Community tries to move on a year after rape verdicts

STEUBENVILLE – The wound runs deep – so deep that some refuse to talk about it and others lash out at the very mention of it.

One year ago today, two Steubenville High School students went to jail for raping a 16-year-old Weirton girl in August 2012. But the Steubenville community as a whole, after grand jury proceedings and additional indictments along with an international spotlight, has been sentenced to a longer period of turmoil and social division.

At about 10 a.m. Sunday, March 17, 2013, Judge Thomas Lipps found MaLik Richmond, then 16, and Trent Mays, then 17, guilty of raping the Weirton girl following an underage drinking party in Steubenville. Lipps also found Mays guilty on a charge of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material for having a naked picture of the victim in an outgoing text message on his cell phone.

Lipps sentenced Richmond and Mays to spend at least one year in an Ohio Department of Youth Services facility, or until they turned 21 years old, on the rape charge. He also ordered Mays to spend an additional year in the youth center for illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.

Richmond in January was released from a youth detention facility near Cleveland.

As rumors of the assault surfaced in the late summer of 2012, people in Steubenville quickly took sides. Some blamed the girl, saying she put the Steubenville High School football team in a bad light and herself in a bad position by even attending the party. Many others supported the girl, saying she was a victim of what they believed was a hero-worshipping culture built around football players who believe they can do no wrong and a football team that lived above the rules.

To judge by comments and attitudes of some of those in Steubenville, much of that division remains even though both Richmond and Mays were found guilty.

On Thursday, three city business owners refused to publicly talk about how or if the city has rallied since last March. Their collective objections centered on the fact that their businesses depend on patrons from both sides of the rape case divide.

One patron at a downtown restaurant became visibly upset at even a mention of the case. He rose to his feet and spewed vulgar insinuations that the news media had tainted the image of his town. His complaints continued as he exited the restaurant and walked up the street, thrashing his arms and repeating obscenities about the media and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Following the rape verdict, DeWine’s office spearheaded a grand jury investigation that resulted in indictments against five Steubenville City Schools employees, including the superintendent. Not all of the charges related directly to the rape case.

In a press conference announcing the indictments in November, Mike DeWine said the grand jury’s work was done and no more arrests would be made.

“This community needs to heal,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”

But the community has yet to do so. Some of the cases have been resolved, while others remain mired in the legal system, prolonging the pain.

Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty and Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla agree that the healing process will not begin until all court proceedings are resolved.

“This will not be over until the attorney general is done with his investigation,” McCafferty said.

Abdalla said, “Healing will not come until after the trials are all over. Every time one of them is in court, it makes headlines.”

McCafferty said he has not heard anything about the case during the past year and he believes much of the animosity throughout town stems from some groups’ dislike of the Big Red football program.

“We have people from all over the Tri-State Area coming into our town to work, shop and conduct business,” he said. “We also have a strong Big Red fan base. I really believe a lot of the disagreement comes from the fact that some people just do not like Big Red, and the false propaganda spread across the Internet fueled the fire.”

Some of that propaganda dealt with McCafferty’s department, and accusations that his officers covered up the crime. Nothing in the grand jury investigation indicated any basis for such claims.

Jerry Barilla, who has owned Frank and Jerry’s Furniture and Appliances on North Fourth Street, wants to rid Steubenville of the stigma brought on by the rape case.

He said the football team’s history of success makes it a target for negativity.

“A lot of people think football is the premier focus in our community and everything revolves around sports,” he said. “That is not the way Steubenville should be portrayed. The idea that we would cover up and hide a horrible crime in the name of sports is ridiculous.”

He said national and international media attention “threw everybody under the bus” in a negative way.

“We are good people,” he said. “We are a faith-based community, and we know right from wrong. Every community in the Ohio Valley loves its sports. Steubenville is no different; and it is not accurate to say we would do anything to protect it.”

Barilla said the community needs to come together from all areas to promote healing.

“I think city and county officials, business men and women, medical and educational leaders and even students need to come to the table and outline a plan to focus on the city’s positive assets,” he said. “Together, we can change our image and find healing.”

He points to many positives in the city as proof that things can, and will, get better.

Barilla also said much of the healing process hinges on people learning the biblical principles of forgiveness.

As for the victim, who is preparing to graduate from high school, a family friend said she is looking at colleges and working to get her life back to normal. The girl’s attorney, Robert Fitzsimmons, could not be reached for comment.