Calls for justice, and privacy, at rally over Maryville rape case

Demonstrators in the Missouri town hope special prosecutor can find answers, and get Maryville out of the spotlight

Shana Curry and her husband, Scott, hold signs at a rally in Maryville, Mo., on Tuesday.
Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP Photo

MARYVILLE, Mo. — After feeling the glare of the international spotlight for the past 10 days — since the "hacktivist" network Anonymous began a campaign to publicize a front-page story in the Oct. 12 edition of The Kansas City Star about a prosecutor dropping the charges in an alleged 2012 sexual assault against two teenage girls — the people of Maryville, a small northwest Missouri college town, want their privacy back.

Some residents figured the appointment Monday of Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker as special prosecutor to take over the case would mean the departure of the national media from their town and a return to life before Maryville became a headline and a trend on Twitter. Anonymous' Maryville Twitter campaign comes after the group made headlines last year for bringing attention to the rape of a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio.

A number of Maryville residents, several of whom did not want to be named, also said they had hoped Monday's announcement about Baker would result in the cancellation of the Facebook-planned protest Justice for Daisy, which took place Tuesday.

Courtney Cole, the organizer of the demonstration in Maryville, addresses the crowd Tuesday.
Diana Reese for Al Jazeera America

Instead, the organizer of the rally, Courtney Cole, a women's rights activist from Excelsior Springs, Mo., who said she had originally envisioned a protest with participants carrying daisies and wearing duct tape over their mouths, changed the focus of the gathering. She asked people to show support for Daisy Coleman and Paige Parkhurst — the teens who allege they were raped in January 2012 when they were 14 and 13 years old, respectively — as well as for all victims of sexual abuse.

Al Jazeera America does not normally name victims of sexual assault, but both Coleman and Parkhurst have come forward in televised interviews about their alleged rapes.

Cole decided to organize the rally after being "too upset to sleep" when she read the article in the Star about Coleman, who says she was raped after being plied with alcohol by Matthew Barnett, a high school senior who is the grandson of a former state legislator. Coleman says she was then left on her front porch, wearing only a T-shirt and sweatpants, in 22-degree weather.

Although as many as 2,000 people were expected at the demonstration in this town of 12,000 (a figure that doesn't include the nearly 7,000 college students who arrive each August), fewer than 500 showed up — and at least 50 to 100 of them were reporters.

Law enforcement was also well represented at the event, with about 20 Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers and 30 Maryville police officers standing guard.

In preparation, the streets around the square were closed at 1:30 Tuesday afternoon. Most businesses in the downtown area did not open, and offices in the courthouse and administration building were closed for the day.

But it was a peaceful rally. Some attendees even waved to the KMBC news helicopter from Kansas City circling overhead. And though Cole had changed the focus of the demonstration before it began, justice was still very much the theme, with signs and pins proclaiming "Justice for Daisy." Local florists had stocked up on daisies, and many of those in attendance carried the flower. A few speakers from groups such as the Missouri chapter of NOW spoke about rape culture.

Some of those in attendance were actually from Maryville, including high school and college students as well as older residents. None of those approached would speak on the record, but some did criticize the local prosecutor's handling of the Coleman case and said the town's "jock culture" gives athletes free rein.

Tammy Smith of Tarkio, Mo., a town about 30 miles west of Maryville, said she was there because she is a victim of rape.

"Justice wasn't done for me, either," she said.

Smith said she felt "proud" to represent Daisy and had made special gloves, headbands and sweatshirts featuring a daisy motif for the event.

Members of Anonymous attend the rally on Tuesday.
Diana Reese for Al Jazeera America

Members of Anonymous made an appearance as well: At least six people wearing the group's signature Guy Fawkes masks stood on the fringes of the crowd.

"We're here because Daisy didn't get the justice she deserved," one Anonymous member said.

He said the group's involvement in the Maryville case is not an attack on any specific person, or on the town of Maryville.

"We're not trying to attack the whole town," he said. "We stand for justice."

Yet the presence of Anonymous has stirred up many residents.

"I'm afraid," said one woman, a lifelong resident of the town.

Daisy and her mother, Melinda Coleman, had announced earlier that they would not attend the demonstration out of concern for their safety, but in a Facebook message on the Justice for Daisy page, Melinda stressed that she does not think Maryville is a terrible town and that the family had been "happy there" until her daughter was attacked.

Melinda's father, Chuck Moeller, attended the rally.

"I saw how much it tore them apart," Moeller said of the alleged rape, with tears in his eyes. "I just want to see justice."

Not everyone there was in support of the Colemans, though. Pete Hayse, the husband of Dr. Sally Hayse, who owns SouthPaws Veterinary Clinic in Maryville, said his wife has received death threats since Melinda Coleman told the Star that she was fired by Sally after the alleged rape. Melinda blamed her termination on people in the town turning against the family.

"Melinda worked five and a half hours total" before she was fired after working at the clinic, Pete Hayse said. And that was, he said, before the alleged rape even occurred.

Others talked about the harassing phone calls to local government offices and to a restaurant where Matthew Barnett had once worked, along with the mob mentality that some say has been characteristic of comments about the case on social media.

Former County Commissioner Joe Baumli hopes Baker's appointment to the case will help the town heal by bringing the chance for "either vindication or for justice."

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