STEUBENVILLE - Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane Hanlin said she had to sit mum since the beginning of the Steubenville rape case while rumors spread over the Internet and within the community about a coverup.
Hanlin said she was bound by professional ethics not to discuss the evidence gathered prior to her stepping aside for special prosecutors from the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
Hanlin now says she is allowed to discuss the case since Trent Mays, 17, of Bloomingdale and Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, of Steubenville were found delinquent by visiting Judge Tom Lipps of rape in connection with an incident involving an intoxicated underage girl on Aug. 11-12. Mays also was found delinquent of a charge of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material for having a picture of the 16-year-old victim in an outgoing text message on his cell phone.
Hanlin said the girl's parents came to City Police on Aug. 14 to report the rape. The parents brought in the widely seen Michael Nodianos YouTube video, a copy of the Instagram picture of the girl being carried out of a party at the Howarth house and a printout of various messages on Twitter.
Hanlin said the girl remembered being at the Belardine house on Wilma Avenue, but not much after. She has a vague memory of sitting in the middle of a street vomiting. She then remembers waking up at the Cole house the next morning, naked under a blanket.
Hanlin said she met with then-police juvenile Detective J.P. Rigaud on Aug. 14 to review the Nodianos video. She said she recognized voices and faces in the video and a list of persons to interview began.
"We formed a starting point as to who would be interviewed and where to go next," she said.
She said she was able to go on Twitter and began printing out posted messages related to the case. By Aug. 16, she and Rigaud had identified individuals who they believe were at the Howarth and Cole houses.
She said Riguad and another detective were interviewing those people.
Hanlin noted she stayed in contact with Rigaud as to the results of those interviews.
"It is important for people to understand what was going on in those first days," she said.
The first search warrant was signed by Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. at 11:53 a.m. on Aug. 16, two days after the victim's parents came to the police station. That search warrant was for the cell phones of Nodianos, Cody Saltsman, Mays and Evan Westlake. Numerous other search warrants were obtained in the next day or two, all based on an affidavit of Riguad stating information obtained in the early stages of the investigation, including the Nodianos YouTube video.
"It became clear which cell phones we needed to have seized and quickly, because of any hope the evidence was still on the phones," she said.
"The greatest lie ever told was the case was being swept under the rug. It was the exact opposite. I don't think J.P. slept in those first couple days. I know I didn't. There was more dedication to the case from the moment it hit the police station than any other case I have seen," Hanlin said.
She said the group of people who needed to be interviewed moved much quicker because she was familiar with them than if an outside group of investigators had become involved.
Hanlin said she made contact with the attorney general's office on Aug. 21 about transitioning the case from her office to the attorney general and began researching how to get a special prosecutor appointed through a judge.
Police continued to investigate people who were at all three houses - Belardine, Howarth and Cole.
She said all the work done in the first 48 hours was done by local police.
She discounted any claims by bloggers and the group Anonymous that they uncovered evidence that broke the case open. She said City Police already had all that information.
"They (bloggers) exposed what happened to the victim over and over," Hanlin said of the Nodianos video and the picture of her being carried out by her arms and legs. "The (Nodianos) video would have been seen by about 50 people instead was seen by 500 million people. The victim's representative said that was not helpful to the victim. It was hurtful. It was pointless because it didn't bring anything to light that we didn't already have," Hanlin said.
She said the Coles gave voluntary permission for their house to be searched on Aug. 16 by City Police and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation because of the realization something happened at the house. It was during that search a blanket was found that was later determined to have semen from Mays, Hanlin said.
She said numerous juveniles voluntarily came forward with their parents to the police station to be interviewed.
She said the teenagers didn't realize it was a felony crime in Ohio to take pictures of a nude person.
"A lot of education needs to be done, from drinking to using cell phones to taking naked pictures or a person engaging in a sexual act. They need to know it is wrong and it is criminal," Hanlin said.
She said the case puts emphasis on the use of social media by teenagers and the need for parents to be monitoring their children's use of social media.
"It is part of parenting to monitor what kids put on Twitter," she said.
"I have no idea how the notion of a local coverup and a disinterest in not prosecuting (the case came up). We were working morning, noon and night, around the clock. Not a single piece of evidence presented at the probable cause hearing and the trial was not uncovered by the work of local law enforcement or (BCI) agents. Nothing was provided to us by non law enforcement.
"There was a furor on the Internet about things being brought to light, but that information was secured in 48 hours. We couldn't comment because we were still getting information and still determining who needed to be interviewed. We couldn't say anything to harm the investigation. We couldn't taint the investigation on what we wanted witnesses to say," Hanlin said.
"We allowed the rumors (on the Internet) to be repeated over and over even though there wasn't a grain of truth to them. They (Mays and Richmond) were found delinquent because of the information seized by local law enforcement in the fist days," she said.
Mays and Richmond were arrested in the early morning hours of Aug. 22.
Hanlin said Rigaud conducted interviews late into the night of Aug. 21. She said two eyewitnesses were interviewed several times by police.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 22, Hanlin said it was "absolutely clear to us" that a sexual assault had been committed by Mays and Richmond.
She said the investigation was able to fill in gaps and the meanings of the Twitter messages.
Hanlin said she was not present during any of the interviews with the teenagers and never met with the family of the victim. She denied there was any pressure from her office on the victim or her family not to go forward. In fact, she said said the victim's father, a couple days after reporting the rape, contacted Rigaud and asked the investigation be called off. Hanlin said she talked with Rigaud and it was decided it would not be in the best interest of justice, the victim or other potential victims not to keep pursuing the case.
"One of the hardest decision as a prosecutor is to file a first-degree felony against 16-year-olds, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. At that point, we were 100 percent convinced they did it," Hanlin said.
One thing they didn't have was an actual video of the sexual assault. Numerous seized cell phones were tested by BCI and Hanlin said she believed something would have been found. She said she has had child pornography cases where files are deleted on computers and BCI was able to retrieve the images. But that wasn't the case with iPhones because the deleted pictures cannot be recovered.
"We had to keep conducting interviews because we were not sure the crime lab could recover any video." she said.
Hanlin said how the case was to be prosecuted changed when the lab said it couldn't recover the video.
"We had to rely on witnesses. Neither Trent Mays or Ma'Lik Richmond gave a statement. The victim couldn't remember. In criminal cases like this, you have to rely on eyewitness testimony and corroborate it with other evidence," she said.
Hanlin said there were no promise of immunity made to witnesses on the local level.
The prosecutor's office on Aug. 27 filed a motion for Mays and Richmond to be bound over to adult court. Hanlin said that was done to preserve the timely rights of the special prosecutors from the attorney general's office. That same day the case officially was turned over to the attorney general's office.
She said she had a telephone conference with the two special prosecutors and briefed them on the investigation and everything that had been discovered up to that point.
"I followed that up with an e-mail so they could hit the ground running when they came to Steubenville with the names and phone numbers of who was cooperating," Hanlin said.
She said she also provided space at the prosecutor's office for the special prosecutors.
During the trial, witnesses were kept in offices at the prosecutor's department in the justice center. She said there were notes taped to the doors with the names of the witnesses.
Hanlin said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine during his press conference after the trial said there was no evidence of a coverup in the investigation.
As for the special grand jury, Hanlin said DeWine wants to ensure to the residents of Jefferson County that every person who had knowledge of what happened that night is presented to the special grand jury.
"He was careful to say that additional charges may or may not be filed," she said.