In Steubenville, Hundreds Protest Police, Social Media Response to Alleged Rape
By Marylynne Pitz
STEUBENVILLE, OH Jan 6, 2012 — For more than three hours Saturday, chants, signs and speeches filled the cold air outside the Jefferson County Courthouse as a crowd of 800 to 1,000 people demanded a more thorough investigation into the alleged rape of a 16-year-old West Virginia teenager by football players from this economically depressed Ohio Valley community.
Two members of the Steubenville High School football team, Trent Mays and Malik Richmond, both 16, have been charged with assaulting the young woman last summer and face trial in February.
The case has attracted national attention because of recent Internet postings, including a 12-minute video of a former Steubenville student recounting the alleged sexual assault in graphic detail. Initially, online conversations focused on a series of alcohol-fueled parties attended Aug. 11 by football players in which the girl, who was inebriated and largely unresponsive, was carried from place to place, photographed and assaulted, according to witnesses. Later postings featured criticism of the teenagers’ behavior and the investigation that followed.
"I will not stand idly by and let a young girl’s life be ruined because she believes everyone is apathetic," said Sable Foster, a 23-year-old Kent State University senior who spoke to the crowd using a bullhorn.
Later, Ms. Foster said the initial investigation by Steubenville police lacked thoroughness.
"We need the actual culprits. It takes more than two people to … transport a body from party to party. There are some liquor stores that will sell to Big Red [Steubenville High School] football players. We don’t want to see it tried in juvenile court. That’s an adult crime."
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is leading the prosecution because the local prosecutor and judge recused themselves.
Saturday’s demonstration was organized by the online activist group known as Anonymous, which has taken a role in keeping national attention on the case. Members of the group have hacked into email accounts and websites of people connected to the alleged crime and have posted images and documents online, including the 12-minute video of the former student recounting the rape. Anonymous supporters wear the Guy Fawkes mask made popular in the film "V for Vendetta," and many such masks were present at Saturday’s demonstration.
Milissa Snider of Wintersville, Ohio, carried a placard that read, "Your ‘Rape Crew’ is Over," a reference to what some of the football team members are said to have called themselves.
More than a dozen women stood in front of a microphone on the courthouse steps. Many spoke briefly and some wept openly while recounting their experiences as rape survivors. One woman, who gave her name as Robin, said she was molested 58 years ago.
"How proud I am of this woman for standing up. It is not your fault," she said.
James Lancaster, a father of five who lives in Steubenville, applauded the women. Like some demonstrators, he wore a mask but removed it before speaking.
"These are our daughters, our sisters, our wives. We need to teach our children right from wrong," said Mr. Lancaster, who works as a mental health coordinator for the mentally handicapped.
Over and over, the protesters demanded the resignations of Reno Saccoccia, the Steubenville High School longtime football coach who was criticized after the incident for not disciplining other players who were at the party, and Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, who they say has not taken enough responsibility in the investigation.
Sheriff Abdalla watched the crowd before addressing it. He was dressed in uniform and wore a teal ribbon, a visual sign of support for rape victims.
Nancy Snodgrass, 49, of nearby Follansbee, W.Va., said she would have walked three miles to attend the demonstration but hitched a ride with a friend.
"These women are so brave to step forward. We need to stand up for these women."
Ms. Snodgrass criticized Sheriff Abdalla.
"He’s playing Pontius Pilate. He should be doing something about this," she added.
Sheriff Abdalla called the women’s stories heartbreaking. He told the protesters that he advises third- and fourth-graders to be wary of strangers and warns them to watch out for relatives, too, because, "We’ve arrested fathers and grandfathers and stepfathers and boyfriends."
After a demonstrator asked him when he first saw the 12-minute video, Sheriff Abdalla replied, "The first time I saw it was three days ago."
"Liar, liar, pants on fire," the crowd shouted.
Sheriff Abdalla responded to reporters’ queries as he left the courthouse steps.
He said the boy who narrates the 12-minute video "wasn’t there when the alleged rape happened. He made that video based on what people told him," Sheriff Abdalla said. "Three individuals witnessed the sexual contact."
Earlier in the day, Steubenville City Manager Cathy Davison spoke at a news conference to unveil a website called SteubenvilleFacts.org, sponsored by the city and its police department "to disseminate the most accurate information" about the case.
During Saturday’s briefing, Ms. Davison did her best to put distance between the city’s seven-member council and local authorities.
The Jefferson County prosecutor and sheriff, she said, are elected by county residents.
"The city has no authority over the schools or the prosecutor," Ms. Davison said. "The city does not run the school or the football program."
Steubenville police Chief William McCafferty said police obtained the 12-minute video, narrated by a male teenager, in August.
He said some folks received harassing phone calls and one man had to turn off his phone.
Brian Yontz, a 21-year-old security guard who grew up here, and his aunt, Michele Thomas, were among the first to arrive for the rally and came with a pile of colorful signs.
"No football player should think that they can do whatever they want and get away with it," Mr. Yontz said.
Mr. Yontz, who played left tackle on the football team and graduated from Steubenville High School in 2009, said he left the team in his sophomore year after missing several practices because his grandfather, who later died, was gravely ill.
Coach Soccaccio, Mr. Yontz said, "thinks football is above everything else, and it’s not."
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648 .
First Published January 6, 2013 12:00 am