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A Conversation with Justin Barlow and Karla Heine

Columbia's Crime Stoppers

Photography by Wesley Law

Columbia, Ill., has two police detectives: Detective Karla Heine (who cheerfully spent her first hours on the job filling in for the school crossing guard) and Detective Sgt. Justin Barlow (who’s wanted to be a cop since he sat on the knee of his grandpa, then the chief of police in Dupo). Both are as friendly and wholesome as the pregnant cop in Fargo. They take their job seriously—they serve on the FBI cybercrime task force and the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis—but most days are filled with the quirky misdemeanors of a small town.

Last year was an exception.

First, they were called in when a baby was found in a toilet, still alive. The young mother, Belleville resident Elyse Mamino, gave birth at a family party in Columbia. When she insisted she’d thought her baby was dead, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services returned tiny Victoria to her care.

Barlow and Heine, both parents of young children themselves, weren’t convinced. In March 2009, confronted with the evidence the detectives had gathered, Mamino confessed to attempted first-degree murder. She also told them about a previous birth; they searched her Belleville home and discovered the skeletal remains of another infant. (That case is still under review.)

Two months later, Barlow walked into the Coleman house and discovered the strangled bodies of Sheri Coleman and her two little boys. Again, his and Heine’s police work helped close the case. (Chris Coleman goes on trial this August.) Their chief promptly nominated them as two of America’s Top Police Officers, and the next thing they knew, their pictures were in Parade Magazine.

How do you two work together when you interview suspects? Good cop–bad cop?

Justin Barlow: Never. It’s really using your own personality in the interview. If we tried to come off as hard-ass cops, it wouldn’t work.

Karla Heine:
A lot of times, that turns people off. It’s like a switch gets flipped. [She leans forward.] There’s always a reason why people do things. So we have to kind of figure out their lives. If you figure out the reason, it helps solve the crime, and it also helps them be able to talk about it.

It’s just a matter of finding a way to let them know, “Hey, we’ve got to make it right, and the only way to do that is, basically, man up and get over this and work it out.”

Usually one person takes the lead—we have a particular chair where that person sits to do the interview—and the other person observes, watching for body language.

How do you decide who leads?

JB: It depends on who is running with the case. We try to alternate cases so we don’t overwhelm each other.

KH: You kind of get a feel, too, when you talk to somebody. They may look more at one of us, so there’s rapport, and that person does the interview.

JB: With Mamino, we went in there geared up, as far as what we were going to say. I sat in the big chair, and I was pumped up, ready to go. We’d been gathering evidence since November, and now this was February. But after I confronted her with a lot of the lies, she looked at Karla and said, “Can I just talk to her?” That was what you would call a clue: Get out, because she wants to say what happened.

KH: So I talked with her—Justin watched through closed-circuit TV—and she confessed.

JB: What Karla is being modest about is that from November to February, she was building a rapport with Elyse, her mother, her whole family.

Elyse was emailing me pictures of Victoria, saying, “Oh, the baby’s doing better.”

We were doing this all knowing she was lying, but with the main goal to make sure Victoria was safe.

Yeah, and Justin gained rapport with a witness who told us she thought Elyse had been pregnant the year before. That’s what started leading us in that direction. Justin did an awesome job of digging into that and found out her history.

You are really sucking up to the wrong person, ’cause I can’t do anything for you in your future! I just subpoenaed the records. And there were a lot of details that didn’t match.

We typed up four pages of her inconsistencies.

Where is Victoria now? Still in the care of Family Services?

JB: The [Columbia police] chief is fighting a separate battle on that. He’s doing everything he can to make it known that there were some holes in the system.

How did the case begin?

KH: We got a call—the patrol guys got the call—that a woman just had a baby. It was called in like a stillborn—

They used the term “fetus.”

—in the toilet. So one of our officers looks in the toilet and actually sees the baby moving a little bit. He pulls her out. This was like a family party, if you can imagine, a get-together of about 40 people. Elyse says she doesn’t feel well, goes into the bathroom, and locks the door. When she finally comes out, she grabs Ed, her boyfriend, and they lock themselves back in the bathroom again. Then they call out to the homeowner and ask for a family member who’s a paramedic. Elyse is saying, “I didn’t know I was pregnant.”

I think her statement, when we said, “What did you tell Ed?” was, “Baby, we just had a baby.”

According to him, he thought the baby was dead.

Did she know the baby was alive?

KH: Yeah. She later admitted that.

Yet she left the baby in the toilet?

KH: She said she took her out then put her back in the toilet, facedown, and flushed it. There were people down in the basement, and water started coming down. The placenta had slipped to the bottom of the bowl, and it was clogging the toilet. [Shakes her head.] And she’s saying she didn’t know she was pregnant. We just couldn’t get past that.

JB: It’s not like Victoria weighed 1 pound.

KH: She was 5 or 6 pounds. We were imagining this little bitty thing, and she was a full-size baby. A beautiful baby. Just beautiful.

How was Mamino when you saw her at the hospital?

KH: Very distant from the baby. She talked about her as “it.” She said to Ed, “Can we keep it?”

Karla said, “She keeps talking about the baby like she’s some kind of dog they are bringing home.”

I was there when they brought in the baby’s footprint and handprint, and she didn’t even look; she just signed the paperwork. We made it a point to be in that room when they brought the baby in. She looked at her, but there was just no emotion.

So what were you saying to each other as you left the hospital?

JB: [Laughs.] I think my comment was, “Boy, you are going to have a tough time solving this one. Let me know if you need any help.”

And I said, “I’m gonna need some help.”

If Mamino hadn’t broken down and confessed, what would have happened?

KH: Well, we could have shown the state’s attorney the inconsistencies—but nobody knew what happened in that bathroom except her. And Victoria.

JB: And as far as evidence, the deck was already stacked against us, because the crime scene had already been cleaned up.

KH: I think she just got over her head. She got pregnant, and she was afraid of losing that boyfriend, so she hid it from him.

Where did she work again?

JB: Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative, as a teacher’s aide for an autistic child. Her arms were all scarred, and at first we thought maybe she was addicted to meth and was tweaking. But her mom worked in the same place, and her arms had the same marks.

I guess you have to think of every possibility in every situation.

JB: Yeah. One of the hardest things—especially being from Columbia, growing up here—is not being naive, not taking everybody’s word. You almost have to force yourself to be a little cynical.

You had a police officer in the family—but Karla, what got you into this work?

KH: I don’t know! I just had an interest. In sixth grade, I said I was going to be a police officer. I was always interested in murder shows.

JB: She was a tomboy. You know, when she was pregnant, she chased down an armed robber.

KH: There were three, actually.

JB: [Teasing.] No, there were five! Seven!

KH: There were three. And I was about three months pregnant. My son always brags, “Yeah, I chased down an armed robber with my mom.”

Justin, you lived, with your wife and two little boys, right across the street from Coleman. When he claimed his family was being threatened, you mounted a surveillance camera in your yard, and it was you he called saying he was worried because his wife wasn’t answering the phone—and you who went over and found the bodies. What do you make of Chris Coleman?

JB: Ask me in August.

Right. You can’t comment. OK, what was the most difficult case you’ve ever had to deal with?

JB: Coleman.

KH: Definitely Coleman. That one was something else. He’s [nods to Justin] going to be a movie star.

JB: This year wasn’t the norm.

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