STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — The juvenile court in Steubenville held a hearing on Wednesday for a 16-year-old charged in a double homicide.
“I think there were two reporters there,” said Fred Abdalla, chief probation officer.
This week, that court will host another proceeding, a nonjury trial for two 16-year-olds charged with rape. But this one will attract so many journalists from across the country that the court has set up extra media rooms for them.
Steubenville, with its history of mafia figures, prostitution, and corruption, has seen media spectacles. But, Mr. Abdalla said, “Nothing like this.”
Malik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, both members of the popular Steubenville High School football team, are accused of sexually assaulting a drunk 16-year-old West Virginia girl after a party in August.
Prosecutors say the Mays youth penetrated her with his fingers in the back of a car while she was too drunk to know what was happening. The Richmond youth is accused of doing the same in the basement of a friend’s house later the same night.
On that level, this is just another sexual assault case like thousands of others across the United States. But this one has generated enormous interest because of a confluence of factors, including the revelation that some of those who attended the Aug. 11 party took cell-phone pictures of the alleged assault and then discussed it on Facebook and Twitter.
A 12-minute video also surfaced on YouTube featuring another drunk student, Michael Nodianos, joking about the attack, leading to criticism that police should have charged more people if they knew an assault had occurred.
Hacker-activist groups, including Anonymous, have since taken the lead in social media, claiming a cover-up by local officials because of the influence of the Big Red football team.
The swirl of social media posts and rallies by Anonymous members wearing Guy Fawkes masks has also touched on what some call a “culture of rape” they say is still condoned in America.
Even former porn star Traci Lords, a Steubenville native, lent her voice to the outraged, saying her rape in the city at age 10 led her into the world of pornography as a teenager.
The case has bred such a storm of rumors and negative publicity that city officials set up a Web site, Steubenvillefacts.org, to mitigate the damage.
In addition to a timeline of events and testimonials from politicians about how nice Steubenville is, the site attempts to assure the public that the investigation has not been tarnished by the power of Big Red football.
One entry points out that the police chief, William McCafferty, is not a graduate of Steubenville High, that his child attends another district, and that the special prosecutors brought in from the attorney general’s office aren’t from the area.
Ridiculing the victim
The site informs the public that “nothing in Ohio’s criminal statutes makes it a crime for someone to ridicule a rape victim on a video or otherwise say horrible things about another person. Further, nothing in the law allows someone who says repugnant things on Twitter, Facebook, or other Internet sites to be criminally charged for such statements.”
That entry is aimed largely at disgust over Michael Nodianos’ video.
The effort to punish him gained steam recently when the National Organization for Women presented a petition with 85,000 signatures gathered online urging the attorney general to charge the Nodianos youth with failing to report a crime.
“He might have been able to intervene and stop it, for all we know,” NOW official Jacqueline Hillyer told Attorney General Mike DeWine, last week in Columbus. “Somebody surely could have.”
But the evidence so far indicates the Nodianos youth was not a witness to the alleged sexual acts and learned of them after the fact.
Mr. DeWine said he will hold a news conference in Steubenville after the trial to announce if he will charge anyone else. His office had sent letters to three witnesses — Mark Cole, Anthony Craig, and Evan Westlake — telling them agents do not have enough evidence to charge them.
The Cole and Craig youths admitted they took images of the girl being violated, but police were unable to recover them. That’s the only reason the boys weren’t charged. All three testified at a preliminary hearing in October.
“Do you understand how lucky you are?” Assistant Attorney General Marianne Hemmeter asked the Craig teen.
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
Last week, Mr. DeWine said his office has not granted immunity to the boys but would not comment further. “I’m not ruling anything out or anything in,” he said.
Separating fact from rumor has been difficult from the case’s outset, but this is what happened Aug. 11, according to testimony:
The celebration started at the home of Kamy Bellardine and her brother, Matt, an assistant football coach, with about 50 teens drinking heavily. Among them was the girl, who lives across the river and attends a Catholic school.
The Block News Alliance does not identify victims in sex crimes.
Witnesses said she was extremely drunk. After two hours, Matt Bellardine told everyone to leave because the party was getting out of hand.
Mark Cole, a football player who arrived with the Mays youth, left in his Volkswagen Jetta with the Mays, Richmond, and Westlake boys, plus the girl and headed to the home of Jake Howarth.
The Cole and Westlake youths said the girl walked out with Trent Mays and screamed she wanted to go with them, so they took her. After a short time at Jake Howarth’s house, they were told to leave and decided to go to Mark Cole’s house.
The girl threw up in the street. Someone had removed her shirt by then, the Cole youth said, so she wouldn’t throw up on it. The Mays and Richmond boys held her hair back, the Cole youth said, so she wouldn’t vomit on herself.
The Westlake teen, the only one not drunk, drove the Jetta, with the Mays boy in the backseat with Mark Cole and the girl. During the drive, the Cole youth said, the Mays youth began “fingering” her. The Cole youth took out his cell phone and recorded the act because, he said, he was “being stupid.”
When they got to Mark Cole’s house, the Mays and Richmond youths carried the girl into the basement, where she threw up again. Mark Cole went upstairs, let his friend Anthony Craig into the house, and showed him the video he’d made in the car.
When they both went downstairs, they said they saw the girl lying naked on the floor with the Mays youth kneeling next to her and trying to get her to perform oral sex. The Richmond youth, they said, was lying behind her. The Craig youth and the Westlake youth, who was also in the basement, said they saw the Richmond boy penetrating her with his fingers while the Mays youth “smacked” his penis against her hip.
“I was stunned by what I saw,” the Westlake youth said. “I wanted to get out of there.”
“I tried to tell Trent to stop it,” the Craig youth said, and “don’t do anything you’re going to regret.”
He said the Mays’ youth’s response was “Don’t worry.”
The Craig youth said he took pictures because he wanted to be able to show the girl later “because I knew it was wrong.” But he admitted he never did show her, deleting the images and then lying to police he had not taken photos. Mark Cole said he deleted the video he took.
The finger penetration described by the witnesses is the basis of the rape charge, but state agents have no physical evidence. They seized more than a dozen cell phones, but only found two pictures on the Mays’ teen’s phone showing the naked girl but no sex acts.
Girl plans to testify
Complicating the case is the fact the girl, who will testify, was so drunk, she remembers nothing. Police had to piece together the events based on interviews and postings on Web sites and social media, in addition to the Nodianos YouTube video.
Although the defense has argued the girl was awake through the evening, the key for the prosecution is to prove she could not consent to sex acts. “The state doesn’t have to prove that she was flat-lined, but it’s clear during both of these digital penetrations she was not in the state to consent,” Ms. Hemmeter argued at the hearing. “Everybody agrees she’s puking. She’s puking on herself. People have to help her walk. She can’t talk. She’s stumbling. She’s puked at every residence she’s ever been at.”
She said the boys took advantage of her condition. “She was a toy to them that night,” she said.
Walter Madison, the Richmond youth’s lawyer, argued she was alert enough to give her cell-phone password to the boys. “If she chooses to have sex with more than one person, objectionable as the behavior may be, she may do that. That doesn’t make it rape.”
Attorney Adam Nemann, who represents the Mays youth, said the evidence is not strong enough for rape. “These were young boys that were stupid,” he said. “They got drunk together. There’s probably a lot of indiscretion on her part as well. … But what is consistent is that the evidence does not show that there was a sexual assault.”
The trial is likely to last three days.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Torsten Ove is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Torsten Ove at: firstname.lastname@example.org