Triple slayings unsettle rural Ill. county as prosecutors point finger at husband, father

Slayings of mom, sons unsettle rural Ill. county

WATERLOO, Ill. — Many residents of this largely rural yet fast-growing St. Louis suburb have made up their minds about a former Marine accused of strangling his wife and their two boys in their beds less than a month ago.

“Murderer!” some jeered as Christopher Coleman arrived shackled and sullen in a sheriff’s car for his recent arraignment at the Monroe County courthouse. Most of the couple of dozen people gathered outside applauded police for arresting him as the car disappeared into the sally port.

That reaction still upsets seven-term Sheriff Daniel Kelley. But he’s convinced Coleman, whose alleged crimes were splashed across the national news, can get a fair trial in a county that hasn’t had a murder since 2003.

“We’re not a lynching community,” said Kelley, 61, who’s been sheriff since 1982. “The average person is willing to see what the courts produce and are not jumping to conclusions, wishing evil on this person.”

After Coleman’s May 20 arraignment on three counts of first-degree murder, his attorney, William Margulis, said he’d likely push to have the trial moved to another county. He refused to comment further, but it’s not difficult to guess why he might try.

The spotlight on the killings has been intense and virtually unavoidable around St. Louis and its Illinois suburbs since the bodies of 31-year-old Sheri Coleman and her two sons, ages 11 and 9, were found May 5 in their Columbia home, about 10 miles from here.

Investigators believe Coleman carefully planned the slayings, sending threatening notes to himself in the months beforehand, then spray-painting vulgar messages on the home’s walls as the stalker-killer’s supposed calling card.

Coleman acted alone, they allege, strangling his family with a ligature, perhaps a cord, then claiming they were killed by someone else during the hour or so he claimed he was working out at a gym in nearby Missouri. Police found the bodies after Coleman called them to check the family’s well-being after he could not reach them by phone.

Investigators also found a noose fashioned out of orange twine — resembling cord tied around straw bales behind the family’s home — near a Mississippi River bridge along what would have been Coleman’s route to the gym, according to court documents.

Police have not offered a motive for the slayings. Search warrant documents released last Friday, however, allege that Christopher Coleman was having a sexual relationship since last November with a Florida woman who was a close friend of his wife, and that he planned to get a divorce by June 14 so he could marry his lover next year.

The woman allegedly told investigators that Coleman assured her by e-mail after the May 5 slayings that he was not the killer and had an alibi, according to court documents.

Waterloo resident Brenda Rey said the steady dribble of details about “a very sad” and “horrendous” case hasn’t worked in Coleman’s favor around this town of about 9,000, which the city’s Web site says is “known for its friendly demeanor and its historic German ancestry.”

“It sure seems like he is guilty,” the 50-year-old said at her embroidery and garment-printing business. “They keep finding new evidence that sure makes him not look so good.”

Even so, she believes she could decide the case impartially if asked to serve on a jury, saying the courthouse jeerers shouldn’t reflect on all the county’s 30,000 residents.

“It’s not like we’re just a bunch of hicks,” Rey said. “I think there’s enough intelligent people that would wait and see all the evidence and make their decision from there.”

Sheriff Kelley thinks likewise, offering as proof the last murder trial here, when jurors in August 2005 acquitted James Wiley in the shooting death of his pregnant wife, whose body was found in a creek bed in a Waterloo park two years earlier.

Monroe County State’s Attorney Kris Reitz, who also is prosecuting Coleman, had argued that Wiley killed 21-year-old Twila Wiley in a jealous rage after discovering she had an affair. But the defense said the woman was depressed and shot herself in the head.

Reitz didn’t comment then, and he’s not publicly discussing the Coleman case, including whether he’ll pursue the death penalty.

Kelley believes the publicity around the case will wane well before any trial. But for now, resident Ruth Grimm says, the killings have been the talk of the town, and many locals already have made up their minds.

“It normally doesn’t happen in this area, so we’re all kind of shocked by it,” said Grimm, 45, who works at J&J Septic Tank and Sewer Cleaning. When it comes to Coleman, “I kind of said all along he was the one who was involved in it.”

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