For months, a rape case involving high school students was big news only in Steubenville, Ohio. But when a persistent blogger dug up an unsavory social media trail, national attention quickly followed.
One month ago, most Americans had never heard of Steubenville, Ohio, or the alleged rape that happened there last year – just another local story in a country full of crimes big and small. But for millions of Internet critics, “Steubenville” has come to symbolize injustice and the classic small-town cover-up. How this changed so suddenly is a tale of the power of social media and “hacktivists,” digital muckrakers who know how to get attention and how to keep the pressure on.
Ohio authorities allege that on the night of Aug. 11, 16-year-old high school football players Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays raped an unresponsive 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, a quiet old steel town of about 18,000. The defendants have been publicly named by defense attorneys and family members, who say Richmond and Mays are innocent.
Until mid-December, blogger Alexandria Goddard, who describes herself on her website Prinniefied as a true-crime junkie and crusader for justice, was the only hound on the scene. In the months following the attacks, Goddard, disgusted by the alleged rape and documentation of the incident on Instagram and Twitter by other high school students, made it her mission to uncover facts about the case, name the perpetrators, and recover deleted photos and celebratory tweets sent out by Steubenville athletes after the alleged rape.
Today, Goddard has a lot of company following the case. The New York Times produced a Dec. 16 expose that caught the attention of hacktivists within sub-groups of Anonymous — a decentralized Internet group that uses data dumps and procured information to protest political causes and promote transparency.
Appalled that only two boys had been charged with a possible crime observed, documented and shared by so many, hackers banded together to release all the data they could surrounding the case. A cell within Anonymous called “Knight Sec” began unraveling what they called a conspiracy of silence to protect a group of high school football players known to fellow students as “The Rape Crew," hacktivists wrote on the citizen journalism platform Local Leaks.
Leaked photos from Aug. 11 include the now-infamous image of two athletes holding a motionless girl by her ankles and hands. The photo (uncovered by Goddard and disseminated by hacktivists) was posted on Instagram by Steubenville football player Cody Saltsman, who also tweeted after the attack that he’d “never seen anything so sloppy.”
The Saltsman family later sued Goddard for defamation after she alleged Saltsman was part of the alleged rape, but had not been charged. After reaching an agreement with Goddard, Saltsman publicly apologized for posting the picture, but maintained that he was not present during the time of the attack. Still, the image of the girl became the hacktivists’ linchpin, the photographic evidence they needed to draw America’s attention to the case.
Hacktivists also leaked video footage of former Steubenville high baseball player Michael Colin Nodianos joking about the rape victim being “dead” and boasting that the assailants “raped her more than the Duke Lacrosse Team.”
“She was deader than Obi-Won Kenobi after Darth Vader chopped his head off,” Nodianos said on camera. On Twitter, Nodianos left a similar trail of nasty remarks about the young woman, confirming investigators’ suspicions that she may have been urinated on during the incident. “Finally saw a dead body,” Nodianos wrote (though the girl did not die). “Some people deserve to be peed on.”
After the video was leaked, Nodianos’ lawyer called the athlete’s comments “disgusting” and “disappointing, insensitive and unfortunate,” but denied that his client witnessed any part of the assault. Nodianos, who was attending Ohio State University on an academic scholarship, according to the Toledo Blade, chose not to return to the school this term.
Aside from the individual perpetrators, Anonymous also targeted Steubenville officials with a vengeance. The town, Anonymous alleges, is rife with nepotism and corruption. Critics believe Steubenville authorities attempted to cover up the alleged rape because they were afraid it would damage the school’s football program — a major revenue earner and beloved institution in Steubenville.
Anonymous alleges that Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla — as a friend of Big Red coach Reno Saccoccia — helped in the hush-up by deleting cell phone evidence when he and his deputies confiscated electronic devices from the football players as part of the investigation, though this claim is denied by Abdalla and has not been confirmed by mainstream media. The group has also called prosecutor Jane Hanlin’s objectiveness into question, noting that her son is among those accused of being present at one of the parties the victim attended that evening. Hanlin, along with juvenile court judge Samuel W. Kerr, recused themselves from the case in August, well before the Anonymous data dump, citing personal connections to those involved.
Prosecutors told the Times that the case was especially challenging because so few students came forward with information (a claim backed up by the city’s police chief), and because the victim waited several days to report the crime, never submitting toxicology or rape tests and leaving investigators to parse through secondary material like photos, videos and written accounts.
Late in December, hacktivists associated with Anonymous took to Steubenville in mass to protest law enforcement’s response to the rape. After the highly-publicized releases last week, masked activists again took to Steubenville on Saturday, this time 1,000 demonstrators strong. At Jefferson County Courthouse, the group was met by Sheriff Abdalla, who confronted them about portraying him and the Steubenville Police as corrupt.
"I'm not going to stand here and try to convince you that I'm not the bad guy," he said to a disproving crowd. "You've already made your minds up." Abdalla was booed heavily during his speech.
The sheriff called Nodianos’ video and social media remarks stupid and disgusting, but said any cover-up would be unfathomable. “People have got their minds made up," he told Reuters. "A case like this, who would want to cover any of it up?"
Abdalla is one of many Steubenville and Ohio officials who’ve come out in recent weeks and defended themselves against accusations of favoritism and legal wrongdoing in the case. The town of Steubenville has set up its own website with a timeline of the rape case and details about juvenile law in Ohio.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the case is the many witnesses who apparently did nothing to help a person in distress. Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty told the Times that he’s disturbed no one interjected during the alleged attack and that more witnesses have not come forward to help her. “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,” he said.