Conversation centered on mill layoffs, the cost of COBRA health insurance and the relative attractiveness of Alicia Keys – she performed on "Ellen" – until the local 5 o'clock news came on with the latest updates in the trial set to begin Wednesday of two Steubenville High football players, each charged with the August 2012 rape of a passed-out West Virginia girl.
It wasn't long before almost everyone in the place was arguing with each other. Loudly.
The case of Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, both 16, continues to polarize this town of almost 20,000 in eastern Ohio. From the crassness of the charges to the videotape of the alleged incident, to the influence of the legendary local football program ("Roll, Red, Roll") on the investigation, to allegations of cover-ups, lies and cronyism, the case has festered on amid international attention after the hacking group Anonymous blew up the story this winter by ridiculing local authorities.
This is a classic small-town crime story set against the backdrop of a once-proud city dealing with the economic struggles of the Appalachian coal region.
And all of Steubenville's insecurities rushed to the surface as local leaders Tuesday again tried to defend the city's reputation during an afternoon news conference that claimed everything will be fine. "Our community has come together," city manager Cathy Davison proclaimed. "We're stronger, and regardless of the outcome of this traumatic experience and events, our community is strong."
[Related: Rape trial brings scrutiny to Ohio town]
Within the working ranks of a hardscrabble region, they mock such claims. Inside the bar, where the libations are more like truth serum, one finds the real Steubenville – the doubts and divisions, the tension and sadness, the friends fighting over the actions of some high school kids. Here Davison is a joke, and here the town gossip spins, and here the battle lines are prominently drawn – the "cops/football" vs. "the girl."
"It's 80/20 for the cops/football," said the bartender. "It's all about football here."
Others suggested that it's closer to 50/50, although no one knows for certain. In polite company, the case isn't worth discussing because it is so divisive. Of course, this bar during happy hour isn't about polite company, but not one person – not here, not anywhere else in town – wanted their name associated with the case.
If you rip the cops, they fear, the cops will target you. If you rip the girl, someone might see it differently, and they might be your boss or your boss' wife or who the hell knows these days.
"You can't afford to lose a job here because there aren't any jobs," one guy noted. "Anybody with any sense already moved out."
So anonymity was everything.
"This is off the record, right?" one guy said.
"Dan, I mean it, you're not going to screw me here, right?" he asked again five minutes later.
"I just got to check one more time, no names, right? I wasn't even here, right?" he said upon leaving.
"Who are you again?" I asked.
These are big, burly laborers, not the kind of people prone to fear, but in Steubenville it's just better to lay low and keep your complaints among friends over smudged glasses of Jim Beam, cans of Miller Lite and a steady stream of Marlboro smoke.
"You can't even name the bar," said the bartender.
The prosecution's version of events will go like this, according to court documents, a preliminary trial in October and news conference details:
Last August, about 50 teens attended a party at the home of a high school girl and her older brother, who is a Steubenville assistant football coach.
A16-year-old girl, who hails from across the river in Weirton, W.Va., and attends a different school, was among the crowd. She was soon extremely drunk or drugged.
When the party broke up, a football player named Mark Cole loaded up his Volkswagon Jetta with teammates Mays, Richmond and Evan Westlake. The girl came also. They went to the home of another player and, after a brief visit, decided to head to Cole's house.
At that point, the girl threw up in the street. Someone took off her shirt, they said, so she wouldn't puke on it. Eventually she was placed in the back of the Jetta, possibly completely passed out. On the ride over, Mays penetrated her with his fingers while Cole used a camera phone to videotape the act.
Upon arriving at the Cole home, Mays and Richmond carried the girl to the basement. She threw up again. Another friend, Anthony Craig, arrived. Cole showed him the video before the two went to the basement, where the girl was now naked.
Mays, the prosecution alleges, was kneeling and exposing himself, as he tried to get the possibly passed out girl to perform oral sex. Meanwhile, Richmond penetrated her with his fingers. Craig took pictures on his camera phone of the incident. No one stopped the attack.
Prosecutors say the girl had no memory of the incident and there is no physical evidence, but because of the photos – including one of her limp body being carried by only her wrists and ankles – and descriptions of the night on social media, word of the alleged rape leaked out. One high schooler tweeted: "Song of the night definitely is 'Rape Me' by Nirvana."
Two days later, the girl's parents took her to the hospital and later went to the police with a flash drive of pictures and information from the Internet. Mays and Richmond were arrested a little more than a week later, on Aug. 22, and charged with rape. Each maintains their innocence. Both will be tried as juveniles, which means even if they receive the maximum punishment, they will be free at age 21.
There are dozens of witnesses to her level of intoxication and some 50 people are on the potential list to testify in what should be at least a three-day trial.
The other three boys were not charged with any crime, mainly, prosecutors said, because they later deleted the photos and videos they admitted taking of the alleged rape, eliminating any physical evidence. That they didn't even get hit with failure to report a crime has riled many, including the National Organization for Women. All three boys are expected to testify for the prosecution.
Later, a group affiliated with the hacker movement Anonymous put a video on YouTube of Steubenville native Michael Nodianos, at the time an Ohio State student, callously joking about the incident, referring to the alleged victim as "the dead girl" and declared "she is so raped."
The video immediately went viral and ignited widespread outrage and a large protest rally downtown, even though police say Nodianos was not a witness to the crime and was just joking inappropriately about what he had heard. True or not, almost everyone at the bar thinks the pressure from the video forced authorities to push the case forward.
"If it wasn't for Anonymous," one person said, "this would've been swept under the rug."
Some at the bar are convinced the three witnesses to the alleged rape avoided prosecution because of political connections or the fact that charging them could open up additional questions about more kids who are rumored to have witnessed the act, including some from prominent families. Bars are petri dishes for conspiracies and unproven stories.
Others think it's all about football and point to the number of former Big Red players on local police forces and with various administrative ties to the program. They blame the misguided principles that put small-town football above everything and have corrupted not just adults but left punk teenagers to believe they are above common decency, let alone the law.
Steubenville High has won nine Ohio state championships and ranks as one of the 20-winningest high school programs in the country. It plays in beautiful Harding Stadium, complete with a statue of a red stallion that shoots flames from its mouth. It's perched on a hill high above the blighted downtown and abandoned mills along the river.
"We have 16,000 people in Steubenville and a 10,000-seat stadium," said one man. "That says it all."
"They park RVs in the lot at Kroger [near the stadium], people come and camp out for home games," said another. "You're trying to go grocery shopping and they want to charge you for parking. It's like, 'Whoa, I'm just trying to buy some damn milk.' "
"Big Red football is the only thing this town has for entertainment," said a third.
Still, there were more opinions, including some who agree with the defense and cite their own rumors the girl wasn't as blacked out as the story goes, or maybe she never said no to anything. The defense strategy will rest on the definition of "consent."
Other stories are even darker, too dark to even repeat.
That's how ugly this case is. As one particularly odious theory was floated by an older man in a ratty jacket, mock chants of "Roll, Red, Roll" were shouted in an effort to drown out the idea and suggest blind loyalty to the team had caused him to believe something so awful. Then it was determined no one should buy the guy a drink.
"I thought this was America?" he said.
Through an afternoon of raised voices and increased tension, there were a few things everyone agreed on.
First, the parents of just about everyone should shoulder some of the blame. How exactly, they wonder, has Steubenville – or America itself – gotten so lost that dozens of kids could watch a passed-out girl carried around and not interfere – or at least think something was wrong with videotaping an alleged rape or cracking jokes on Twitter?
"They've got to put paddling back in school," one patron said.
"The hell with school," someone retorted, "you can't even whip your own child anymore without someone calling the cops."
That brought universal nods of agreement.
Second, is that no one seems completely confident in the local police. Not even the guys siding with the football players think the cops are above corruption. This is Steubenville, after all.
Some say the detectives didn't try hard. Others say they had their legs chopped out from under them by their bosses. And few think much of the fact the state attorney general is handling the trial, even though he has no ties to the region and would be crushed statewide if he was part of a cover-up. Meanwhile, the judge was brought in from the Cincinnati area and the sheriff and city police vehemently defend their actions in a complicated case. The city and county, well aware of the doubts, even established a fact-check website – steubenvillefacts.org – to fight the perception war.
It obviously hasn't completely worked.
And finally, no matter the verdict that comes this week, the controversy is nowhere near settled. Civil suits are still to come. There may be – and some vocally argue should be – additional people charged. Suspicions and unconfirmed tidbits will continue to flourish.
No matter what truths come out under oath during the trial, many will continue to believe the opposite. They can cite any number of sister's friend's cousins as sources.
"This entire thing is a mess," said the bartender.
Here in Steubenville, the scar of a rape case – and the rows of TV trucks parked in front of the Jefferson County Justice Center – weren't exactly needed. The downtown is a disaster of empty storefronts and abandoned lots. The mills are barely left. One guy said he was hired at a local shop a dozen years ago when it employed 3,300.
"Now there's 150," he said.
About the only thriving business, they said, is the drug trade.
It's not that Steubenville was ever some innocent place. It's long been gritty and desperate, home to Dean Martin, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder and former porn star Traci Lords, not to mention a rampant mob underworld, political corruption and crooked union bosses.
Still, after the precipitous fall, an infamous teen rape case that exposes every wart is a bit much, even here, in a bar where one patron had arrived at 9 a.m.
"You type 'Steubenville' into the Internet and 'rape' immediately comes up," said one man. "Even before 'Ohio.' That sucks."
"Ah, come on, this place is a [expletive] hellhole," said another.
They all pretty much agreed on that, too.
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