Serial killer Alton Coleman is scheduled to receive a lethal injection Friday in Ohio, but some local law enforcement officials knew he was a dead man 16 years ago.
The 46-year-old who has four death sentences on his head left his deadly mark in Lake County during a 53-day rampage across six states that left eight dead and many others injured, some within an inch of their lives.
Former Lake County Prosecutor Jack Crawford, who now is a private defense lawyer in Indianapolis, looks back on Coleman and the decision to charge him with capital murder.
"I have very mixed feelings about the death penalty now that I'm on the other side now and defending people against the death penalty," Crawford said. "However, if there is a case for it, then Coleman probably fits into that category because of the heinous and utter disregard for human life. Wherever he was, people died."
Former prosecutor Thomas Vanes, now also a defense lawyer in private practice, remembers Coleman as a man who toyed with his victims, his police pursuers and the criminal justice system.
He said Coleman became so bold during his killing spree he left clues for police to find. One clue was a piece of jewelry he stole from the home of Virginia Temple and her 10-year-old daughter, Rochelle, whom he strangled in Toledo, Ohio.
A few weeks and more than 200 miles later, Cincinnati police found another of Coleman's victims, 15-year-old Tonnie Storey, in an abandoned Cincinnati house. A piece of jewelry from the Temple killing was found inside a floor vent.
"It didn't fall there. The vent had to have been removed and placed there," Vanes said. "It was Coleman telling us, 'I was here.' He was enjoying the publicity and notoriety. He was making sure he was getting credit for everything he did."
Life of crime began in '70s
Coleman is scheduled for execution Friday for the Ohio murders, but his criminal life began in the 1970s with a series of sexual assaults around his hometown of Waukegan, Ill.
In 1973, Coleman and an accomplice were charged with kidnapping, robbing and raping a 54-year-old woman from a Waukegan shopping center. The woman refused to testify about the rape, and Coleman served two years in prison on the robbery charge.
Three months after his release from Joliet, Coleman was arrested for another rape. He was acquitted, but served time for a lesser charge. In July 1983, Coleman was charged with the rape od his 8-year-old niece; his sister dropped the charges three weeks later.
The May 29, 1984, kidnapping and strangulation of 9-year-old Vernita Wheat of Kenosha, Wis., kicked off his multistate crime spree.
Coleman and his girlfriend, Debra Brown, moved from Illinois to Gary where they blended into the African-American community and lay low for about three weeks.
That quiet period ended June 18, 1984, with the abduction and murder of Tamika Turks, 7, of Gary, and an assault in which her 9-year-old aunt was sexually molested.
The two young girls had gone to a lunch counter about a block from their home after a parade in Gary when both disappeared.
The 9-year-old escaped and told relatives how a man and woman had taken them to a wooded area in the 4200 block of Grant Street and strangled Tamika, after which the aunt was sexually molested. Police found Tamika with an elastic piece of bedsheet around her neck.
The next day, Gary beautician Donna Michelle Williams, 25, disappeared. She later was found murdered in Detroit.
Coleman and Brown befriended a series of people whom they then robbed and often killed as they traveled through Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. As the death toll mounted, law enforcement closed in and finally arrested them July 20, 1984, at an Evanston, Ill., city park.
Crawford said law enforcement officials held a summit meeting afterward at the FBI office in Chicago.
"We had prosecutors and police from four different states where he had committed crimes, and we brought all the witnesses in to do the lineup," he said. "Everybody cooperated, and we agreed Ohio would go first."
Coleman and Brown were convicted of death penalty murder in Ohio. Brown's death sentence later was commuted. The two were transferred to Lake County, where they faced juries in separate trials in 1986.
Perseverance made weak case strong
Crawford and Vanes said the case involving the Turks murder was weak. Vanes said the aunt had trouble identifying Coleman.
"I took some heat on the case," Crawford said. "People said we were wasting all that money when he already has three death penalties in Ohio. I just felt the crime was so serious, we had to charge it."
Their guts and their hearts told Crawford and his deputies Coleman was responsible for Turks' murder. They just had to prove it. The testimony of the aunt, weak as it was, would not be enough to put Coleman in the electric chair.
Horrified and disgusted by the nature of the crime, the prosecutors and law enforcement increased their efforts to link Coleman to Turks' murder. One of the key pieces of evidence they had was the ligature, or noose, that had been used to strangle the little girl.
It was a piece of white elastic, apparently torn from a large piece of fabric like a fitted bedsheet.
Vanes said he, then-Deputy County Prosecutor Richard Cook and then-FBI agent Tom Allison were trying to strengthen their hand by linking the noose found around Turks' neck to Coleman.
"We were looking high and low for any sheets because we knew the ligature, the noose, came from a fitted bedsheet because of the elastic," he said. "What we had was white, and we made the mistake in assuming we were looking for an all-white bedsheet."
However, an exhaustive search of the crime scenes failed to produce the sheet from which the cord was made.
"Someone noticed colored fibers sticking out from the stitching," Vanes said. "Tom slit it open with a knife, and what we noticed tucked up inside was a piece of cloth about the size of a half dollar with half of a green and orange flower.
"I knew I had seen it somewhere before and went back through all the pictures, and lying on a sofa in Coleman's basement apartment in Gary was a sheet with a floral pattern being used as a sofa cover. This was 18 months after the murder. We drove out to the apartment but couldn't find anything there."
They spent hours in an unheated garage, looking through a frozen pile of clothes, but with no success.
"We enlisted the aid of three or four kids living there, and one of them found it upstairs above Coleman's (basement apartment), just outside of the closet. You could see the missing edge," Vanes said.
It was a child's sheet, filled with flowers and elephants and other festive decorations that had been used to commit a heinous murder.
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The photos taken of the Van Buren Street apartment in the days after the murder showed that sheet stretched over a sofa, proving it had been there while Coleman was renting the apartment.
Vanes held the torn sheet's edge up to the piece taken from Turks' neck.
"It fit together like a puzzle. We knew at that second Coleman was dead," Vanes said.
"What we believe happened was that he (and Brown were) walking the girls from Broadway to the Sportsman's Club. They would have walked right by (Coleman and Brown's) apartment at Van Buren and Ridge. He ducked in, grabbed this with one intent in mind and rejoined Brown with the girls."
Bizarre trial in Lake County
Coleman's trial needed only dancing bears to make it a complete circus.
His first attorney was public defender Stanley Jablonski, with whom Coleman feuded constantly. It took only a couple of weeks before the two were at odds publicly in the courtroom, with Coleman demanding that Judge Richard Maroc replace Jablonski with someone else.
Maroc, reluctant to play into Coleman's game, asked him why.
"Your honor, this man called me an asshole," Coleman said.
Maroc looked at Jablonski. "Is this true?" he asked, and Jablonski admitted that he had used that epithet to describe Coleman.
Maroc ran his hand over his face. "Mr. Jablonski, why did you do that?" he asked.
"Because, your honor, he is an asshole," Jablonski replied.
Maroc named public defender Cornell Collins to Coleman's case. Although Coleman had complained that Jablonski could not defend him because Jablonski is white, he found little good to say about Collins, an African-American.
Recognizing Coleman's whining as ploys to prolong the trial, Maroc refused to replace Collins but appointed a second attorney, Lonnie Randolph. Collins, now in private practice in Gary, declined comment, and Randolph, now East Chicago city judge, did not return calls.
Coleman and his public defender Collins were like night and day. Collins methodically worked the legal angles, trying to put distance between his client and the crime through forensic evidence. Randolph was theatrical, flamboyant, at one time dragging a full-sized couch into the courtroom to cast doubt on the prosecution's bedsheet theory.
Coleman tried to drive a wedge between Collins and Randolph, criticizing his lead counsel Collins and saying he wanted to be represented by Randolph. Again, Maroc refused and ordered the trial to move along.
On the other side, Vanes and Cook worked as a team, the veteran Vanes acting as the hammer while Cook presented the less dramatic evidence.
But Coleman was getting under Vanes' skin. Although Vanes was aware of Coleman's reputation as being rather shifty, it bothered him when Coleman would stare endlessly at him from the defense table. Finally, Vanes found that winking playfully at Coleman would disconcert him and cause him to look away.
The strangest part of a strange trial came one morning when Coleman was being transported to court in an elevator and found a yellow note taped to the elevator door that read, "Pissy, do you have the ball(s) to testify?"
The nickname, a reference to his childhood bed-wetting, angered Coleman, which it was designed to do. It also contained a reference to a jailhouse rumor that he only had one testicle, which angered him further. He went into court and demanded to know who was taunting him.
It was Vanes.
Crawford remembered what happened next.
"What a jokester Vanes was. I walked into the office that morning while the trial was going on, and (James) Olszewski, Vanes and (John) Burke are in Olszewski's back office and they said, 'We have got to talk to you. We have got a major problem.'
"They told me Vanes put this note up that he has to testify or he would cut his balls off or that he didn't have the balls to testify. I walked out and said, 'Yeah, right. I don't need this morning. Give me a joke later on.'
"They said, 'No, this is for real.' "
Vanes, who was found in contempt of court and forced to apologize to all parties, was pulled from the case. Cook had to finish the remainder alone, fortunate the case was almost at an end.
Crawford issued a statement that read in part, "I will take no extraordinary disciplinary action against (Vanes) for his communication to Mr. Coleman, except that he will be removed from the upcoming trial" of Debra Brown.
Under pressure from the families of the victims, who saw Vanes as their champion, he was reinstated to successfully prosecute Brown.
Calling Vanes' action "improper and ill-advised," Crawford nonetheless said, "any feeling human being could not help but be moved to passion by the horrid details of Coleman's crimes. It was a mistake, but an understandable mistake."
In the end, all Coleman's antics didn't sway the jury. In less than two hours on April 11, 1986, the jury convicted Coleman of murder. On May 2, Maroc sentenced Coleman to the electric chair.
The Ohio Parole Board on Friday recommended that Gov. Bob Taft deny clemency to Coleman, who also has been sentenced to death in Illinois. Also on Friday, the Ohio Supreme Court turned down a challenge by Coleman that accused prosecutors of racism during jury selection in his 1985 trial, and his lawyers sued over the state's plan to let witnesses from victims' families watch the execution over closed-circuit television.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on a technical procedure and refused to postpone Coleman's execution, which is scheduled for Friday.
Although both Indiana and Ohio since have replaced the electric chair with lethal injection as the method of imposing the death penalty, the end result will be the same when Coleman eventually is strapped onto a gurney and wheeled to the execution room in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville.