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'We have no justice': Serial killer's death sentence canceled, to the shock of local victim's family

From the This week in local crime news: Gary teen shot at New Year's Eve celebration, transported to hospital, police say series
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The family of Tamika Turks speaks out

Mary Hillard comforts her daughter, LaVerne Turks, as she recalls the murder of LaVerne's daughter Tamika Turks in 1982 by serial killers Alton Coleman and Debra Brown. Family member Annie Hillard, right, also talks about the day Tamika was murdered.

CROWN POINT — The Indiana attorney general and Lake County prosecutor have spared the life of a serial killer without advance notice to the family of her youngest victim.

Three decades ago, Debra Denise Brown and Alton Coleman went on a 53-day rampage across six states that left eight dead, including 7-year-old Tamika Turks, of Gary, who they strangled in Gary's Glen Park section for no apparent reason other than the joy of killing.

Their manhunt, capture, trials and convictions were the subject of many news conference and public statements over the years.

However, with little fanfare, Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter and a representative of Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill signed an agreement last month to withdraw the state's demand to execute 56-year-old Brown.

No member of Tamika Turks' family was present. No one had told them.

Tamika's mother, LaVerne Turks, said, they only found out at Thanksgiving from Thomas Vanes, who had won Brown's conviction and death sentence in 1986. "We hurt," she said.

She said she thought the prosecutor and attorney general "would fight for us, the way Debra Brown's lawyers fought for her. The people who signed this didn't know us. They should have put their hearts in place of their pens."

Family members spoke publicly last week to The Times about their sense of betrayal. "We don't want a coverup. Why couldn't they write us a letter?" LaVerne Turks asked.

She said the family wanted to be at Brown's execution. Coleman was executed in 2002 in Ohio.

Debra Denise Brown

Debra Denise Brown's current photo

"Debra Brown was right there with (Coleman), committing the same crimes. She bears the same responsibility for them, and she should share his punishment."

Carter, who had the ultimate authority to press or drop the death penalty, didn't return calls to The Times seeking comment. He did meet privately with the family Dec. 22. LaVerne Turks said, "He said they dropped the ball."

Family members said no one from the attorney general's office has contacted them.

Melissa Gustafson, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Hill, stated late last week current law forbids Brown's execution.

"The modification was based on evidence developed throughout this case that Brown is likely intellectually disabled, a condition formerly known as mental retardation. Under ... the 2003 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court ... a death sentence cannot be given to persons who are intellectually disabled. So the parties agreed that modifying the death sentence to the next-highest possible sentence that Brown could legally be sentenced to was the correct resolution under federal constitutional law," she said.

The judge ordered Brown to serve a 140-year prison term in addition to a sentence of life without parole; she is currently serving at the Dayton Correctional Institution in Ohio for the murder of two females in that state.

Gustafson added, "It was our understanding that the victims and family members were contacted by (the Lake County prosecutor's) office, but it now appears that a mistake was made. The (Office of Attorney General) deeply regrets that they were not notified in advance, because we take seriously the dignity of victims of all crime and our responsibility to ensure that dignity within the criminal justice system."

Brown's background

Brown was born in 1962 on the South Side of Chicago.

Court records indicate Brown's father had severe mental problems, drank heavily and physically abused Brown. Brown had to be hospitalized for a drug overdose at 18, but otherwise led a law-abiding life.

Brown's mother told authorities she changed dramatically after moving in with Coleman, whom she met in Waukegan, Illinois, according to court records. Brown's mother said her daughter lost 35 pounds and became a virtual prisoner in Coleman's house. The mother said, "Coleman was beating Brown and using her as a prostitute ... and that she would do whatever Coleman asked her to do."

Coleman already had several sex-related arrests on his record, but either his victims dropped charges against him or he pleaded he was a victim of misidentification.

Brown's attorneys long have argued a manipulative Coleman imposed a master/slave relationship on Brown to become his accomplice.

LaVerne Turks said, "She is not retarded. I never heard of the retarded killing people. She played as big a part in this as Coleman did."

Crime spree

Police said the duo's crime spree began in late May 1984 when Coleman abducted and killed Vernita Wheat, 9, of Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Brown and Coleman fled to Gary, where they quietly lived for about three weeks before encountering Tamika and her 9-year-old aunt June 18, 1984, as the girls were returning home from a trip to a candy store and a hot dog stand in Gary.

LaVerne Turks said of Tamika, "She was a very happy child."

Court records indicate Coleman promised the girls new clothes, and Brown led them to a wooded area in the 4200 block of Grant Street, where Coleman removed Tamika's shirt, Brown cut it into strips and they bound the children's arms and legs.

When Tamika began crying, Brown held her nose and mouth while Coleman stomped on her chest. They carried Tamika out of view from the aunt. They returned to rape, choke and leave the aunt for dead.

The aunt stumbled out of the woods, unable to find Tamika. A nearby Gary resident saw her bleeding and called police, who later found Tamika dead.

Police said that same day, 25-year-old Gary beautician Donna Michelle Williams disappeared. Police said Coleman and Brown befriended Williams and asked her to drive them to church. They overpowered and abducted her, police said. Officers later found her car and body in Detroit, Michigan.

Brown and Coleman never were charged with her death. LaVerne Turks said, "Our hearts go out to the Donna Williams family."

Police said the couple assaulted a total of 20 people in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Wisconsin, resulting in eight homicides, seven rapes, 14 armed robberies and three kidnappings. It finally ended July 20, 1984, when police spotted and arrested them in Evanston, Illinois.

Coleman, Brown arrested quietly

"They were waiting to catch somebody else's child," said Mary Hillard, a grandmother of Tamika and the family matriarch.

The two were brought back to Lake County Criminal Court in 1986 for jury trials conducted by deputy prosecutors Thomas Vanes and Kathleen O'Halloran. The aunt identified the two defendants in court, and jurors convicted both of them of capital murder.

They also were convicted in Illinois and Ohio.

The case shifts to Ohio

The Turks family traveled in 2002 to a state prison in Lucasville, Ohio, where Coleman was executed by lethal injection.

They hoped to witness Brown's execution as well, but former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste commuted her Ohio death sentence to life imprisonment.

Brown's attorneys repeatedly appealed her Indiana death sentence on grounds her trial was flawed, her trial lawyer didn't properly defend her and over Brown's intellectual disabilities.

The Indiana Supreme Court twice upheld her death sentence in the late 1980s and again in the 1990s, both times rejecting arguments Brown acted under Coleman's domination.

But last June the justices gave Brown permission to argue again for her sentence to be overturned. This time was successful. 

Gustafson said, "Because Brown committed her crimes before life without parole was an option in Indiana, it is illegal to give her a life sentence in the Indiana case. But this 140-year sentence, which will only begin to be served if her two Ohio sentences are somehow reduced and completed, is assuredly a life sentence on its own, given Brown’s age and other sentences.

"Additionally, Brown has agreed to give up all legal challenges to her Indiana convictions ... that concession ensures her convictions will remain intact, and we can bring this case to final resolution in the courts."

Family members said Brown's new sentence may have resolved matters for the attorney general, but not for them.

The aunt who was with Tamika the day they were attacked and whom The Times is not identifying because she is a victim, said, "I live with this every day. ... (Brown) had no mercy on us. We have no justice."

Mary Hillard, who still keeps her granddaughter's clothes in the closet, said, "This took all my hope away."

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.