STEUBENVILLE, Ohio – Across a remarkable couple of hours Thursday, JoAnn Gibb, a slight but tough-minded forensic specialist for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, sat on a witness stand in a small, third-floor courtroom here and read the contents of hundreds of teenage text messages – explicit and vulgar, at times celebratory and at other moments desperate and pathetically sad.
They were culled from the cell phones of 17 kids, seized in the investigation that led to two Steubenville High School football players being charged with the August 2012 rape of a 16-year-old West Virginia girl after a night of partying. It is one of the largest cell phone culls in the state's history, and the contents of those messages intensified the trial in this football-mad, aging steel town.
"It was an extraordinary level of evidence and detail," said Katie Hanna of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Assault and a veteran observer of sexual assault cases. "I've never heard of anything like it."
Seventeen-year-old Trent Mays and 16-year-old Ma'lik Richmond are facing rape charges. Mays is accused of using his fingers to rape the girl, who many have testified to being drunk, in a moving car while another passenger filmed the action. Later, in the basement of a friend's house, prosecutors allege Richmond digitally raped the passed-out girl while Mays tried to force her to perform oral sex.
Both are charged as juveniles and could be sentenced to prison until age 21. Their closely watched joint trials began here Wednesday and should continue through the weekend. Each maintains his innocence.
On Thursday afternoon, using the suspects' own words, composed in the moment and reflecting the roller coaster of emotions that such an incident commands, Gibb calmly read the often-profanity-laced, crude, crushing and, at times, grotesque evidence. It was pieced together from an analysis of nearly 350,000 text messages, plus hundreds of thousands of pictures, videos, chats and other exchanges of ultra-connected teens.
The text messages aren't – on their own – the indomitable evidence that will determine this case. The three material witnesses, plus the girl herself, are expected to testify for the state Friday. Those words will carry far more weight.
Still, the texts managed to shed an unfortunate light on the culture that surrounds the alleged crime.
They included, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, bragging from the defendants, each of whom acknowledged at least some sexual contact with the girl.
"We're hitting it for real," texted Mays at 2:20 a.m. of the morning of the alleged accident, after he was asked by a friend, "Where you at?"
Soon there were texts from friends of the boys seeking lewd details: "Did you [expletive] her?" one asked Mays. Others friends begged for pictures that the state says were taken – and later deleted and thus unrecoverable – of the acts. "Hey buddy," one texted, "you want to send me that pic because you love me?"
Over the following day there was gossip and questions and a sickening realization by the girl of what might have happened.
The girl says she remembers little to nothing because she was either extremely drunk or drugged. Numerous witnesses have described her as intoxicated. Just before the alleged attacks, she was sprawled out in the middle of a street, wearing only shorts and a bra, puking as a group of boys offered each other $3 to urinate on her.
She was so out of it some of the defendant's friends wondered how any sex acts could have occurred with "a dead girl." Mays agreed with that description in multiple texts, "LOL, she couldn't even move."
The girl, who lives across the river from Steubenville and attends a different high school, became aware of the alleged assault when she was sent a gruesome picture of her that was circulating.
"If that is [semen] on you that is [expletive] crazy," a friend texted her.
"I hate my life," the girl texted the friend at a different point. "I don't even know what the [expletive] happened to me."
Later she texted a friend, "I swear to God I don't remember doing anything with them. I remember hearing Trent's voice telling me to do something, but I said no."
Eventually the evening after the alleged assault, the girl directly questioned Mays about the incident, the picture and the circulating rumors that she was allegedly sexually assaulted and that everyone in Steubenville knew about it.
"OK, tell me right now what the [expletive] happened last night and don't lie to me," she wrote to the defendant. "We need to talk about this right now."
"Nothing happen last night," Mays texted back. "You [sexual act] last night and that's it."
"OK, that is not all that happened," she texted. "Tell me the truth now."
Later, she emailed him demanding: "Why the [expletive] would you let that happen … seriously, you have no [expletive] respect … why wouldn't you try to help me?"
Soon, reality began setting in for everyone. One of Mays' friends texted him joking that "the girl's life is ruined." Another scolded him: "You're a felon," to which Mays responded, "not really."
Finally another friend, Mark Cole, whose car and home were the sites of the alleged attacks and is expected to be a prosecution witness Friday, lectured Mays on the wisdom of forwarding along a potentially incriminating photo.
"Why are you sending the picture around of [the girl]?" Cole wrote in the first of a series of short texts. "No reason to [send] it … Dude, quit sending it, that'll get you in deep [expletive]."
"I just sent it to [fellow friend Michael Nodianos]."
[Related: Steubenville rape trial divides Ohio town]
On the night of the attacks, Nodianos, who heard about the incident via pictures and texts, was filmed in a horrific video mocking her as "the dead girl" and cracking himself up by declaring: "She is so raped." The video eventually went viral and outraged people around the world, causing intense scrutiny and attention to fall on the scandal and the city.
In days after the incident, the girl's parents found out about the allegations, increasing the likelihood that authorities would be called. A panicked Mays boldly texted the girl's father in an attempt to explain himself.
"Sir, this is Trent Mays. This is all a big misunderstanding. She was at the party and we talked … and she was really drunk and I took her [to Mark Cole's house]. I never tried to do anything forceful with your daughter but I'm sorry for the trouble this has brought you."
"What is on video," the father texted back.
There are even multiple text messages that are sure to inflame an already raging debate about the importance of Big Red football, the longstanding state powerhouse team from Steubenville High.
Critics have contended that Steubenville football players have gotten away with lawlessness under coaching legend Reno Saccoccia because the program serves as a rare point of pride in this economically depressed Ohio River town. It's that entitlement, some claim, that led to these allegations.
Rumors have whipped around the region that Saccoccia, known simply as "Reno," tried to squash the investigation initially and other boys weren't charged because it might harm the team. Saccoccia and the Steubenville police have denied it. The Ohio attorney general has dismissed all talk of cover-ups. Even so, speculation on the street continues.
When word of the incident leaked out, a friend asked Mays what Saccoccia said about it.
"Nothing really," Mays texted. "Going to stay in for awhile. LOL. And next time [someone is] into something, suspended for three games.
"But I feel he took care of it for us," Mays continued. "Like, he was joking about it, so I'm not worried."
In another text, Mays wrote: "I got Reno. He took care of it and [expletive] ain't going to happen, even if they did take it to court."
Saccoccia could not be reached for comment Thursday by Yahoo! Sports. It's not known whether he actually tried to influence the investigation or if Mays simply believed he did. Not that it worked if Saccoccia did. Police seized Mays' – and the others' – cell phones soon after that text. Within a week, the Steubenville cops made the arrests.
Defense attorneys tried to argue away the texts by citing errors in the times recorded by the Ohio investigators, noting so many of the comments lacked context and pointing out the natural tendency for outrageous, but not necessarily honest, talk among teens via text message.
None of the texts will carry the weight of three eyewitnesses the state expects to testify Friday, let alone the words of the girl herself, or even semen evidence recovered on a Pittsburgh Steelers blanket located in Cole's house that forensics is expected to link to Mays.
However, the sheer volume of communication and the base behavior reflected in so much of the messages is likely to weigh heavily on Judge Thomas Lipps. The above is but a fraction of the material. On and on and on this went Thursday, Gibb delivering each new bit of testimony in a calm, clear tone, no matter how each one was seemingly more vomit-inducing than the last.
Besides, even by the current standards of teenagers, many of these comments were indefensible, the sharing of pictures was potentially criminal, and the willingness of Mays to practically write his own confession was the action of a pure idiot. If convicted, Mays might rightfully earn the title of world's dumbest criminal. It's not just that he put so much into the electronic messages, but that he even understood detectives would assuredly search his phone and use them against him.
He texted on and on and on anyway. His phone had 61,613 messages on it.
"If the police come they are going to look at all my texts, duh," he wrote to a friend when discussing what he was worried about.
"Delete them," the friend texted back.
"Like phone records they can pull them up on a computer. LOL."
"Oh, LOL. Hello cops," the friend texted.
Later Thursday, long after the reading of the texts left the court shocked and aghast, a final witness of the night was called. It was nearly 8 p.m. and Steubenville's downtown was dark and desolate, but the prosecution wanted to get Sean McGhee, an 18-year-old local who is currently a freshman at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, where he is on the wrestling team.
McGhee is Richmond's cousin. He called Mays "one of my best friends." When asked by special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter how it felt to be a witness against people he's so close to, McGhee said, simply: "It hurts."
Yet McGhee, who was still in town last August before heading off to college, testified that he saw the girl at a party earlier in the night. He believed, based on her slurring words and stumbling walk, that she was extremely drunk. So later in the evening, when the initial texts and pictures and rumors began flying about what Mays and Richmond were allegedly doing with her, he became enraged.
This, he knew, was wrong. So he borrowed a friend's phone (his was out of power) and texted the following to Mays:
"This is Sean, you are dead wrong. I'm going to choke the [expletive] out of you for that. You could go to jail for life for that. What the [expletive]. Sean McGhee."
Hemmeter asked McGhee why he sent that and other accusatory, confrontational texts to Mays.
"I saw how drunk she was," he said.
And with that, at last, there was at least a single teenager in Steubenville sending a single text that suggested someone finally had the slightest bit of perspective, morals or manhood to do or say a damn thing.
At last, after a long, long day of court, after two days of testimony, after all this evidence – all this "[expletive] the dead girl" and "piss on the dead girl" and LOL after LOL – finally, there was a single beacon of feel-good hope in this entire cesspool of a story.
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