The first thing Daisy Coleman remembers is her surprise that she was still alive.
“I was just like, I thought I was dead at first,” she said.
An incoherent Coleman, then 14, crawled to the front door of her family’s home in Maryville, Mo. It was a Sunday morning, Jan. 8, 2012, 5 a.m. Her younger brother, Tristin, and mother, Melinda, heard a thumping and at first thought it was their dogs trying to come in.
Daisy Coleman had been outside about three hours, unconscious, in 30-degree temperatures. She wore no socks or shoes, just a T-shirt and sweatpants. Her hair was wet and frozen. She couldn’t speak and only cried.
“It almost sounded like somebody falling against the door,” said Melinda Coleman. “I kept thinking, did she sleepwalk? And she had absolutely no idea.”
In a case that resembles several other high-profile sexual assault charges across the U.S., a 17-year-old Maryville High School senior, Matthew Barnett, was arrested for sexually assaulting Daisy Coleman, then leaving her propped up beside her family’s home. Another Maryville High senior, Jordan Zech, 17, was also charged in the case, accused of felony sexual exploitation of a minor because he videotaped Barnett and Daisy Coleman on an iPhone.
But the difference between this case and others – in particular the Stuebenville, Ohio, case in which two high school football players were convicted of raping and videotaping an incapacitated 16-year-old girl – Barnett and Zech are free today. In a move that shocked the town, Robert Rice, the Nodaway County prosecutor, dropped all charges two months after the alleged assault.
“They just dropped it all. The prosecuting attorney would never tell me why,” said Melinda Coleman. “To this day, they have never told me absolutely why it was all dropped.”
She drank from the ‘bitch cup’
Daisy Coleman remembers little of the night, except how it started. She and a 13-year-old friend, a girl she considered her little sister, had a sleepover at the Colemans. Daisy Coleman admits the girls were drinking and were not acting with her mother’s permission.
“Then this guy texted me and he's like, 'Hey, you want to hang out?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’ll have to sneak around. It's like one in the morning,” she said.
The guy who texted Daisy was Barnett, a friend of Daisy’s older brother, Charlie, who had been at the Coleman’s a couple nights before for a chili dinner. Barnett drove over to the Colemans, picked up Daisy and her friend and, along with some other boys, snuck into Barnett’s home through a basement window. There, Daisy continued drinking, using a glass that has since become infamous.
“They called it the ‘bitch cup,’” Daisy Coleman said, “and it’s a really, really tall shot glass. I think it had lines. Like, if you drank that much, you were some rank or whatever. Like, you’re a B-word if you only take half of it.”
The rest of the story is told in Nodaway County Sheriff’s reports. As Daisy Coleman continued drinking, her friend and an underage boy went into one of the bedrooms. Barnett admitted to sheriff’s investigators that he had sex with Daisy in another room, but said she wasn’t yet drunk, just “buzzed.” Zech said he used a buddy’s iPhone to videotape Barnett and Daisy kissing, half undressed. Barnett, Zech and two other boys say they watched the video before deleting it, according to sheriff’s reports.
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, 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.
‘Did a crime occur? Hell yes, it occurred.’
After discovering her daughter at the front door, Melinda Coleman’s first worry was that Daisy’s feet were frostbitten. Melinda Coleman is a veterinarian and her late husband was a doctor, so she put her daughter in a cool bath, hoping to warm her up slowly. As she removed Daisy’s pants, Melinda Coleman found bruises and red marks.
“I asked her if she hurt, and she said, 'yes,’” Melinda Coleman said.
That’s when Melinda Coleman called 911, setting off a law enforcement response that Nodaway County Sheriff Darren White is proud of, saying they had the boys’ “videotaped confessions” wrapped up that day.
“I was actually pretty happy with it because we had what I considered to be a very serious crime and within a matter of a few hours, we had warrants for their arrest and they'd been arrested,” he said. “That's a pretty good day.”
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.
All of the boys involved in this case declined to comment for this story after numerous calls seeking comment. Just one attorney responded, Robert Sundell, who represented Barnett. The investigation and witness statements disproved Daisy Coleman’s claims, he said.
“The (prosecutor) did the right thing by dismissing a case that could not be proven, and it probably would have been unethical for the prosecutor to continue prosecution when the substantial evidence pointed to Mr. Barnett's innocence,” Sundell said in a written statement.
The sheriff has a different view.
“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.”
But prosecutor Robert Rice, who dropped the charges because of what he called “insufficient evidence,” said there was no crime committed that night. The sexual exploitation charge against Zech for taping the night on an iPhone 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 said.
The case takes on a life of its own online
While Rice was referring to the boys as the victims of a public lynching, the Coleman family also was subject to significant backlash. 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.
The case took on a life of its own online. 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.”
White is angry about the social media slurry surrounding the case – but his criticism is directed at the Colemans. The alleged victims were “harpooning the case,” he said, taking a case with seven witnesses to a case with 200 witnesses, which muddied the waters. White agrees with Rice’s decision to dismiss the case.
“What really fell apart were the victims and the victims' families. They're the ones that actually, absolutely destroyed this case,” White said. “All on their own, all by themselves.
“At least the suspects were smart enough to keep their mouths shut after it all happened.”
If things were tense in town -- and people took up passionate sides -- the relationship between the Colemans and law enforcement was even worse. The sheriff accuses Melinda Coleman of being hostile and uncooperative. Melinda Coleman says she felt scared by the anger shown by a sheriff’s department that had turned against her. At one point, the Colemans did refuse to cooperate, but later changed their minds and were interviewed.
Finally, last summer, the last charge against Barnett -- misdemeanor child endangerment -- was also dropped without explanation.
There have been rumors about why all charges were dismissed. Some of the talk centered on the Barnett family’s political prominence – his grandfather is a state representative. But both Rice and White firmly deny any connection.
So what killed the rape case? Rice won’t go into specifics, saying there were elements that were missing that he would have needed to prove the case.
“You make your decision based on what you know and based on what you can prove, and, you know, I sleep well at night knowing I did the right thing,” he said.
To those who suggested that Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster step in and take the case, Nanci Gonder, his spokeswoman, said state law requires that charging decisions in criminal cases can only be done by elected county prosecutors.
“While we appreciate the concerns of members of the community, the attorney general does not have the authority under the laws of the state of Missouri to review a prosecutor’s discretionary decisions in particular cases,” Gonder said.
Girls no longer ‘sparkly’
The boys have graduated. The girls are in schools in another town now and aren’t friends anymore.
Daisy Coleman, now 16, has had a particularly tough time. The girl who used to be an athlete and dancer, who won local beauty pageants, is now cutting herself. And there have been several suicide attempts.
“I just felt like if I'm this ugly on the inside, I might as well look it on the outside,” she said. “You're the s-word, you're the w-word…b-word. Just, after a while, you start to believe it.”
The Colemans have moved out of Maryville and now live in a town nearly an hour away.
The boy who sexually assaulted Daisy Coleman’s friend was also underage. He made a plea bargain and spent several months in a juvenile facility. The girl’s mom, who didn’t want to be identified for this story, said her daughter still suffers nightmares and flashbacks.
And the mom misses the two girls she knew before that January night in 2012.
“They were sparkly. They just lit up a room wherever they went, so much fun. And you know, neither one of them has that anymore,” the mom said. “She was either going to be a vet or a doctor and now she wants to be a baby-sitter. She went from straight A's, to kind of mediocre. From being a cheerleader to not wanting to do anything. It just took away her entire teenage years. “