The town of Steubenville sits in a valley on the Ohio River. Like Weirton, just over the river in West Virginia, and many more towns nearby, Steubenville has been hollowed out and shrunk since the steel mills began to close in the 1980s. When the kids finish high school most of them leave for college or work.
But Steubenville has done it tougher than most. In the 1990s its police developed such a reputation for violence, false arrest and abuse that the federal government was forced to step in. The US Department of Justice found the people most likely to be targeted were those that dared criticise the police or the city government.
Like in many other small towns in the US – like in the popular TV drama Friday Night Lights – Steubenville revolves around its high school football team, the Big Red.
The Big Red is better than most. In a streak that lasted more than three seasons up to 2009, the Big Red won 68 games on the trot. On a home game Friday night the school’s stadium is sold out – 10,000 of Steubenville’s population of 18,000 pack themselves into the stands. Hundreds more gather in nearby parking lots for tailgate parties.
When the Big Red scores, a sheet of flame explodes out of the mouth of a sculpture of a rearing red stallion called Man O’ War.
”The whole town worships the team,” says Alexandria Goddard, the blogger whose research made the rape a national issue. ”You ask any little boy in the valley what they want to do when they grow up. They want to play for the Big Red.”
August 11 was a big night. Summer had ended and the school year was about to start, and with it the football season. There were a bunch of parties planned around town.
About 50 turned up to one of them, where a makeshift bar was set up and kids drank beer and whisky, rum and vodka from red plastic cups.
One of those who attended was a 16-year-old girl from Weirton, the town across the river. She was the ex-girlfriend of one of the Big Red players.
Over the next few days news spread that on that night, the girl – drunk to the point of unconsciousness – was carried from party to party and raped along the way by a couple of team members.