An impressively reported and very upsetting story ran over the weekend in the Kansas City Star by reporter Dugan Arnett. It starts with a house in ashes in the small town of Maryville, Mo. The family who owned that house and lived in it from 2010 to August 2012—Melinda Coleman and her four children—left town after a social and legal disaster involving allegations of sexual assault by Coleman’s 14-year-old daughter, Daisy, against a 17-year-old high school senior and football player.
The outline is grimly familiar from Steubenville, Ohio, and the Rehtaeh Parsons case near Halifax, Nova Scotia. This time, the football player, Matthew Barnett, was quickly arrested and charged with sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. And then, after a vicious spate of victim blaming, the charges were dropped without explanation. Even though 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.”
Arnett also writes that White:
maintains “no doubt” a crime was committed that night. The doctor who treated Daisy the following morning called the prosecutor’s decision to drop the charges “surprising.” And one longtime Missouri attorney believes the Colemans’ status as relative outsiders played a part in the cases’ dismissals. “The fact that the family wasn’t from Maryville made it a lot easier for the prosecutor to drop those charges,” he said.
Barnett, meanwhile, was part of a family of longtime Maryville residents and the grandson of a four-term Missouri state representative. His grandfather says he stayed out of the case. But the town lined up behind Matthew and against Daisy (whose name we are using because her mother has released it to the press).
Here’s what Arnett reports happened the night of the alleged crime: Daisy was at her house drinking with a 13-year-old friend in January 2012. She texted with Barnett, whose attention she’d attracted. She was a freshman cheerleader, and her older brother was on the football team, too. Her brother had told her to stay away from Barnett. But at 1 a.m., Daisy and her friend slipped out a window and went to Barnett’s house. Daisy drank a big glass of something. She doesn’t remember what happened next. Her 13-year-old friend went into a bedroom with a 15-year-old boy, who later told the police that “although the girl said ‘no’ multiple times, he undressed her, put a condom on and had sex with her.”
Daisy was carried out of a bedroom where she’d been with Barnett “unable to speak coherently.” The boys drove the girls home. The 13-year-old and three of the boys told the police Daisy was crying when she was carried to the car.
Her mother found her scratching at the front door in the early morning. The boys had told the 13-year-old to go inside, saying they’d wait with Daisy until she sobered up. They left her outside in a T-shirt and sweatpants. She’d been out for about three hours, in 22-degree weather.
Melinda Coleman, a veterinarian whose husband, a doctor, had died in a car accident six years earlier, sounds like she did everything right. She gave her daughter a warm bath, noticed signs of rape or sex, called 911, and took Daisy to the hospital. That’s why the police found it easy to investigate. There was also, allegedly, a video of Daisy and Barnett taken by another boy on his iPhone. Daisy’s brother said students passed it around at school. The prosecutors say it was never found.
Read Arnett’s story for yourself: He talked to people on all sides and reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents. (Most are sealed, he says, but the Coleman family gave them to him.) He is even-handed and careful. At the end of the day, what’s so frustrating and dismaying—about this story, as well as the others I mentioned earlier—is this pattern. Girls put themselves in situations of risk, by drinking with older boys they have no reason to trust. The boys take awful advantage—and then claim the sex was consensual even though the girls were blotto. There are photos or a video, which compound the humiliation, and also should make it easier for police to investigate, yet don’t always lead to resolution.
And on social media, there is a vomiting up of victim blaming that has its own sick power. When police or prosecutors don’t back up the girls in some way, it is taken as proof in the community that they were sluts who deserved everything they got. The girls become pariahs. They wear the scarlet letters of our time.
Coleman took her family out of Maryville in August 2012, after the charges were dismissed. Her house burned down six months ago. The cause is undetermined. Daisy has been in therapy but has made two suicide attempts. Barnett is going to the University of Central Missouri, the school his grandfather went to. Before he changed the privacy settings on his Twitter account, Arnett found this retweet:
If her name begins with A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z, she wants the D.
Update, October 14: Anonymous is on the scene. As members of the loose hacker collective did in Steubenville and in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, they’re demanding an “immediate investigation into the handling by local authorities” of Daisy’s case. This kind of vigilante justice can be for good or for ill. It depends how responsible the vigilantes are. One thing is sure: This will get interesting.