STEUBENVILLE - National media flooded the city after a group referring to itself as "Anonymous" targeted the case of two Steubenville High School student-athletes charged with raping a 16-year-old Weirton girl, and officials on Thursday addressed the unsavory portrayal the area has since received.
"We're getting calls from all over the country from people calling us 'pigs,'" said longtime Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla. "I don't give a damn what someone in Washington or Colorado thinks. People in this county know they've got a good sheriff's department."
Malik Richmond, 16, of Steubenville and Trent Mays, 16, of Bloomingdale are facing rape charges in connection with the alleged incident. Mays also has been charged with the illegal use of a minor in nudity-related material. Their attorneys have denied the charges in court. Their trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 13 before visiting judge Tom Lipps.
In his tenure as sheriff, Abdalla mentioned, the department has investigated more than 50 murders that resulted in convictions and arrested more than 200 people for committing sex crimes against children. He contended that in this case, however, some members of the public believe there is a scandal in the sheriff's department.
"People are going to believe what they want to believe," Abdalla said. "They're going to continue to say cover up. If God could come down from heaven and tell people there's no cover up, they wouldn't believe it."
Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty said his department has been diligent in its handling of the case since the girl's parents reported the alleged crime at department headquarters in August.
"I know my department did nothing wrong," he asserted. "If everybody lets the court do its job and waits until they run their mouth, all the details will come out."
Although two 16-year-olds were arrested, some believe additional people were responsible for the alleged rape. As a result, some have speculated that police were guarding the Big Red football team. On Thursday, McCafferty called that notion "utterly stupid."
"That's got to be one of the most idiotic things I've ever heard - that anybody would risk their job to protect a high school football team," he said. "Who would do that?"
Earlier this week Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said his office did not grant immunity from prosecution in exchange for the testimony of witnesses who photographed and videotaped the Weirton girl on the night she allegedly was raped.
At a preliminary hearing in October, three other Steubenville student-athletes testified for the prosecution, saying they witnessed the defendants perform sex acts on the girl. One of the boys admitted to making a video of the alleged crime, while another confessed to taking a picture of the girl while she was unconscious and naked. None of those boys has been charged with crimes.
Walter Madison, defense attorney for Richmond, asserted Wednesday the state agreed not to charge the witnesses in exchange for their cooperation with the prosecution of the defendants.
"There was immunity given," Madison said. "They were granted immunity in exchange for their cooperation."
Adam Nemann represents Mays and could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but he has echoed Madison's claim about an agreement between the witnesses and the prosecution.
"We've made no deals with anyone," DeWine responded Wednesday.
Jane Hanlin, Jefferson County prosecutor said early today, "I am aware of Attorney General Mike DeWine's statement to the media that no offers of immunity were made by his office to any individuals or witnesses in this matter. I would like to add that at no time did the Jefferson County Prosecutor's office offer immunity or plea offers to any individual or witness."
Hanlin in August recused herself from the case because she said she personally knows individuals involved in the case.
City Manager Cathy Davison did not return calls seeking comment Thursday, but she was one of those behind SteubenvilleFacts,org - a website launched in response to the rampant rumors surrounding the case. The site is dedicated to disseminating the "real, factual story" about the alleged crime and investigation, it states.
Wells Academy was being praised one year ago for having the best test scores among Ohio public elementary schools. On Tuesday, Wells and all other city schools were placed on lockdown following an online threat of violence over the handling of the case. The district has since increased security at all schools.
"We have 2,450 kids in our school district, so hopefully one incident does not define us," Steubenville City Schools Superintendent Michael McVey said of the national media attention aimed at the high school.
McVey acknowledged that some parents may feel obligated to remove their children from Wells, which is housed in the same building as the high school, or other district schools out of fear of reprisals. The Steubenville Cyber Academy offers K-12 curriculum to any student learning from home, he pointed out.
School administrators will review records today to determine if the threat affected attendance or enrollment. McVey said he will release that information next week.
The Catholic Diocese of Steubenville also commented on the negative publicity the city has received over the case in a statement released Thursday from Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton, who was appointed in July.
"In recent months, the Steubenville community has attracted local and national interest in a context no community desires," Monforton acknowledge. "However unwelcome, we cannot and should not ignore our attention to these events and those involved. As we approach the court date for the case of alleged rape, hurt, shame and concern are abundant among all involved. Sides have been taken and emotions are visible for all to see. Our community is in need of justice and healing as best as can be determined by our civil means.
"Silence has proven an ineffective salve to ease the pain and suffering of social or familial wounds," he continued. "In these troubling days, self-reflection and prayer can be the most effective catalysts to guide our conduct and to nurture healing. As members of the human family, let us place ourselves in God's presence, requesting him to guide all involved in this case and the entire community of Steubenville through his mercy and his healing love. God will not abandon us and only wishes that we remember to turn to him in this and in all difficult times."