Juliet Macur and Nate Schweber / New York Times News Service

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Hours after sunset, the cars pulled up, one after another, bringing dozens of teenagers from several nearby high schools to an end-of-summer party in August in a neighborhood here just off the main drag.

For some of the teenagers, it would be one last big night out before they left this decaying steel town, bound for college. For others, it was a way to cap off a summer of socializing before school started in less than two weeks. For the lucky ones on the Steubenville High School football team, it would mark the beginning of another season in this football-crazy county.

Some in the crowd, which would grow to close to 50 people, arrived with beer. Those who did not were met by cases of it and a makeshift bar of vodka, rum and whiskey, all for the taking, no identification needed. In a matter of no time, many of the partygoers — most of whom were high school athletes — were imbibing from red plastic cups inside the home of a volunteer football coach at Steubenville High at what would be the first of several parties that night.

“Huge party!!! Banger!!!!” Trent Mays, a sophomore quarterback on Steubenville’s team, posted on Twitter, referring to one of the bashes that evening.

By sunrise, though, some people in and around Steubenville had gotten word that the night of fun on Aug. 11 might have taken a grim turn, and that members of the Steubenville High football team might have been involved. Twitter posts, videos and photographs circulated by some who attended the nightlong set of parties suggested that an unconscious girl had been sexually assaulted over several hours while others watched. She even might have been urinated on.

In one photograph posted on Instagram by a Steubenville High football player, the girl, who was from across the Ohio River in Weirton, W.Va., is shown looking unresponsive as two boys carry her by her wrists and ankles. Twitter users wrote the words “rape” and “drunk girl” in their posts.

Rumors of a possible crime spread, and people, often with little reliable information, quickly took sides. Some residents and others on social media blamed the girl, saying she put the football team in a bad light and put herself in a position to be violated. Others supported the girl, saying she was a victim of what they believed was a hero-worshiping culture built around football players who think they can do no wrong.

On Aug. 22, the incident made local news when the police came forward with details: Two standout Steubenville football players — Mays, 16, from Bloomingdale, Ohio, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, from Steubenville — were arrested and later charged with raping a 16-year-old girl and kidnapping her by taking her to several parties while she was too drunk to resist.

The case is not the first time a high school football team has been entangled in accusations of sexual assault. But the situation in Steubenville has another layer to it that separates it from many others: It is a sexual assault accusation in the age of social media, when teenagers are capturing much of their lives on their camera phones — even repugnant, possibly criminal behavior, as they did in Steubenville in August — and then posting it on the Web, like a graphic, public diary.

Within days of the possible sexual assault, an online personality who often blogs about crime zeroed in on those public comments and photographs and injected herself into the story, complicating it and igniting ire in the community. She posted the information on her site and wrote online that the police and town officials were giving the football players special treatment.

The city’s police chief begged for witnesses to come forward, but received little response. In time, the county prosecutor and the judge in charge of handling crimes by juveniles recused themselves from the case because they had ties to the football team.

“It’s a very, very small community here,” said Jefferson County Juvenile Judge Samuel Kerr, who recused himself. His granddaughter dated one of the football players initially linked to the incident. “Everybody knows everybody.”

After more than two months in jail, the suspects are under house arrest on rape charges, awaiting a trial that has been set for Feb. 13. Mays, a star wrestler, also faces a charge of disseminating nude photographs of a minor. The kidnapping charges were dropped.

The parents of the boys, who declined requests for extended interviews, said that the boys are innocent. Lawyers for the boys assert that they have been tried unfairly online, and vow the boys will be exonerated when all the facts are known.

The case has entangled dozens of people in and out of this town.

Three Steubenville High School athletes have become witnesses for the prosecution and testified against Mays and Richmond, their friends, at a probable cause hearing in October. The crime blogger and more than a dozen people who posted comments on her website have been sued by a Steubenville football player and his parents for defamation. The girl’s mother, in several brief interviews last month, said her family had received threats, so extra police have been patrolling her neighborhood.

“The thing I found most disturbing about this is that there were other people around when this was going on,” Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty said of the events that unfolded. “Nobody had the morals to say, ‘Hey stop it, that isn’t right.’

“If you could charge people for not being decent human beings, a lot of people could have been charged that night.”

A night takes a grim turn

Just before 10 a.m. on Aug. 11, fans who are part of what is called the Big Red Nation poured into Harding Stadium clad in the team’s colors, red and black, to see Big Red’s second scrimmage of the season and to get a sense of how the team would fare this year.

What they saw were two players who stood out from the rest: Mays and Richmond.

Mays, who hails from a nearby town and who went to Steubenville High because of its successful football and wrestling programs, showed off his strong arm at quarterback. Richmond, who the police say came from a troubled home and has lived in Steubenville with guardians since he was 8, dominated as a quick and tall wide receiver. He also was a star of the Big Red basketball and track teams.

The two athletes gave hope to fans that Big Red might be headed back to the top.

Of Mays, one person at the time wrote on JJHuddle.com, a website for Ohio high school sports, “If he has the composure, could be very enjoyable to watch that young man grow up with Ma’lik.” Mays and Richmond helped Big Red prevail that day in the scrimmage, before heading off to a night of parties.

Across the river, in a well-kept, two-story colonial house in a solidly middle-class West Virginia neighborhood, the 16-year-old girl told her parents that she was going to a sleepover at a friend’s house that night. She then headed off to those parties, too.

She was not a Steubenville High student; she attended a smaller, religion-based school, where she was an honor student and an athlete.

At the parties, the girl had so much to drink that she was unable to recall much from that night, and nothing past midnight, the police said. The girl began drinking early on, according to an account that the police pieced together from witnesses, including two of the three Steubenville High athletes who testified in court in October.

By 10 or 10:30 that night, it was clear that the dark-haired teenager was drunk because she was stumbling and slurring her words, witnesses testified.

Some people at the party taunted her, chanted and cheered as a Steubenville High baseball player dared bystanders to urinate on her, one witness testified.

About two hours later, the girl left the party with several Big Red football players, including Mays and Richmond, witnesses said. They stayed only briefly at a second party before leaving for their third party of the night. Two witnesses testified that the girl needed help walking. One testified that she was carried out of the house by Mays and Richmond, while she “was sleeping.”

When she awoke, she was unaware of what had happened to her, she has told her parents and the police. But by then, the story of her night was already unfolding on the Internet, on Twitter and via text messages. Compromising and explicit photographs of her were posted and shared.

Within a day, a family member in town shared with the girl’s parents more disturbing visuals: a photograph posted on Instagram of their daughter who looked passed out at a party and a YouTube video of a former Steubenville baseball player talking about a rape. That former player, who graduated earlier this year, also posted on Twitter, “Song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana,” and “Some people deserve to be peed on,” which was reshared on Twitter by several people, including Mays.

The parents then notified the police and took their daughter to a hospital. At 1:38 a.m. on Aug. 14, the girl’s parents walked into the Steubenville police station with a flash drive with photographs from online, Twitter posts and the video on it. It was all the evidence the girl’s parents had, leaving the police with the task of filling in the details of what had happened that night.

The police said the case was challenging partly because too much time had passed since the suspected rape. By then, the girl had taken at least one shower and might have washed away evidence, said McCafferty, the police chief. He added that it also was too late for toxicology tests to determine if she had been drugged.

“My daughter learned about what had happened to her that night by reading the story about it in the local newspaper,” the girl’s mother said.

“How would you like to go through that as a mother, seeing your daughter, who is your entire world, treated like that?” the mother said. “It was devastating for all of us.”

Mays and Richmond were arrested Aug. 22, about a week after the girl’s parents reported the incident.

Taking sides on blogs

Alexandria Goddard, a 45-year-old Web analyst who once lived in Steubenville and writes about national crime on a blog, heard about the case early on and rushed to investigate it herself. She told The Cleveland Plain Dealer in September that she did so because she had little faith that the authorities would do a thorough job.

Before many of the partygoers could delete their posts, photographs or videos, she took screen shots of them, posting them on her site, Prinniefied.com. On Aug. 24, just after the arrests, she wrote on her site that it was “a slam dunk case” because, she said, Mays and Richmond videotaped and photographed their crime and then posted those images on the Web. Goddard pressed her case.

“What normal person would even consider that posting the brutal rape of a young girl is something that should be shared with their peers?” she wrote. “Do they think because they are Big Red players that the rules don’t apply to them?”

Around town, the discussion of what might have happened that night in August raged, growing more heated by the day. The accusations on Goddard’s blog, posted by Goddard and others, sparked more debate. The local newspaper, The Herald-Star, ran a letter to the editor from Joe Scalise, a Steubenville resident, who criticized the blogger’s site, saying it “has lent itself to character assassination and has begun to resemble a lynch mob.”

Even without much official public information about the night, some people in town are skeptical of the police account, like Nate Hubbard, a Big Red volunteer coach.

As he stood in the shadow of Harding Stadium, in which he once dazzled the crowd with his masterful runs, Hubbard gave voice to some of the popular, if harsh, suspicions.

“The rape was just an excuse, I think,” said the 27-year-old Hubbard, who is No. 2 on the Big Red’s career rushing list.

“What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?” said Hubbard, who is one of the team’s 19 coaches. “She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.”

There is no shortage of people who feel the polar opposite. They absolutely accept the account of sexual assault, and are weary of what they call the protection and indulgence afforded the football team. That said, more than a dozen people interviewed last month who were critical of the football team and its protected status, real or perceived, did not want their names used in connection with comments about the team, for fear of retribution from Big Red football fans.

Seeking evidence

Despite the seeming abundance of material online regarding the night of the incident and the number of teenagers who were at the parties that evening, the police still have had trouble establishing what anyone might regard as an airtight case.

A medical exam at a hospital more than one day after the parties did not reveal any evidence, like semen, that might have supported an accusation of rape, the police said. The Steubenville police knocked on doors of the people thought to be at the parties, but not many people were forthcoming with information. In several instances, the police seized cellphones, so they could look for photographs or videos related to the case.

Eventually, 15 phones and two iPads were confiscated and analyzed by a cybercrime expert at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. That expert could not retrieve deleted photos and videos on most of the phones.

In the end, the expert recovered two naked photographs of the girl. One photograph showed the girl face down on the floor at one party, completely naked with her arms tucked beneath her, according to testimony given at a hearing in October. The other photograph was not described. Both photographs were found on Mays’ iPhone. No photo or video showed anyone involved in a sexual act with the girl.

Standing by his players

In this part of the football-obsessed Ohio Valley — where at least several houses in every neighborhood have a “Roll Red Roll” or a “Big Red” sign out front — everybody knows coach Reno Saccoccia. He has coached two generations of players at Big Red and has won three state titles and 85 percent of his games, according to the team’s website. The football team’s field is named Reno Field.

This season, the coach, who is used to winning, had to do without Mays and Richmond. But others who were at the parties and might have witnessed the alleged assault continued to play on the team. Saccoccia, a 63-year-old who brims with bravado, was the sole person in charge of determining whether any players would be punished.

Saccoccia, pronounced SOCK-OTCH, told the principal and school superintendent that the players who posted online photographs and comments about the girl the night of the parties said they did not think they had done anything wrong. Because of that, he said, he had no basis for benching those players.

The two players who testified at a hearing in early October to determine if there was enough evidence to continue the case were eventually suspended from the team. That came eight games into the 10-game regular season.

Approached in November to be interviewed about the case, Saccoccia said he does not “do the Internet,” so he had not seen the comments and photographs posted online from that night. When asked again about the players involved and why he chose not to discipline them, he became agitated.

“You made me mad now,” he said, throwing in several expletives as he walked from the high school to his car.

Nearly nose to nose with a reporter, he growled: “You’re gonna get yours. And if you don’t get yours, somebody close to you will.”

Players and families wait

Big Red’s season ended in early November, and the daily conversation in town is less and less about the incident than it is about how the team will perform next year.

But inside a courtroom at the county jail, about two miles down a hill from the football stadium, the debate over what happened to the girl that summer night is still unfolding.

The hearings in the case are open to the public, but court documents regarding the matter are sealed because the defendants are juveniles. Mays and Richmond were released to their families or guardians last month, though they must wear electronic monitoring devices and are only allowed to leave home to attend school at the county jail or church. On school days, they head to classes at the jail, wearing their new uniform: green sweatpants and tan shirts, which have a number on their left sleeves.

Walter Madison, Richmond’s lawyer, said his client was already at a marked disadvantage because so many people discussed the incident online, through blogs and on Twitter.

“It’s an uphill battle because you’ve got social media going on and people formulating opinions, people who weren’t there and don’t know what happened,” he said. “In a small community, it exponentially snowballs out of control. I think the scales are a bit unbalanced.”

He said that online photographs and posts could ultimately be “a gift” for his client’s case because the girl, before that night in August, had posted provocative comments and photographs on her Twitter page over time. He added that those online posts demonstrated that she was sexually active and showed that she was “clearly engaged in at-risk behavior.” The lawyers for the boys also said the three athletes who testified against their clients have credibility issues. The lawyers said the police had found nude photographs of women on the phone of one of the witnesses, and that two witnesses had admitted recording some aspect of the alleged assault. Those alone could be crimes, the lawyers said, but the witnesses were given immunity from prosecution. Their testimony, the lawyers suggested, might have been given in a bid for leniency.

The special prosecutors on the case, Marianne Hemmeter and Jennifer Brumby of the Ohio Attorney General’s Crimes Against Children unit, declined to comment because the investigation is open.

But in court, they have rejected the defense’s claims. The girl, they have said, was in no condition to give consent to sexual advances that night — and the teenagers there knew it, the prosecutors said.

At a hearing in early October, prosecutors told the judge in the case that the defendants treated the girl “like a toy” and “the bottom line is we don’t have to prove that she said ‘no,’ we just have to prove that when they’re doing things to her, she’s not moving. She’s not responsive and the evidence is consistent and clear.”

At a hearing last month, the girl’s mother said her daughter remained distraught and does not want to attend school. The girl’s friends have ostracized her, and parents have kept their children away from her, the mother said.

The girl does not sleep much, said the mother, who testified that she often hears her daughter crying at night.

The mother said the obsession with high school football in Steubenville is partly to blame. It shocked her that Saccoccia testified as a character witness for the defendants last month, she said.

In the courtroom that day, she remembered thinking, “How dare he?”

“Just Coach Reno saying he would testify for those boys, saying he was so proud of them, that speaks volumes,” she said. “All those football players are put on a pedestal over there, and it’s such a status symbol to play for Big Red, the culture is so different over there.”

“I do feel like they’ve had preferential treatment, and it’s unreal, almost like we’re part of a TV show,” the mother said. “It’s like a bad ‘CSI’ episode. What those boys did was disgusting, disgusting, and for people to stand up for them, that’s disgusting, too.”