A Family Erased: The Chris Coleman Story
Could a father strangle his wife and young sons just to keep a high salary and a sexy mistress? And if not, who did?
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.