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Something Is Rotten In Steubenville



One of the first stories of local intrigue that I covered extensively during the early part of my career was the murder of Bobby Kent. For those who don't know the details of the case -- it was so chock full of shocking teen corruption and decadence that it actually did manage to gain publicity beyond the confines of South Florida, even eventually inspiring the 2001 Larry Clark film Bully -- Bobby Kent was a teenager from the Broward County suburb of Hollywood who was killed by seven other kids in July of 1993. Kent had apparently been a raging sociopath, appearing thoroughly harmless and ingratiatingly charming to adults but ruling over his small group of friends with tyrannical cruelty. On a steamy summer night out on the edge of the Everglades, those friends took their revenge, stabbing and beating him over and over then leaving his body in shallow water, assuming the alligators would get rid of it for them. The problem, of course, is that none of these kids was a criminal mastermind -- they were basically all bored suburban white trash with a lot of time to kill and parents who were practically non-existent -- and the murder they committed wound up coming apart in short order. Once the layers of the crime began being pulled back, though, and the details of what led to the night of the fatal attack on Bobby Kent bubbled up for all to see, what police, journalists and community leaders were left with was a truly sordid and surprising tale of youth gone mad that involved sex, betrayal, bullying, gay porn, teen pregnancy and a hapless 20-year-old "hit man." It was honestly one hell of a story, one that startled simply because it revealed, David Lynch-style, the rot that often remains hidden just beneath the benign surface of suburbia.

While the kids of Steubenville, Ohio are a far cry, both in distance and general disposition, from the South Florida teens involved in the Bobby Kent murder -- all seven of whom did or are still doing time for the incident -- the story of what they've been up to and the adults that have apparently been ignoring or enabling their bad behavior immediately brings me back to the Kent case. The allegations against a group of Steubenville football players don't involve murder but rape -- the rape of a young girl they're accused of drugging and then performing more than a few truly unspeakable acts against -- but the potential small town rot that's being exposed as the case unfolds adds up to as fascinating and multi-layered a story as Kent's.

While the details of what actually happened are still being pieced together, here are the basics: On the night of August 11th of last year, a 16-year-old girl -- unbelievably intoxicated and quite possibly purposely drugged and unconscious a good portion of the time -- was taken by a small group of Steubenville High School students from party to party and apparently used as a "rape toy." She was exposed for the amusement of partygoers; several witnesses have testified they saw her penetrated with fingers and hands; others say they saw her urinated on and forced into performing, or at least attempting to perform, oral and anal sex. Eventually, two teens, both on the Steubenville Football Team -- which is revered with almost religious fervor locally -- were charged in the case. Police continue to plead for anyone else who knows about the case to come forward, since it seems pretty obvious that other kids were involved.

The problem is the aforementioned passion the local community has for the Steubenville football program. Because of this, there have been accusations of corruption and cover-ups and the crime and reaction to it have divided the town at a visceral level, with those who believe that the high school football players who are looked upon as gods are allowed to get away with practically anything pitted against those who will defend the players and the program at all costs. The web of intrigue cuts across every facet of local society, from the kids, to the faculty and coaches, to the police and prosecutor's office, all the way to members of the judicial system who've had to recuse themselves because they have children who play ball at Steubenville or are in some other way related too directly to the case. There are accusations of underage drinking and drug use, sanctioned by local officials, and even evidence tampering in an effort to make the whole ugly thing go away or to simply tarnish the reputation of the victim to the point where she's no longer credible.

But because this is 2012, there's something else: the online evidence, provided by the kids themselves, and of course the outside intervention via the internet of outraged parties seeking justice. And that's where a crime blogger named Alexandria Goddard and the at turns brilliantly canny and unmercifully insidious hacker group Anonymous come in. Goddard has captured and posted numerous pictures taken and tweets sent that night by those who witnessed the extended attack which definitely seem to implicate several other local athletes in the crime. They're exactly what you would expect from arrogant, dumb-as-a-stump kids in the age of social media: a lot of boasting about their actions or lack thereof and the whole thing played for a laugh as they remain utterly indifferent not just to the suffering of the victim but the ways in which they're publicly linking themselves to a felony. Once the kids involved got wise -- again the accusations by some are that complicit adults interested in protecting them and the school's athletic program quietly told them to scrub any evidence from their cameras and social media accounts -- the shots and tweets started vanishing, but they haven't completely disappeared, of course.

Enter Anonymous, which has taken up the cause in the name of the young victim and essentially begun waging war on anyone who may have had a role in what happened to her. The collective has hacked the e-mail accounts of many of the main and tangential players in this drama, from the students themselves to the adults it claims are shielding them, and tried to string together a narrative of what actually occurred on the night of August 11th of last year. Some of what it's found is indeed cause for concern: possible images of underage girls naked in one football booster's e-mail; potentially damning information on local officials and the Steubenville High School football coach, a figure in the community with near omnipotent power and oversight; and a video clip and tweets that feature at least two other teens openly bragging not only that they were aware of -- and potentially involved in -- the series of alleged rapes, but that one may have actually lured the victim into the trap in the first place. It's strong stuff, difficult to read at times, but there's no denying that a lot of it is speculative -- and that's where the problem lies.

Since the early origins of Anonymous, there's always been one truly unsettling thing about it: the fact that it's accountable to no one. It's easy to rally around Anonymous and enjoy more than a little schadenfreude when it takes on an entity like the Church of Scientology or the Westboro Baptist lunatics, but its autonomy and ability to indiscriminately decide "who lives and who dies" without consequence makes it dangerous. Sure, you can love its targets one day -- but what if it suddenly decides to turn on something you don't think deserves the kind of brutal takedown Anonymous has become famous for? What if it turns on you, and there isn't a damn thing you or anybody else can do about it? The videos and tweets it's currently posting speak for themselves on many levels, and they're necessary in the pursuit of both justice and answers as to what really went down the night of the incident. But the narrative Anonymous has created, while captivating as a soap opera of small town crime and corruption, has the potential to do real harm to real people who may not have anything at all to do with what happened. I respect Anonymous's intent and desire to uncover the truth and to force into the light those who may be trying desperately to stay hidden and those who may be helping them stay hidden; it's only the potential real-world outcome I fear.

Still, it's nothing short of astonishing to once again see social media used by a bunch of teenagers, believing that they're indestructible and immortal, to expose and consequently crush themselves by handing police and the world every bit of proof they need that those involved are, if not criminal, at least sociopathically despicable.

Years ago, the details of the murder of Bobby Kent were revealed by a group of kids who couldn't keep their mouths shut and their stories straight while talking to each other and outsiders. These days, those same kids would likely broadcast their crimes to the entire world. There would be a living record of it -- one impossible to completely erase and easy for someone to dig up for all to see.

The result, though, would be the same as in Steubenville -- the layers would be peeled back and the almost unbelievable rot would be exposed.