Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
Maryville, Mo., is just like Steubenville, Ohio.
That's what so many are saying now, though apparently an onslaught of media attention over the last 24 hours has concerned the prosecutor's office of Nodaway County enough to make an about face.
Nodaway County Prosecutor Robert Rice announced Wednesday he will ask for a special prosecutor to conduct an independent review of the case involving the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl.
That's a complete 180 from where he stood just a day ago when he defended his decision to drop charges against a local high school athlete who had been accused of sexually assaulting the 14-year-old before dumping her passed-out body on her front lawn in sub-freezing weather.
No, what is likely to come for Maryville – fair or not, reasonable or not – is probably going to be far more intense.
Until the Kansas City Star published a lengthy story about the case on Sunday, the details of what happened on Jan. 8, 2012, weren't well known outside this 12,000-person town about 100 miles north of K.C.
The story went viral over the next 24 hours, attracting additional media attention, including national outlets such as the Associated Press and CNN. The state's lieutenant governor, Peter Kinder, chimed in on Tuesday, saying "the appalling facts in the public record shock the conscience and cry out that responsible authorities must take another look." The case has also grabbed the attention of Anonymous, which immediately began an action campaign against local officials. A street protest demanding justice is already scheduled for Oct. 22.
You could call it the next battle in the fast-changing way in which online groups have put significant pressure on communities, particularly in cases involving sexual assault and bullying.
"If Maryville won't defend these young girls, if the police are too cowardly or corrupt to do their jobs, if justice system has abandoned them, then we will have to stand for them," Anonymous said in a statement. "Mayor Jim Fall, your hands are dirty. Maryville, expect us."
According to the Star, on the winter night in question a then-14-year-old girl named Daisy Coleman, along with a 13-year-old girlfriend, Paige Parkhurst, convened at Coleman's house for a sleepover. They hung out in her bedroom watched movies, drank some stolen booze and texted with an older football player.
By 1 a.m. they snuck out, got picked up by two boys, 17-year-old Matthew Barnett and a friend, and returned to a small party at Barnett's home. They had to climb through a basement window to get in without his parents knowing. A few older boys were there, all popular, prominent athletes at Maryville High School.
It was then, according to court records and media accounts, Barnett handed Coleman a glass of clear liquid. She drank it and maintains that's about the last thing she remembers. What happened next isn't apparently of much dispute. Barnett and Coleman wound up in a bedroom and had sex. At one point a friend filmed part of it on an iPhone. In another room, Parkhurst had sex with another 15-year-old boy even though she testified that she repeatedly said no.
"And after he was done, he made me go back out into the living room with him, and we sat and waited until Matt was done with Daisy," Parkhurst, now 15, said in an interview on Aljazeera America. "And I had walked into Matt’s room, and she was incoherent. She couldn't walk, couldn't talk, and just was talking like a baby pretty much."
According to Parkhurst, Coleman was eventually dragged out of Barnett's bedroom window and into a car. On the drive to Coleman's house, Parkhurst says the boys were "freaking out, trying to think of how they were going to drop us off without any of her brothers waking up. And they took her and carried her to the back corner of her house and left her there. And they told me to go inside, that all she needed to do was to sober up, and that she would be okay, and they were gonna be there and watch her."
However, instead of waiting for her to sober up or getting her help, they dumped Daisy off, shoeless and coatless in temperatures that dipped to 22 degrees. The guys left.
At about 5 a.m., Coleman's mother, Melinda, heard a scratching noise at the front door. She opened it to find a shocking sight: her daughter lying there, having crawled up to knock, her hair frozen, her feet turned red. Melinda is a veterinarian, so she brought her confused daughter in and drew a cool bath to warm her up, worried about potential frostbite. As she undressed Daisy, Melinda noticed marks on her genitalia.
"Immediately," Melinda Coleman told the Kansas City Star, "I knew what happened."
There was a call to 911, then a trip for both girls to the local hospital, where vaginal tears were found and Daisy's blood alcohol level, even at 9 a.m. – seven hours after drinking that clear liquid in the basement – was 0.13.
Nodaway County Sheriff deputies arrived soon after and went to work. The story was obvious. The boys were brought in immediately to talk and later put in custody. A search warrant of the Barnett house was executed, and blankets, underwear, booze and other items were seized. Cell phones were culled. It was quick and seemingly thorough.
Sheriff Darren White has repeatedly told the media he was certain there would be prosecutions.
"I was actually pretty happy with it because we had what I considered to be a very serious crime and within a matter of a few hours, we had warrants for their arrest and they'd been arrested," White told KCUR-TV out of Kansas City last summer. "… Did a crime occur? Hell yes, it occurred. Was it a horrible crime? Yes, it was a horrible crime. And did these boys need to be punished for it? Absolutely."
Only, it didn't turn out that way. Not yet, anyway.
Within hours, an investigation was underway. The then 15-year-old boy who had sex with the then 13-year-old girl was punished, via the juvenile judicial system, which keeps all names private.
Barnett was charged as an adult for sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. He never denied having sex with Daisy Coleman or that he knew she had been drinking. He just said it was consensual. In Missouri, statutory rape is defined as either having sex with someone under 14 or if a person is 21 and the victim is less than 17 years of age. Neither distinction applies here, an important legal bullet dodged.
The case would largely hinge on whether Coleman was incapacitated by alcohol and thus incapable of consent.
Meanwhile, then 17-year-old friend Jordan Zech was charged as an adult with the sexual exploitation of a minor for videotaping part of the encounter on his iPhone. The video was later deleted and unrecoverable.
(While Yahoo generally doesn't release the names of sexual assault victims, the Coleman family, including Daisy, now 16, have given the media consent to do so in an effort to publicize the case. They have given multiple on-camera interviews. Parkhurst has also given at least one television interview.)
The charges brought little relief. The Coleman children, who include Daisy and two siblings, say they were harassed at school and online. The family was new to Maryville, having moved from Albany, about 40 miles to the east, after the death of their father in an automobile accident.
The boys involved, including the Barnetts, are prominent long-time residents in a community where almost everyone knows everyone. Many locals rallied around Barnett, who was facing a potentially long prison sentence.
Soon Melinda Coleman was fired from her job, which she believes was related to the alleged assault. Daisy went into depression, including, the family said, multiple failed suicide attempts. When the Colemans moved back to Albany seeking a fresh start, the old home they owned and sat unoccupied in Maryville suspiciously burnt to the ground.
It was something out of Hollywood.
Making matters more difficult, the charges against Zech and Barnett were dropped by Rice.
Melinda Coleman said she's never gotten an explanation why. Rice has said little, although he did disclose to the Kansas City Star that there wasn't enough evidence.
"There wasn't any prosecuting attorney that could take that case to trial," Rice told the paper. "It had to be dismissed. And it was. … They were doing what they wanted to do, and there weren't any consequences. And it's reprehensible. But is it criminal? No."
The case may have drifted off into history if not for the Colemans' pursuit of the media. Most notably, an extensive story by Dugan Arnett of the Star that blew it up.
The spotlight has zoomed immediately on the town and prosecutor Rice, who, if nothing else, has done a dreadful job explaining why he didn't at least take the case to a grand jury or hand it over to the state's attorney general's office before originally dropping charges. His defiance hasn't played well.
Instead, the narrative has been left to snowball across the Internet.
The obvious and first reaction here is one of anger. A young girl taken advantage of, raped, discarded in the frost grass by callous older boys, who because of their athletic ability and family connections are protected by the powers that be in this small backward town.
That may be a true version, although to make that immediate conclusion is to engage in stereotyping. It is to assume that in Maryville no one cares about sexual assault or young girls. It is to conclude that judgments have been blinded by loyalty to a local powerhouse high school football team. It is to presume the possibility of some political muscle – Barnett's grandfather is a former state representative –– trying to make this go away and a prosecutor bending to it.
Those are huge leaps to make here. At least at this point with what is currently known.
Yet these cases aren't necessarily about perspective and patience. Anonymous, for one, has demanded that the state's attorney general reopen the case, even if the AG says it doesn't have the legal power to step in and overrule a county prosecutor. It isn't just Anonymous that's confused, though. The lieutenant governor along with a number of prominent state officials have asked for the same thing.
"I hope that responsible officials will join me in this call for a grand jury to make the final call on whether criminal charges should or should not be filed," Kinder said in his statement.
Wednesday, Rice relented.
"The public trust in our criminal justice system must be upheld at all times," Rice told reporters, adding, "My name was dragged through the mud in that [Kansas City Star] article, and I don't appreciate that. The way the article was written inflamed passions."
Among those "passions" was a statement from Anonymous calling for action, which declared the city's mayor has "dirty hands." He clearly has no authority over the county sheriff, which conducted a seemingly swift and thorough investigation, or the county prosecutor.
He was listed by name anyway. He might as well get used to it.
It wasn't all that different in Steubenville, where much of the initial speculation about cover-ups has yet to pan out with actual fact. The police, by all current public accounts, did a proper job, and two suspects were arrested, tried and eventually convicted and now sit in jail. Meanwhile, a state-convened special grand jury is still investigating pretty much all aspects of the night in question in an effort to alleviate concerns. It has delivered one indictment, a school official, although the details aren't likely to be made public until a pretrial hearing on Oct. 25.
Regardless, the damage was done there.
In Maryville, it's just beginning. This is not all bad. While it has its negative aspects, online vigilantism does bring attention and a relentless force that can create action. There are reasonable questions here to be answered. How did the charges just get dropped? How could this not be enough to at least take in front of a grand jury? How could a girl who passed out not have been incapacitated?
It's all enough to continue to spark the outrage, even if there should be an equal amount of confusion.
We're a long way from knowing exactly what happened that night in the Barnett basement, but the details are too powerful, the pain too obvious, the anger too pronounced for anyone to think it would just fade away.
Anonymous doesn't back down and whether that's a good thing or not, it's completely changed the game. This is a new day for these old cases, which, pretty much everyone would agree, in the past were too often swept under the rug.
Robert Rice thinks the personal attacks and insinuations of corruption against him are malicious, wrong and never happened.
He may be right. But they aren't going to stop. They have hardly even begun, even with his call for the case to be reevaluated.
The scars are still deep in Steubenville, the resentment against the attacks still real, the case and fallout still going, but even they knew early on to walk away and let outsiders handle the justice. Even Steubenville understood that.
Anyone with more information about this story, please email us at MaryvilleTips@yahoo.com.
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