The crowd on the town square here fell short of expectations, but still, when several hundred people raise daisies to a hovering news helicopter, they must have something to say.
On a cold Tuesday night in this northwest Missouri town, they said it for Daisy Coleman, and they said it for Maryville.
Daisy is the teenager who says she was sexually assaulted while drunk at a house party early last year and afterward was left in the freezing temperatures outside her home. She was 14 at the time, and her 13-year-old friend also told investigators that sex was forced upon her as well.
But felony charges against two Maryville High School seniors were later dropped by Nodaway County Prosecutor Robert L. Rice, a decision that sparked national outrage.
Tuesday’s “Justice4Daisy” rally originally was intended to protest the handling of the case. But once a special prosecutor was named to look into the case, said Courtney Cole, an event organizer, the sense of upset and urgency eroded somewhat. She said it became a rally in support of sex abuse victims everywhere.
Rice said he dropped the charges because the alleged victims were not working with the investigators. But Daisy and her mother say they stopped cooperating only after Rice dropped the charges, something they believe may have been influenced by the political prominence of a suspect’s family.
That complaint has been denied, and the youth involved said the sex with Daisy was consensual.
After The Kansas City Star laid out the case Oct. 13, the story was picked up by media outlets around the world, and Daisy became the face of sexual assault everywhere.
“This is important to all of us,” said Mary Lapeta, who drove from Chicago. “They let this case go without knowing what happened. I know Maryville didn’t want this, but now this affects all of us everywhere.”
Vera Hanks didn’t travel nearly as far. She lives only a couple of blocks from the Maryville square.
“I’m a supporter of this young girl and a supporter of this town,” she said, daisy in hand. The blooms were handed out by organizers as a symbol of Daisy’s ordeal.
“In the past week, we’ve been on CNN, Good Morning America and in The New York Times. “It’s embarrassing.”
Hanks’ grandson, Jared Williams, drove from Des Moines, Iowa, and shrugged when asked why: “She wasn’t getting the justice she deserves.”
After the shock of the alleged sexual abuses, some supporters of the accused popular athletes fell to bullying Daisy at school and online. The Coleman family left town because of the harassment and after Melinda Coleman, Daisy’s mother, lost her veterinarian’s job in the wake of the controversy. Their home in Maryville later mysteriously burned.
Cole, a woman’s rights advocate from Excelsior Springs, told the crowd, “The sheer outrageousness of what happened to Daisy Coleman brought us here today.
“Now let us commit to take that anger and that outrage to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Around 350 to 400 showed up for the 45-minute event. With early expectations by city officials for a crowd of maybe 2,000, extra law enforcement, including 20 Missouri Highway Patrol troopers, was brought in to beef up security.
Nodaway County Sheriff Darren White believed the renewed action in the case calmed high tensions. On Monday, a judge assigned a special prosecutor, Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker, to the case.
“That’s what the outcry was about,” White said in a media briefing on the square before the rally.
But the appointment of a special prosecutor didn’t subdue passion. Nor did the cold wind.
“We would have been out here if it was snowing,” said Marilyn Miller of Maryville. “I don’t even know Daisy.”
Glen Williams drove 40 miles from Albany, Mo., and he brought along some strong words.
“If my son had done this, he’d be in jail right now because I would have seen to it,” said Williams, 73, a father of three daughters and teenage granddaughters.
Ben Terry, a college student from Lee’s Summit, showed up.
“I’ve heard of too many guys doing this and getting away with it,” Terry said. “An event like this can increase pressure, not just on this case but others elsewhere.”
The Justice4Daisy rally also was supported by the online “hacktivist” group Anonymous, which had joined in the reaction that reverberated across the Web after the case became better known. A man who called himself “Nick” wore a Guy Fawkes mask and said he was from Anonymous.
“I think it’s amazing that all these people came out here tonight for something that maybe got swept under the rug,” the man said.
Cole said she had advised the Coleman family not to attend, and Melinda Coleman had said earlier that they would not be there, but expressed a wish that the protest be peaceful.
White said law enforcement was well prepared for whatever happened, even keeping some reinforcements from neighboring counties’ sheriffs departments inside the government buildings behind him.
“We didn’t think it would serve a good purpose to dump them all into the street.”
Asked if he hoped this would be the last big news day for Maryville, the sheriff responded: “I would be lying if I said otherwise.”