© David Eulitt/Kansas City StarMelinda Coleman and her children had already moved away from Maryville when their home burned. When the outrage became too much, they left, retreating east to Albany.
There wasn't much left by the time she arrived, just a burnt-out structure and the haze of smoke that lingered around it.

The siding and gutters had melted. The roof was gone. Inside, piles of ash filled the rooms that had once bustled with the pleasant sounds of a family.

That morning last April when Melinda Coleman received word that emergency vehicles were gathering around her Maryville house, she had hoped for the best.

But if the events of the past year and a half had taught her anything, it was that when the town of Maryville was involved, that seemed unlikely.

Since the morning her daughter had been left nearly unconscious in the frost of the home's front lawn, this northwest Missouri community had come to mean little besides heartache.

Few dispute the basic facts of what happened in the early morning hours of Jan. 8, 2012: A high school senior had sex with Coleman's 14-year-old daughter, another boy did the same with her daughter's 13-year-old friend, and a third student video-recorded one of the bedding scenes. Interviews and evidence initially supported the felony and misdemeanor charges that followed.

Yet, two months later, the Nodaway County prosecutor dropped the felony cases against the youths, one the grandson of a longtime area political figure.

The incident sparked outrage in the community, though the worst of it was directed not at the accused perpetrators but at a victim and her family. In the months that followed, Coleman lost her job, and her children were routinely harassed. When it became too much, they left, retreating east to Albany.

Coleman had hoped the move would allow them to heal in peace, that the 40 miles separating the towns would be enough to put an end to their bitter saga.

Now, though, as she stared at the charred remains of her house, the distance didn't seem nearly enough.

Three years ago, when the Colemans arrived in Maryville from Albany, there was plenty to like about their new hometown.

The 12,000-population city, tucked into an expansive stretch of farmland along Missouri's northern border, offered an idyllic setting. It was, like many small towns, close-knit, with an old-fashioned town square and a passion for high school football. The kind of place where down-home values still reigned and you couldn't stop by the local Hy-Vee or A&G Restaurant without running into a familiar face.

For a family still struggling with the effects of a tragedy, it represented a fresh start.

Just three years earlier, Coleman's physician husband, Michael, had been on his way to watch his son compete in a wrestling tournament when his truck skidded on a patch of black ice and careened into a ravine. Two of the couple's children - Daisy and Logan, ages 9 and 10 at the time - escaped through a back window. Michael didn't survive.

Hardly a day went by, it seemed, without driving past his old medical practice or the place where the wreck had occurred. Months after the death, well-meaning friends still introduced Melinda, a veterinarian, as "Dr. Coleman's widow." Even the family's home, a Victorian they had spent a decade renovating, served as a reminder of what had been lost.

And so, midway through the 2009-10 school year, Coleman decided to relocate.

"Even though it was sad to leave, in some ways it was a huge weight off our shoulders," she says now. "Just to be anonymous, in a way."

For the most part, the family settled nicely into its new surroundings. Charlie, the oldest son, became a three-sport athlete at Maryville High, eventually earning a baseball scholarship to Baker University. Logan, two years younger, was an accomplished wrestler with a good group of friends, and Tristan, the youngest, was everyone's pet.

And then there was Daisy.

Pretty and blond, she had grown up competing in beauty pageants, amassing a dresserful of trophies. Though slower than her brothers to assimilate, midway through her freshman year at Maryville High, she seemed to be finding her place.

A member of the school's cheerleading team, she was already part of the varsity squad that performed at boys basketball games. Her grades, her mother says, were nearly all A's, and she had begun to make friends as part of a local dance team.

And she'd recently captured the attention of a popular senior football player, a 17-year-old with whom she had begun texting.

His name was Matthew Barnett, and for a girl still trying to make her way in a new place, the attention was flattering.

Jan. 7, 2012, was a Saturday night, and Daisy spent it the way she spent most weekend evenings - with her best friend, a 13-year-old girl she had grown up with in Albany.

During a typical sleepover, the girls played music, made dance videos or watched movies.

On this night, however, their activities were a bit more brazen.

In Daisy's bedroom closet was a stash of alcohol from which both girls sipped. As they passed the night talking and watching TV, Daisy also texted with Barnett.

Barnett played defensive end for Maryville High School's vaunted football team, the Spoofhounds, and came from a prominent Maryville family - his grandfather had been a longtime member of the Missouri House of Representatives. Tall and handsome, Barnett had a scraggly beard and a reputation as a guy who liked to have a good time, the latter bolstered by an arrest for drunken driving.

Daisy had come to know him through Charlie; in fact, Barnett had been among the boys piled into the Coleman living room just a few days earlier, watching football on the big screen as Melinda served up chili and snacks. The two boys were football teammates, and while Charlie liked Barnett well enough, he was also wary. Enough that, upon discovering his sister was texting with the senior, he tried to put an end to it.

"I told her to stay clear of that kid," Charlie remembers. "But honestly, what teenage kid wants to (listen to) her older brother?"

At some point that Saturday evening, the texting condensed into a plan.

Shortly after midnight, Coleman went in to check on the girls and found them watching a movie in Daisy's bedroom.

Around 1 a.m., the teens slipped out a bedroom window and were met by Barnett and another boy, who drove them three miles to the Barnett house.

When they arrived, sneaking in through a basement window, the girls found themselves among some of the school's most popular student-athletes. In addition to Barnett, there was junior Jordan Zech, a top wrestler and all-state linebacker; a senior football and tennis player whose family owned the popular A&G Restaurant; a third junior football player; and a 15-year-old who knew the group through an older sibling.

None of the teens commented for this story. Normally, The Star does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse, but this case is widely known in Maryville, and Coleman allowed her daughter's name to be used in The Star, as well as an earlier KCUR broadcast, to bring attention to the case. She also provided copied investigative records that had been sealed by authorities.

In those records, Daisy alleges that after she arrived, Barnett handed her a large glass filled with alcohol. The boys urged her drink it and then a second glass too, she related later to her mother.

That, she would tell police, was the last thing she remembers.

The sun hadn't yet risen the next morning when Coleman, groggy from a sleep interrupted, made her way toward the living room.

She had woken moments earlier to the sound of scratching at the front door - the dogs, she figured, had gotten out - and grudgingly went to investigate.

Instead, she found Daisy, sprawled on the front porch and barely conscious.

The low temperature in the area that day was listed at 22 degrees, and the teen had spent roughly three hours outside, wearing only a T-shirt and sweatpants. Her hair was frozen. Scattered across an adjacent lot were her daughter's purse, shoes and cellphone.

Coleman tried to process what she was seeing. Daisy had a history of sleepwalking - years earlier, she had wandered outside. Had she done it again? In her daughter's bedroom, Coleman found the 13-year-old asleep. She, too, seemed confused.

Still struggling to make sense of it all, Coleman carried her daughter to the bathroom, to be undressed for a warm bath.

That's when she saw the redness around her daughter's genitalia and buttocks. It hurt, the girl said, when Coleman asked about it. Then she began crying.

"Immediately," Coleman says, "I knew what had happened."

Coleman called 911, which directed her to St. Francis Hospital in Maryville, where, according to Daisy's medical report, doctors observed small vaginal tears indicative of recent sexual penetration. The 13-year-old also ended up at St. Francis.

It wasn't until a captain of the Nodaway County Sheriff's Office arrived at the hospital for one-on-one interviews with each girl, however, that the full picture of the night's events began to emerge.

While the last Daisy remembered was drinking "a big glass of clear stuff," the 13-year-old's recollections proved more useful.

The younger girl, who admitted drinking that night but denied doing so after arriving at Barnett's, said she went into a bedroom with the 15-year-old boy, who was an acquaintance. He is unidentified in this article because his case was handled in juvenile court, but sheriff's records include his interview, in which he said that although the girl said "no" multiple times, he undressed her, put a condom on and had sex with her.

When the two returned to the basement's common area, the 13-year-old said, Barnett emerged from another room and asked if the girls were ready to go home. She said Daisy was unable to speak coherently and had to be carried from the bedroom.

Around 2 a.m., the girls were driven back to the Coleman house, where, the 13-year-old said, the boys told her to go on inside, saying they would watch over Daisy outside until she sobered up.

The younger girl also offered a significant detail, one later reiterated in the interviews of at least three of the boys.

As Daisy was carried to the car, she was crying.

One by one that Sunday morning, the boys were rounded up and brought to the Nodaway County Sheriff's Office for questioning.

Barnett, who was arrested and charged with sexual assault, a felony, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor, admitted to having sex with Daisy and to being aware that she had been drinking. He insisted the sex was consensual.

Barnett was not charged with statutory rape, as that Missouri law generally applies in cases when a victim is under 14 years old or the perpetrator is over 21. But felony statutes also define sex as non-consensual when the victim is incapacitated by alcohol.

Hospital tests around 9 a.m., roughly seven hours after her last imbibing, showed Daisy's blood alcohol content still at 0.13.

In addition to admitting his own sexual encounter with the younger girl, according to the sheriff's office report, the 15-year-old said the boys had left Daisy "outside sitting in 30-degree weather" - even more dangerous with a high alcohol level in the bloodstream.

From him, the lawmen also learned that Barnett and Daisy's encounter had been captured with an iPhone. That led to 17-year-old Zech's felony charge of sexual exploitation of a minor. Records show that after initially declining to answer questions, Zech said he had used a friend's phone to record some of the encounter. He said, however, that he thought Barnett and the girl were only "dry humping," a term commonly used to describe rubbing together clothed. Another teen, however, told police the video featured both Barnett and Daisy with their pants down.

By midafternoon Sunday, a search warrant for the Barnett home resulted in the seizure of a blanket, bedsheets, a pair of panties found on a bedroom floor, a bottle of Bacardi Big Apple and plastic bottles of unidentified liquids. The sheriff's office also seized three cellphones, including the iPhone allegedly used by Zech.

Sexual assault cases can be difficult to build because of factors such as a lack of physical evidence or inconsistent statements by witnesses. But by the time his department had concluded its investigation, 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.

"I would defy the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department to do what we did and get it wrapped up as nicely as we did in that amount of time."

News of the case shocked the town. Initially, sympathy was expressed for the girls and their families.

"We're very lucky," the sheriff told the newspaper in nearby St. Joseph. "It was very cold, in the 30s, and people die laying out in the cold like that."

He also asked residents to keep gossip and unfounded allegations to themselves, as it could hinder the case.

A sizable contingent stood by the accused athletes, however, and as the story ripped through the halls of Maryville High School, many took to Twitter and Facebook to make their allegiance known.

Two days after discovering her daughter on the front porch, Coleman says, she got a phone call from another mother warning her that online threats were being levied against the Coleman children, including a suggestion that her sons would be beaten up in the school parking lot.

When she checked online, she discovered that many of the comments were aimed at Daisy. On Twitter, the brother of one of the boys at the Barnett home that night wrote that he hoped Daisy "gets whats comin."

Daisy was suspended from the cheerleading squad for her role in the night's events. Barnett did not finish his senior year there, according to his lawyer.

During his Senior Night with the wrestling team, Charlie was booed by some students. Among the comments that made it back to him in the weeks following the arrests: that his mother and sister were "crazy bitches," that Barnett was blameless, and that Daisy had been "asking for it."

"There were several days," Charlie says, "I just wanted to go knock a kid's teeth out."

At a dance competition, Melinda Coleman says, a girl arrived wearing a homemade shirt: Matt 1, Daisy 0.

Two weeks after the incident, Coleman says, she was told without explanation that her employment at Maryville's SouthPaws Veterinary Clinic was being terminated.

Days later, carrying a hidden tape recorder, she returned to speak with her boss. In the recording, provided to The Star, Coleman asked Sally Hayse point-blank the reason for her firing.

Hayse said the possibility that Coleman might pursue civil charges in the case - which she has not done - was "putting stress on everybody in here" and "there's going to be times when we probably have stuff booked, and you wouldn't be able to come in."

Reached by The Star, Hayse acknowledged that she has ties to the family of one of the teens at the Barnett home that night and that the incident involving Daisy did complicate her relationship with Coleman.

"This is a small community, and it definitely was stressful for us here, without a doubt," she said, but "if you were to ask me point-blank (why the firing), I would say it's because our style of medicine didn't jive." She did not offer that reason to Coleman in the taped conversation.

Through it all, Coleman held tightly to a belief in justice and that the youths' punishment would provide closure for the family. She spoke with White on multiple occasions and sat down with Robert Rice, the Nodaway County prosecutor, to discuss her concerns.

"She would come to the sheriff's office on an almost daily basis," says White of the days following the arrests. "And I would sit down with her and try to answer her questions and explain to her what was going on. And the next day she'd show up, and we'd go through the same thing again.

"It was like living through the movie 'Groundhog Day.'"

In early March, however, while awaiting a hearing for Barnett and Zech, Coleman says, she received a call from a friend with local political ties: The word was that favors were being called in and that the charges would be dropped.

Coleman says she didn't give the call much credence, but she passed the message on to her lawyer, who wrote to the county prosecutor inquiring about the rumors.

Less than a week later, Coleman was at the grocery store when she got another call.

The felony sexual assault charge against Barnett, as well as Zech's sexual exploitation count, had been dismissed.

Located a hundred miles north of Kansas City, Maryville serves as the seat of Nodaway County. It's a college town, home to 7,000-student Northwest Missouri State University and its powerhouse Division II football program, and is small enough that most longtime residents are connected in some way.

When a reporter visited Maryville police to obtain copies of Zech's arrest record, for instance, the department employee who pulled the file was the mother of one of the five boys at the Barnett home that night.

"It's a big town in a rural area, but it's still a rural area," says author Harry MacLean, who spent four years living in Nodaway County while researching "In Broad Daylight," his best-selling book on the murder of Skidmore bully Ken McElroy and the town cover-up that followed. "...They do tend to revolve around the influence of several families. All of those small towns are like that there. There's four or five or six families that carry the weight."

And in Maryville, the Barnett name carries a good deal of weight.

Rex Barnett served 32 years with the Missouri Highway Patrol's Troop H before embarking on a fruitful political run. In 1994, the Republican was elected as a state representative, serving four terms before leaving the House in 2002.

He also has political ties to prosecutor Rice. Barnett's granddaughter worked as a volunteer on the campaign of U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, who also employs Rice's sister as an aide in constituent services.

In the aftermath of the dropped charges, this wasn't lost on many in the town.

A petition, generating more than 1,200 signatures, was posted on the website to request an investigation by Attorney General Chris Koster. Emails were sent to Jefferson City as well. The office ultimately said it didn't have the authority to review Rice's decision.

"I wanted to make sure that everything that was being done was on the up-and-up," says Amanda Amen, the petition's author and an acquaintance of the mother of the 13-year-old. "Because at the time, there were a lot of rumors."

In a phone interview, Rex Barnett said that from the time of his grandson's arrest, he made a point not to meddle in the case.

"As far as contacting anybody, even to get information, I wasn't even going to do that," he said. "Because I knew that any contact whatsoever by me with the sheriff's department or prosecuting attorney - or any witness, as far as that goes - would have been bad for me and bad for the case."

A spokesman for Graves, whose name came up in relation to the case in discussions online and around town, released a statement to The Star on Aug. 7: "Sam literally knows nothing about this situation. The first our office heard of it was on Internet blogs."

Last week, after a consultant for Graves contacted the newspaper, the spokesman provided an amended statement: "The first Sam had ever heard of it was when The Star called his office for comment. However, as the father of two girls, he understands the families' outrage and their search for answers."

When the charges were dropped, in accordance to Missouri law, all records pertaining to the case were sealed, such as interviews with nearly a dozen witnesses, the results of tests done on bedclothes and the rape kits. The video wasn't found, according to the prosecutor, though Charlie Coleman told his mother it was passed around at school.

Melinda Coleman says Rice never informed her of his decision. Nor, she claims, did he return the voice messages that she and her attorney left with his office seeking an explanation.

Rice later denied this to The Star, though a letter written to him by Coleman's attorney on March 19, a week after the charges had been dismissed, states: "I called your office multiple times last week in an attempt to obtain accurate information so that I could explain your decision to my client. You did not return my telephone calls."

After initially declining to speak with The Star this summer, Rice later agreed to an interview with a reporter who showed up unannounced.

Sitting in his nicely decorated town square office - on one wall is a small collection of framed NMSU jerseys, on another is a framed photo of Graves - he defended his decision, calling the rumors of political favors a "total red herring."

Rice said charges were dropped for lack of evidence, but he added, declining to go into the specifics, that information brought to his attention regarding what happened "before, during and after" the incident also played a role in his actions.

"There wasn't any prosecuting attorney that could take that case to trial," he said.

"It had to be dismissed. And it was."

The parent of one of the teens at the Barnett house that night was the only one to comment briefly to The Star: "Our boys deserve an apology, and they haven't gotten it yet."

In a later interview, Rice called it a case of "incorrigible teenagers" drinking alcohol and having sex. "They were doing what they wanted to do, and there weren't any consequences. And it's reprehensible. But is it criminal? No."

Robert Sundell, who represented Barnett, echoed that sentiment: "Just because we don't like the way teenagers act doesn't necessarily make it a crime."

For his part, White, the sheriff, 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.

The mother of the 13-year-old Albany girl, who asked that her name not be used, puts it more bluntly:

"If that had been one of my sons - and my sons would rather cut their hands off than do something like that - but had that been one of my kids, they would be sitting in a maximum security prison somewhere doing 25 years. There's no doubt in my mind."

For the Colemans, the dismissal of the charges spelled the beginning of the end to their life in Maryville.

In the days that followed, a new round of vitriol made its way online.

"F--- yea. That's what you get for bein a skank : )," read one tweet, one of many expletive-filled comments posted publicly.

The reaction wasn't surprising, according to Julie Donelon, president of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault.

Some form of victim-blaming occurs in virtually every sexual assault case, she says, but it can be particularly intense in small towns, where "the victim and her family members are having to see not only the perpetrator and the perpetrator's family, but also those people ... who have expressed disbelief in her story."

The daily harassment became too much, Coleman says. Daisy and Logan transferred to Albany High School, making the 80-mile round trip daily.

Initially, Coleman refused to consider leaving Maryville altogether - even after, she says, her lawyer suggested it might be in the family's best interest.

"Part of me is stubborn enough to stay just to say, 'No, you're not going to win,'" she says.

So it was not until August last year, she says, that she finally knew "this was never going to be OK."

She went to Rice's office for a deposition on the case's lone remaining charge, Matthew Barnett's misdemeanor of endangering the welfare of a child for leaving Daisy in freezing temperatures.

After speaking with a rape advocate, the mothers had initially declined to participate for fear the questioning would be used against them. They later changed their minds and agreed to meet with the prosecutor.

According to Coleman, Daisy was excused from the room after briefly discussing the case. But for the next two hours, she says, Rice proceeded to angrily ask her about the petition and demanded to know where Coleman had heard that political favors might be involved.

Rice responds that he never raised his voice during the meeting. Sundell, who was also present, adds: "It may have happened in a different room, when I wasn't there, but not during the deposition."

The misdemeanor endangerment charge, too, was soon dropped.

The sheriff blames the mothers for the lack of prosecutions: "They refused to speak and give their story." The women say they were eager to work with authorities until the felony charges were dropped.

That August, with Charlie off to Baker University and the younger children set to begin a new school year, the family moved back to Albany - or as White, the sheriff, puts it, "went back to Gentry County, where they came from."

Even after leaving, however, it wasn't over with Maryville.

Coleman still had a house there, unoccupied and up for sale - until that Sunday morning six months ago.

According to Capt. Phil Rickabaugh of the Maryville Fire Department, the cause of the fire wasn't immediately determined.

"We started to dig in and investigate it," he said, but the structure was deemed unsafe. "Several weeks later, an insurance investigator came in, and it was heavily investigated by private parties. (But) we never have heard anything else out of that."

The cause, Rickabaugh says, remains unknown.

For the most part, things in Maryville have returned to normal.

The high school football team is off to its usual dominant start, sporting a 7-0 record following Friday's 50-10 win over Smithville. The college is preparing for its homecoming festivities, and the A&G Restaurant still fills up quickly on Sundays after church.

Many in town are happy to put the episode behind them, including White, who makes little attempt to mask his opinion of Coleman, a woman he says "clearly has issues."

"We did our job," he says. "We did it well. It's unfortunate that they are unhappy.

"I guess they're just going to have to get over it."

Getting over it, it turns out, hasn't proved all that easy.

Since that night in January, Daisy has been in regular therapy. She has been admitted to a Smithville hospital four times and spent 90 days at Missouri Girls Town, a residential facility for struggling teens.

Last May, shortly after returning home from college, Charlie found his sister collapsed in the family's bathroom, where she had ingested a bottle of depression medication.

It was her second suicide attempt in the past two years.

Though she agreed to appear in a segment for local radio station KCUR - "You're the s-word, you're the w-word ... b-word. Just, after a while, you start to believe it," she said in the interview - she has since declined to speak publicly about the incident.

The 13-year-old hasn't fared much better, her mother says. Her child suffers from flashbacks and nightmares and for a long time after the incident dragged her mattress into her brother's bedroom at night.

Still, she says: "We didn't suffer nearly what the Colemans did. (My daughter) had support here. People believed us here.

"It's been utter hell for Melinda," she continues. "I didn't have to lose my job over it. I didn't have to lose a house over it. I didn't have to lose where I had gone to move on with my life. And she did."

The young men present at the Barnett home that night, meanwhile, seem to have moved on.

Two are now members of Northwest Missouri State University athletic teams, and Barnett is enrolled at the University of Central Missouri, his grandfather's alma mater. Based on his Twitter account, before it was locked to non-friends, the events of the past two years haven't dampened his enthusiasm for the opposite sex.

In a recent retweet, he expressed his views on women - and their desire for his sexual attentions - this way:

"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."

Editor's note

Seven months ago, The Star began looking into the 2012 case of two young teens who told authorities they were sexually assaulted by older boys. The Star spoke extensively with the mothers of the girls, interviewed dozens of others and reviewed hundreds of pages of records, from sheriff's office interviews with the accused to medical records. While most documents were sealed by authorities, many were copied previously by the Coleman family and provided to The Star.

Though The Star's policy usually is not to name alleged victims in sexual assault incidents, or cases of attempts on one's life, exceptions have been made in some cases. Daisy Coleman's name appears in this article with the permission and cooperation of the Coleman family.