COLUMBUS, Ohio Authorities investigating rape accusations against two high school football players in eastern Ohio launched a website Saturday as interest in the case balloons, an extraordinary step designed to combat the misperception "that the football team runs the city," the city manager said.
Two 16-year-old boys are set for trial next month in juvenile court in Steubenville, a town of about 18,000, on charges that they raped a 16-year-old girl in August. Their attorneys have denied the charges in court.
Public interest in the case increased with circulation online this week of an unverified video, more than 12 minutes long, that purportedly shows another young man joking about the accuser. The video apparently was released by hackers who allege more people were involved and should be held accountable.
One aim of the website, City Manager Cathy Davison said, is to combat a common perception that Steubenville High School home of the "Big Red" sports program controls politics in a small city where special prosecutors and a visiting judge are handling the case because local authorities knew people involved with the football team.
"When people are saying that our police department did not follow procedure, that the football team runs the city, that is not the case," Davison said. "They went by the book. Everything was handled in an above-board fashion to make sure that the case can benefit from the fullest extent of the law."
Intended to sort fact from fiction, the website has the appearance of a legal briefing, with black type on a white background, providing an intentional departure from escalating emotions over the case and how it's been handled. It provides a timeline of the case, summaries of Ohio laws that affect sex charges, online posts and reaction to them and a pledge of transparency.
"It looks very generic, but it was meant to be (that way), because it's just the facts. There's nothing flowery about it," said Davison.
The site, sponsored by Steubenville city and police officials, explains that only a handful of police officers attended local schools and that the city manager herself is not even from Ohio. Its launch followed the hiring of a consultant who's helping the city handle a barrage of media attention sparked by the case.
The site declares it "is not designed to be a forum for how the Juvenile Court ought to rule in this matter."
Steubenville sits in a region of the state that's benefited economically from a recent shale gas drilling boom, and Steubenville got a boost when it was selected as the site of Gov. John Kasich's 2012 State of the State address, the first held outside the Statehouse in recent memory.
"Steubenville is a fantastic place to live, work and play," said Davison. "We have warm and loving people here, and this incident could be anywhere in America or the country or the world, and it's really unfortunate that it's tarnishing the city's reputation."
As investigation continues, it has spurred heated commentary online. Some support the defendants and question the character of the teenage girl, while others allege a cover-up or contend more people should be charged.
The latter group includes hacker-activists associating under the Anonymous and KnightSec labels who point to comments they say were posted around the time of the alleged attack on social media by people who are not charged.
At a second peaceful protest at the local courthouse in as many weeks Saturday, protesters, some wearing masks, gave details of their own rapes or those of relatives. They lamented what they said was a laissez faire attitude to sexual crimes in the community.