Maryville Rape Case
11:47 am
Thu January 9, 2014

No Sexual Assault Charges In Maryville Rape Case

Daisy Coleman, now 16, in front of her many awards and trophies for cheerleading, dance and beauty pageants. (Peggy Lowe/KCUR)
Daisy Coleman, now 16, in front of her many awards and trophies for cheerleading, dance and beauty pageants. (Peggy Lowe/KCUR)

A 19-year-0ld Maryville man pleaded guilty Thursday to a misdemeanor count of child endangerment, dodging a rape charge and offering an apology in a case that attracted small-town acrimony and international attention.

Matthew Barnett, who appeared at the Nodaway County Courthouse with his parents, got a four month suspended sentence, two years probation, and was ordered to make $1,800 in restitution to his victim, Daisy Coleman, now 16.

Special prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who was appointed to re-examine the case after a local prosecutor dropped previous charges, said there was insufficient evidence to charge Barnett with sexual assault.

"So in this case -- always, every case – it boils down to the evidence," Baker said. "But that’s what this case boiled down to:  the evidence."

Barnett's lawyer, J.R. Hobbs, said his client took full responsibility for his actions and was cleared of rape charges by two separate investigations. Referring to accusations that Barnett had earlier received favorable treatment from Nodaway County authorities because of his family's Republican connections, Hobbs said, "there's absolutely no evidence that political favoritism played a role" in either decision.

Coleman, who was hospitalized earlier this week for attempting suicide, issued a statement through Baker, saying she was grateful Barnett took responsibility by pleading guilty.

"I am ready to move forward," Coleman said.

The decision comes two years and a day after the Jan. 8, 2012 incident, in which Coleman, then 14, and her friend Paige Parkhurst, then 13, snuck out of the Coleman house in Maryville to meet up with Barnett and his friends. The girls had been drinking before they met the boys, then drank much more after they snuck into the Barnett home.

A crying, incoherent Coleman was later dumped at her mother's house, wearing just yoga pants and a T-shirt in the 20-degree temperatures. She was discovered by her younger brother at 5 a.m., some three hours after she had been propped up against the house.

While backing away from sexual assault charges -- or even a felony child endangerment charge -- Baker said her first concern was Coleman, who she refused to name, saying she hoped the "very, very young victim" would soon reclaim her anonymity.

“At the very heart of this case is this very young girl," Baker said. "and she has been at the heart of my concern and she has been at the heart of this investigation throughout the case.”

Barnett, who entered the courtroom escorted by sheriff's deputies through a side door, wore a tie and answered "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" to Nodaway County Associate Circuit Judge Glen Dietrich's questions. His parents sat in the first row behind him and the family left the courthouse without answering reporters' questions.

The case attracted enormous attention after the story went viral in October, fanned in part by Internet "hactivist" Anonymous, who vowed the group would seek justice. The outcry died down after Nodaway County Prosecutor Robert Rice, under fire for dropping a rape charge against Barnett, asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed and Baker was selected.

Thursday's hearing was held under security that is rarely -- if ever -- used in Maryville. Barricades surrounded the front of the courthouse, which sits on a square block in the middle of town, and people were taken through screeners and then wanded down by deputies. Some two dozen reporters watched the hearing, which took just 15 minutes, before Dietrich.

Previous charges of sexual assault and endangering a minor were dropped against Barnett in 2012, after Rice said there was a lack of evidence and cooperation from the Coleman family, a charge they denied.

According to police records and interviews with the Coleman family, Daisy Coleman and her 13-year-old best friend, Paige Parkhurst, had been drinking in Daisy’s room on a Saturday night. They began texting a group of popular Maryville High School athletes, and snuck out of the Coleman home. They went despite being warned about Barnett by Coleman’s older brother, Charlie.

Daisy Coleman told Nodaway County sheriff’s investigators that the group snuck into the Barnett home and she was made to drink from what the boys called a “bitch cup.” She was told she must drink a certain amount from the tall shot glass or “you’re a B-word if you only take half of it,” she said. She blacked out and her blood alcohol content the next morning was nearly twice the legal adult driving limit.

According to sheriff’s reports, Daisy Coleman’s friend and an underage boy went into one of the bedrooms. Barnett admitted to sheriff’s investigators that he had sex with Daisy Coleman in another room, but said she wasn’t yet drunk, just “buzzed.” Barnett’s friend, Jordan Zech, also 17 at the time, said he used a buddy’s iPhone to videotape Barnett and Daisy kissing, half undressed. Barnett, Zech and two other boys told investigators that they watched the video before deleting it from the phone.

The younger girl and the boys later told sheriff’s investigators that Daisy Coleman was incoherent and had to be carried out of the Barnett home. The boys drove the girls back to the Colemans and told the younger girl to go inside, saying they would leave Daisy Coleman outside so she could sober up. They propped Daisy up against the house, as she was vomiting, and deposited her purse, shoes and cell phone, according to sheriff’s reports. 

Law enforcement reacted quickly the next day. Sheriff’s investigators interviewed the girls, collected evidence and got what Sheriff Darren White called “videotaped confessions” from the boys. Barnett was charged with sexually assaulting Daisy Coleman. Zech was charged with felony sexual exploitation of a minor because of the iPhone videotape.

The case was covered by local media, with Barnett’s and Zech’s mugshots published in papers and broadcast on TV. The case was the talk of this town of 12,000, a college town nestled in farm country, where folks live and die by the popular high school football team.

In Missouri, 17-year-olds are considered to be adults in the criminal justice system. So Barnett was charged with a felony for sexual assault and a misdemeanor for child endangerment. The underage boy with Daisy’s friend also admitted he forced her into sex and was charged in the juvenile system. As part of a plea bargain, he later spent about two months in a lockup and received counseling.

Then in a move that shocked many, Rice dropped charges against Barnett and Zech just two months after the alleged assault. People in town gossiped that Rice, an up-and-coming Republican, was doing the bidding of Barnett’s well-connected GOP family. Barnett’s grandfather, Rex, is a former state senator. Rice and the Barnetts deny the charge.

Rice said he dropped the charges because of insufficient evidence, saying no crime was committed that night and declining to elaborate further. The sexual exploitation charge against Zech was dropped because the video was never found, so there was no evidence of a crime, Rice said.

“As a minister of justice, I have to dismiss the charge when there's not the evidence there to pursue a criminal case and regardless of what social media or other outlets want to take with that, I will not participate in a public lynching of anybody,” Rice told KCUR.

While he supported Rice’s decision to drop the case, the sheriff disagreed about whether a crime was committed that night.

“Did a crime occur? Hell yes, it occurred,” White said. “Was it a horrible crime? Yes, it was a horrible crime. And did these boys need to be punished for it? Absolutely.”

White believes the case failed because the alleged victims’ and their families are guilty of “harpooning the case” by commenting on social media.

Life became very difficult for the Coleman family, who had moved to Maryville from their hometown of Albany, 40 miles to the east, just a couple years earlier. Daisy Coleman and her three brothers were taunted at school, threatened on Facebook and Twitter and called nasty names. The videotape the boys made that night – passed around school – suddenly disappeared and law enforcement officials say they never found it, despite confiscating all the kids’ cell phones.

After the case was dropped, friends of Barnett and Zech celebrated on Twitter with a hashtag of #jordanandmattarefree. A woman angry that the charges had been dropped created a change-dot-org petition, urging the state attorney general to investigate the investigators. It was signed by more than 12-hundred.

Daisy Coleman learned that the charges were dropped on Facebook.

“After that, I was really, really angry and I like, took it out on Facebook, which I shouldn't have. At all,” she said. “But at the time, I felt like the world was against me and you have to stand up for yourself.”

The relationship between the Colemans and law enforcement grew combative. At one point, the Colemans did refuse to cooperate, but later changed their minds and were interviewed. Finally, during the summer of 2012, the last charge against Barnett -- misdemeanor child endangerment -- was also dropped without explanation.

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