March 12, 2013 — -- The nation's eyes will be focused this week on what happens inside a tiny Steubenville, Ohio, courthouse. The juvenile trial set to begin there is every parent's nightmare and a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today's digital world.
Steubenville is a town used to having media attention lavished on a much different building. In the middle of this city of 18,000 nestled on the Eastern border of Ohio stands Harding Stadium, the crown jewel of this former steel town. Nicknamed Death Valley, the 10,000-seat structure is home to the Big Red football team, one of Ohio's most storied high school programs.
Steubenville is a place where football is more than just a past time; it's a religion. And residents here worship on Friday nights.
Every time Big Red scores, a sculpture of a stallion named Man O' War breathes a 6-foot stream of fire into the night sky over Harding Stadium. But this past season, the team's second-round playoff defeat was overshadowed by a very different firestorm that engulfed the team and the entire town.
Just as the season was gearing up late last summer, two Big Red football players were accused of participating in the rape of a 16-year-old intoxicated girl with friends documenting the alleged crime through cellphone pictures and video. The social media frenzy took on a life of its own, with reports going as far as calling the incident a "gang-rape" of an unconscious girl. In reality, prosecutors contend that Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'lik Richmond, 16, used their hands to penetrate her while she was too drunk to consent, By Ohio law, such a crime constitutes rape, as it does in many places.
At least three other Steubenville students say they witnessed the alleged encounters, and still others heard about them and posted messages, photographs and videos about the incident on social media sites.
See the full story on ABC's "20/20" Friday, March 22, at 10 p.m.
The news soon spread beyond Steubenville, leading both hacker-activists and women's advocacy groups to blow the lid off the story nationally, questioning why people who knew about the allegations weren't also charged under an Ohio law requiring people to report crimes of which they're aware.
The uproar surrounding the case soon split the town into two furious camps; one that firmly believes there's a conspiracy to cover up a "rape culture" among the football team, and the other believing that the town's once-stellar reputation is being unfairly tarnished by outsiders who don't know all the facts.
Now, documents and photographs obtained exclusively by "20/20," along with never-before-seen taped police interviews with many of the teenage party goers, are shedding light on many of the facts of the case for the first time.
On the night of Aug. 11, 2012, Big Red ran a scrimmage to show off the team's newest talent. Trent Mays was a quarterback and honors student from a town 15 minutes outside of Steubenville. With a football coach for a father, Trent had the sport in his DNA. Ever since he could remember, he shared a dream that so many boys in this corner of the Ohio Valley do; to one day hear the roar of Big Red fans from the field.
A favorite target for Trent that night was wide receiver Ma'lik Richmond.
Ma'lik came from the rougher side of Steubenville. His earliest memories involve dodging stray bullets in his living room and watching most of his male role models being killed or incarcerated. He had turned to sports early in life as an escape from the realities around him.
That night, Trent and Ma'lik helped propel Big Red to victory. For the faithful who filled the stands, it was tempting to fantasize about winning a 10th state championship. For the players, it was an excuse to party.
Hours after the game, Trent, still relishing his role in Big Red's win, was receiving text messages from a girl he had been flirting with over social media, according to his lawyer. She was from just over the Ohio River in Weirton, W.Va., and, his lawyer says, persuaded him to come to a party where she was with several girlfriends.
Party No. 1:
When Trent and Ma'lik arrived, the narrow street outside the house of the party was crammed with cars. By some estimates, there were as many as 40 to 50 teenagers there and no adults. What was in abundance was alcohol, according to Ma'lik and several of the attendees. Witnesses said the girl who invited Trent was one of the more tipsy teens there.
"She had her arm wrapped around me and one hand on my chest. It just felt like she was coming on to me," Ma'lik told ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas in an exclusive interview for "20/20."
After midnight, the party was breaking up. The intoxicated girl, who would soon be at the center of a rape investigation, made it clear she wanted to leave with Trent, according to the police interviews with several of her friends. They also said she resisted their pleas for her not to leave with a car full of boys.
Nevertheless, the girl got into a car with Trent, Ma'lik and two other boys and drove off. In her interview with police exclusively obtained by ABC News, the alleged victim says there is little she remembers from the time between the first party and waking up the next morning.
"I remember everything that happened at the girl's house I was at but I don't remember anything past the point of me walking off the porch with him," she told them.
Party No. 2:
When the five teenagers arrived at the next house, the group was much smaller. There are contradictory accounts about whether the girl was able to walk into the house on her own or needed help from Ma'lik and Trent.
Feeling ill, the girl was taken to the bathroom where she threw up. When she emerged, a photo of her was taken that would become a flashpoint in the case. The photo shows Trent and Ma'lik's holding the girl by her arms and legs with her head hanging back. It is unclear from the picture whether her eyes are open and witness accounts conflict on the exact context of this photo.
The boy who took it, and ultimately uploaded it to his Instagram account, was another football player for Big Red and an ex-boyfriend of the intoxicated girl in the picture.
"She was just like laughing, we were all talking, just clowning around and that's when her ex-boyfriend was like, 'Let me get a picture of this drunk B. And that's when we took the picture," Ma'lik told ABC News.
The picture, Ma'lik maintains, was intended as a joke; he says the girl was conscious, was playing along and was not carried out of the house that way. The girl's civil attorney, Bob Fitzsimmons, calls this characterization "bizarre."
"It's common sense as to what's going on in that picture," he said.
Adds Fitzsimmons: "My client was unconscious that night. She doesn't have any memory of what happened."
ABC News does not name the victims of alleged sexual assaults.
Several witnesses said that once outside, the girl needed to stop in the street because she was sick again. "She throws up on her blouse and takes her blouse off," Ma'lik said. "And then she asked for something to drink and I gave her my jacket to cover her up."
After several minutes, the girl got back into the car with those same four boys. It is during this ride that prosecutors contend Trent raped the alleged victim. One of Trent's teammates, who was seated in the backseat, told police that he used his phone to videotape Trent exposing the girl's breasts and penetrating her vaginally with his fingers. The girl was talking but he could not decipher her slurred speech, he told police.
But Ma'lik, who was seated in the front passenger seat, told ABC News that she was participating. "I turned around and I can see the flash on his phone. Trent was rubbing on her breasts and she was kissing his neck. And then he was trying to unbutton her pants," Ma'lik said.
Police would never see the video because, by the next morning, he had deleted it from his phone.
Party No. 3
That same boy who videotaped the alleged rape in the car, and who is now a key prosecution witness, testified that when the car arrived at his home, the alleged victim was again taken to the bathroom to throw up.
When the girl emerged, prosecutors say, a second alleged rape occurred. The eyewitness told police that he saw Trent trying to get the girl to perform oral sex on him while she was lying on the floor. Next, he says he saw both Trent and Ma'lik's lying beside her, sexually touching the girl's groin area with their hands. At least one other witness claims to have seen the alleged rape.
"I wouldn't say she was completely passed out but she wasn't in any state to make a decision for herself," one of the eyewitnesses told police.
A defense attorney for Ma'lik told Vargas of "20/20" that the alleged victim was conscious enough to provide the pass codes for her cellphone at some point after the second alleged assault.
"That doesn't sound like a person that's incapacitated to the point where they cannot answer a question, let alone consent," defense attorney Walter Madison said.
The girl's civil attorney challenges such an assessment, saying, "The mere fact that someone presents an argument doesn't make it true."
The Steubenville rumor mill was already beginning to churn with speculation about what happened to the intoxicated girl. Naked photos of the girl that were circulated that night fueled a series of tweets and also one YouTube video of an 18-year-old former Steubenville baseball player named Michael Nodianos. In the rambling 12-minute rant, Nodianos, who wasn't present during the alleged rapes, made jokes about the incident, repeatedly referring to the victim as "dead."
When the sun finally rose over Steubenville the next morning, the 16-year-old alleged victim woke up naked in a home she had never been to before. Her girlfriends, who spent much of the previous night trying to contact her and anxiously reading tweets posted about her, soon were summoned to pick her up.
ABC News has learned that one of the girls who picked up the alleged victim told police, "She and Trent were just lying on the couch together as if nothing happened. She looked hung over but then she got up and was completely fine."
By the next day, so much had been written and uploaded to social networking sites that the town was abuzz with rumors and innuendo. Even the girl's parents found out by word of mouth.
They brought her to the hospital Aug. 13, more than 24 hours after the incident. By then, she had already showered and her clothes from that night had been washed. No physical evidence of a rape was recovered.
Nevertheless, 10 days after the alleged assault, on the strength of the witness accounts, Ma'lik Richmond and Trent Mays were arrested in the middle of the night and charged with rape and kidnapping (the kidnapping charge was later dropped.) Trent was also charged with disseminating child pornography for texting naked photos of the underage alleged victim.
"They sent three or four police cars," Trent's mom, Linda Mays, told ABC News. "They surrounded the house and it was surreal."
By this time, many of the social media posts and pictures had been deleted. But not all were lost. ABC News has learned that, in addition to the picture of the defendants' carrying the alleged victim, they also recovered two additional photos from Trent's phone. One of the photos shows the alleged victim lying naked and face down on the floor and the other shows her naked on the couch seemingly asleep.
The intersection of idolized athletes, social media over-sharing and reckless teen behavior proved an explosive combination and the story soon went national. In December, the Nodianos video was re-posted by an offshoot of the Internet hacking group Anonymous called Knight Sec.
The video quickly went viral and appeared to be proof to online activist groups and even the National Organization for Women that other athletes either witnessed or knew of the alleged assault and were never charged with a crime.
Such sentiments have fueled much speculation of a cover up in Steubenville. Nodianos, who until this winter was attending Ohio State University on an academic scholarship, told police he only saw the alleged victim in passing that night as she left the second location. The details he talked about in the video came from viewing one photo of the alleged victim and talking to the other boys who were with her that night, he said.
His lawyer has since issued an apology on his behalf for the shameful comments he made on the video posted on YouTube.
Prosecutors have not commented on the specifics of the case but at the probable cause hearing in October, prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter said, "She was a toy to them that night and the bottom line is we don't have to prove that she said no. All we have to prove is when she's being penetrated that she was unresponsive and not in a position to consent and they knew it."
Attorneys for Trent and Ma'lik insist that their clients are not guilty of any crime, claiming that she was sober enough throughout the night to consent.
"What we believe we will be able to support is that she voluntarily proceeded throughout the night with our client," Trent's attorney, Brian Duncan, told ABC News. "There is no indication that she was somehow so intoxicated that she could not have consented to any of the contact that occurred."
Ma'lik's attorney, Walter Madison, is equally confident in his client's innocence. He questions the prosecution's dependence on testimony from the three teenage witnesses.
"They all have immunity and have been granted deals not to be prosecuted for their involvement," he said. "When you give a child an option to have a seat at the trial table or tell us what we need to know and in exchange we won't prosecute you, they're probably going to tell you what you want to hear."
Attorney General DeWine denied that any deals have been made and won't rule out future charges for those witnesses.
The alleged victim is slated to take the stand, but because she says she has little memory of the night in question, her testimony is not expected to clarify the events of Aug. 11-12. Defense attorneys say the intense scrutiny the case has garnered is creating another challenge for them.
"We have found it very difficult to find people willing to talk to us," Duncan, Trent's attorney, said. "People have either not returned calls or they have lawyers that are involved. We have material subpoenas that have been issued."
A West Virginia judge Friday refused to enforce those subpoenas for three juveniles who reside just outside of Ohio. The judge cited a lack of legal precedence for compelling an underage witness to testify in a juvenile proceeding out of state.
When the trial commences Wednesday, there will be no jury involved. Instead, a juvenile judge will decide the fates of Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, who face incarceration in a detention center until their 21st birthdays and the almost-certain demise of their dreams of playing football.
See the full story on ABC's "20/20" Friday, March 22, at 10 p.m.