Character and Rape in Ohio

Written by William Boardman for RSN

If you Google “Steubenville Rape Case” you get more than 70 million results in less than a second. The trial of two juveniles is scheduled for February 13th, but a defense attorney is seeking a delay and a change of venue. This report offers a documented account of the initial events and investigation, and their context. Much remains uncertain or unknown, but it’s reasonable to conclude that the most credible information has not come from the participants, the authorities, or the mainstream news media. And it’s far from over. — wb/RSN

 

Steubenville community is revealed in rape case responses.

 

The girl was from another state, across the river, and didn’t go to the local high school, so she was disposable – apparently – not just to the high school football players who raped her or watched or took pictures, but she was also disposable to the lackadaisical police officers who investigated, to football coaches who testified as character witnesses for the accused, to the school authorities who let the football coach handle the situation, to the woman prosecutor with a football player son, and to all too many residents of the town of 18,000 with the need for a winning football team more on its mind than justice, or decency.

This image of the victim was posted online by Steubenville football player Cody Saltsman. (photo: Cody Saltsman/Instagram)This image of the victim was posted online by Steubenville football player Cody Saltsman.
(photo: Cody Saltsman/Instagram)

Although two of the 50 or more people taking part in the hours-long event were arrested eight days after the girl’s parents reported the rape, there is little evidence that the authorities in the town acted as responsibly and conscientiously as they should have at the time, or at any time since last August. Rather, they appear to have done as little as they thought they safely could, without obvious dereliction of duty, out of fear of (or agreement with) prevailing community standards of behavior and local power structures. Perhaps the trial will dispel that impression.

Teenagers Drinking Was OK With Community

That impression, however, is the picture that emerges in early January from publicly available coverage of the “Steubenville Teen Rape Case,” as one local Ohio TV station now brands it. The story is still evolving, attorneys are stepping up their media game, online observers of various sorts continue to weigh in, peaceful public demonstrations in Steubenville have drawn crowds in the thousands (another is called for February 2nd), people on all sides of the issues claim they’re being threatened (an unsubstantiated Facebook post on January 8th led the high school to shut downand add permanent, unarmed guards), and the accused are not scheduled for trial until mid-February.

On Saturday, August 11, 2012, the Steubenville High School football team held its last scrimmage before the start of the fall season and prepared to party that night at three or more local homes. At least one of the hosts would be one of the school’s 19 coaches (most of them volunteers). To no one’s apparent surprise, the venues offered beer and liquor to underage players and their friends. Even in retrospect, it’s hard to find anyone who thought this was an unusual event at the time. Steubenville loves its high school football team, though not everyone in town thinks that’s a good thing.

The party was on. Sophomore starting quarterback Trent Mays, 16, posted on Twitter: “Party at jake howraths!!!! Huge party!!! Banger!!!!”

Steubenville Has a Long, Checkered Past

Head coach Reno Saccoccia said that because he hadn't seen the Internet posts he had no reason to suspend players. (photo: Newbrough Photography/Roll Red Roll)Head coach Reno Saccoccia said that because he hadn’t seen the Internet posts he had no reason to suspend players. (photo: Newbrough Photography/Roll Red Roll)

Steubenville, Ohio, has had a reputation as a dark and dangerous place for generations, as a good many current and former residents sometimes ruefully attest. As The New York Times put it December 16th, in one of the few detailed accounts of August 11th and its aftermath: “The city once was teeming with so much gambling, prostitution and organized crime that Steubenville was given the nickname Sin City.” Today, reports allege a violent drug trade (including cocaine and heroin) as well as well-established gambling operations.

The city of 18,400 has been losing population since it peaked at 37,651 in the 1940 census; since 1980, the Weirton-Steubenville region has lost population faster than any other US urban area. But football fans still fill the newly renovated, 10,000-seat Harding Stadium, complete with press box and lights, for “Big Red” games. And the team has rewarded them over the years with undefeated seasons in 2005 and 2006, as well as a 68-game winning streak in regular season games that didn’t end until 2009. So if a group of the team’s 86 high school players referred to themselves as “The Rape Crew,” not many people took it seriously, or as anything more than adolescent bravado. (The New York Times and others omit mention of “The Rape Crew” in recent coverage, but extensive, mostly reliable background information provided by Local Leaks, an anonymous WikiLeaks-type website, offers enough verifiable detail to suggest that it was a real enough high school clique in August 2012.)

Fundamental Question: Did They Use a Date Rape Drug?

There are two basic versions of the August 11th party. In December, The Times summarized the end of the revels this way:

“By sunrise, though, some people in and around Steubenville had gotten word that the night of fun on Aug. 11 might have taken a grim turn, and that members of the Steubenville High football team might have been involved. Twitter posts, videos and photographs circulated by some who attended the nightlong set of parties suggested that an unconscious girl had been sexually assaulted over several hours while others watched. She may have even been urinated on.”

A darker version of the story has also been circulating for months, reported early in September by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as if it was already familiar news:

A protester asks a poignant question. (photo: Sutdog/OccupySteubenville/flickr)A protester asks a poignant question. (photo:Sutdog/OccupySteubenville/flickr)

“Officials continue to investigate details of the reports – that the girl was drugged into unconsciousness, ferried from party to party, raped and urinated on before ending up at home where her parents, discovering she was disoriented, took her to a local hospital.”

A few days earlier, the crime-oriented blogger onprinniefied.com reported that she had:

“… read many accounts of what transpired, but the end result was a young girl was brutally raped and attacked by members of the Steubenville High football team and it was videotaped and posted on the Internet. I am not solely pointing the finger at the football team because there were boys who took part in this attack who were also on the wrestling team, baseball team and track teams….”

Although some people continue to deny it, there seems little doubt that something awful and ugly happened for hours during the night and early morning of August 11-12, that it was perpetrated by teenagers, but that it went unnoticed by the adults hosting the parties and has been minimized as much as possible ever since by almost all of the other adults directly involved, except the sixteen-year-old girl’s parents. When they had last seen their daughter on August 11th at their two-story colonial house in Weirton, West Virginia, she was still just a girl who attended a religion-based school where she was an honor student and an athlete.

Aftermath: Agonizing Realizations and Questions

Sixteen-year-olds Ma'lik Richmond (top) and Trent Mays have both been charged in the case. (photos: file)Sixteen-year-olds Ma’lik Richmond (top) and Trent Mays have both been charged in the case.
(photos: file)

There is no credible public record of what the girl and her family went through all that Sunday or in the days after. The girl has said she had no memory of the evening before, from the time she was picked up to go to the party (early reports said she was given a “roofie” or date rape drug in the car). On Sunday, the parents – and the girl – couldn’t avoid learning about the party through social media, thanks to friends who told them about the flood of comments, pictures, and video circulating through the community. At some point on Sunday or Monday, the parents took their daughter to the hospital and notified the Steubenville Police Department. Very late on Monday, August 13th (recorded at 1:38 am on Tuesday), the parents went to the police station to deliver a computer flash drive on which, downloaded from the Internet, were incriminating words and images from those who had acted and watched.

Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty has been on the force for 23 years. He became chief 13 years ago, in the wake of a Steubenville scandal involving police patterns of making false arrests and using excessive force that resulted in a lawsuit against the city by the US Justice Department. In 1997, Steubenville became only the second police department in the country forced to sign a consent decree, promising to clean up its act – especially in handling domestic violence cases.

As a result, “Steubenville Facts” (the city’s website put up January 5, 2013) notes:

“Prior to the Chief of Police being permanently appointed to that position, he was vetted and approved by officials in the US Department of Justice, which was at that time monitoring a Court Consent Decree involving the Steubenville Police.”

Investigation: Who Was In Charge?

From the beginning of the gang-rape investigation, Chief McCafferty asked people to come forward if they had information. Five months later he was still asking. Only one witness had come forward, he told The Times. Three witnesses testified at a probable cause hearing in the fall.

The chief has complained publicly that the department has only one officer to investigate juvenile crimes, but the police department has 38 officers. It’s not clear from McCafferty’s public statements how seriously he took the investigation.

There’s little mystery about the identities of most of those involved directly and indirectly. For whatever reason, it took about four days after receiving the flash drive for the authorities to seek warrants for cell phones and iPads of party-goers, eventually collecting 15 phones and two iPads, many of which had been scrubbed clean by that time.

In early September, according to the Plain Dealer:

Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty. (photo: WTRF.com)Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty.
(photo: WTRF.com)

“Police said they were still awaiting results on other physical and biological evidence collected at a crime scene and a local hospital. Lab tests should also reveal whether the victim was drugged.”

In December, The Times was reporting that police said that a “medical examination at a hospital more than one day after the parties did not reveal any evidence, like semen, that might have supported an accusation of rape.” The Times went on, with an odd bias toward the police, saying that the flash drive:

“… was all the evidence the girl’s parents had, leaving the police with the task of filling in the details of what had happened that night. The police said the case was challenging partly because too much time had passed since the suspected rape. By then, the girl had taken at least one shower and might have washed away evidence, said McCafferty, the police chief. He added that it also was too late for toxicology tests to determine if she had been drugged.”

Besides implicitly blaming the victim, the chief’s assertions are clearly wrong. Why The Times accepted them uncritically is a mystery, given the availability of facts. While the passage of time – in this case something less than 48 hours – makes a difference, a medical exam is still relevant. Nor was it too late for atoxicology test, since date rape drugs can be detected in urine up to 72 hours later, and longer in hair.

Prosecutor Ignored Her Own Conflicts of Interest

The Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney, Jane Hanlin, actively participated in the investigation from the start, even though she personally knew many of those she was investigating, including her son – who was starting his senior year, was a lineman on the football team, and was one of its six captains. Reportedly, one of the August 11th parties was hosted by her son at attorney Hanlin’s house, a report she answered in January 2013 with a non-denial denial.

Hanlin, 42, who is married to a Steubenville police detective, became the first female county prosecutor in March 2011, following a unanimous vote of the Jefferson County Democratic Party Central Committee. Appointed to fill the term of the retiring prosecutor, she faces election in 2013. Up until her appointment she was an assistant prosecutor who also served as president of the Steubenville City Schools Board of Education. While serving in the prosecutor’s office, she has maintained her private law practice. She said at the time of her appointment that her goal was to work with county law enforcement:

Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane Hanlin. (photo: WTRF.com/WorldNow)Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane Hanlin.
(photo: WTRF.com/WorldNow)

“That will be my biggest focus – improving relations with law enforcement. The success of the prosecutor’s office only comes with cooperation with law enforcement. They put a lot of effort into catching criminals. Our job is to work with them to successfully prosecute the criminals.”

Hanlin had provoked criticism of her ethics in the spring of 2012 as well when, despite being a public prosecutor, she chose to testify as a character witness for a Steubenville High School graduate who was an older friend of her son. The graduate had pleaded guilty to two charges of felonious assault and faced a sentence of 2 to 10 years on each. After she and fours others testified in West Virginia on the graduate’s behalf, he was sentenced to 5 years probation and 250 hours of community service. Other conditions included abstaining from alcohol or drugs, random drug testing, continuing in Alcoholics Anonymous, and keeping a steady job.

Hints of the Old Boys’ Club of Steubenville

One of Hanlin’s biggest boosters for prosecutor was Jefferson County Democratic Party Chairman John Abdalla, who said Hanlin had won a conviction in every case she’d tried over the previous six years, all upheld on appeal, adding:

“Jane Hanlin takes the bad guys to trial and then shows them the prison door. That makes her perfect for the job.”

During the summer of 2010, Abdalla faced ethical questions as the result of the Ohio Inspector General looking into as much as $250,000 in missing road salt from the transportation department. The story and reader comments also refer to apparent political patronage: transportation department jobs dispensed through the Democratic county committee.

Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla. (photo: Robin Rombach/Pittsburg Post-Gazette)Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla.
(photo: Robin Rombach/Pittsburg Post-Gazette)

Although the Steubenville police had primary jurisdiction of the investigation into the events of August 11-12, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department also played a role. Steubenville is the county seat, and Sheriff Fred Abdalla is a Steubenville resident. In the fall of 2011, the sheriff worked with federal agents on the case of an Amish group terrorizing other Amish bycutting their hair. The case led to seven arrests. According to Abdalla, the leader of the Amish group is “evil,” an issued a death threat to the sheriff.

Although both the city police department (with primary jurisdiction) and the county sheriff’s office participated in the investigation, it’s not clear who, if anyone, was in charge. The investigators, now including the state attorney general’s office and the FBI, have said little publicly beyond indicating, as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said January 7th, that the investigation continues and there may be more arrests or no more arrests. Prosecutors have time - 2 years for misdemeanors and 6 years for felonies – to bring further charges if evidence supports that.

Evidence Was Gathered – Slowly

On August 17th, after collecting cell phones and iPads, and three days after receiving the flash drive, the police sought forensic assistance from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) in the attorney general’s office. After examining the materials, Joann Gibbs of BCI reportedly recovered two pictures of the victim, but said that deleted material could not be recovered from Apple iPhones.

On August 22, 2012, ten days after unknown persons left the still disoriented sixteen-year-old on the front lawn of her house, authorities announced the early-morning arrests of two sophomore football players, both 16 years old, with the possibility under Ohio law of being tried as juveniles or adults. WTOV News9 put the story on its Facebook page at 9:02 am.

The first two comments on the story were: “Its about time,” and “I can’t believe they arrested anyone at all, after all this is Jefferson County!” Another 50 or more comments that day mostly expressed similar sentiments, widespread familiarity with the story, and deep distrust of Steubenville authorities, who were then still in control of the case.

Two days after the arrests, under prosecutor Hanlin’s direction, the county charged the two boys as juveniles, although Ohio law allows for them to be tried as adults if the court is persuaded at a hearing that the evidence warrants the change. Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were both charged as delinquents, with the underlying charges of rape and kidnapping. Mays was also charged with illegal use of a minor, based on a photo in his phone. Both were starters on the football team, Mays at quarterback and Richmond as a wide receiver. Mays was also a wrestler, Richmond a highly-regarded basketball player.

Arrests, but Still Suspicions of a Cover-Up

They had both been arrested without incident after 1 am, one by the city police and the other by the county sheriff. As WTOV News9 reported later on the day of the arrest:

“… officials said the suspects could face additional charges and more arrests may be forthcoming….

“During the juvenile detention hearing, one of the teens had legal representation and the second suspect’s parent said they would obtain an attorney as well….

“The story is evoking much reaction from the public. The prosecutor’s office, the sheriff’s office and Steubenville police said they’ve all received an influx of calls from concerned citizens.

“[prosecutor] Hanlin said any claims of a cover-up are untrue….

“Hanlin said on Tuesday she would recuse herself from the case because she knows too many of the individuals …”

 

Alex Goddard, 'Prinnie,'  has been writing about and investigating crime cases for over 10 years, and is a former resident of Steubenville. (photo: unknown)Alex Goddard, ‘Prinnie,’ has been writing about and investigating crime cases for over 10 years, and is a former resident of Steubenville. (photo: unknown)

In this context of fragmentary knowledge and sweeping suspicion, the arrest news drew the attention of a veteran Ohio crime blogger who had once lived in Steubenville. Two days after news of the arrests broke, Alexandria Goddard, 45, started posting on her blog, prinniefied.com, because, as she commentedon December 30th,

“I wrote about the case to vent my outrage at everyone involved who did nothing to help this young lady. I am astonished at just how big this has gotten.”

National Media Miss Story, Blame Messengers

The first national coverage of the story had come from The Times two weeks earlier, and has since spread in mainstream media and on the Internet. In its initial story, The Times had snidely, but wrongly, blamed Goddard for the way the story has grown, while the paper equally snidely cast doubt on the victim:

“Within days of the possible sexual assault, an online personality who often blogs about crime zeroed in on those public comments and photographs and injected herself into the story, complicating it and igniting ire in the community. She posted the information on her site and wrote online that the police and town officials were giving the football players special treatment.”

In fact, Goddard’s first online post was August 24th, two days after the story of the arrests was widely covered. Three days later, Goddard posted the evidence she had collected from social media, material that was still available despite the efforts of partygoers to delete anything incriminating.

With Mays and Richmond in jail and the authorities making no further arrests, the story largely disappeared from the mainstream media, but remained a subject of intense feeling on the Internet. On August 28th, after managing the case for more than two weeks, prosecutor Hanlin finally recused herself, turning her authority over to state special prosecutors Marianne Hemmeter and Jennifer Brumby of the Attorney General’s Crimes Against Children unit, and they remain on the case.

Visiting Juvenile Court Judge Tom Lipps ruled that the defendants should be tried as juveniles. (photo: Mark Law/Weirton Daily Times)Visiting Juvenile Court Judge Tom Lipps ruled that the defendants should be tried as juveniles.
(photo: Mark Law/Weirton Daily Times)

Juvenile Court Hearing, Accused on House Arrest

On November 1st, Visiting Judge Tom Lipps held a two-hour hearing on the question of whether Mays and Richmond should be treated as adults by the courts. He heard from the defendants’ parents and attorneys, all of whom asked that the case remain in juvenile court. The prosecutors asked that the court treat the pair as adults.

“They knew better than to treat a girl as they did,” Brumby told the court. “Instead of helping her, they sexually assaulter her.”

The girl’s mother also testified as to her daughter’s continued suffering, ostracized by her friends and their parents, not sleeping much, crying at night. But as to trying the defendants as adults, she said only, “I thought about it over a million times, and I leave it in God’s hands.”

In the end, Judge Lipps ruled that the boys would be tried in juvenile court. He released them to their families on electronically monitored house arrest, allowed to leave home only for church or the special education program at the jail. He ordered them to have no contacts with others involved in the case, or with the victim.

She has her own form of house arrest.

 


William Boardman runs Panther Productions.