A few hours before Steubenville High School’s first football game of the 2013 season, a six-year-old held my hand and showed me the two photos of cute teenage boys on her “big girl” bedroom walls: Justin Bieber and Cody Saltsman. She wore a tiny jersey with Cody’s number—he’s a senior wide receiver/defensive back for “Big Red,” as the team is nicknamed—and a black and red hair bow. “When will we see cousin Cody?” she asked me every few minutes. Cody isn’t really her cousin. But in Steubenville, Ohio, population 18,000, everyone knows everyone; it wouldn’t be a stretch if he were.
If Saltsman’s name sounds familiar, you probably followed the Steubenville rape case along with much of the country. Last August, former Big Red sophomore football players Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond were charged with kidnapping and raping a 16-year-old girl—Saltsman’s ex-girlfriend—from a town across the river in West Virginia. The girl, who attended a private religious school but was friendly with the Big Red guys and had been frequently texting and tweeting with Mays, said she was so drunk she had no idea what happened that night until she saw kids gossiping about it on social media. Six days later, her parents filed charges, armed with texts, photos, and videos that appeared to offer a horrifying timeline of events. Nicole Lamantia, a 29-year-old fourth-generation Steubenville resident married to a Big Red football coach—their daughter is the Cody fangirl—said the town was appalled.
“Here’s this story about a young girl who was kidnapped from a volleyball game, driven across state lines, drugged, stripped naked, repeatedly gang-raped, tossed in the trunk of a car, urinated on, defecated on, and left for dead in a field,” said Lamantia, recounting initial reports. Internet vigilantes fueled the outrage by insisting the rape was orchestrated by Saltsman as revenge and covered up by town leaders to protect their Big Red superstars.
Although many of these claims were reported by countless mainstream media outlets, none of them turned out to be true.
Last March, Mays and Richmond were sentenced to a minimum of one year in a juvenile prison for penetrating the victim with their fingers, an act that constitutes rape in Ohio. Mays was given an additional year for photographing a minor naked. Both boys will have to register as sex offenders every six months for the next 20 years unless they can prove they deserve otherwise.
The web’s citizen detectives and truth crusaders didn’t uncover any evidence that escaped the police’s attention, but they did launch a national conversation about sexual consent and entitlement. Does it matter if that greater good was partially based on headline-grabbing speculation?
Before I spent the last week of August in Steubenville, I only cared about the guilty verdict, which confirmed that two boys had raped a drunk girl and that three more, who were granted immunity to testify, had recorded and joked about the assault instead of reporting it. I criticized pundits who harped on the case’s details and mocked locals who defended themselves instead of acknowledging the role they played in contributing to rape culture, like the mother who told Dr. Phil that her son, a Big Red player who wasn’t involved in the rape, was “victimized” and Saltsman’s family, which sued anonymous internet commenters for defaming their “sincerely” apologetic son.
But when I interviewed parents, kids, teachers, and coaches at football practice, tailgates, dive bars and in classrooms — including key players who couldn’t talk on the record because a Grand Jury investigation is still pending — their faces temporarily eclipsed the bigger picture. It didn’t feel right to shrug when business owners told me their livelihoods were threatened by strangers who falsely believed they were complicit in covering up the rape, especially given that more than a quarter of Steubenville’s residents live below the poverty line. It’s difficult to tell a mother to suck it up when she recounts how her little kids were called rapists by an opposing Little League team, or how masked vigilantes terrified her children by camping out in her snow-covered driveway. If you Google the name of a 16-year-old girl who was out of town the night of the rape, you’ll find her photo alongside untrue claims she drugged and lured the victim to the party — should I have told her to stay quiet out of respect for the victim?
From my office in New York, I could rally against rape culture without sympathizing with any of these people. In Steubenville, I couldn’t look them in the eye and tell them I thought they were necessary collateral damage.
Fewer than 800 kids attend Steubenville High School, but Harding Stadium, equipped with a stallion statue that spits flames when Big Red scores, seats 10,000 people. The varsity team has won nine state championships and employs fourteen coaches (there are 27 football coaches at the school overall, some of whom are volunteers). I wandered around the school’s quiet grounds during the day, passing in and out of the building without any trouble to buy a Big Red T-shirt in a hall plastered with handmade signs proclaiming “Play With Your Heart” and “Fear Our Power.” Inside, both kids and teachers agreed that football players get special treatment.
“You can be a football player and literally not go to class,” one teenager told me. “The teachers treat them like golden eggs to cherish and hold.”
Longtime guidance counselor John Lee Gillison said Big Red players deserve recognition because they’re held to a higher standard. “Athletes, male and female, put a lot more time into school; maybe not academically, but they do a lot,” he said. “Yeah, they’re privileged. But they’ve earned it.”
But Mays and Richmond weren’t exactly football stars destined for epic glory; they were rising sophomores who had never played in a varsity Friday night game because they were arrested prior to the season. Why did major news outlets make them out to be local celebrities? For the same reason so many people suspected town leaders conspired to cover up the rape — the concept that Mays and Richmond were big men on campus fit in with the larger narrative and wasn’t inconceivably far from the truth.
Steubenville is definitely a tiny town — walk down the street with a local and it’s impossible to not to run into their aunt, kindergarten teacher, 8th grade science lab partner or all of the above — but the community’s close-knit nature isn’t as sinister as the press often implied. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told the New York Times that a months-long investigation found no evidence of conspiracy or cover-up by prosecutor Jane Hanlin or the Steubenville police, but intrepid wannabe detectives — and numerous media outlets who took their claims seriously — were already convinced that more Steubenville residents were to blame. "No matter what the result of the trial … the citizens of Steubenville know they have already been convicted of one thing: loving their high school football team so much, they are willing to overlook anything," wrote Bob Cooke at Forbes.
Townspeople who tried to set the record straight by talking to reporters told me they were dubbed victim-blaming rape apologists and received so many death threats they had to change their phone numbers and email addresses. Soon, they stopped trying. A year later, the resentment stands.
“We supported and still support Jane Doe 100%,” Lamantia said. “But the focus shifted when we watched helplessly as the media ripped innocent people apart we’d known since we were babies.” She said her priorities changed when commenters posted photos of her young children online and called for them to be raped because her husband is a Big Red coach. “That’s when this became less about Jane Doe and more about an entire town being destroyed for what two people did,” she said. “That’s when Jane Doe’s wellbeing took a backseat.”
I first read about the Steubenville rape a week after Mays and Richmond were arrested, when a reader tipped me off to Prinnified.com, a criminal justice blog run by former Steubenville resident and freelance legal consultant Alexandria Goddard. She got some of the details wrong, but it seemed obvious from the tweets, photos, and videos she collected that multiple teenagers had, at the very least, witnessed the rape.
The night of the incident, one high school student tweeted “Whores are hilarious”; another proclaimed that “Some people deserved to be peed on,” which Mays retweeted. Saltsman posted an Instagram photo of Mays and Richmond dragging his ex by her wrists and ankles as if she was a rag doll. “Never seen anything this sloppy lol,” he tweeted.
“Do they think because they are Big Red players that the rules don’t apply to them?” Goddard wrote. It seemed so.
The case blew up in December thanks to a lengthy New York Times article; a month later, Steubenville really went viral after a close friend of Goddard’s tweeted about it to KYAnonymous, the leader of KnightSec, an offshoot of hacktivist collective Anonymous. He was moved by the case and declared war on Steubenville, most notably leaking a 12-minute video of former Steubenville High student Michael Nodianos joking about the rape victim — “she was raped deader than Trayvon Martin!” — that received millions of views.
Local Leaks, a Wikileaks-inspired site that has a “working relationship” with Anonymous, released “The Steubenville Files,” a gigantic compendium of what the Atlantic Wire called “explosive but not exactly sourced revelations.” They were certainly explosive: tipsters claimed, inter alia, that prosecutor Jane Hanlin tried to pressure the girl into dropping charges because her son was connected to the rape and that multiple kids were part of a self-described “rape crew” that regularly drugged and photographed girls led by an adult who ran the football team’s fansite and paid boys for porn.
None of those allegations were true, but the media outlets that covered Local Leaks’ “revelations” seemed less concerned with veracity and more about the leak’s larger implications. “Regardless of how you feel about Anonymous (personally, I wish they were better at using spellcheck, because their frequent typos don't bolster my confidence that they're careful about pegging the right guys) or internet vigilantism in general, you have to admit it's nice to see a group of lawless internet hackers who really believe that rape is rape,” I wrote at the time.
Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, and even when it’s reported, it’s unlikely to lead to an arrest and prosecution — only about 3% of rapists will ever serve a day in prison. It’s easy to see why we all assumed there were more guilty parties involved in the Steubenville case — or, at least, bystanders and coaches who knew and covered up the rape, which many argued should count as misprision of felony under Ohio code.
Teens nationwide are ignorant at best when it comes to identifying sexual assault. The eye witnesses who testified in court said they didn’t know it was rape to digitally penetrate a drunk girl, a sentiment repeated by both teenagers and adults around town. Nodianos, the infamous video emcee, was never called to testify because police determined he wasn’t actually a witness and was just joking, however disgustingly, about what he thought happened that night. According to a recent poll by the Avon Foundation for Women, more than 50 percent of teens and young adults said they would have a hard time intervening in a sexual assault even if they knew it was taking place. Scott Berkowitz, RAINN's president and founder, called Steubenville a “teachable moment” about bystander responsibility because the public shaming was even more significant than the verdict. “High-profile cases force us as a society to try and do better,” he said.
A year later, adults in Steubenville still aren't very interested in having a productive discussion about rape culture. They'd rather talk about how they’ve been repeatedly burned by the media (the only mainstream journalism they’ve approved of so far is Ariel Levy’s incisive New Yorker piece, which dispelled the theory that “If not for Goddard’s intercession, the police would have happily let everyone go”).
Lamantia described how surreal it was to hear Roseanne Barr spread lies on Nancy Grace about how the victim was roofied by her ex and raped at multiple parties in a “small town [where] everyone seems to know everybody."
“If you’re just some person in Idaho or Texas, you’re going, ‘Oh my God, what is going on in Steubenville? Where are these parents? Where are these people?’ And then you’re us, sobbing, thinking how can you compete with Roseanne Barr? How do you even begin to tell the truth? Was [the rape] so wrong? Yes. Was it that? Hell no!”
Another popular topic in Steubenville is the so-called “innocence” of young men whose prospective scholarships and college acceptances now hang in the balance. Many believe Cody Saltsman is one of those kids. After Saltsman took the now-notorious photo of his “sloppy” drunk ex-girlfriend dangling from Mays and Richmonds’ arms, he left the party. The victim did, too—she wasn’t raped until later that night, first in a moving car and then in the basement of a house. Saltsman’s photo and tweets may be evidence of a culture that treats women as dispensable playthings, but it isn’t evidence of rape. Yet: Google his name and you’ll find that people are still convinced he planned an intricately savage gang-rape to get back at his ex-girlfriend.
Saltsman’s parents are doing their best to remedy that; last October, they sued Goddard and twelve anonymous commenters on her website for furthering that theory. According to court documents, Goddard often referred to Saltsman as “Cody Manson,” after the serial killer. In response to a comment on her blog that read "students by day ... gang rape participants by night," she wrote, "Cody Saltsman [is] playing tonight. [Coach] Reno, SHAME ON YOU." Commenters accused him of luring her to the party so she could be “drugged kidnapped, raped, sodomized, defecated on” before sending her father a photograph of the “planned revenge.”
The case was dismissed with prejudice, which means it can never be refiled, and Saltsman publicly apologized on Goddard's website and his Twitter account for posting the Instagram photo and related comments. "We believe that his remorse is genuine," wrote Goddard, adding that "some things written here may have created the impression that Cody was involved in the alleged rape, and we wish to clarify that we have no evidence of any such involvement, and it was always the position of this blog that the truth would come out in a court of law."
People in Steubenville understand why the image Saltsman captured — those thick, careless hands wrapped around the incapacitated victim's dangling arms and wrists — will stick long after case particulars fade. But they still insist that Saltsman is the “kindest boy you’ll ever meet,” a kid who “understands why what he did was wrong but doesn’t deserve to be called a rapist mastermind.” The world outside Steubenville soaked up the empowering verdict and moved on to other atrocities. Inside the town bubble, locals are incapable of following suit. The vigilantes who smeared Steubenville created a momentous opportunity to talk about rape culture on a national scale, but the locals they made examples of aren't able to join the conversation.
According to guidance counselor Gillison, Steubenville High School administrators spent much of last year talking about sexual assault and bystander intervention but are equally if not more concerned with helping the community move on. He said he understood how beleaguered his students felt because his wife had to calm him down after he heard opposing teams and restaurant patrons yelling rape-related insults around town last year. “It became personal,” he said. School superintendent Michael McVey said Steubenville City Schools have two scheduled related assemblies at this time that will “focus on making good decisions,” but that’s it. The consensus seems to be that a handful of kids acted poorly, but far more students were unfairly affected.
A dedicated group of Steubenville truthers still spend their days tweeting angrily about the case and lobbing personal insults at Goddard and her allies. “LMAO!! The town didn't turn on Alex!!” the Assistant City Prosecutor’s secretary recently tweeted. “The town turned on her lies, innuendo and rumor mongering!” Goddard’s ex-best friend’s mother calls her “Goddard the hog”; anonymous tweeters prefer “Nazi whore” (she was born in Germany) and have gone so far as to challenge her dead father’s decorated Vietnam vet status.
Goddard says she doesn’t understand why locals blame her for the spotlight. “These kids put their real names out there,” she said. “Parents need to accept responsibility for their children’s actions.” The online abuse is escalating, she says, and has taken a “physical and real life toll” — like Steubenville’s residents, Goddard doesn’t enjoy being under constant watch. “I do have days where I’m like, what the heck did I do,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable having people crawl up your butt 24/7 for an entire year.”
According to Brendon Sadler, a soft-spoken 22-year-old friend of the victim’s family, the only person who truly deserves privacy is the victim, who wishes both Steubenville truthers and supporters would move on. She’s “overwhelmed,” Sadler said, “because people won’t let it go. She’s appreciative, but she wants her life to go back to normal.” Both she and her parents declined Jezebel's request for comment.
Sadler acted as an intermediary between the victim and Anonymous during the trial; he’d text her activism updates and she’d respond, “That means so much to me!!! Thanks again. Please keep praying.” He admits Anonymous got a lot wrong, but believes vigilantes did more good than harm, as all-too-similar assaults happen “every single day.”
He’s right. Steubenville’s significance spread across the country: Young members of the national activist organization SPARK told the Times just last week that they were heavily influenced by the rape. According to over a dozen teenagers I interviewed in Steubenville and Weirton, the town where the victim grew up, the case impacted local young adults’ conduct and opinions about consent and sexual assault, too. Given the bigger picture, Steubenville locals are overreacting, Sadler said. “It’s a hot topic now, but it'll die off,” he said. “[The victim] will be affected for the rest of her life. They think they’re getting too much attention? How do they think she feels?”
Adults in Steubenville are sick of thinking about how she feels. Some locals who are now nationally recognizable thanks to the case said they couldn’t wait to talk as soon as the Grand Jury completed its investigation. “Oh, my land, are things going to roll off tongues,” one said with a wink. "We’re angry, and we want people to stand up and take responsibility for what they've done to this town,” said another. A few people told me they planned to seek legal action against Goddard and Anonymous; one said the FBI was involved.
"Yes, those two boys crossed the line,” said one parent closely connected to the case. “But why did KYAnonymous have to torture our town? Why were people sending death threats on Christmas Eve, ruining Christmas for everyone?”
No one or thing "ruined" the first Big Red football game of the season, except possibly the extreme humidity. Harding Stadium wasn’t as packed for Big Red’s opening game as I expected; everyone I asked said it was probably because locals had opted to watch college football in air-conditioned bars down the street instead.
I tailgated with Lamantia, her friends, and their kids in a Kroger's parking lot adjacent to the stadium before the game. High schoolers in crop-tops peacefully sprayed each other with sparkly red spray paint and posed for Instagram photo after Instagram photo while the adults ate wings and drank Bud Lite. We sat with the other coaches' families in a special bleacher section that resembled a daycare: toys were strewn about and kids were scrambling over the bleachers, away from their parents and into the arms of whoever would catch them before they careened off the railing. Lamantia’s husband still has a scar from when he tripped and hit his head crawling across those bleachers as a little boy. Their daughter attended her first Big Red game when she was seven weeks old.
Big Red creamed Detroit Central Collegiate 48-6. After the first quarter, the coach took some of the better players out so the younger kids could have a go. Everyone who stuck out the less than gripping game clapped heartily for Detroit when the team left the field.
The mother of one football player later asked me, “If we were such terrible, football-obsessed people, why would we have clapped?”
Photographs by Katie J.M. Baker