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 purported rape of a 16-year-old West Virginia girl at an end-of-summer party last August 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 cover-up to protect other football players they argue should have been charged. The suspicions hinge on the presence of other students nearby when the purported 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. Defense 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.