High school sexual assault case haunts Missouri town
By JOHN ELIGON
The New York Times | October 21,2013
MARYVILLE, Mo. — The mayor of this small manufacturing town in northwest Missouri hardly blinks an eye these days when he gets an email that calls him an unflattering name in the subject line. Those tend to be the tame ones. Others cut much deeper.
“‘May you never sleep at night again, and may your soul burn eternally in hell’ — that’s commonplace now,” Mayor Jim Fall said, recalling one of the hundreds of messages that flooded his inbox last week.
Ever since The Kansas City Star ran a long article last Sunday raising new questions about the Nodaway County prosecutor’s decision to drop charges against a 17-year-old football player accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl, the simplicity of small-town life here has been complicated by a storm of negative attention.
Some of the furor was tempered last week when the prosecutor, Robert L. Rice, asked a judge to appoint a special prosecutor to take a new look at the case. But the request is pending, and tensions remain high.
Local officials (even some, like Fall, who have nothing to do with the case), families and students say they have received threats. Businesses say customers have stayed away to avoid the reporters from around the globe. The Sheriff’s Department has taken down its website because of hacking threats.
And so a town of about 12,000, whose high school football team was praised a few years back for allowing a boy with Down syndrome to score a touchdown, now finds itself facing threats and scorn.
“We’re all now in a position where we have an uneasy feeling about what does this mean for our town,” said Steve Klotz, assistant superintendent for the Maryville School District.
The case resembles an episode in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two high school football players were convicted this year of raping a drunken girl at a party.
In that case, and in this, much of the outrage has been driven by social media, with the hacking collective Anonymous among the most vocal players, lashing out against people whom it believes have failed or mistreated the accuser. The group has organized a rally to be held here Tuesday. The accuser, Daisy Coleman, now 16, has spoken out publicly in the hope that she can help garner enough support to have her case reconsidered.
The community was shocked almost two years ago when Matt Barnett, then a senior at Maryville High School and the grandson of a once prominent local politician, was arrested in January 2012 on charges that he had had sex with Coleman, a freshman who the authorities said had been too drunk to consent. Under Missouri law, consensual sex between Barnett and Coleman would not be statutory rape because he was younger than 21 and she was at least 14. Two other boys were arrested — one, a 15-year-old, on charges that he had sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl, and another 17-year-old on charges that he had filmed Barnett and Coleman.
The authorities had alleged that Coleman and a friend had been drinking before they sneaked out of Coleman’s house late that night in January and went to Barnett’s home, where he was hanging out with several friends. Coleman said in an interview that she had drunk a clear liquid in a tall glass when she arrived and could not remember anything after that.
Eyewitness accounts say that Coleman went into a room with Barnett and that she had to be carried out afterward because she was so drunk, although one of Barnett’s friends told the police that the pair had gone into a room on two separate occasions and that it was only after the second time that Coleman could not walk on her own.
The 13-year-old went into a different room with the 15-year-old boy. He admitted to having sex with her even though she said no, according to the authorities. (His case went to juvenile court.)
Barnett and his friends drove Coleman and her friend back to her house. Melinda Coleman, Coleman’s mother, said she had found her barely conscious in front of the house around 5 a.m., wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt. She called the police, and her daughter was taken to the hospital, where she was found to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.13 percent, well above the legal limit for driving.
Barnett admitted to having sex with Coleman but said it was consensual and disputed the claim that he had left her out in the cold in front of her house.
It didn’t take long for the town to take sides.
Coleman said she was harassed at school and on Facebook and Twitter. In one instance, she said, she was walking to the bathroom at school when a boy popped into the hallway and yelled “Liar!” at her.
“We had a handful of people that were really good to us, and we had a handful of people that just completely stayed out of it,” Coleman said. “But then we had a large group of people that were not so kind towards us.”
Her mother chimed in: “I would say it was pretty split. The people that were against us were so aggressively against us and so verbal and so hateful.”
Unable to withstand the harassment, the Colemans, who had moved to Maryville after the death of Coleman’s father, returned to their hometown, Albany, about 30 miles away. Their house in Maryville burned down after they left, and the cause remains unknown.
Rice, who declined to be interviewed, dismissed the charges months after they were filed, saying Coleman and her mother had stopped cooperating, something they both denied.
Barnett’s lawyer, Robert Sundell, also declined to be interviewed but released a statement accusing Coleman of inconsistent testimony at a deposition and changing her story several times. Coleman says she never changed her account of what happened that night, and Sheriff Darren White agrees.
“I think that they have been fairly consistent with that portion of it,” he said. But White, who said he believed Coleman had been sexually assaulted, also blamed the dropping of the case on her lack of cooperation.
Adam Clark, 32, who has lived here for about a decade, said he and a friend had driven to a town about 45 minutes away on a recent evening to see a movie, to “kind of get breathing space from all the activity, the negativity.”
He said he had not taken a side in the case and welcomed a re-examination. “One thing about us here,” he said, “if there’s a problem, we’ll fix it.”