Thursday, October 17, 2013
I write today about justice denied in a sexual assault case in a small town in the heartland of rural America and the power of the internet as a force for change.
The small town is Maryville, Missouri and it’s located approximately 100 miles north of Kansas City. With a population of 12,000 it serves as the county seat for Nodaway County and the home for Northwest Missouri State University and its 7,000 students.
Football is king. Maryville High School and Northwest Missouri State University (Division II) are football powerhouses with long winning traditions. The athletes that play on those teams are local heroes.
Justice was denied to two girls, ages 13 and 14, who were sexually assaulted by two members of the Maryville High School football team. I say justice was denied because the prosecutor who charged the boys with crimes dismissed the charges despite confessions from both of them and physical evidence that confirms the assaults.
The power of the internet as a force for change has been proven by the prosecutor’s recent request to have a special prosecutor appointed to take another look at the case after a tsunami of citizen outrage expressed over the internet protested the prosecutor’s decision and demanded justice be done. The Kansas City Star deserves a lot of credit for investigating and publicizing this story.
Let’s take a look at what happened.
On a Saturday night in early January, 2012, several members of the Maryville High School football team attended a small get-together at the residence of 17-year-old Matthew Barnett, a popular senior who played defensive end on the football team.
The Barnetts are a prominent and influential family in Maryville. His grandfather, Rex Barnett, was elected to serve four terms as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives (1994-2002) after a 32-year career working for the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Daisy Coleman, the 14-year-old girl, and her 13-year-old girlfriend also attended the get-together. Barnett and Daisy knew each other from school where she was a pretty freshman cheerleader. After exchanging several text messages with her that night, he drove to her house, picked them up and gave them a ride to his house.
Jan. 7, 2012, was a Saturday night, and Daisy [Coleman] spent it the way she spent most weekend evenings — with her best friend, a 13-year-old girl she had grown up with in Albany.
During a typical sleepover, the girls played music, made dance videos or watched movies.
On this night, however, their activities were a bit more brazen.
In Daisy’s bedroom closet was a stash of alcohol from which both girls sipped. As they passed the night talking and watching TV, Daisy also texted with Barnett.
At some point that Saturday evening, the texting condensed into a plan.
Shortly after midnight, [Melinda] Coleman [Daisy’s mother] went in to check on the girls and found them watching a movie in Daisy’s bedroom.
Around 1 a.m., the teens slipped out a bedroom window and were met by Barnett and another boy, who drove them three miles to the Barnett house.
When they arrived, sneaking in through a basement window, the girls found themselves among some of the school’s most popular student-athletes. In addition to Barnett, there was junior Jordan Zech, a top wrestler and all-state linebacker; a senior football and tennis player whose family owned the popular A&G Restaurant; a third junior football player; and a 15-year-old who knew the group through an older sibling.
None of the teens commented for this story. Normally, The Star does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse, but this case is widely known in Maryville, and Coleman allowed her daughter’s name to be used in The Star, as well as an earlier KCUR broadcast, to bring attention to the case. She also provided copied investigative records that had been sealed by authorities.
In those records, Daisy alleges that after she arrived, Barnett handed her a large glass filled with alcohol. The boys urged her drink it and then a second glass too, she related later to her mother.
That, she would tell police, was the last thing she remembers.
The sun hadn’t yet risen the next morning when Coleman, groggy from a sleep interrupted, made her way toward the living room.
She had woken moments earlier to the sound of scratching at the front door — the dogs, she figured, had gotten out — and grudgingly went to investigate.
Instead, she found Daisy, sprawled on the front porch and barely conscious.
The low temperature in the area that day was listed at 22 degrees, and the teen had spent roughly three hours outside, wearing only a T-shirt and sweatpants. Her hair was frozen. Scattered across an adjacent lot were her daughter’s purse, shoes and cellphone.
Coleman tried to process what she was seeing. Daisy had a history of sleepwalking — years earlier, she had wandered outside. Had she done it again? In her daughter’s bedroom, Coleman found the 13-year-old asleep. She, too, seemed confused.
Still struggling to make sense of it all, Coleman carried her daughter to the bathroom, to be undressed for a warm bath.
That’s when she saw the redness around her daughter’s genitalia and buttocks. It hurt, the girl said, when Coleman asked about it. Then she began crying.
“Immediately,” Coleman says, “I knew what had happened.”
Coleman called 911, which directed her to St. Francis Hospital in Maryville, where, according to Daisy’s medical report, doctors observed small vaginal tears indicative of recent sexual penetration. The 13-year-old also ended up at St. Francis.
It wasn’t until a captain of the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the hospital for one-on-one interviews with each girl, however, that the full picture of the night’s events began to emerge.
While the last Daisy remembered was drinking “a big glass of clear stuff,” the 13-year-old’s recollections proved more useful.
The younger girl, who admitted drinking that night but denied doing so after arriving at Barnett’s, said she went into a bedroom with the 15-year-old boy, who was an acquaintance. He is unidentified in this article because his case was handled in juvenile court, but sheriff’s records include his interview, in which he said that although the girl said “no” multiple times, he undressed her, put a condom on and had sex with her.
When the two returned to the basement’s common area, the 13-year-old said, Barnett emerged from another room and asked if the girls were ready to go home. She said Daisy was unable to speak coherently and had to be carried from the bedroom.
Around 2 a.m., the girls were driven back to the Coleman house, where, the 13-year-old said, the boys told her to go on inside, saying they would watch over Daisy outside until she sobered up.
The younger girl also offered a significant detail, one later reiterated in the interviews of at least three of the boys.
As Daisy was carried to the car, she was crying.
One by one that Sunday morning, the boys were rounded up and brought to the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office for questioning.
Barnett, who was arrested and charged with sexual assault, a felony, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor, admitted to having sex with Daisy and to being aware that she had been drinking. He insisted the sex was consensual.
Barnett was not charged with statutory rape, as that Missouri law generally applies in cases when a victim is under 14 years old or the perpetrator is over 21. But felony statutes also define sex as non-consensual when the victim is incapacitated by alcohol.
Hospital tests around 9 a.m., roughly seven hours after her last imbibing, showed Daisy’s blood alcohol content still at 0.13.
In addition to admitting his own sexual encounter with the younger girl, according to the sheriff’s office report, the 15-year-old said the boys had left Daisy “outside sitting in 30-degree weather” — even more dangerous with a high alcohol level in the bloodstream.
From him, the lawmen also learned that Barnett and Daisy’s encounter had been captured with an iPhone. That led to 17-year-old Zech’s felony charge of sexual exploitation of a minor. Records show that after initially declining to answer questions, Zech said he had used a friend’s phone to record some of the encounter. He said, however, that he thought Barnett and the girl were only “dry humping,” a term commonly used to describe rubbing together clothed. Another teen, however, told police the video featured both Barnett and Daisy with their pants down.
By midafternoon Sunday, a search warrant for the Barnett home resulted in the seizure of a blanket, bedsheets, a pair of panties found on a bedroom floor, a bottle of Bacardi Big Apple and plastic bottles of unidentified liquids. The sheriff’s office also seized three cellphones, including the iPhone allegedly used by Zech.
Sexual assault cases can be difficult to build because of factors such as a lack of physical evidence or inconsistent statements by witnesses. But by the time his department had concluded its investigation, Sheriff Darren White felt confident the office had put together a case that would “absolutely” result in prosecutions.
“Within four hours, we had obtained a search warrant for the house and executed that,” White told The Star. “We had all of the suspects in custody and had audio/video confessions.”
News of the arrests provoked community outrage against the girls and the police. Daisy Coleman was blamed for the incident, harassed, and threatened with harm on Facebook and Twitter. She was also kicked off the the cheerleading squad. Two weeks after the incident, her mother was fired without explanation from her job at Maryville’s SouthPaws Veterinary Clinic.
In early March, the prosecuting attorney dismissed the felony charges against both boys without notifying or providing an explanation for his decision to Melinda Coleman. Later, he also dismissed the misdemeanor charge.
The community reaction was so bad that Melinda Coleman put her house on the market and moved the family out of town.
Six months ago her house burned to the ground. Although the cause of the fire has been investigated by the local fire department and an insurance company, the cause remains unknown.
Daisy Coleman has attempted suicide twice.