in turmoil over an alleged rape involving high school football players, a 16-year-old girl and accusations of a cover-up.
Steubenville is nestled in the foothills of Appalachia at the juncture of Ohio and West Virginia, less than 10 miles from the Pennsylvania border. To the west, reclaimed strip mines, woods and hills stretch far into rural Ohio. Pittsburgh lies 37 miles to the east.
This is football country: the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns and Steubenville Big Red — a legendary high school team in the Top 20 in all-time football victories in the country — are all big here.
Critics say football's dominance in the town makes them suspicious that authorities have been lax in investigating allegations involving Big Red players last August, when a 16-year-old West Virginia girl was allegedly carried, unconscious, from one teen party to another and sexually assaulted.
Charges Of A Cover-Up
Two players were arrested and charged with the crime, but many locals think there were other players involved. Some social media activists have posted images, purportedly from the parties, that depict players who have not been charged with a crime. One video, of a now-former player joking about the girl's condition and treatment, caused worldwide outrage when it went viral a few weeks ago.
Accusations, recriminations and threats are flying. Schools were put on lockdown Tuesday after a student received a tweet that "there was going to be attempted violence at [a] school," says Cathy Davison, Steubenville's city manager.
The all-clear was given a few hours later, when no threat was found, and things returned to normal. But there is a new normal in "the Valley," as locals call the area: one of distrust.
Chasidy Corder of Wintersville, Steubenville's suburb to the west, is convinced by what she's seen online that there's been a cover-up to protect some Big Red football players.
"I don't understand how football came to be so much more important than being a human being and respecting people," Corder says. "It's crazy. This town is nothing anymore. They have Big Red football and it's a really big thing."
Others here strongly disagree. Even at a courthouse rally in support of the alleged victim last weekend, there was considerable yelling back and forth. In one exchange, a woman admonished another not to automatically accept that more players "had" to have been involved in the incident.
Social Media Fueling Both Sides
Sitting in Yorgo's restaurant, a local landmark, Ronald Greenberg urges caution when considering so-called evidence that has been posted on numerous blogs and websites.
"A lot of people have said, 'We weren't there physically, we didn't view anything that's happened,' " Greenberg says. "But many people in the community are aware of what they've seen on the Internet. Until the right people evaluate everything, tapes can be altered. So, someone needs to professionally define what has happened over the last few months."
Jane Hanlin, the local prosecutor, quickly recused herself from the case because her son is on the Big Red team. Davison says the city was scrupulous in trying to make sure that there were investigators not influenced by their love of football.
Police say they've interviewed nearly 60 people in the case and call their investigation thorough. Davison also defends the police. She says the city now has a website exclusively for images and information about the case that has been verified by the Ohio Bureau of Investigation — which she says was brought into the case just two days after the rape complaint was filed.
"We didn't have the workforce to go through everything," Davison says. "We requested assistance from the state, and that was on the 17th of August. On the 22nd, we had charges against two individuals."
A Request For A Venue Change
Delores Wiggins grew up in Steubenville and has been a community leader for more than 40 years. Charges of a cover-up aside, she understands why some here don't trust the investigation. But she says that the tension here historically has more to do with who runs the city than it does with football boosters.
"This whole situation is more than what meets the eye. Steubenville has become so political in the last 25 years," Wiggins says. "If you don't have the right name you could be caught up into something bad, and all this seems like it's going to be brought out. ... Maybe it's for the best. I don't know."
The trial for the two teens charged with rape was set for mid-February, but defense lawyers are now calling for a change in venue. They argue that the witnesses will not be forthcoming if the trial is held in a town still under fire from outsiders and struggling with charges of a cover-up.
Tim Rudell reports for WKSU in Kent, Ohio.