Maryville, Mo., is just like Steubenville, Ohio.
That's what so many are saying, and if that doesn't concern the prosecutor's office of Nodaway County in the far northwest part of the state, then perhaps it doesn't know what has just begun, or fathom what is still to come.
Steubenville was thrown into the international spotlight over the past year after members of the local high school football team sexually assaulted a drunken 16-year-old girl. It was a horrific crime made even worse by the gutter behavior of onlookers, which included crude jokes on social media, a cellphone filming of one of the acts and a complete lack of concern for the well being of the victim.
Yet in Steubenville, authorities not only charged two players, they handed the case over to the state's attorney general's office to run the prosecution. Both boys were convicted last March and are in the juvenile justice system to this day.
Even still, the city was brought to its knees by allegations of corruption, cover-up and favoritism. Local bloggers printed wild, unproven allegations. The Internet hacking group Anonymous tormented some locals and staged street protests that washed the city out. It focused pressure to make sure the case was pushed – and continues to be pushed – forward. It was devastating and divisive to Steubenville. Even locals freely repeated the most outlandish of rumors.
And, again, it's worth repeating: The two defendants weren't just charged; they were convicted.
In Maryville, the main suspect, a one-time, high-profile local high school athlete, is accused of assaulting a drunk 14-year-old girl before dumping her passed-out body on her front lawn in sub-freezing weather. He isn't even standing trial; all his charges dropped earlier this year.
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, and 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, 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, the 13-year-old had sex with another 15-year-old boy even though she testified that she repeatedly said no.
Eventually the girls were driven back to the Coleman's. The 13-year-old, who was at least capable of walking, was sent into the house. The boys said they would wait with Coleman, who was incoherent and had been crying when she was carried to the car, until she sobered up. However, instead of waiting for her to sober up or getting her help, they dumped Daisy off on her front doorstep, 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. Melissa 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, Melissa 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.
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.)
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 local prosecutor, Robert 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. 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, is demanding 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. No less than the lieutenant governor and a number of prominent state officials have asked for the same thing.
And consider Anonymous' statement 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. 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.
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?
Rice is refusing to talk to the media or make any public declarations beyond a prepared statement that answers virtually nothing. He says a state law prevents him from discussing a closed case.
He's making a huge mistake, however, if he thinks that is going to satisfy anyone.
"The article recently published in the Kansas City Star did not include all the facts as to what transpired in a 2012 criminal case," Rice said in the statement released Tuesday. "There was insufficient evidence to prove a criminal charge beyond a reasonable doubt. The State's witnesses refused to cooperate and invoked their 5th Amendment privilege to not testify.
“The personal attacks made against me are malicious, wrong, and never happened.
“Law enforcement authorities and I are prohibited from commenting on the facts of a closed criminal case.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons