The unbelievable multi-state serial killings of Coleman and Brown
Maybe people shouldn't be surprised that a boy who had to endure the nickname "Pissy" because of a tendency to wet his pants would grow up to be one of America's most savage spree killers. And it certainly didn't help that Pissy would go to prison on a robbery charge and emerge two years later with a tendency to dress in women's clothing and a desire for rough sex. Whatever the reasons, Alton Coleman and his girlfriend Debra Denise Brown will go down in history as a short-lived U.S. version of Great Britain's multiple sex-slayers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady.
The story of Coleman and Brown begins in the mid-1970s, takes place in five states and involves one of the largest manhunts in recent history. It is a tale of American criminal justice that stands among the most depraved and cruel incidents of the modern age -- Coleman and Brown demonstrated a lack of respect for human life that shocked even hardened FBI agents and police officers. In less than two months, they assaulted, raped and murdered their way from Illinois to Michigan and down to Kentucky before authorities were finally able to capture then.
Coleman and Brown are behind bars, each awaiting a date with the executioner, but the evil they wrought upon their innocent victims lives on to this day. The duo have used every avenue of judicial appeal possible and seek mercy from the courts mercy they rarely showed when they prowled the Midwest.
With every new court ruling or delay, dozens of survivors relive the horror of their encounters with the murderous pair of lovers. A child victim who managed to avoid death at their hands vows that she will never marry because of her inability to trust and questions whether she is still "pure". Another survivor battles drug addiction, suicide attempts, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A mother and father must adjust to the fact that Coleman will never stand trial for their daughter's murder and they may never find out the circumstances surrounding her slaughter.
Coleman's family, on the other hand, consider themselves victims not of their deadly relative, but of a system that they believe persecutes and plans to kill an innocent man. Debra Brown's mother continues to rue the day her daughter met Alton Coleman. Brown was "a good girl," unknown to police before she fell under Coleman's spell, but by the time the pair were caught, it was clear that Brown was just as vicious and murderous as her ex-con boyfriend.
Probably what is most disturbing about Alton Coleman is that he shouldn't have been on the streets to begin his rape- robbery -murder spree. Over and over Coleman managed to manipulate the judicial system in his favor, beating sexual assault charges on several occasions. Frustrated prosecutors and lawmen knew they had a monster on their hands, but could only stand by helplessly as jury after jury let the him walk, confident the system had "worked" to free an innocent man.
Born in Waukegan, an Illinois town about a half-hour's drive north of Chicago, Alton Coleman endured the taunts of schoolchildren who teased him because he so often wet his pants. They christened the mildly retarded boy "Pissy."
Family members and law enforcement officials who had dealings with Coleman since his teen years said Alton was slow to show emotion and generally kept to himself. Clearly alienated from his peers, Coleman had a reputation for his strong sex drive reportedly he was bisexual and willing to engage in sex any time, any place with anyone.
Said one friend of Coleman's late mother: "He knew he was different...even as a young child.
"As he grew up, (Coleman) was deeply into insidious kinds of sexual gratification."
Coleman first came to the notice of police as a teenager when he was picked up for breaking windows in his Waukegan housing project. He was quickly labeled as a troublemaker, but for the most part, his crimes were of the petty sort. There was little indication to authorities of the mayhem to come.
Interestingly, property damage, often in the form of arson, can be an indicator of serial murder tendencies. That is not to say that every youngster who breaks windows or lights fires is bound to be a serial killer, but only that many multiple murderers committed similar acts as children.
On the way to becoming a serial killer, Coleman gave the law many chances to put him away, but Alton was "smooth as silk," according to those who fought him in court. Lawmen said Coleman put on a good appearance in court which often convinced jurors that authorities had the wrong man. Alton, according to friends, also relied upon the supernatural to help him escape justice. He claimed that voodoo made him invulnerable to attack by the law.
"He was good at conning jurors," Waukegan Police Lt. Marc Hansen told the Detroit Free Press in 1984 when Coleman and Harris were hiding out in Detroit. "He tells a convincing story in court. People are impressed with his testimony. He comes off as a decent person."
A prosecutor who watched Coleman beat a rape charge agreed.
"He knows what kind of case holds up in court and which ones don't," said former U.S. attorney Fred Foreman. "He's been to the penitentiary. He's a career criminal."
But when the façade wouldn't work and voodoo god Baron Samedi wasn't listening, Coleman resorted to more common forms of beating the rap, most notably witness intimidation.
"It's difficult to get people in court to prove these charges because they are sexual assault charges, they involve kids, they involve family that don't want to see him go to jail," said Hansen.
In 1983, Coleman's sister went to authorities and told them her brother tried to rape her eight-year-old daughter. Three weeks later, she went to court to have the charges dropped.
"It's a misunderstanding," she said. "A lot of families go through that. It doesn't make any difference now."
The judge hearing the motion for dismissal was astounded by the 25-year-old woman's testimony "I think the woman as she stands here today, is terrified of this man," the judge said. He called her account of the incident "completely implausible."
But in the end, with no victim and no witnesses, the judge had no choice but to free Alton Coleman and dismiss the charges.
Coleman's rap sheet before his Midwestern spree reads like a one-man sex crime wave.
In 1973 he and an accomplice kidnapped, robbed and raped an elderly woman. She refused to testify about the rape and Coleman served two years 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. Four years after that spell in the pen, Coleman was acquitted of rape. A year later he was arrested for an attempted rape the charge was dismissed. In July, 1983 he was charged with the rape of his niece. That charge was dismissed. In early 1984 he was indicted for the knifepoint rape and murder of a suburban Chicago girl whose mother was a friend of his.
Coleman learned he was wanted for that crime but disappeared, kicking off his multi-state crime spree with his girlfriend, Debra Brown.
Why Alton and Debra went underground is still a mystery 15 years after they were arrested. Police blamed Coleman's "intense hatred of blacks," but longtime friends dismissed that reason as absurd. The pair's victims were mostly black because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Coleman stayed in traditionally black neighborhoods because they provided a place for him to hide.
"That sounds so crazy to me," said one Waukegan public official who knew Coleman since "he was in diapers."
"Why does he victimize blacks? Black neighborhoods are the logical place for him to go. If he went into a white community, they would have found him long ago."
A friend of the family said Coleman could not deal with his homosexual tendencies.
"He used to dress up like a woman a lot. It was well known that he had different habits than a normal male," the friend said.
Coleman is a classic "disorganized serial killer." He rarely stalked a particular victim, but instead lashed out at whomever was nearby. He used whatever tools he had handy to kill or incapacitate his victims and there did not appear to be any ritual to his violence.
What probably set him off was the realization that he no longer had anything to lose. Perhaps the indictment on the aggravated rape and murder charges which could have brought the death penalty were enough to finally push him over the brink to whatever madness prompts such violence.
While the pair was on the run, Coleman was indicted on murder charges in Wisconsin and a federal warrant was issued for his capture.
Regardless of the motivation, Coleman and Brown began their spree on June 5, 1984 when the pair rented an apartment in Gary, Ind. Coleman had been wanted by police since May 31 and Debra Brown had been interrogated about his disappearance on June 1.
The Spree Begins
The pair laid low for two weeks until June 18 when two young girls, Tamika Turks and her 9-year-old aunt disappeared on their way to a candy store. Later that day, the 9-year-old was found beaten and raped. Tamika was missing.
A day later, Tamika's badly ravaged body was found in a wooded area in Gary. She had been raped and killed by someone stomping on her chest.
The older girl was forced to watch as the pair killed Tamika Brown holding Tamika to the ground and covering her nose and mouth and Coleman jumping on her chest and face until her ribs fractured and punctured her vital organs. The older girl then was forced to have sex with both Brown and Coleman before being beaten about her head. To this day the young woman suffers severe headaches and screaming fits.
"She will get to screaming and crying like someone is hitting her on the back of the head," said Mary Hilliard, the child's mother. Her injuries left the family with $15,000 in medical bills, which were substantially, but not completely, covered by insurance.
LaVerne Turks, Tamika's mother, was forced to move to Minneapolis because the memories of Tamika in Gary, Indiana, were too painful.
"LaVerne's gone. Tamika's missing. My daughter is having these problems. Our family will never be the same," said Hilliard, who attempted suicide shortly after her granddaughter's death.
The same day Tamika's body was discovered, Donna Williams, 25, was reported missing by her parents. Her car was stolen, as well.
A week later, Williams's car was found abandoned in Detroit with a forged identification card featuring Brown's picture. Residents from the area said the car had been parked in the alley since June 19. Police in four states were now looking for the pair, working on the assumption that Donna Williams had been murdered, even though her body had not been found.
In the meantime, two days after Williams was reported missing, a Detroit woman was kidnapped by a man and woman whom she later identified as Coleman and Brown. She escaped while driving the pair to Toledo by purposefully ramming her car into oncoming traffic.
Coleman and Brown were able to survive by befriending good Samaritans and later turning on their friends, authorities said.
"We've come to the conclusion that Coleman and Brown are staying with people they meet," said FBI Special Agent John Anthony in Detroit. "They spend a day or two with the people, get a little money gambling with them and then assault and rob them and steal their car."
Detroit Crime Wave
While in Detroit, Coleman and Brown eluded police while instigating a small, but violent, crime wave. Warrants for their arrest were issued for the kidnapping and robbery of the 28-year-old Detroit woman who managed to escape the killers, a June 28, 1984 robbery and beating of an elderly Dearborn Heights couple and the June 30 robbery of two Detroit men. By the time the deadly duo left Detroit, police in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, as well as federal authorities, were on the lookout. Despite Coleman's disorganized pattern of murder, there were some similarities among the crimes in every case the cars stolen by Coleman and Brown were recovered within 12 hours. When authorities were not able to locate a 1975 Buick stolen by the pair after they beat and robbed a 55-year-old woman and her companion, they had good reason to suspect that Coleman and Brown had left the Motor City.
Sadly, even though the pair had fled to Toledo, the evidence of their crimes continued to surface. In an abandoned house near Wayne State University in Detroit, the badly decomposed body of Donna Williams was found on July 11. It was clear that she hadn't lived long after she arrived, as a hostage, in Detroit.
There will likely never be any closure - legal or psychological - for the family of Donna Williams. When authorities gathered to determine the best course of action against Coleman and Brown, the Williams case was not tried.
"We chose to go with the strongest cases against the two that would result in the death penalty," said Lake County, Indiana prosecutor Jack Crawford. "It appeared that Williams was killed in Michigan, which does not have the death penalty."
For Robert and Zenota Williams, Donna's parents, punishment is not foremost on their minds.
"I will always wonder what, exactly, happened," Zenota Williams told the Detroit Free Press in a retrospective on the spree three years later.
Three other homicides tied to the pair will also probably not ever be tried: the slaying of 77-year-old Eugene Scott of Indianapolis and the killings of Virginia Temple and her 10-year-old daughter in Toledo. Scott was suspected of being their last murder victim because his car was found in Evanston, Ill. where they were arrested.
From Toledo, the pair continued south, stopping long enough in Cincinnati to murder Marlene Waters, who was found bludgeoned to death in the basement of her home. Waters' husband was badly beaten in the attack and left for dead. Coleman and Brown stole the Waters' car and headed to Lexington, Ky., where they abandoned the car in a cornfield.
In nearby Williamsburg, the duo kidnapped Oline Carmical and drove to Dayton, Ohio leaving Carmical locked in the trunk of his car. An elderly Dayton couple was found beaten and gagged in their home after the fugitives stole their car. Another Dayton couple reported to police that Coleman and Brown robbed them.
The trip from Tamika Turks' murder to the crimes in Indianapolis took less than a month, with the pair committing felonies on the average of crime every other day.
In all, the murderous 53-day rampage from the time Coleman raped and murdered the 9-year-old in Kenosha, Wis., to the time they were arrested in Illinois -- resulted in a slew of felonies: eight homicides, as many as seven rapes, three kidnappings and 14 armed robberies.
Some time after the murders of the Temples and Scott, Coleman and Brown returned to the Waukegan area. Their case had inspired a great deal of notoriety across the country and Coleman had recently been named as a "special addition" the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. In becoming a special addition, Coleman joined such notable felons as H. Rap Brown and Martin Luther King's murderer, James Earl Ray.
Coleman's family aside, they had few friends left after their spree and it wasn't surprising that when an acquaintance of Coleman's saw the pair walking near Evanston, Ill., he would turn them in. Authorities had been watching Evanston closely because of Coleman's known associates there and the fact that the duo had rented an apartment in Evanston prior to fleeing to Gary. Knowing that there were few criminals as desperate as Coleman and Brown, authorities were cautious in making the arrest.
Once police pinpointed their location the pair was spotted by undercover officers in a local park state, local and federal authorities began to converge on the couple. Shortly before noon on July 20, 1984 Coleman and Brown were watching a pick-up basketball game from the bleachers at Mason Park on the west side of Evanston as officers began to approach.
Coolly, as if he hadn't a care in the world, Coleman began walking away as plainclothes and uniformed cops neared. Wearing a torn yellow shirt and sporting a short haircut unlike the jheri-curl 'do he wore in published photos, Coleman surrendered peacefully when confronted.
"You got the wrong man," he told arresting officers. He provided two aliases and Brown identified herself as "Denise Johnson." She was carrying a loaded revolver and Coleman had a long knife hidden in his boot, but neither went for their weapon.
"They looked like they did on TV," said an 11-year-old who witnessed the arrest. "The capture was quick and easy."
Although there were some holes in the authorities' investigation, it was clear that they had been expecting the two-person crime wave to return to Evanston. Neighbors in the area said they had heard for three weeks that Coleman and Brown would eventually turn up there. The mood of the neighbors was as jubilant as that of police, who clearly basked under the media spotlight.
"There was a community awareness about him," said one neighbor. "He wasn't going to be able to come in here and snatch anybody. We were waiting for him."
Residents of the Mason Park area told the media that Coleman looked tired and emaciated when arrested and they speculated that the lethal duo had "just run out of steam."
Law enforcement officials thought along similar lines with one officer wondering if they had unconsciously wanted to do so: Coleman had never worried about leaving fingerprints at his crime scenes, and FBI agents said he was so lackadaisical it was almost as if he was trying to leave a calling card.
Those same fingerprints would eventually do in Alton Coleman. Despite his protests that officials had the wrong man, Evanston police were able to positively identify the man arrested in Mason Park as the man who left fingerprints at crime scenes in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky. Fingerprints on file with the FBI conclusively proved that the suspects in custody were Coleman and Brown.
With Coleman and Brown in custody, the problem fell to state and federal officials to untangle the slew of accusations against the couple and to decide which cases to prosecute. It was clear from the outset that the most punitive states would have first shot at the pair. That meant capital crimes committed in Michigan and Wisconsin, which have no death penalty, would be tried last if at all.
"We want him first," said Lake County DA Fred Foreman. "I've been in court with this man before and I want to bring him back."
Brown and Coleman were separated by police and Debra, easily the most wanted woman in the country, was advised of her constitutional rights. She immediately invoked her right to remain silent and asked to speak to an attorney.
In the Evanston police station, the FBI agent who administered the Miranda warning continued to ask Brown questions about her identity things like her name, age, birth date, and address, according to court documents. An Evanston detective questioned Brown as well, seeking clues to an attack in his jurisdiction for which the pair was suspected.
When the time came to transport Brown to the federal lockup, she spoke with agents on the trip to Chicago. Arriving at the federal building, she was once again advised of her rights and she once again refused to sign a waiver. She did, however, agree to talk to officers as long as she could stop when she wanted to.
Over the next two and a half hours, Brown discussed the crime spree in detail, in effect confessing to many of the crimes committed during the brief, but violent odyssey across the upper Midwest. When she finished, she once again asked to speak with an attorney. No further inquiry was made until after Brown spoke to a lawyer.
During trial, Brown's attorney protested that her Fifth Amendment right the right against self-incrimination was violated because authorities continued to interrogate after she had asked for counsel. The trial court found that the Evanston detective did violate her rights and the evidence from his questioning was ruled inadmissible. However, the confession given to federal authorities in Chicago was used in the trial and with it conviction was easily obtained.
Brown was sentenced to die for the murder of Tamika Turks.
Later, Brown was sentenced to die for the Cincinnati murders, but she continued to be held on Indiana's death row. Coleman was convicted of the same murders and also sentenced to die. In January 1991 the governor of Ohio commuted Brown's death sentence, saying she was retarded and "dominated by" Coleman. She is now serving two life sentences in Ohio for her crimes there. However, Indiana is not finished with her.
It took almost seven years, but in August 1991 the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court had not erred by allowing the confession into evidence. The conviction and death sentence would stand. The appeals court found that despite her repeated attempts to speak to an attorney, the confession was separated by "space, time and subject matter" from her first request for counsel that it was proper. Brown willfully gave the confession, the court noted, after being advised of her rights.
Interestingly, it was Brown's conversations with authorities while she was being transported to federal custody that created the loophole which could result in her execution. She asked questions like "where am I going?" and "what am I charged with?"
Criminal defense attorneys fumed at the court's decision, with one saying to the Indianapolis Star that the Fifth Amendment was being "squeezed to death."
"If you ask anything, you create an opening the state can drive a truck through," said Daniel L. Toomey, who argued Brown's case before the Court of Appeals.
Today, Debra Brown, the only woman on Indiana's Death Row, is serving out her sentences in Ohio. Whether or not she will ever see the executioner in the Hoosier State remains up in the air.
Alton Coleman is on Indiana's death row, but he also won a small, but significant, court victory recently.
In August 2000, ruling in a Virginia capital murder case, the U.S. Supreme Court said a murder defendant is entitled to constitutionally adequate legal representation. Coleman's attorneys immediately filed for relief under the high court's ruling and the Court ordered the Indiana Supreme Court to reconsider Coleman's death sentence.
Coleman alleged that during the sentencing phase of his trial his counsel was inadequate and did not bring up mitigating factors that might have spared Coleman from a trip to the electric chair. Alton suffered from a troubled childhood, a personality disorder and brain dysfunction, attorneys said.
The Indiana high court had already upheld his conviction and sentence on direct appeal.
"Given these aggravating circumstances, even had his counsel presented the evidence of Coleman's impoverishment and abuse, we see little likelihood the jury recommendation or the trial judge's sentence would have been different," wrote the Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court.
Even if the state of Indiana spares Alton Coleman, there are any number of prosecutors who are still awaiting a crack at him. The chances of Coleman, or for that matter, Brown, ever seeing the outside of a prison cell are slim. If Indiana takes a pass on Coleman, then Ohio wants its turn, and if the Buckeye State spares his life, then it's on to Kentucky.
Alton Coleman was executed by lethal injection at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville at 10 a.m. Friday, April 26, 2002. He was 46 years old.
He spent his last days fighting tenaciously for his life, but appeals that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court were unsuccessful. Coleman claimed ineffective counsel and that the prohibition against cruel or unusual punishment would be violated by having his execution broadcast over closed-circuit television.
The spree killer also charged that his jury was racially biased.
Relatives of Coleman's victims in Illinois and Indiana were able to watch the death sentence being carried out via a secured television link, but no recording was made of the event.
Coleman was executed for the beating death of Marlene Walters, 44, of Norwood, Ohio on July 13, 1984. Harry Walters, the victim's husband, and two of the couple's sons-in-law observed the execution inside the Death House.
His execution, the third since Ohio reinstated the death penalty, was well-covered by media, with the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections reporting that 43 news outlets had applied for credentials, including TV stations, and newspapers in each state where Coleman and Debra Brown killed.
He ordered a huge last meal: filet mignon with sauteed mushrooms, fried chicken breasts, corn bread, biscuits and brown gravy, french fries, broccoli with cheese, salad with french dressing, onion rings, collard greens, sweet potato pie with whipped cream, butter pecan ice cream and a cherry Coke.
The unbelievable multi-state serial killings of Coleman and Brown
Last edited by Gary Dee : 12-28-2006 at 01:54 PM.
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