In the farmland of northwestern Missouri, a 2012 rape case that never went to trial has put tiny Maryville under siege from state politicians, national journalists and a hackers’ collective pledging retribution.
Early on Jan. 8, 2012, Melinda Coleman, a widow who had recently moved to town with her four children, discovered her 14-year-old daughter, Daisy, sprawled outside her home in 22-degree weather. The girl was incoherent, clad only in a T-shirt and sweatpants, her hair brittle from the cold.
Daisy and a 13-year-old friend had snuck out of the Coleman home late the night before to go drinking at a party with some older boys. The 13-year-old, who was back in Daisy’s bedroom, said she had been raped. Daisy wasn’t sure what had happened.
Melinda Coleman called 911 and took both girls to the hospital. Three of the boys at the party, including a 17-year-old linebacker on the high school football team, Matthew Barnett, were arrested. Barnett, who comes from an influential local family, was accused of raping Daisy, and 17-year-old Jordan Zech was accused of filming part of the incident. A 15-year-old was accused of raping the 13-year-old, who said she had repeatedly told him “no.”
Barnett and Zech were charged as adults and pleaded not guilty, saying Daisy had consented. The younger boy was sent to the juvenile court system.
But in March 2012, Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice dropped the charges against Barnett and Zech, saying he didn’t have enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. He and county Sheriff Darren White said the Coleman family had refused to cooperate with the investigation. The family denies that.
The Colemans soon left town, citing harassment, and their home burned down under suspicious circumstances.
Local media had already covered the story, but when the Kansas City Star published its seven-month investigation of the case Sunday, the national spotlight turned on Maryville and Nodaway County. The case became the nation’s most scrutinized rape investigation since a similar scandal rocked Stuebenville, Ohio, a small Midwestern town where high school football players sexually abused an unconscious girl last year.
And the Coleman family took to the media to pressure officials for justice. Daisy appeared on CNN on Tuesday with her mother, as did the younger girl and her mother. Although they all appeared on camera, the other mother asked that her daughter not be fully identified. Melinda Coleman also spoke with The Times.
The Times does not normally identify victims of sexual assault, but is doing so in this case because Daisy has identified herself publicly.
Missouri’s lieutenant governor called for a grand jury investigation, and the House speaker asked the state attorney general to intervene.
And late Wednesday, Rice, the county prosecutor, said he would appoint a special prosecutor to reexamine the case. Rice told a news conference that he was moved to act by a television interview in which the Colemans said they would cooperate with the investigation.
The hacktivist collective Anonymous had declared if local law enforcement didn’t follow up on the case, its members would take vengeance. Already, Maryville has been assailed by phone calls, emails and vicious Yelp reviews.
White, the sheriff, took down his deputies’ computer server as a precaution against the threat of a hacking attack, he said in an interview.
“They are truly a bunch of cowards, hiding behind — even their name, Anonymous. What do you do with people like that?” said White, who was targeted by a Kansas City Star editorial calling for his job. “They all need to get jobs and quit living with their parents.”
The social media accounts of Barnett and his friends vanished after the story went viral. Barnett’s attorney said in a statement that his client was not guilty, adding that the Barnett family had received threats.
For Melinda Coleman, the attention has been vindicating, and she said all the feedback had been overwhelmingly positive. She said Maryville had been a nice town until a small cluster of about 10 people made the family’s life hell.
Coleman said a college-age sister of one of the boys had waged a Twitter campaign against Daisy and her 13-year-old friend, both of whom had mental health issues after the incident and attempted suicide.
“They were making a game of trying to get the girls to commit suicide,” Coleman told The Times. One of the harassing posts, she said, went like this: “Why don’t you really kill yourself this time?”
Coleman, who spoke with The Times before Rice said he would name a special prosecutor, doesn’t know what to expect now.
“They said over and over again that [the case] could never be reopened, so I don’t know how much they were saying that to shut me up, or what could really happen legally at this point,” she said.
But, she added, “I think it would be really great if someone looked at it with fairness — with truth.”