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Missouri town in uproar over teen sexual-assault case
A rally showed support for a girl who said she was 14 when a popular 17-year-old boy gave her alcohol and sexually assaulted her in January 2012. A county prosecutor has been named to reinvestigate the case.
Seattle Times news services
MARYVILLE, Mo. — A day after a Jackson County prosecutor was named to reinvestigate a northwest Missouri teen sexual-assault case, a modest crowd of a few hundred people braved chilly conditions Tuesday night to show support for a girl whose story has drawn worldwide attention.
The rally on Maryville’s courthouse square was organized over the Internet by a women’s rights activist from the Kansas City area who used social media to garner support for Daisy Coleman, who said she was 14 when a 17-year-old boy gave her alcohol and sexually assaulted her in January 2012.
Daisy’s story generated new attention and an outpouring of responses on social media after a Kansas City Star investigation. The family also spoke out earlier this summer to Kansas City radio station KCUR.
She claims that a popular 17-year-old plied her with alcohol, sexually assaulted her and then dumped her off near her home in subfreezing temperatures in January 2012.
She also has said that another boy, then 17, videotaped the assault on a cellphone and that her 13-year-old friend was raped the same night by a 15-year-old boy.
The story struck a nerve when Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice dropped felony charges against the alleged assailant and a second 17-year-old who recorded the incident. Rice has said that the family stopped cooperating, which the family denies, and that there was not enough evidence to move forward with the case.
The Star story sparked a social-media storm that included threats against Nodaway County and Maryville officials by the Internet hacking group Anonymous, which also promoted Tuesday night’s rally. Participants were encouraged to bring daisies as a symbolic gesture of support for Coleman.
The Associated Press generally does not name alleged victims of sexual assault but is naming Daisy because she and her mother have been granting public interviews about the case.
Daisy’s accused attacker, Matthew Barnett, then a defensive end on the high-school football team, is from a politically prominent local family. Barnett and Jordan Zech, then 17, were charged as adults. Both pleaded not guilty, saying Daisy had consented to sex.
Courtney Cole, a women’s rights activist from Kansas City, said she came up with the idea for a protest after reading The Star’s account. After she announced the event on social media, Anonymous contacted her and got permission to help promote it, which she said made it go viral.
After Rice announced last week that he was asking for a special prosecutor to take a new look at the case, Cole changed the tenor of the event and move it back to 6 p.m. so more people could attend.
“Because the situation has changed and Rice has done the right thing, there is no reason to protest,” Cole said. “We would look like bullies. So we changed it to a rally to provide support for victims and families and create an awareness of the rape culture society we live in.”
Melinda Coleman, Daisy’s mother, issued a statement Monday night praising Maryville, the school district and even coaches of the two who had been accused in the case for supporting her family.
Coleman, who has indicated she did not plan to attend Tuesday’s event, asked that participants remain peaceful.
The incident sparked outrage in the community, though the worst of it was directed not at the accused perpetrators but at the alleged victim and her family.
In the months that followed, Melinda Coleman said she was fired from her job as a veterinarian, and Daisy and the 13-year-old were vilified in social-media messages and were routinely harassed.
When it became too much, they left, retreating east to Albany.
Coleman had hoped the move would allow them to heal in peace, that the 40 miles separating the towns would be enough to put an end to their bitter saga.
Then last April, the family home in Maryville burned down under mysterious circumstances.
Jean Peters Baker, the prosecutor in Jackson County, in the Kansas City area, has been asked by a judge to re-examine the case. Baker added that her special-victims unit would handle the case.
At a Monday news conference, Baker said her office would “thoroughly review” the case “without fear or favor.”
“This is going to be a process, and for now, this process must be an internal one,” Baker said. “My office will not be commenting on this case as we undertake our review. And when the time comes, I promise you ... I will announce those charges, whatever those may be.”
Barnett, now in college, was charged with sexually assaulting Daisy, and the other 17-year-old was charged with sexual exploitation. But Rice dropped the charges, saying witnesses had refused to cooperate and that Daisy had twice cited her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination while refusing to answer certain questions.
The 15-year-old boy who allegedly raped the other girl was sent to the juvenile-justice system before the charges were dropped.
Maryville officials say they have been targeted by a hostile phone and email campaign, threats and possible cyberattacks. Barnett’s lawyer has said the boy and his family also have been threatened and harassed.
Melinda Coleman told the Los Angeles Times last week that she did not refuse to cooperate and that Daisy had never cited her Fifth Amendment rights — and had refused to sign a document saying she had planned to invoke those rights.
The Kansas City Star published a detailed report, “Nightmare in Maryville,” that explored the effect of the case on the Coleman family and raised questions about how it was handled by local officials.
“The way the article was written inflamed passions,” Rice said. “The public trust in our criminal-justice system must be upheld at all times.”
Rice said he made his decision, in part, after watching a CNN interview in which Daisy and her mother said they would cooperate with prosecutors. The 13-year-old-girl and her mother also appeared in the interview.
The case has been an ordeal for the Coleman family, coming just six years after Daisy’s father was killed in a car wreck.
Coleman’s physician husband, Michael, had been on his way to watch his son compete in a wrestling tournament when his truck skidded on a patch of black ice and careened into a ravine. Two of the couple’s children — Daisy and Logan, ages 9 and 10 at the time — escaped through a back window. Michael didn’t survive.
Compiled from The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and Kansas City Star