200 turn out for rally, as Steubenville feels scrutiny amid rape case
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Tens of thousands of rapes occur every year in the United States, but few draw as much scrutiny as a case pending here involving a teenage victim and two high school football players.
An estimated 200 people turned out on Saturday for a rally outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, the third since the arrests in the summer. Previous rallies drew as many as 1,000 people.
Despite cold temperatures and a light but steady snow, some people drove for hours to attend.
“As long as we continue to treat athletes like heroes and women like whores, we'll always have this problem,” said Jennifer Battleman, 41, who grew up in nearby Wintersville but traveled from her home in Virginia to attend the rally. She said a high school football player raped her when she was a teen, and she now works for Sisters of Jane, a group that helps victims of sexual assault.
“It's important for rape victims to know that they're not alone,” Battleman said.
Steubenville High School football players Ma'lik Richmond and Trenton Mays, both 16, are accused of raping a semiconscious 16-year-old girl on Aug. 11.
Prosecutors say the suspects attacked the girl at parties attended by many drunken teens, including other members of the football team.
Richmond and Mays have denied involvement, their attorneys say.
A judge ruled that their March 13 trial in Steubenville will be open to the public.
People familiar with the case say a combination of factors attracted international publicity to the rape allegations, including a determined crime blogger, a group of online “hacktivists” who leaked evidence and disturbing images from that night, and even a brutal but unrelated rape case in India that grabbed headlines in December.
The attention brought allegations of a cover-up against police authorities and ridicule of the town for what some consider unhealthy hero worship of Steubenville High's wildly popular and successful Big Red team. On Friday nights during football season, up to 10,000 spectators cram into the stadium on a hilltop overlooking downtown.
“Football is the Ohio Valley, and the student players are treated like sports royalty,” former resident Alexandria Goddard, 45, of Cleveland wrote on her crime blog Prinniefied.com.
Many at the rally said Steubenville is home to good residents and lamented what they believe is a national perception that people here are rape apologists.
Kelly Cunningham, 44, of Canton attended with her 10-year-old son, Cooper. They have family in Steubenville and said they wanted to “support the town and good people of Steubenville.”
“We think it's wrong what happened to that girl,” Cunningham said.
Motioning to her son and his cousins who live in the city, she added: “We don't want them to grow up thinking this is OK.”
Goddard blogged about the case in late August shortly after the arrests. She published disturbing tweets posted by people who attended the parties; many of them joked about a girl's rape.
Though she continues to blog about the case, she did not respond to emailed requests for comment. Her attorney, Jeffrey Nye of Cincinnati, said Goddard is “burned out” on the case and will not give interviews.
The “hacktivist” group Anonymous got involved, publishing leaked evidence — a transcript of the probable cause hearing that contained the girl's name. Members of Anonymous, who hide their identity, could not be reached.
Dozens of people at the rally wore masks, the symbol of Anonymous.
Steubenville police Chief William McCafferty said the swiftness with which social media spread “propaganda and misinformation” about the case was stunning.
“It's a good thing Hitler didn't have Twitter, because we might all be speaking German,” he said.
The chief acknowledged that much of the evidence that led to the arrests came from players' Facebook and Twitter accounts, “so if it weren't for social media, we might not have even known about the case.”
McCafferty denies a cover-up took place and said football players do not receive special treatment.
“From what I understand, we arrested the would-be starting quarterback and probably the best athlete on the team,” McCafferty said. “But we're covering something up?”
Faceless online sources leveled personal attacks on him, McCafferty said, including letters and emails accusing him of being “pro-rape.” One person leaked a 15-year-old photo of the chief from a Jamaican cruise in which he wore a thong swimsuit.
“Just personal attacks,” McCafferty said. “It has nothing to do with the case. It's just a shot at me. Some of them are halfway funny.”
Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla finds nothing funny about online threats to “shoot up” the high school. The threats brought a lockdown.
“That really upset me,” Abdalla said. “They're going to come in and shoot up schools and kill students? It's disgusting and sickening.”
Authorities are investigating the threats, Abdalla said, and believe they know two people involved.
The graphic nature of the crime contributed to the hype, officials said.
Goddard blogged about a 12-minute video from that night in which a former high school student, whom authorities identified as Michael Nodianos, 18, joked about the rape while others laughed off-camera.
“I think what (I) most find disturbing is the lack of empathy and compassion from so many of those who witnessed the brutality,” Goddard wrote. “What kind of person stands by and watches gleefully as another is violated and publicly humiliated?”
McCafferty said he, too, is disgusted that many people apparently knew about the abuse but failed to stop it or report it to police.
Such behavior is not uncommon, said Jonathan Vallano, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
“It's disingenuous when we criticize people for not stepping in,” Vallano said. “We know through years of research that the majority of people, when they see a crime or an abuse occurring, do not step in. It's not like the majority of people help and those who don't are deficient as human beings.”
Lee Stranahan, a Dallas blogger who pays attention to Anonymous and its connections to Occupy Wall Street protests, said a shocking rape case in India helped fuel controversy about the Steubenville case.
A 23-year-old woman, gang-raped by six strangers in December on a New Delhi bus, later died from her injuries. The attack sparked protests in cities throughout India.
“The India rape case became an international story, and for understandable reasons, people here were ready for an American equivalent,” Stranahan said. “People were so outraged by the India rape that they transferred that anger and angst to the Steubenville case.”
Longtime Steubenville residents said they hope the anger passes so residents can focus on separating truth from rumor, then punish the guilty.
Jerry Borilla, 72, a lifelong Steubenville resident, supports the football team. He is president of the town's main tourist attraction, Historic Fort Steuben.
Borilla said he gets negative emails from people vowing never to visit. “You're nothing but a redneck, rapist town,” he said one person wrote.
“There's not a person in this town who doesn't have remorse for that poor girl,” Borilla said. “It's ugly. ... But how do you condemn an entire city for that?”
Chris Togneri is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.