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Illustration by Scott Bakal, Photographs by Katherine Bish
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"Vanessa, can we sleep over, please?” Garett asks. It’s May 4, 2009, and he turned 11 four days ago. Tomorrow morning, Vanessa Riegerix’s son, Brandon, will turn 9—the same age as Garett’s little brother, Gavin—and the boys want a sleepover as a birthday ritual.
“Absolutely!” Riegerix says. “You don’t even have to ask. You run home and tell your mom and dad to pack your clothes and book bags for school tomorrow.” Garett tears home—they live four houses away on the cul-de-sac. Five minutes later, he’s back, his shoulders slumped. “My dad says tonight is not a good night. We have to be home by 8:30.”
“What?” Riegerix asks, surprised but keeping her voice playful. “I should go tell your mom and dad, ‘C’mon, let ’em stay!’”
“Yeah, go tell them!” Garett exclaims, brightening. But Riegerix promises the following Saturday instead. At 8:30 p.m., she sends the boys home.
The next morning, she’s hurrying Brandon and a neighbor kid so she can bring Brandon’s birthday treats to school. “Hey, there’s police everywhere,” the neighbor kid says. She thinks he’s stalling, pulling her leg.
Until she sees the yellow tape around her friends’ house.
Another neighbor, Detective Sgt. Justin Barlow of the Columbia Police Department, wakes to a ringing phone at 6:42 a.m. He was up just three hours ago, trying to rock his wide-awake 6-month-old back to sleep. He glanced out the window as he jiggled the baby, wondering whether the threatening letters the Colemans have been receiving are as ominous as they sound.
Now Chris Coleman is on the phone.
Barlow doesn’t really know the guy; he waved to him a couple times when Chris and his wife, Sheri, first moved into the Columbia Lakes subdivision, but saw no response. A few days ago, though, another officer showed Barlow the threats.
AT RIGHT: Photo from the Coleman family album.
They’d started with emails on November 14 that accused evangelist Joyce Meyer of “preaching bullshit” and threatened, not Meyer or her family, but the family of her bodyguard, Chris Coleman. “I will kill them all while they sleep,” the sender warned. Now letters have been showing up in the Colemans’ mailbox. The most recent, on April 27, closed with “THIS IS MY LAST WARNING! YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN!”
Barlow offered to mount a surveillance video camera in his 3-year-old son’s window, aimed straight at the Colemans’ mailbox. The camera’s on now, clicking and whirring in the background as Chris says, in essence, “My wife’s not answering the phone. I need you to check on her and the kids. I’m on the J.B. Bridge; I’ll be there in about five minutes.”
Barlow throws on clothes, calls his dispatcher at the Columbia Police Department, and grabs his weapon, cuffs, and radio. He’s on the Colemans’ front porch when Officer Jason Donjon pulls up.
“Nobody’s answering,” Barlow calls, and Donjon heads to the back. A minute later, Barlow’s radio crackles: “You’d better come back here. There’s a window open—the screen’s out.”
They radio for backup, climb in through the window, and clear the basement. Guns drawn, they slowly mount the steps, Donjon going first because he’s in uniform. The air is acrid with paint fumes, and when they reach the first floor, they see the writing, sprayed blood-red across the kitchen breakfast area: “Punished.” “I am always watching.” And up the staircase, “U have paid.”
At 6:56 a.m.—13 minutes after he called from the Jefferson Barracks Bridge—Chris pulls into the driveway, just as Officer Steve Patton pulls up outside. The officers ask Chris to wait outside. Donjon keeps his gun pointed up the next set of stairs, where the spray-paint messages lead; they know whatever’s up there isn’t good. They go up single file.
Donjon goes toward the master bedroom, so Barlow turns the other way and goes into one of the kids’ rooms. A little boy’s in bed, half covered, looking like he’s sleeping—except that his skin is grayish and mottled, his limbs rigid. Barlow hears Donjon call out—he’s found Sheri. Patton finds Gavin, and when Barlow moves to that doorway and sees the second child dead, he has to focus hard to hold it together.
“This might be our guy—limit what we tell him,” Patton warns as they go back downstairs. Barlow nods and takes a deep breath.
“They didn’t make it, Chris,” he says. “They didn’t make it.”
Asked to stay outside, Coleman doesn’t protest, just sits on the ground and sobs. Then he pulls out his phone and calls his father.
Chief Joe Edwards of the Columbia Police Department squats next to Chris while the police chaplain, the Rev. Jonathan Peters, tells him his family’s been killed. Peters doesn’t say how; Chris doesn’t ask. Edwards suggests that Peters sit with Chris in the back of an ambulance; media are already swarming. Chris’ father, the Rev. Ron Coleman, pastor of Grace Church Ministries in Chester, Ill., pulls up onto somebody’s lawn, leaves his keys in the ignition, and ducks under the crime-scene tape, his face white. Joyce Meyer arrives soon after.
Inside the ambulance, Peters will later testify, Chris looks down at red marks on his right arm and asks, “How did that get there?” Minutes later, according to Peters, Chris starts banging his fists on the gurney.
By now, Edwards has called the commander of the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis, Major Jeff Connor of the Granite City Police Department, saying, “I want the best of the best.” Dozens of officers are arriving from all over the metro area, and Connor’s trying to coordinate them and the media. He assigns Barlow and Detective Dave Bivens of the Illinois State Police to interview Chris.
They talk to him in a small, gray room at the Columbia Police Department. He’s wearing a T-shirt, sleeves cut off, and gym shorts, and he says he’s cold. Barlow and Bivens leave for a minute, and he puts his head down and sobs—the harsh, breathed-out sobs of a man not used to crying. He stops. The detectives return with a blanket he can wrap around himself, and Barlow asks a few casual questions about his military service. Chris gives details readily. He seems dazed and tractable, surprisingly passive for a former U.S. Marine whose job is protecting people’s lives.
They ask about that morning. He says he got up at 5:30 a.m., went to the bathroom, got dressed, and left. As he drove away, he “called Sheri to wake her up, get her going. And she didn’t answer, of course.” He stops short, then resumes. “So I went on to the gym. I called her again on the way back and she didn’t respond…so that’s when I called you.”
AT LEFT: Photo from the Coleman family album.
He says he was home the day before, ran a couple of errands, picked up the kids from school, “played catch with Garett and waited on Sheri to get home. She got off work at 4, and then she actually made dinner. Pasta and chicken, and she cut up some kind of pizza, she mixed it all together.” He laughs a little, appreciatively. “It’s pretty good, actually.” After dinner, they all walked up to the snow-cone stand, then Chris played catch with Gavin. “I went to Zack’s gym, and then I came back and helped put the kids to bed.” While Sheri put steroid cream on Gavin’s poison ivy, Chris listened to Garett’s prayers. Then, he says, he and Sheri watched TV—Batman Returns—and “she fell asleep in my arms on the couch.”
Barlow asks Chris about the scratches and red marks on his arm.
“I think it was when I was—the gurney—in the ambulance—I was hitting the pillow.”
He speaks with pride of his job as Joyce Meyer’s bodyguard: “She’s on TV in 37 languages in three-quarters of the world.” He also tells them about the security surveillance company he’s started, Executive Innovations—but he doesn’t mention his own security camera, which might have recorded an intruder, until the detectives prompt him.
Barlow and Bivens take periodic breaks and leave the room. Information is tumbling in from officers in the field, but they don’t want any knocks on the door to break the momentum. They return nonchalant, as though they’ve just peed or swigged a pop. But soon they know that the family friend Chris mentions, Tara Lintz, is more than that. After hearing part of the interview on closed-circuit television, an officer located her in St. Petersburg, Fla., and homicide detectives there are already grilling her.
Chris met Lintz through his wife: Tara and Sheri were best friends at Largo High School in Florida. They even looked alike—pretty, with dark hair and lithe bodies—and Chris tells detectives Tara’s personality was “the same as Sheri’s. She’s never pushy about anything.”
He admits to a little sexy phone flirtation, but not an affair. (“I wouldn’t do that to my kids. I’ve seen too many divorces and stuff.”) He says he saw Lintz at a Joyce Meyer conference in Florida, but doesn’t mention that she joined him at subsequent conferences in Arizona and Hawaii. Nor does he mention the promise rings they wear when they’re together, or their talk of marrying in January 2010.
Have the Colemans ever thought about divorce? “We talked about it a while back, about possibly maybe splitting up or something, you know. It never happened, obviously,” Chris says, adding that they got counseling, and “things have been going awesome.”
Asked about finances, he says, “I make over $100,000 a year. She don’t have to work, but she enjoys it, so I let her work.” Rather than acknowledge the severity of their debts, he mentions a trip they’re planning to take to Disneyland.
He doesn’t say he cancelled it and booked a cruise to the Virgin Islands with Lintz instead.
Barlow draws on Chris’ faith: “Believing in what we believe in, knowing we can be forgiven for the sins we do, what do you think should happen to whoever did this?”
Chris hesitates. “He should be put away.”
“Is there any way you think this person who did this maybe has an explanation?” Barlow asks gently.
“I’m sure they have an explanation.”
Bivens takes over. “Do you think you’ve been 100 percent honest with us?”
“Yeah, yeah, did my best with it.”
As more information streams in, they lean harder on him. He insists Sheri was alive when he left home.
“What would you say if I told you I don’t think she was?” Bivens says.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you. I mean, I think she was, I mean, she was! She was laying right beside me!”
“Do you think we have the resources and capacity to determine time of death?”
“Yeah, definitely. I see it on TV all the time.”
They leave again. Chris gulps water, sits down, then stands up again, restless. He walks across the room, picks up Bivens’ notepad, turns one page back, and reads. (Later, congratulated for his brilliance in leaving the notes behind, Bivens will admit he didn’t do it on purpose—but he will in the future.)
Chris is seated again when the detectives return.
“So you’re saying some madman sat in the shadows and watched for you to leave and then entered the house?” Bivens finally asks.
“That’s the only thing I can assume.”
They leave again. Chris sniffles loudly. A sob comes again. He leans forward, head in hands, and cries. Then he reaches for his water and drinks, sits up straight, gives a shaky sigh. Voices are audible in the hall. He puts the jacket across the front of his body, covering his arms, and waits.
The Preacher’s Kid
AT LEFT: Pastor Connie Coleman and the Rev. Ron Coleman, Chris' parents, entering the courthouse.
Chris Coleman was a preacher’s kid; both Ron and Connie Coleman are pastors, and hundreds of Christians from neighboring towns—black and white, young and old—fill their nondenominational church every week. The Coleman boys grew up speaking in tongues—code from the Holy Spirit—and basing decisions on quotes from Scripture. Their father preached “clear teaching from the Bible,” and there was always music, the kind that makes teenage girls sing at the top of their lungs and weep with the sheer joy of being loved.
Amid all of this outpouring, Chris was reserved, the quietest and gentlest of the three blond, well-mannered Coleman boys. His mother says the worst curse word he’s ever said in front of her is “P-I-S-S.” Charlie Mattingly, his junior-high coach in basketball, baseball, and track, says, “You couldn’t ask for a better kid. He was very kind. He was a team player. I hardly ever saw him lose his temper. He went out one night and had drunk a little bit—his parents were out of town—and he felt so guilty, he called his high-school basketball coach and confessed.” Chris wouldn’t go hunting with his father, and “the first time we butchered a rabbit, he was just beside himself,” Connie remembers.
When a Marine recruiter came to his high school, Chris came home with stars in his eyes, impressed by the way the guy carried himself. He signed up right after high school. Ron thinks he would have stayed in the service for life, except that “Bill Clinton and Monica and all that was a disappointment.”
“And he’d met Sheri,” Connie adds.
Chris was 22, piling up military certifications and honors, when they met; Sheri was 21, an MP in the U.S. Air Force. They were both studying at a K-9 training center in San Antonio. Three months later, in August 1997, Ron stood at the window of the family home in Chester, watching his son’s car pull up. “Connie,” he called, “he’s got somebody with him!”
Chris introduced Sheri as a friend who lived in Chicago; he said he was going to run her home. “We didn’t pick up anything,” Ron says, “except she was a worldly little girl, little short shorts, tattoo on her leg, not the person we thought he’d be with.”
Chris left to drive Sheri home and didn’t come back. The next morning, the phone rang. “His first words were, ‘Dad, you’ll never believe what we did: We got married!’” Ron remembers. “I was quiet. Chris said, ‘Dad, you don’t seem excited.’ I said, ‘Give me a few minutes.’”
Chris realized right away that the marriage hadn’t been godly, Ron adds. “My gosh, he was raised in church! He was repentant and broken over it.”
“He said, ‘Oh, I just got caught up in the moment,’” Connie recalls. “We said, ‘Well, it’s a lifetime.’”
“But we found out later that she was pregnant,” Ron adds.
Chris once told his worried mother that being a bodyguard was “just a matter of looking tough. The bald head, being beefed up, never smiling—it’s all intimidation, 99 percent of it.”
He was growing his hair out, though, in spring 2009.
The Saturday before the murders, he went to Aveda Pure Natur Salon in Columbia for a trim. Sheri joined him after getting her passport picture taken for an upcoming mission trip. “Did you smile pretty for your picture?” he asked. The boys were camping with friends, so the Colemans were “going on a date later that night,” stylist Emily Worthen remembers, “and they were both really excited about it. We stood in the window and watched them leave and said, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re so cute.’”
Riegerix remembers teasing him two weeks earlier, “What’s up with the hair, Chris?”
“I’m a changed man,” she says he told her. “Don’t you like it?”
He proceeded to drink more heavily than she’d ever seen—usually he stopped at one or two beers, but that night he pulled out a big bottle of hard liquor, saying he’d gotten it on one of his trips. Sheri was quiet, and she, too, was drinking more than usual. She asked for another Corona, and Riegerix says Chris snapped, “Get up off your ass and get it yourself, you lazy bitch.” In five years, Riegerix had never once heard him speak to Sheri that way. Her fiancé nudged her, and both uncomfortable, they murmured that they needed to be getting home.
The wake for Sheri and the boys is held May 8 at the Colemans’ church in Chester. Riegerix takes a deep breath before she walks in. “Do your best not to let him think you think he’s guilty,” one of the detectives had warned her. The long line inches forward. When she reaches Chris, he hugs her and says, “I’m sorry you lost your friend. How’s Brandon handling it?”
Across the room, Detective Karla Heine of the Columbia Police Department catches sight of Kathy LaPlante. She’s the executive assistant of Joyce Meyer’s husband, David Meyer—and one of Sheri’s closest friends. When LaPlante heard Sheri was dead, she blurted to her husband, “Chris did it.” Now Heine approaches her and says softly, “I think you have more to tell us.”
LaPlante has been feeling intimidated by her bosses’ instructions to pray for Chris and refrain from speculation, but she realizes she needs to speak for Sheri. She leaves the wake and goes straight to the Columbia Police Department. “Sheri told me that if anything ever happened to her, Chris did it,” she says, adding that Sheri told her she’d yelled, during an argument, “Chris, I am never going to divorce you—I will not leave! What are you going to do, kill me?”
LaPlante says after the threats, she urged Chris to get a security system—Joyce Meyer had offered to pay for one—but he said, “We don’t need one. Sheri’s got a gun, and she knows how to use it.”
Sheri was tough, but she was scared, too. Riegerix says she once tugged up her pants leg to show the Glock she was carrying. “She slept with it by her every night, on top of the nightstand,” Riegerix says. “She showed me.”
Later, Riegerix will learn that on May 5, Chris told police they kept both guns locked up inside the nightstand.
Now, she’s remembering how she worried about someone being able to see right into the windows across the back of the Colemans’ house. After hearing the threat letter that ended, “I am always watching you,” she nagged Sheri relentlessly about covering those windows. One winter morning, she looked over and saw heavy curtains hanging.
“I told Chris what you said,” Sheri told Riegerix, “and he thought it was a good idea.”
Riegerix shivers, remembering.
In mid-May, she sees Chris carrying boxes out of his house. She has set up a memorial in the Colemans’ front yard, with Mother’s Day balloons and signed footballs. The boys loved Legos, so Brandon made a Lego lady and two little boys and wrote, “Now you’re in Heaven with your Mommy.” Watching from her yard, Riegerix says, she sees Chris pick up the entire memorial and toss it into the trash.
The Major Case Squad sends DNA samples to the Illinois state lab. The DNA found under Sheri’s fingernails is a partial profile—it could be Chris, but it could also belong to another male with a similar DNA pattern. None of the DNA found in the house points conclusively to a stranger.
On the day of the murders, crime-scene technicians scraped flecks of paint off the walls with a scalpel; used a black gel to capture footprint impressions; and bagged a miscellany of items, including hair and fibers, a Glock pistol and a Kahr pistol, latex gloves, any shoestring or phone cord that might have been used to strangle the victims; two cellphones, a BlackBerry, and two laptop computers. Now, the analysis begins. And almost immediately, there’s a breakthrough.
The threats emailed November 14 to Joyce Meyer, her son Danny Meyer, and her bodyguard Chris Coleman were sent from Chris Coleman’s laptop.
They came from email@example.com, an email account created the same evening on the same laptop. And Chris’ work files contain the same misspelling, “oppurtunities,” that Sheri pointed out to police in one of the threat letters.
The squad still has no paint can, no paint-spattered clothing, no murder weapon. They review Chris’ behavior the morning of May 5. He made his first call to Sheri at 5:43 a.m., just as he was pulling away from their home. He said he was calling to wake her—why not just touch her shoulder as he left? They found no pattern to suggest he routinely called to wake her.
Chris texted home while he did his cardio—“Are you awake? I know you was tired last night.” “I have about five minutes left on cardio then I’ll be home.” “Hello, you up?” “Time to get the kids up.” He told police he was worried when she didn’t answer. Yet he “did another 15 minutes” when his first 20 were up. He called Barlow when he was five minutes from home—then, according to an AT&T cell-tower expert, drove past his exit and was north of Dupo when he made his next call. By the time he reached home, police officers were discovering his slain family.
Could the deaths have happened as he said, after he left for the gym? The squad calls in “the best of the best,” Dr. Michael Baden, the New York forensic pathologist who stars on HBO’s Autopsy and was consulted about the bodies of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy Jr., John Belushi, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
On a conference call May 19, Baden gives them his final opinion: Sheri and the boys were likely killed before 3 a.m. Definitely before 5 a.m., and probably closer to 3 a.m.
The police hang up the phone and charge Chris Coleman with murder.
The Loving Mom
AT LEFT: Sheri with the family cat
Sheri Weiss was fun, uninhibited, and wildly playful at 21, when Chris met her. Three months later, she was pregnant. They married, she was born again, and 12 years later, she was devoting her time to their two sons, church, and mission trips.
Her friend Tara Lintz was still single. She’d worked as a hostess at a gentleman’s club, then a cocktail waitress at Derby Lane dog track in St. Petersburg. LaPlante says Sheri only spoke of her old friend once, saying she was sad that Tara’s life wasn’t reconciled with Christ, and she was praying for her.
Sheri threw herself into Destiny Church, the nondenominational congregation in west St. Louis County where she and Chris worshipped. She organized trivia-night fundraisers single-handedly, hosted lots of show-up-and-buy-something parties, went all out celebrating holidays with the kids, paid to have a friend’s entire kitchen redone. She loved SpongeBob SquarePants, M*A*S*H reruns, and New Kids on the Block.
“She always made me laugh—she was hope in a bottle,” says LaPlante, who used Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine” as Sheri’s ringtone.
Sheri used Jason Mraz’ “Lucky” as a ringtone for Chris. I’m lucky I’m in love with my best friend…lucky we’re in love in every way. She bought him presents when he was out of town, told people what a great husband he was. She only hated his job, because it took him away from her and the kids.
Photographer Shay Daniel, a good friend of Sheri’s, took the now-familiar portraits of the Coleman family, all wearing white, looking relaxed and happy and handsome enough to model for Ralph Lauren. She says they were comfortable with each other during the shoot, with none of the tension or awkwardness that a lens can reveal. She describes Gavin as “a bona fide firecracker, more like his mom, very animated and hilarious.” He and Garett were classic little boys: rambunctious and eager for fun, yet obedient and respectful.
Chris was firm with them, Riegerix says. “At a restaurant, he’d say, ‘Now, you boys know how to act.’ I’d say, ‘Oh Chris, they’re kids,’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t like to be embarrassed.’ He’d drop whatever he was doing to toss a football with them, though.” She rarely saw him hug or kiss the kids—or Sheri, for that matter. But he coached their teams and was quick to say, “That was an awesome catch” or “You did great!” or “I think you boys deserve a snow cone. What do you moms think?”
Austin LaPlante, one of Kathy LaPlante’s teenage sons, babysat for the Colemans. “Their house was always very clean, everything in place, everything just perfect,” he says. Sheri was affectionate, full of fun, ready to let her boys be boys; “Chris was always telling them, ‘Don’t do that,’” Austin says. “He was kind of distant, very disciplinary, very reserved and collected. He’d walk in and say, ‘Kids, time to go.’ But he must have been different at home, because those boys adored him.”
Chris used to promise to take Sheri to her favorite restaurant, The Melting Pot, if she’d go to Chester with him for a family visit. His parents never quite accepted her, she told friends.
Money was another point of tension: He liked making it and living the life it bought; Sheri liked spending it and giving it away. She splurged at the mall, planned a mission trip to a leper colony, and bought food and blankets for the homeless, then drove around St. Louis distributing them. “Oh, chill out, you holy roller,” Riegerix remembers Chris telling Sheri. “She used to be so wild and crazy!”
She used to be like Tara.
Neighbor Chris Beutler, Riegerix’s fiancé, hung out with Chris maybe once a month. Beutler says Chris complained about his “shotgun marriage” and said he worked 80 and 90 hours a week “protecting some millionaire lady I don’t even like while my old lady gets to sit at home in this nice big house.” In May 2008, when they took their sons to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Chris asked Beutler how much money he made and what he’d do if Vanessa put $1,000 on his credit card at the mall. “He said, ‘I’m making 100 grand a year, and I’ve gotta drive around in a clunker. We’re so far in credit-card debt…’ I knew he wasn’t happy—he was always talking about not wanting to be with her, but not knowing what to do. He said if he got divorced, he’d lose his job.”
So? He’d gotten together a polished, impressive résumé, at least three years earlier—probably when Sheri started complaining about the demands of his job. Since then, he’d looked into starting a cleaning company or a gym and tanning salon, and he’d made halfhearted launches of a training company and a video-surveillance company. He told Beutler the Meyer family’s 24/7 demands were getting on his nerves, and with all the travel, he didn’t get enough time to spend with his kids.
He looked up to Joyce, though, so much so that Sheri told Larry Bridges, then the youth pastor at Destiny, “Chris is emotionally attracted to Joyce.” Says Beutler, “He kind of thought the religious part was scammy. He’d say, ‘I can’t believe these people make 50 grand a year and write her a check for $10,000.’ But then he’d defend her, say she made her money by being an author. He admired her as a person.”
He also liked her lifestyle. Riegerix says he’d have on a really nice pair of jeans and say, “Oh, Joyce bought these for me.” He had to accompany her everywhere when they traveled, so if she went shopping, she might buy him something, too. His parents remember him saying, “I guess I’m pretty close to Joyce, ’cause I know her bra and panty size.’”
The fourth fault line in the marriage was sex. Christine Cincotta testified that Sheri told her, in January 2009, that Chris had slept with her—a rare occurrence—then warned her not to think it meant he loved her. LaPlante told police Sheri had quoted Chris, in bed, telling her to just shut up and turn over—and Sheri had added, “He’s not very affectionate to me, so I’ll take whatever I can get.”
Riegerix remembers one night when the Colemans came over: “The kids were downstairs playing, and we were talking about sex. Chris said, ‘I couldn’t tell you the last time me and her did that. What about you two?’ I said, ‘We’re very affectionate.’” Riegerix left the room, then returned: “Here’s some goodies. I’m going to keep your kids. You go have some alone time.”
She says Sheri called the next morning asking, “Where can I get some of that stuff?”
In the fall of ’08, Riegerix came home one night to find Chris already waiting for her. He looked upset, which was unusual—she used to call the couple Ken and Barbie, because they always seemed happy and looked perfect. But that night, she says, he complained about Sheri spending too much money, banged his fist on the kitchen counter, and said, “I’m going to divorce her.”
He told Riegerix he was going to wait until after the holidays, but he must have broached the subject. Sheri began to suspect a back story. Bridges says she texted him on December 8: “Things just got way worse with Chris… I’m tired of hiding it… I think I know what’s going on with Chris, and I’m so disgusted I don’t even know where to go with it… I’m not giving up on my marriage. I love Chris way too much. This seems like a horrible dream.”
After Christmas, LaPlante says Sheri told her “Chris was tired of her keeping him from God’s destiny for his life.” Sheri told several friends that Chris had said “she and the kids were in the way.”
Sheri called her in-laws, called her friends, and confided in pastors at her church. But she gave only parts of the puzzle to each friend. And she gave the biggest piece to only one person, Jessica Wade, a 25-year-old assistant youth pastor at Destiny. “You want to see the woman my husband’s having an affair with?” Wade remembers Sheri asking bitterly, over the holidays, as she pulled up a Facebook photo.
Christy Johnson, a leader at Destiny, noticed the sick worry on Sheri’s face during the holidays. But by early April, she says, Sheri was entirely different, bubbling with happiness. “She kept picking her phone up and reading it, saying, ‘Oh, it’s Chris!’—she was so giddy, like she was 16.”
At Joyce Meyer’s suggestion, Sheri and Chris had begun going to counseling.
The Saturday before the murders, they went to church together. There was an altar call for marriages, and they went up for a blessing.
By August 6, the river’s finally gone down, and police can search below the J.B. Bridge. Detective Karla Heine’s scrambling across a river dike when the rock slides out beneath her. She falls hard, winding up with a compound fracture that requires surgery.
A week later, she clumps into the department on crutches, disgusted to feel so useless.
“When are we going to get to these credit-card charges?” Barlow asks with mock impatience, and Heine starts combing through months of charges. She notices a purchase for $3.77, made February 9, 2009, at a Handyman True Value hardware store on Telegraph Road.
Heine calls the store to check. After several minutes, the clerk comes back on the line and says, “He bought some spray paint.” She pauses, scanning. “Rust-Oleum. Apple Red.”
AT LEFT: Judge Milton Wharton, who was brought in from St. Clair County to hear the case, with his court reporter.
Early in spring 2011, a series of pretrial hearings are held so Judge Milton Wharton can decide what testimony to allow before the jury. The defense objects strenuously, for example, to the “unscientific” findings of one of the state’s expert witnesses, Robert Leonard.
Leonard is short, with dark hair; there’s something neat and precise, almost Poirot, about him. Head of the graduate program in forensic linguistics at Hofstra University, he holds a doctorate from Columbia University and studied Swahili on a Fulbright scholarship. He’s compared the threat emails and letters to a database compiled by the FBI’s behavioral unit at Quantico, Va.
“Of over 4,400 documents, only 18 began with ‘Fuck you,’ and of those, only eight contain threats; the others are rants,” he testifies. He also points out quirks in the threat emails and letters that appear in Chris’ other writings, like misplacing the apostrophe (wont’, dont’, doesnt’) and a tendency to fuse words (“have a goodtime”; “setup some security”).
The spectators listen closely; it’s a relief to reduce horror to the banality of spelling mistakes. But is it relevant? The defense’s linguistics expert, Ronald Butters of Duke University, dismisses the apostrophe reversal as “a dyslexic typing error.”
“Did you find a lot of other dyslexic typing errors?” prosecutor Kris Reitz inquires.
“I didn’t look for them.”
Reitz presses harder: “The contractions: You almost accidentally said they were significant, and then you backed away from that.”
“I did not ‘almost accidentally’ say it was significant,” Butters snaps. “I said, ‘If it were significant.’” Overall, he says, Leonard reports “four variables that are the same. Well, so what?”
The judge decides to let both experts testify.
The defense also objects strenuously—and will continue to do so, in its post-trial appeal—to the hearsay witnesses that the prosecution has lined up.
In Meegan Turnbeaugh’s testimony—quoting Sheri—Chris told Sheri that she had ruined his life “and he can’t believe that he can’t get away from her and he can’t divorce her.” Turnbeaugh adds that according to Sheri, Chris’ job would be terminated if he got a divorce.
She also quotes Sheri as saying that Chris had beaten her. She will blurt this again during the trial, against instruction, and the judge will strike it from the record. The defense will then use the statement as one of its grounds for appeal.
Vincent Hall, a staff pastor at Destiny, reads a text that Sheri sent him the day after Christmas: “I’m not getting the whole story. He told me he’s leaving because of his job, but if Joyce finds out, she’ll fire him.”
LaPlante recounts a hysterical late-night phone call in February: “She said, ‘I want Danny Meyer’s phone number. Chris said as soon as he comes home, he wants to leave me. He hates me. He wants to leave me. He doesn’t love me; he never did. I want Danny to talk to Joyce.’”
Wharton listens closely. He decides to allow a representative sampling, limiting the witnesses so their testimony does not echo like a Greek chorus.
At the last hearing, John O’Gara, a defense attorney appointed by the judge for his expertise in death-penalty cases, does his darnedest to stall. “I cannot in good conscience sign a certificate of readiness,” he finally tells Wharton, pointing out that a final autopsy report is not yet in hand. “If there’s anything in there that’s exculpatory and we just blow it off today… I will not risk my license, nor will I risk this man’s life.”
Finally the judge says, “Let me ask you one question, and I know the answer. Are you alleging that there has been a lack of due diligence on the part of the state?”
“I’m not in a position to answer,” O’Gara replies.
“In other words, you have no evidence.” Wharton orders him to sign the certificate. The trial will proceed.
The Coleman trial begins Monday, April 25. Waiting to go through the metal detector, the TV reporters twitch a bit, their banned cellphones a phantom limb. Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan stands in line with the people of Monroe County, chatting amiably, until circuit clerk Sandy Sauget shoos him across the hall to the media line. Yusuke Hirose, a visiting scholar who’s a judge in Japan’s Kobe District Court, is here; so is Chris O’Connell of CBS News’ 48 Hours Mystery; so is Michael Cuneo, a sociologist from New York who’s writing a book about the case.
Only a handful of spectators make it into the small, crowded courtroom every day. Some, like Beverly Hirstein, just want to see punishment meted out: “We already know the facts,” she insists. Others are wistful: “You’d like to be able to tell your grandkids the man didn’t kill his children.”
Defense attorney Bill Margulis stands waiting, his face thin and haughty, his brown hair longish and sun-streaked; he looks a bit like a dissolute aristocrat. He is being paid by the Colemans; his co-counsel, John O’Gara and Jim Stern, were appointed by the court because of their experience with death-penalty cases.
O’Gara comes in, walking in short, choppy steps, a little bent forward, his chest broad. He is short and stocky, with a walrus mustache. He pours everybody at the table water.
Sheri’s mother, Angela DeCicco, sits in the front row. She is 4-foot-11, her short hair red-gold, her face sad and grim. Sheri’s brother, Mario, keeps his arm around Angela and stares with raw hatred at the Coleman family. Chris had Mario’s number in his cellphone—he’d sent a photo of Garett in a White Sox uniform, a rare gesture of friendship, two days before the murders. But Chris didn’t call Mario or Sheri’s mother until two days after Sheri died.
Donald Weiss, Sheri’s father, sits behind the DeCiccos, gray-haired and quiet, trying to be invisible. His ex-wife and son do not speak to him, and the crowd gets shuffled so they can be seated apart. “This is confusing as hell,” a deputy mutters the first morning, moving all of the media back a row.
Monroe County State’s Attorney Kris Reitz comes forward. Tall and low-key, he could be the dad in a ’50s family sitcom. In his opening, he warns the jury that they will have to get past the idea that something like this couldn’t happen; that it’s unthinkable for a father to strangle his innocent children in their sleep.
When police officers testify about finding the bodies, Reitz wheels over something draped in black, like a tall, lumpy casket, and unveils a sweet white two-story house with black trim—a model of the Coleman house, laser-cut by the FBI. Its back wall comes off. It would make a cool dollhouse, if you didn’t know better.
People lean forward, intrigued. But the house sits in front of the jury, forgotten, when Reitz puts up photos of the crimes that occurred inside.
Hearing that Sheri slept nude doesn’t make it any easier to see her naked body lying facedown, her head hanging off the edge of a round bed, dark hair tangled across her face, fair skin tinged gray and blotched a dark purplish red on the underside, where the blood pooled after her heart stopped. In the next photograph, she’s been rolled over, and her bent leg is in midair, stiff with rigor mortis. Two marks slice red across her neck, probably because the ligature shifted as she tried to fight it. She has a black eye, and according to Baden, the forensic pathologist, it was caused by direct trauma.
“It could have happened after death,” he adds, “but there would be no reason to punch a dead person.”
The little boys have similar ligature marks, and their skin is jaundiced and grayish; Donjon says it felt thick, like dinosaur skin at a Science Center exhibit. Garett is still partly covered by his blanket; there’s no sign of struggle. Long, dark hair lies across Gavin’s armpit, suggesting that he was strangled second, and strands of his mother’s hair, caught by the ligature, fell onto his body.
The violence was intimate and sustained. Baden, the forensic pathologist, tells the jury each ligature would have had to be held tight, Baden says, “for about four to five minutes.”
And then there was all that writing to do, paint bubbling up from the nozzle as the index finger bore down hard, until the last drops spat out and air hissed from the can, and then the evidence had to be disposed of… It was an exhausting crime, one that defied imagination.
Baden reiterates, with lengthy explanation, his estimate of the time of death—before 5 a.m., probably closer to 3 a.m. Reitz asks whether there’s any chance the murders could have happened after Chris left for the gym. Baden shakes his head. “This isn’t even a close call,” he says. “They had to have been dead before he left the house.”
A sort of folk psychology prevails in the courtroom, gazes crisscrossing as everybody covertly watches everybody else, trying to gauge sincerity and depth of feeling from superficial clues. The game is most intense with Chris Coleman: He is pale, his blond hair combed straight back, his face expressionless. A muscle tic, a slight flush, a hard swallow—each tiny gesture is made to carry the weight of revelation.
After the videotaped interview is played, defense attorney Stern asks Barlow whether it came out in their investigation that Chris “actually provided security for President Clinton?” Barlow says that was never confirmed. “Well, it sounds like we’re quibbling here,” Stern says. “I believe on the 28th of April he was driving Kurt Warner around? The point of all this, officer, is this is not the kind of person you would suspect of committing a crime.”
Reitz swiftly objects.
“The records indicate that he did provide presidential security,” Stern says. And in the nine bankers’ boxes generated by the investigation, he adds, “there are mentions made of ‘suspects,’ plural?”
Barlow looks surprised. “You’d have to show me.”
Stern hands Reitz a piece of paper, and Reitz laughs out loud. It’s a standard Major Case Squad report form; the plural “Suspects” is a preprinted heading.
Next comes a videotaped deposition from Joyce Meyer, her Southern twang confident and no-nonsense. She says she’s known Chris since he was a little boy, because his parents came to her conferences. She admits knowing he had marital problems, but says she knew nothing of an affair until police told her. “It could have definitely affected his job,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been a divorce so much as the immorality.”
Joyce explains how, in retrospect, she grew suspicious: In April, Chris “wasn’t as attentive to his duties, he was forgetting things…. On May 4, he called and told me he wasn’t feeling good and asked if he could take the day off… I didn’t remember him ever calling me and saying he didn’t feel good and wanted to take off.”
Chris listens, the corners of his mouth pressed down a bit, his expression neutral. He looks like a high-school athlete on the bench, watching, waiting, revealing nothing.
The next celebrity witness is the archetypal one: the mystery woman. Ninety people have signed up to try to get into the courtroom to see Tara Lintz testify, and the few who succeeded crane their necks as she enters the courtroom.
Much will be made of her “scarlet” (really, magenta) ruffled blouse, a foil for the small gold crucifix around her neck. (Ron Coleman will tell me later that “she got born again after it all happened. She called me and said, ‘Pastor Ron, this is Tara.’ My thought was, ‘Tara you shouldn’t be calling me.’ She asked for our forgiveness, said she recognizes now that it was wrong.”)
Lintz initially refused to come to St. Louis, but a judge in St. Petersburg ordered her to testify. Her answers are quick, matter-of-fact, her tone slightly snippy, like that of a too-grown-up teenager made to do something she loathes.
Reitz asks, “Did he profess his love for you?”
“Yes, he did,” she says, voice softening, head tilted.
Asked how often she and Chris communicated, she says, “All the time. Constantly.” On May 4, she says, they talked and texted late into the evening. She talks about being in Hawaii with him in mid-April. She says Chris promised to present Sheri with divorce papers May 4, then said there’d been a typo, so he’d do it May 5.
Lintz’ testimony is over so fast, the crowd looks dazed. After she steps down, Ken Wojtowicz, a Granite City police officer trained in computer forensics, identifies photographs he found on Lintz’s phone and laptop and Chris’ cellphone and laptop. Wojtowicz projects a few for the jury: Chris and Lintz kissing; out all dressed up and looking like a couple; cheek to cheek and smiling; Chris kissing Lintz’s cheek, close to her lipsticked mouth; Lintz teasingly biting his cheek.
“Was that all of them?” Reitz asks artlessly.
“No, there were several hundred images.”
“In addition there were explicit photos?”
Ron Coleman is chewing gum, slowly and deliberately. The judge directs Wojtowicz, who seems shy and a little geeky, to narrate the sexually explicit photos’ content, to spare the jury and audience from seeing them. Wojtowicz takes a deep breath. “There is a picture of Chris Coleman in the shower unclothed that shows his genitalia,” he begins. “Chris Coleman taking a picture of himself in a mirror and it shows his genitalia…. Tara Lintz partially turned away from the camera exposing her buttocks… A picture of her breasts.”
“Umm, that’s enough,” Reitz interrupts. The mood in the courtroom is squirmy, the narcissism of infatuation so obvious, it’s painful. Reitz told the judge that this evidence was needed in order to show the intensity of the relationship, thereby establishing possible motive.
Next comes a video Chris took of himself, naked, for Tara. Parts of the screen are blacked out. “Just got finished texting you, and I’ve still got a hard-on,” Chris says. “Want to see it?” Nervous giggle. “Anyway, just wanted to say I love you.” In the next video, also courteously blacked out by the judge, he masturbates in the shower. “You’re the only person that I’ve ever done anything like this for before. Ooh, dropped the soap. You know that? You’re the only person I’ve done a lot of things. This is crazy. I love it, though. I can’t wait to see you in Hawaii.” A lot of mmms and aaahhs later, it’s over.
Finally, Wojtowicz produces a note saved as “Tara,” listing her height, eye color, jeans size, bra size, panty size. Under “Christmas” is typed “promise ring—loves circle diamond or diamond cross.” It lists her favorite perfumes and favorite flowers (tulips and pink roses). It notes even the birthday of her dog, Gizmo. One entry records: “the day Tara changed my life: 11/5/08.” Then: “Our daughter’s name: Zoe Lynn Coleman.”
Ron and Connie Coleman sit reactionless through the crime-scene photos, the forensic testimony, the words of their son’s mistress. Ron leans slightly forward at times, chin in hand, his expression mild and interested. Connie angles her chin upward and keeps a slight, frozen smile on her face. They put their heads down only once, for the video of their son masturbating. But they leave the courtroom the minute the video of his interview at the Columbia Police Department begins.
“It was like they were abusive to him, and he was just like a lamb led to slaughter,” Connie tells me later. She knows people wondered about her stoic demeanor through far grislier parts of the trial—like the photograph of Gavin, strangled while still under his blanket, with “Fuck you!” sprayed across the side of the mattress beneath him.
“Most people don’t understand Christianity,” Ron says. “Most people don’t live as Christians.”
Connie nods. “What would Christ have done? Would he have made a scene? No. He might have cried, which we did, but most of that was done in the back room. Actually, we were asking the Lord to help us for Chris’ sake. The day they showed that sex film, we said, ‘Lord, please let us stay in our seats and Chris know we are not ashamed of him.’”
Monday, week two. Osama bin Laden has been killed, and the floodwaters are rising in Southern Illinois, but the courtroom feels airtight, a separate, claustrophobic little world.
After the DNA testimony (which is inconclusive, although there’s nothing that rules Chris out), Wojtowicz is recalled. He testifies that the emails came from Chris’ laptop. Defense attorney O’Gara, who’s been sitting back, waiting for the death-penalty phase, rises to do the cross. He suggests that with remote-access software, someone else could have accessed the laptop.
“I don’t know of any technology that would remote control a computer that is off,” Wojtowicz replies.
Reitz’s last witnesses are Robert Leonard (the linguists will restage their joust) and a handwriting expert. On the seventh day, the prosecution rests.
Wednesday morning, the air is fresh and cool, the trees’ branches softened by pale green and loud with bird song. Energy dulled by hours of forensic science surges back. A decision will be made soon.
People wait, more curious than anxious, to see what witnesses the defense will call.
There are only two. The linguist, Butters, and a handwriting expert. Photographs of the walls stay up a long time, and they’re eerie, full of a staged rage. The handwriting expert says the writing is so inconsistent, it looks like someone trying to disguise his or her hand.
Abruptly, the defense rests. It feels like a rope’s been cut and we’re all, after a week and a half of suspension, in free-fall.
In closing, Stern argues that all that evidence was circumstantial, “there’s nothing so much as a jaywalking ticket on Chris Coleman,” no murder weapon was found, and “the state was not able to recover a speck of paint from Chris Coleman.” He pulls out a yellow notepad and does math calculations, insisting that the family could have died after Chris left the house. He tells the jury the state never established where Chris Coleman’s laptop was when the threats were sent, and declares, “This investigation isn’t over!”
Reitz sums up the chain of events he’s presented, his phrases short and staccato, his tone even until the end. Then it’s as though everything’s built to this moment: “When the killer went to each of those little boys’ rooms in turn, and when the killer sat down on their beds, and when the killer reached for them to strangle them, you’ve seen the pictures, they didn’t get up and run, they didn’t scream. Of course they didn’t. Why would they? It was just Dad.”
AT RIGHT: Mario DeCicco, Sheri's brother, announces the family's civil suit while the jury deliberates.
When the jury files out to deliberate, people hover near the courtroom, expecting to be called back in an hour or so. A few hours in, the jury asks for the window from the Coleman basement and a definition of reasonable doubt. People leave for dinner, return, traipse home for the night, bone tired. Tired of long drives, tired of hotels, tired of waiting and hoping.
The next day, they line the halls, leave for meals, return. Sheri’s father, Donald Weiss, and grandmother, Dortha Weiss, sit in a corner by a window. Donald wonders aloud if more national media will show up if and when a death penalty is pronounced.
Would he want more media?
“If it’s people saying good things about my daughter and grandchildren, yes. That helps with the memories. But if they are just talking about Chris Coleman, good or bad, no.”
Dortha nods vehement agreement. She had brightened earlier, when her cousin came to court with photos of Sheri and Mario as kids and tried to give them to Mario. But he refused the overture. Now, she sits quietly, her lips pressed in the tight line of somebody who hates a situation and has no power to change it. Pain runs deep on all sides, in this family.
As they wait, rumors make their way down the courtroom halls: “The jury’s polling 11-to-1; there’s a holdout who won’t budge.”
Later, we will hear that five people were afraid there might be reasonable doubt—until one of them happened to pick up a photo of Chris and Tara and idly flip it over. The date on the back was October—two months before Lintz had testified that their affair began.
That was all it took.
“We the jury find the defendant guilty as charged.”
“Guilty on all three counts.”
“Guilty, Your Honor.”
Every voice rings clear and strong.
Chris Coleman breathes fast and hard, a jaw muscle quivering. He shoots one quick look toward his parents, who wear the same composed expressions they’d maintained through the entire trial. Only Jennifer Coleman, the wife of Chris’ brother Brad, sobs.
After 15 hours of deliberation, the verdict has come down in the last possible hour of May 5, the two-year anniversary of the murders.
Outside the courthouse, a crowd gathers. It’s dark, except for the TV cameras’ floodlights, and rain’s falling. Somebody yells “Guil-tee!” and somebody else yells, “You rotten bastard!” Then people tilt their heads back, staring up at the figures silhouetted up in the courthouse window, and start to applaud. They clap for Angela DeCicco, for prosecutor Kris Reitz, for the jurors as they board their buses. And when the car containing Chris Coleman speeds out of the sally port, and Sari the German shepherd paces the edge of the crowd to keep them back, people clap again.
Their exultation is more varied and complicated than it sounds. For some, this is pure vigilantism; others have known evil and tragedy in their own lives, and it’s a sort of catharsis. Mainly, though, it’s profound relief: Justice has been served. Small children can stop worrying that their daddies might hurt them. The shock can be allowed to fade. The presumption of normalcy can return.
On Friday, May 6, the jury unanimously finds Chris Coleman eligible for the death penalty, voting that his actions were “brutal and heinous, indicative of wanton cruelty,” and that the murders were “committed in a coldblooded, premeditated manner.”
Monday, the mitigation phase begins. The defense has been investigating for two years, and it has a long list of witnesses lined up to speak about Chris Coleman’s character. The spectators wait impatiently for the proceedings.
After a long delay, the judge and lawyers appear. O’Gara rises, looking unhappy, and informs the court that his client wants to waive his right to a jury sentencing.
AT LEFT: Sheri's mom, Angela DeCicco, waiting for the verdict.
In one swift gesture, power’s been grabbed back from the jury and tossed to the judge.
Later, Ron will tell me this was entirely Chris’ idea: “He had heard in the spirit realm to just dismiss the jury.” It also seems like a strategic move, but O’Gara isn’t thrilled. “If this man is insisting these things remain private,” he tells himself, “maybe that ought to be the way it goes.” He scraps his carefully prepared speech. Instead of talking about Chris, he speaks mainly about the history of the death penalty and his personal convictions, closing with lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” The words are full of shadow and uncertainty, like the case—and the death penalty itself. The poem’s last line, “not with a bang but a whimper,” is, he tells the court, maybe how the death penalty should end in Illinois.
In fact, the death penalty has already ended, effective July 1, and Gov. Pat Quinn has vowed to commute all death sentences until then. The judge’s sentence will be largely symbolic.
He asks for a lunch recess, and people leave quietly, with none of the usual chitchat. Outside, the sky is overcast. Church bells toll.
Court reconvenes at 1 p.m. Wharton speaks quietly, carefully, for several minutes. He says a sentence of death “would compound the tragedy,” and that closure is impossible. He recalls something a potential juror said: “He’ll have to face himself every day for the rest of his life.” He sentences Chris Coleman to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
Afterward, Fox 2’s Roche Madden asks O’Gara, “Is this a small victory?”
“There aren’t any small victories,” O’Gara says. “All there is is tragedy.”
“Do you believe there’s an innocent man in prison?” Madden asks.
“I don’t ever know how to answer those kinds of questions,” O’Gara replies.
The trial has ended with a unanimous verdict and a peaceful resolution—yet nobody is at peace. A week later, TV trucks still hum outside the courthouse, reporters scavenging for stray details to feed people hungry for understanding.
This is too American a story. It’s recognizable, in many ways: the vehement insistence on faith’s joys, the hidden darkness and emptiness and craving, the self-absorption, the desperate need to prosper materially and prove yourself worthy, the intoxication with sex, the adrenaline of brute force, the belief in personal destiny, the assumption we’re all guaranteed a fresh start… But there’s no clarity to it, no logic.
If Chris Coleman committed these murders, did he plan them from November? Or were the emails a fantasy that grew into a possibility? Someone threatening Joyce wasn’t far-fetched; Chris spent his work life anticipating and guarding against that. But he would have had to be at the center of this, with his family in danger.
And that had too many degrees of separation to feel logical to anybody else.
Even if love and money were sufficient motive to kill, what unleashed violence in a man whose entire life had been about godliness and obedience, security and protection? Kathy LaPlante describes him as “very stoic, kind of rigid, reserved.” He wasn’t a guy who cursed or lost his temper, drank heavily, blew off responsibility. He worked overtime and did whatever was asked, thoroughly and meticulously. His only release was working out—did he use steroids? Did they make him aggressive, maybe a little crazy?
Neither rage nor paranoia would have sustained itself for six months. And why kill the kids? Were they linked so tightly with Sheri in his mind that killing them felt inevitable? Were they not quite individuals, just responsibilities born of a life that had trapped him?
AT RIGHT: A crowd gathers near the Monroe County Courthouse after the verdict's announced.
O’Gara would have used testimony from seven former church members to suggest, presumably, a warping religious influence. But when Barlow asked about Destiny Church, Chris’ answer sounded perfunctory: “You know, it’s good to be around—be around other people like that and stuff. I mean, I believe that God died on the cross for us and saved us, you know, from our sins, and that we’re—we’re going to heaven if you believe that, and that’s what the church believes.”
“Maybe he’s been playing a game with God all his life,” Sheri’s friend Christy Johnson says. She thinks maybe he got obsessed with “a sexy darkness” that was new to him, and the infatuation changed him. Barlow talks about evil; Heine says with a shrug, “He just wanted what he wanted.” Kathy LaPlante says, “Chris had going through the motions down. His whole life was a lie.” Her son Austin says Chris was a narcissist, incapable of empathy.
Most people just say “monster” or “sociopath,” as though that solves it. But Chris doesn’t fit the standard diagnostic criteria very well.
Finally, forensic psychologist Daniel Cuneo points out what nobody wants to believe: If Chris did commit the murders, he didn’t have to be mentally ill to do it. He just had to be desperate enough to be violent, and capable of containing his feelings, acts, and beliefs in separate, airtight compartments. Cuneo has not evaluated Chris Coleman, but he agrees to think out loud: “Raised in a religious family, dad a minister, Marine Corps—no shades of gray. Let’s say someone pops into the picture who’s highly sexual, emotional, and all of a sudden you start doing other things. ‘We’re being bad in Hawaii’—is this the guy who goes on security details, who’s Joyce Meyer’s bodyguard? He’s excited, emotionally involved in a way he’s never been before. Everything else is, ‘I’m the good boy, I’m the good boy, I deal with right and wrong on a daily basis.’ And then somebody comes along who is unbelievably sensual. How can he justify the fact that he is physically excited and emotionally alive? It must be God’s will. And he’s trapped: Sheri is interfering with God’s destiny for him.
“What was that email address?” Cuneo asks suddenly. “‘destroychris’? The old Chris? Tara and Sheri are both sides of the same coin. Sheri’s not the wild, crazy girl he married; she’s not giving him the proper adoration at home. Then the bad Sheri comes along, Tara, and it’s OK to talk to her because she’s his wife’s friend. And then there’s this blatant sexuality, and all of a sudden it’s different; it’s real; he wants to please her. ‘I’m gonna get divorced.’ ‘No, you’re not.’ ‘I am.’ ‘You’ll never leave your kids.’ ‘I love you more than I love my kids!’ What if, to prove his love, he gets rid of it all?
“Fear of loss is a brutal thing,” he adds quietly. “It can make you desperate.”
Chris Coleman’s parents put their trust in faith, not slippery facts. They kept silent through the trial for their son’s sake. Afterward, distressed by the verdict and frustrated by all that wasn’t brought out in court, they open up. They say it wasn’t at all unusual for Chris to take off, given all the overtime he put in; it was just that he couldn’t reach Danny, so he called Joyce that time instead. They say the red paint was for a bull’s-eye that Chris was making for the boys’ Nerf guns, and it was sitting out on Gavin’s dresser on a white paper pie plate. Connie thinks Tara bought those promise rings herself: “He’s not a romantic. After she testified, he said, ‘Do you believe she had that stupid ring on?’” Ron points out that mercenaries could have done the murders cleanly, inside an hour, and Joyce Meyer has a lot of enemies.
Ron and Connie talk often of “arrogant, prideful people”—they’d include Reitz in that category—but several of Chris’ coworkers saw those traits in him. In a personality test for Joyce Meyer Ministries, he listed his weaknesses as being “withdrawn,” “moody,” and “unaffectionate.”
That came from Sheri, Ron says instantly: “She told Chris all the time that he was moody and he wasn’t affectionate enough. She never did compliment him. That’s why he was so attracted to this Tara.”
Ron tells me calling Tara from the police station was his idea: “I said to Chris, ‘I need to call Tara,’ and he kind of nodded and handed me the phone. And he was texting me, not Tara, that day.”
Yet Chris told the police on May 5, “I texted her today… I told Dad to call—call Tara, so then that kind of freaked her out.”
Chris’ comportment since the murders falls right in line with his loving parents’ portrait. Monroe County Sheriff Dan Kelley calls him “a model prisoner”; O’Gara says he was polite, easy to work with, a model client. Hundreds of people wrote to him while he was at the Waterloo jail, many seeking spiritual advice.
“He always loved the Lord, but he didn’t have a relationship with Him until now,” Ron says.
Now he’s preaching like his dad, counseling other prisoners, reading the steady stream of Christian books that Connie sends him. Her eyes light when she talks about their conversations. Then maternal worry crosses her face.
“I’m concerned because he hasn’t mourned,” she confides. “Those were the only books he gave back without reading.”
EXTRA: The Auction of the Coleman House
The morning of the auction, the phone rings in the circuit clerk’s office. “No, it’s very quiet,” one of the staffers replies. “Nobody’s here.”
Whatever official is calling mentions a media truck parked on Mill Street.
“Oh no, it will be fine,” she assures the caller. “They’re not as rude or nasty as we always thought they were.”
In the hallway, another staffer is chatting: “Honestly, people, as tight as they are in Monroe County? Someone will buy it in a heartbeat.”
Outside the courthouse, Jackie Ortiz, an auctioneer from the Judicial Sales Corporation of Chicago, is setting up her microphone. She explains the procedure to the small crowd—all media—that has gathered.
She will be auctioning Lot 159 in Columbia Lakes, 2854 Robert Drive.
“The property will not be open for inspection, and plaintiff makes no representation as to the condition of the property,” she says crisply.
The plaintiff is the property’s current owner, Wells Fargo.
Reporters speculate about a speculator. “Or one of the banks,” a court staffer offers. “That’s what usually happens.”
A middle-aged woman from Monroe County approaches hesitantly. “I’ve never been to one of these,” she says. “I thought I’d want to see one before I die.”
Ortiz begins: “I know as much about this as you folks do. I have the property description that’s published in the newspaper.” The cameramen crowd close, looking like long-legged metal bugs, and she tries to cover the property description notes so they can take a picture of the rest of the sheet. She’s written all over it. She jokes, then remembers what a sticky situation this is and turns chilly. “May I ask why you would want this?
“Covering video,” the reporter says breezily. “So we can have more than one picture,” a cameraman adds. She goes back inside to call her boss.
What’s the minimum bid, anyway? Someone says $247,000. Everyone snorts. “That will be an opener. Then you will hear crickets.”
Ortiz comes back. “I’m gonna tell you folks right now, this goes very quickly. I’m talking seconds.”
A reporter fires back, “The plaintiff has already put in a bid?”
“They will in a few minutes.”
“Would anyone have contacted you prior to this?” somebody else asks.
“No, ma’am. It’s public notice.”
“Have you ever had an auction with this much attention?”
“Not this much!”
One of the trustees for the Columbia Lakes homeowners association, Susan Walla, comes up.
“The opening bid is $256,419.96,” Ortiz says. “That’s $256,419.96. Going once. Twice. SOLD to the plaintiff for $256,419.96. And that concludes today. Thank you.”
She goes inside the courthouse, and everybody races over to Walla. What was her ideal scenario?
“For a family to buy it, move in, start over,” she says wearily. “It’s been nervewracking; it’s been unsettling, for all of us. The constant traffic of the sightseers and media has been hard on all of us. We would like to see it torn down, but it’s zoned for residential; they would have had to have it rezoned.”
A reporter asks her how difficult it would be, if a family moved in and tried to give the house a fresh start.
“We would welcome them as we have with all of our other homeowners and try to help them,” she replies. Then she meets the reporter’s eyes. “I think it will be hard to not remember what had happened.”
Lori Walters asks, “If there were potential buyers, would you reach out to them before?”
“I wouldn’t want to hinder a sale,” Walla says.
So would she tell a potential buyer what had happened in the house?
“Yes. I think they should know. If I were to buy that house, I would want to know.”
“And would you buy that house?” someone calls.
EXTRA: Reeling from the Shock
After Meegan Turnbeaugh quoted Sheri saying Chris had beaten her, Vanessa Riegerix sobbed, “Why didn’t she tell me?”
“Because you were the only one she truly trusted with her children,” Turnbeaugh suggested, “and she thought if you knew, you wouldn’t want anything to do with them.”
Ron Coleman, asked if he’s ever thought about the possibility that Chris did commit these murders. “Oh, I’ve been there. What would I do? Just what I’m doing. He’s the Lord’s anyway, and that’s just between him and the Lord. I’ve got a whole different look at anybody that’s done that kind of stuff now. That hootin’ and hollerin’ [outside the courthouse, after the verdict was read].” He shakes his head in disgust. “It is between the person that did it and God.”
“That don’t mean you condone it,” Connie Coleman adds quickly.
“But after this I wonder if OJ did it!” Ron says. “So much happens behind the scenes.”
Ron Coleman on his son’s decision to dismiss the jury, have no witnesses called in mitigation, and leave it to the judge to determine whether he received the death penalty:
“Actually, what happened was, he was just praying about it, and to him life and death sentence was just the same, no difference. He said, ‘I sat for eight or nine days, and all they did was cut down my character, cut down my family.’ He called me and said, ‘Dad, I’d just like to let it go.’ He had heard in the spirit realm to just dismiss the jury and he didn’t know he could. It is what it is, and we feel like we had deceit and twisting of the truth throughout the whole thing.”