By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
(CNN) — Once, high school football was the thing that brought people together in the eastern Ohio town of Steubenville.
That was before two star players of the Steubenville High School football team, demigods in this small, down-on-its-luck town along the banks of the Ohio River, were accused last summer of raping a 16-year-old girl, part of a series of alleged assaults chronicled on social media.
The two teenagers at the center of the case were set to go on trial on rape charges, extending what has been a long, unwanted time in the spotlight for the town.
Defense attorneys on Wednesday withdrew motions to dismiss the case after a West Virginia judge agreed to allow three juveniles from the neighboring state to testify in the case. Defense attorneys expect their testimony to help the boys’ cases.
The case has attracted the attention of bloggers and even Anonymous, a loosely organized cooperative of activist hackers, who have questioned everything from the behavior of the football team to the veracity of the investigation.
Amid social media pressure and allegations of a cover-up, community leaders went on the offensive on the eve of the trial to offer support for community businesses and the embattled football team known as “Big Red.”
“We all want to see justice prevail for the victim and the defendants in this case. All of you are here today because you are doing your job and writing your story,” Susan Hershey, the president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, told reporters Tuesday.
“There (are), however, always multiple sides to every story. There is the other side of our community, a side that has been overshadowed by this incident. Unfortunately, our community has been painted with one very unflattering, broad brush.”
Critics have accused community leaders of trying to paper over rampant misconduct by players of the Steubenville High School team and have suggested that other students took part in the assaults or failed to do enough stop them.
While community leaders refused to address the allegations directly, they defended the actions of the police department.
“We are a good city,” resident Jerry Barilla said. “We have good people here. Our police department is outstanding. They have done everything they can in this particular case.”
Photos, video and social media messages are at the heart of criminal charges against the two players — Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, both juveniles — accused of sexually assaulting the girl at a series of end-of-summer parties in August.
Both boys have been identified by a judge in court, by defense attorneys and in newspapers and other media reports.
CNN is not identifying the girl, who also is a juvenile, in accordance with its policy not to release the names of alleged rape victims.
Crime blogger Alexandria Goddard, a former Steubenville resident, discovered and preserved many of the online messages about the case, at least some of which are now in the hands of authorities. She first spotted the story in the small town’s newspaper and started looking into the situation on a hunch that the highly regarded football team’s members were getting special treatment at the expense of the victim.
One image circulated online and posted on a website maintained by Anonymous showed the girl, dressed in a T-shirt and blue shorts, her body limp, being held hand and foot by two males who appear to be teenagers.
Text messages posted to social networking sites that night seemed to brag about the incident, calling the girl “sloppy,” making references to rape and suggesting that she had been urinated on, Goddard has said. CNN has not been able to establish whether this is true.
In one 12-minute video, posted by Anonymous, one teenager makes multiple jokes about the girl’s condition, saying she must have died because she didn’t move during one assault.
Police got involved on August 14, when the girl’s mother reported the alleged assaults, according to Steubenville Police Chief William McCafferty. The family provided a zip drive showing a Twitter page, possibly with a photo, McCafferty said.
McCafferty has said the same day the boys were charged, Jefferson County authorities asked for help from the state attorney general’s office in investigating and prosecuting the case.
On Tuesday, McCafferty told reporters that in the weeks after the story broke he received what he called “hate e-mails.”
“Those bother me. I have a little girl,” he said.
While the attention died down for a bit, it began anew this week ahead of the trial.
“It’s been tough for a lot of us. But we’ve gotten good feedback from the community,” he said.
Steubenville was once a thriving steel mill town. With the mills closed, the town is a shadow of its former self as a number of its residents moved away to find work elsewhere and a number of businesses closed.
Today, its population is primarily blue collar with a median income between $33,000 and $34,000, well below the national average.
The Steubenville High School football games have long been a gathering point for residents, who point to the team’s against-all-odds play that helped elevate its reputation in the state.
Since the case gained national prominence, community leaders have been working with organizations to help students deal with the stresses of the case, City Manager Cathy Davison said.
Some of the students are angry about the things being said by critics, she said, adding that some students were unsure whether they should wear their Steubenville letter jackets in public.
Barilla, the town resident, who has been a proponent of the football team, called the critics’ allegations hurtful.
“Anybody that is attacking your family or your hometown, naturally you are going to stand up and defend it,” he said.
“We are proud of them, and they show our worth, our values, our work ethic. … Naturally, we are going to stand behind them and support them,” he said.
CNN’s Michael Pearson and Poppy Harlow contributed to this report.