STEUBENVILLE, Ohio - Shortly after Police Chief William McCafferty arrived at the office one day this week, he found an email from someone claiming to be a hacker from Ontario with a tip. Moments later, a warning message popped up, and the chief's computer was disabled. Within hours, the FBI had the email, and McCafferty's computer technician was trying to transfer files off the hard drive.
It was another reminder for McCafferty of the attention being paid to his department's investigation of the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl at a party last summer by two local football players, both of whom have been charged and are going on trial next month. The chief had already been warned to stop using his home computer for fear of hacking.
The case has gained international attention through the work of bloggers and hacker-activists who allege there was a coverup to protect other football players they argue should have been charged. The suspicions hinge on the presence of other students nearby when the alleged attack happened, including at least two students who captured it on their cellphones but weren't arrested.
That and other online attention have threatened in recent weeks to overshadow the criminal investigation in this economically depressed city of 18,000 in eastern Ohio — a town that once thrived on steel mill jobs that have all but disappeared, and now takes huge pride in its accomplished high school football team. Defence lawyers are seeking to move the trial because of the attention.
The FBI is investigating a Facebook death threat against the family of the local sheriff, who took his office's website down as a precaution. Last week, a threat made on a student's Facebook page caused a 90-minute lockdown at the high school and led the district to add unarmed guards to its four buildings.
Hackers also apparently attacked the high school sports program's fan website, RollRedRoll. Statements posted there "were not even intended to reveal truth, but rather simply to get media attention and terrorize the Steubenville community," the website said after the attacks.
Government and community agencies in and around Steubenville have added online security, restricted access to websites and in a few cases taken websites down altogether.
"If somebody directs a ton of resources at you, we can't defend against that," said Jim Boni, deputy county auditor for information technology.
The county decided to restrict its website to business hours only after seeing indications it could be targeted, Boni said, with the biggest inconvenience being to anyone wanting to check real estate information after hours.
Local information technology officials are getting help from the state attorney general's office, the highway patrol and Ohio's homeland security division.
The community's Internet woes are the latest twist in a case alleged to have unfolded at an alcohol-fuelled end-of-summer party on Aug. 11 at a student's house that was attended by more than three dozen people, many of them underage students.
A 16-year-old girl from West Virginia at the party was raped twice, according to testimony at an October juvenile court hearing — first in a car on the way from the party to another student's house, and then again in the basement of the house, where she lay naked on the floor, very drunk and apparently incapacitated, not saying anything during the alleged assault.
After the girl's mother filed a complaint with Steubenville police Aug. 14, McCafferty quickly assigned his lone juvenile detective full-time to the case, knowing the alleged involvement of football players would raise its profile. Fifteen phones and two iPods were seized and examined.
Big Red football is a big deal in the city. The team's football stadium, dubbed "Death Valley," sits on a hill above Steubenville, and the team is a nine-time state champion, including back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006.
Rape charges were filed 10 days later against two players, Trent Mays and Ma'Lik Richmond, who were detained and held in a juvenile detention centre.
They were released on house arrest Nov. 1 after a judge determined their case would stay in juvenile court. They're attending an alternative school inside the local justice centre. Their attorneys say the case should be moved out of Steubenville because of the publicity and closed to the public to protect witnesses.
"We need to take a step back and assess the situation," said Richmond's attorney, Walter Madison. "It's gotten way out of control."
The Associated Press normally does not identify juveniles who are suspects in crimes or charged in juvenile court, but Mays and Richmond have been widely named in media coverage, and their names have been used in open court.
Authorities say they had enough evidence to charge Mays and Richmond based on the testimony of three other students who saw the alleged attacks. Two of those students would have been charged with recording the attacks with their cameras, but the images could not be found, authorities say.
The girl did not testify at the October hearing, at which the judge found enough evidence to charge the boys with rape.
Last fall, a high school student whose name has come up in testimony sued a blogger and anonymous posters to a true crime blog for comments suggesting he was implicated in the attack. The lawsuit was settled when the family withdrew the complaint and the blogger clarified the boy was not at the scene of the assault.
The case went viral again right after New Year's, when a 12-minute YouTube video emerged in which another student made derogatory comments about the alleged victim, while others chimed in off camera. The student in the video, made Aug. 12, was not present at the assault, and the video was filmed at a different house. The boy's attorney said the student regretted the comments.
The same week, the city set up a website, Steubenvillefacts, in hopes of dispelling rumours about the case and claims that any influence the football program or its backers might have on authorities.
Sheriff Fred Abdalla, whose office executed search warrants to seize cellphones, has been the subject of threats, including calls to his house after his home number was posted online. He says he backs the efforts of groups like Anonymous to unearth information, but says it's clear others will never be satisfied there was no coverup.
"God from heaven can come down and say, 'No it's not,' and they'd say, 'Yes it is,'" Abdalla said.
Many residents are sick of the attention and say the justice system should be allowed to work.
"Are you trying the rape case or are you trying the accountability and credibility of city officials?" Terrance Elder Sr., 64, a retired contract cleaner, said as he took a break between running errands downtown last week.
The city took its website down as a precaution but is working on ways to beef up online security and bring it back up, said city manager Cathy Davison.
Davison said temporarily disabled websites are a minor issue compared with the need to address the power of social media to spread rumours.
Beyond that, though, is a more fundamental issue, she said. How could such an attack happen in the first place?
"Why did no one stand up for this girl? Why?" Davison said. "That is a bigger conversation."
Associated Press writer Kantele Franko in Columbus contributed to this report.