Town authorities and police set up website in attempt to counter criticism over events surrounding Big Red football team

Officials in the small industrial town of Steubenville in Ohio have launched a campaign to rebut claims of a cover-up in the investigation of an alleged gang rape involving stars of the "Big Red" high-school football team.

The Steubenville town authorities, in league with the local police force, have set up a website through which they attempt to counter a tidal wave of criticism that has been unleashed against them through social media sites and by hackers led by the collective Anonymous.

Titled Steubenville Facts, the site seeks to debunk claims of a cosy relationship between the authorities and a football team that is the dominant local feature of a community that has fallen on hard times.

Over the past few weeks Steubenville, an old steel mill and coal mining town in the Appalachian area of eastern Ohio, has become embroiled in a bitter dispute over an alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl in the course of a night of parties frequented by Big Red players. Two of the most celebrated players on the team, quarterback Trent Mays and wide receiver Ma'lik Richmond, both 16, have been charged with rape and are scheduled to stand trial on 13 February. Both boys deny the accusations.

But a growing chorus of criticism has circulated virally on the internet, alleging that many more players were involved, either as participants or as onlookers who tweeted and disseminated photographs of the assault on social media networks but did nothing to stop it.

Last week the hacker group Anonymous stepped into the fray, briefly taking control of the Big Red sports website, and posting to YouTube a 12-minute video in which another player on the team makes crude and disparaging comments about the girl at the centre of the incident while team-mates stand around and laugh.

The Steubenville Facts website underscores how rattled the town has been by the criticism it has faced. Clearly alluding to the Anonymous video, and to screengrabs of offensive Tweets by Big Red players that were posted by an Ohio-based blogger, Alexandria Goddard, the authorities say: "Nothing in the law allows someone who says repugnant things on Twitter, Facebook, or other Internet sites to be criminally charged for such statements.

"Steubenville Police investigators are caring humans who recoil and are repulsed by many of the things they observe during an investigation. Like detectives in every part of America and the world, they are often frustrated when they emotionally want to hold people accountable for certain detestable behavior but realize that there is no statute that allows a criminal charge to be made."

The manager of Steubenville City, Cathy Davison, told the Associated Press: "When people are saying that our police department did not follow procedure, that the football team runs the city, that is not the case."

In a further effort to puncture any impression of collusion, the chief prosecutor in Jefferson County, which has jurisdiction in the region, agreed to stand aside from the case as her son plays in the Big Red team. The prosecution has been handed to a team of special investigators led by the attorney general for the whole state of Ohio, Mike DeWine.

But despite such exceptional measures, there is no sign of the furore dying down. On Saturday, more than 1,000 people attended a rally called by Anonymous outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, to demand more comprehensive action against the wider group of teenagers allegedly involved in gang rape.

The allegations relate to events on the night of 11-12 August last year. A series of pre-season parties were held around Steubenville. The alleged victim, who remains unidentified, was seen drinking heavily at the parties and at some point appears to have become unconscious. Pictures taken during the night and circulated on Instagram and Twitter allegedly showed her being carried and dragged between parties; she is alleged to have been assaulted at a variety of locations.

Tweets posted during the night by team players were tagged with "rape" and "drunk girl" and she was referred to as "dead person". There were also suggestions that she was urinated on.

Though the crowd left a great deal of digital evidence, the police investigation has been hampered by the fact that images were quickly deleted and they have struggled to retrieve photos and videos from players' iPhones. Few witnesses have so far come forward. Though several Big Red players are alleged to have been present at the parties, and to have been involved in disseminating pictures and Tweets about the incident, only Mays and Richmond have been charged.

Fred Abdalla, the sheriff of Jefferson County, appeared before the protesters on Saturday and told them that there would be no further charges.

"I'm not going to stand here and try to convince you that I'm not the bad guy, you've already made your minds up," he said, as the crowd tried to shout him down.

The intensity of the dispute is enhanced by the powerful role the high-school football team plays in the life of Steubenville. The Big Red stadium is packed to capacity every Friday evening in season with 10,000 fans – more than half the population of the town. Every time the team scores a touchdown, a 6ft flame emanates from a statue of a rearing red stallion, known as the Man o' War, that stands on top of the scoreboard. © Guardian News and Media 2013

[Image: Masked Member Of Anonymous on Shutterstock]