Hackers and activists across the country are threatening to upend a small northwestern Missouri town where two high school football players avoided rape and sexual exploitation charges involving two younger teenagers in 2012.
Charges were filed last year and quickly dropped. After that, a local social media storm helped drive one accuser’s family out of Maryville, population 12,000.
But a larger social media storm is brewing, with Maryville likened to Steubenville, Ohio, a small Midwestern town synonymous with a high school rape case and local permissiveness.
On Sunday, the Kansas City Star published a months-long investigation about the alleged rape of two girls, ages 13 and 14, by older Maryville High School athletes on Jan. 8, 2012. The 13-year-old had been spending the night at the other girl’s home, and the older boys are alleged to have taken them to a post-midnight party and supplied them with liquor.
The case had been no secret in Maryville. The older girl had previously spoken out about waking up outside, clad in just a T-shirt and sweatpants, her hair frozen in subfreezing temperatures. She didn't remember what had happened.
"We found out later, from the text messaging and from the phone calls, [the boys] picked the girls up just a few minutes before 1 [a.m.], and they dropped them off by 2 [a.m.], so they were pretty efficient," the 14-year-old's mother, Melinda Coleman, told radio station KCUR. "They knew what they were doing."
Coleman heard a scratching noise at the door in the early morning and discovered her daughter outside in the cold. The 13-year-old was in the bedroom. Coleman called 911 and took both girls to the hospital.
According to the Star, the 14-year-old’s blood-alcohol content measured 0.13 -- almost twice the legal limit for a driving adult. Coleman said her daughter’s genitalia and buttocks looked red and inflamed.
“I thought I was dead at first," the girl told KCUR. "I was really confused. I was like, what is happening? I couldn’t even make sense of anything.”
Three of the boys were arrested, questioned and charged – two 17-year-olds as adults and a 15-year-old as a juvenile. Police said the younger boy had confessed to sexually assaulting the second girl, 13, after she'd repeatedly said no. He eventually accepted a plea bargain.
“Did a crime occur? Hell, yes, it occurred,” Nodaway County Sheriff Darren White said in a radio interview this summer. “Was it a horrible crime? Yes, it was a horrible crime. Did these boys need to be punished for it? Absolutely.”
But the Nodaway County prosecutor, Robert Rice, disagreed.
“They were doing what they wanted to do, and there weren’t any consequences. And it’s reprehensible. But is it criminal? No,” Rice told the Star.
Two months after the incident, he dropped charges against the 17-year-olds, both of whom were on the high school football team. One, the grandson of an influential local politician, was accused of raping Coleman’s daughter, the other of making a felonious recording of part of the encounter.
The video was never found, and Rice declared there was not enough evidence to prosecute. The youth accused of rape said the sex was consensual. Missouri state law says rape defendants are not guilty if they “reasonably believed that the victim was not incapacitated and reasonably believed that the victim consented to the act.”
The boys’ friends began joyously tweeting about the dropped charges, and some Maryville residents and students turned against the Coleman family, which experienced a rash of trouble.
Melinda Coleman, a widow, lost her job. Two of her four children transferred to another school district. The family left town, and after that, their home burned down under mysterious circumstances.
Her 14-year-old daughter started to hurt herself and has since made two suicide attempts.
“I was cutting and I would like light up a pen and put it against my skin as burning, so,” the girl said in her radio interview. “I just felt like if I’m this ugly on the inside, I might as well look it on the outside, you know? 'You’re the s-word, the w-word, the b-word, just… After a while, you start to believe it.”
Even the sheriff criticized the Coleman family, which reportedly stopped cooperating with officials.
“What really fell apart were the victims and the victims’ family,” White told KCUR. “They’re the ones that actually absolutely destroyed this case, all on their own, all by themselves. At least the suspects were smart enough to keep their mouths shut after it all happened.”
White could not be reached for comment Monday evening, and the phone at Rice’s office rang without answer.
Melinda Coleman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from the Los Angeles Times on Monday.
None of the five boys present during the incident have publicly commented, although one parent told the Star, “Our boys deserve an apology, and they haven’t gotten it yet.”
After the Star's story went viral, commenters on sites like Gawker and Reddit urged readers to contact officials to look into why the case was dropped. Other commenters threatened to physically track down the youth accused of rape and began posting links to his Facebook profile, which was almost immediately deactivated.
Friends of the boys also moved to protect their social media accounts after the backlash mounted Monday, with the hacker collective Anonymous -- which played a critical role in making the Steubenville rape case go viral -- calling for justice for Coleman's daughter and announcing #OpMaryville.
As of Monday evening, the Facebook pages of White and Rice had vanished, as had Rice’s Twitter account. The county’s website was little more than a banner and a short message: “We are currently experiencing issues with our website.”
"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," the group said in a statement tweeted out to more than a million followers. A rally asking for the case to be reopened was also planned in Maryville on Oct. 22.
A decision to reopen the case would rest with the county prosecutor, not with state officials, unless Rice asked for help or recused himself, a Missouri attorney general's office spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times in a statement.
“While we appreciate the concerns of those who have sent petitions to our office, the attorney general's office does not have the authority under the laws of the state of Missouri to review a prosecutor’s discretionary decisions in particular cases,” spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said in an email Monday. “Charging decisions in criminal cases are exclusively within the discretion of elected county prosecutors in Missouri.”
Which means all eyes now fall on Rice, and on those who disagree with him.