MARYVILLE, Mo. — My hometown is not the villain.
Maryville has made headlines around the world since the front-page story of the Oct. 13 Kansas City Star describing how Daisy Coleman and her friend sneaked alcohol that January 2012 night at a sleepover, then ended up at the home of popular senior Matthew Barnett, where Daisy was offered more to drink. That’s when things turned ugly. Really ugly. There are allegations that Daisy’s 13-year-old friend was raped by a 15-year-old; that case went to juvenile court and the results are sealed. Daisy, 14 at the time, says Barnett raped her while his friend, Jordan Zech, videotaped part of the assault on a cellphone. Barnett has denied the accusations; he admits sex with Daisy, but say it was consensual.
Afterward, Daisy was left on the front porch in freezing temperatures, wearing just a t-shirt and sweatpants, her hair frozen by the time she was discovered by her mother. Felony charges were filed against the boys, and then dropped. A special prosecutor out of Kansas City is now looking at the case.
What has surprised me — and maybe it shouldn’t — is the level of hatred and vitriol directed toward not just the alleged rapists and the prosecutor who dropped the charges but everyone in Maryville. There’s almost a lynch mob mentality in the comments on social media. My hometown has been vilified as “a lawless hellhole” and its citizens “the scum of the earth.” One person commenting on Reddit said he hoped an F5 tornado would destroy the entire town and everyone in it. On Facebook, another poster wanted to “NUKE” the town; that sentiment was echoed by a St. Louis radio talk-show host.
Like the old-fashioned game of Telephone, mistakes and rumors have sprouted like mushrooms during a Missouri spring. Among them: The girls were raped by “several” boys and left for dead; the Colemans’ house burned to the ground while they escaped with their lives (the house was vacant and no cause for the fire has been determined); Matthew Barnett’s grandfather, Rex Barnett, was a state senator and in charge of the committee that funded the sheriff’s office (he was in the state legislature from 1994 to 2002).
The entire population of Maryville — some 12,000 people, plus the 7,000 college students at Northwest Missouri State University — did not rape Daisy Coleman, nor did all of them participate in the the bullying, the name-calling or the threats afterward. Not everyone in town even knows each other.
We’re not talking about some bucolic version of Mayberry in the 21st century here. Sure, Maryville is small when compared to Kansas City or Chicago, but it’s the largest community in a nine-county area in northwest Missouri and is surrounded by even smaller towns with anywhere from 50 to 500 people.
Plenty of “outsiders” move here; Mayor Jim Fall originally hails from Albany, Mo., the same town that the Colemans left. Of course the superintendent of the local school system, Larry Linthacum, would be expected to play cheerleader to the town, but he did point out the community’s social diversity. “There’s a great mix of people associated with the college, with manufacturing and with agriculture in a rural setting,” he said. “It’s a unique combination.”
It’s not some haven for inbred rednecks, as some of the media suggest.
But the hacker activist group Anonymous declared war not only on the alleged rapists or the prosecutor, but on the town of Maryville, issuing a press release, “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. Mayor Jim Fall, your hands are dirty. Maryville, expect us.”
Fall told me he’s received at least 300 threatening e-mails since then. “I was surprised at the tone of the emails — the language and vulgarity,” he said. “They would write how can you ever sleep at night or may your soul burn in everlasting hell — except laced with four-letter words and expletives.”
Technically, it wasn’t even Maryville but Nodaway County that failed when it comes to legalities. Because the Coleman home is outside of the city limits, it was the county sheriff’s office that conducted the criminal investigation.
It was Nodaway County Prosecutor Robert Rice who charged Matthew Barnett with felony sexual assault and Jordan Zech with sexual exploitation (for videotaping) and then dropped the charges in March because, he said, the Colemans failed to cooperate, while Melinda Coleman blames the influence of the Barnett family.
By Oct. 16, just three days after the story in the Star, Rice called for the appointment of a special prosecutor, saying he realized the Colemans would cooperate after seeing their comments on a television interview. Still, the attacks have continued. The Nodaway County government Web site was shut down as a precautionary measure. Although the Maryville city site remained online, some information was removed, Fall said.
The Colemans, mother and daughter, have appeared on CNN each evening to discuss aspects of the case. They were eventually joined by the previously unidentified friend, Paige Parkhurst. (Although the Washington Post does not usually identify victims of rape, in this case both young women have gone public.)
A protest demanding “Justice for Daisy,” organized by Kansas City women’s activist Courtney Cole, was planned for Oct. 22 in the courthouse square. Anonymous joined forces with Cole in support of the demonstration.
Monday brought the announcement of the special prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, who serves as prosecutor for Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, Mo. That news didn’t cancel the demonstration, however. Instead, Cole shifted the focus to support Daisy and Paige and all victims of sexual abuse.
Up to 500 people attended the rally, far fewer than the expected 2,000. The speakers — who were nearly drowned out by a hovering helicopter from the highway patrol — talked more about “rape culture” than the stories of Daisy and Paige. But the gathering remained peaceful. There was no violence. There was no riot. There wasn’t even a counter-protest, although a separate area had been cordoned off. Every officer and deputy from Maryville Public Safety, the campus police force and the Sheriff’s office were on duty that night, along with 20 Missouri State Highway Patrol Troopers.
Anonymous showed up as well. Some of them refused to speak, but a couple were interviewed on camera. I talked with one who said he was there for “justice.”
After the rally, the media finally left the city. Fall said his daughter told him Wednesday she noticed on one news site that the Maryville rape story was trending three places below an article on what’s happened to the cast members of the Roseanne television show.
Meanwhile, Maryville struggles to get back to normal. I asked Fall about the impact on the city. He sighed before answering. “I don’t have any idea how to quantify it or measure the quality or the extent of the damage….Time will tell.”
Maryville Daily Forum news editor Tony Brown summed up the situation: “…stories like this never quite go away, and in some ways Maryville will probably never be quite the same place. Lives have been changed, and when that happens towns change too.”