Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Alton Coleman finally faces justice


18 years after a six-state killing spree, now it's his time to die

By By Howard Wilkinson, hwilkinson@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Friday morning in the Death House at Lucasville's Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, if all goes as planned, an injection of sodium thiopental will send 46-year-old Alton Coleman into a deep sleep.

        Then, an injection of pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxer, will follow, paralyzing his diaphragm and lungs.

[photo] Alton Coleman and Debra Brown in 1985.
(AP file photo)
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        A final injection of potassium chloride will stop his heart and he will be gone.

        It will be, if the drugs do their jobs, a quiet death of unawareness, quite unlike the pain and suffering of his victims as they died.

        Eight people were slain — four of them children — in a rampage of murder, rape and kidnapping that crisscrossed six states in eight weeks of 1984. Two victims were from Hamilton County.

        Mr. Coleman received four death penalty convictions. He is the only death row convict in the country who has been sentenced to death in three states.

        “He is a brutal, unfeeling person and he needs to die,” said Tom Williams, a retired Norwood police officer.

        Eighteen years ago, Mr. Williams was captain of detectives when the young drifter from Waukegan, Ill., and his girlfriend, Debra Denise Brown, went on the killing spree that included a stop in Norwood.

        When Mr. Coleman is executed, it will be for the July 13, 1984, murder of 44-year-old Marlene Walters. She was bludgeoned to death by Mr. Coleman and Ms. Brown in her home on quiet, tree-shaded Floral Avenue in Norwood.

Marlene Walters
Marlene Walters
        Her husband, Harry Walters, was beaten into a coma that left him with permanent brain damage.

        In his prison cell at Mansfield, Mr. Coleman awaits word on whether the U.S. Supreme Court will stay his execution. On Tuesday, a Franklin County judge in Columbus refused to delay Friday's execution, despite his lawyers' arguments that a closed-circuit transmission would turn his death into a “spectator sport.”

        Now, his lawyers are pinning their hopes on a claim of racial prejudice in jury selection at his 1985 trial, filed with the U.S. Supreme Court. It is a claim the Ohio Supreme Court has rejected.

        “He is nervous about this, obviously,” said David Stebbins of Columbus, one of Mr. Coleman's attorneys. “Who wouldn't be?”
       

Falling prey

        Mr. Coleman and Ms. Brown were found guilty of another brutal crime in Hamilton County — the death of 15-year-old Tonnie Storey of Over-the-Rhine two days before the Walters murder.

        Her badly decomposed body was found in an abandoned Mount Auburn apartment building eight days after her disappearance. The child had been beaten and strangled.

Coleman
Coleman in 2002
brown
Brown in 1990
        A muddy footprint believed to belong to Mr. Coleman was found in the basement. Ms. Brown's fingerprints were found on a Michael Jackson button the girl wore on her clothing.

        Both were convicted of the Storey murder and sentenced to death, but Ms. Brown's death sentence was commuted by Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste as he left office in January 1991. She is serving a life sentence at the women's prison in Marysville.

        But the deaths of Mrs. Walters and Tonnie Storey are but one of many violent crimes attributed to the man whose defenders say suffered neglect and abuse as a child growing up in the Waukegan projects.

        He also was a man who, police say, was smart and glib enough to talk his way into gaining the trust and even friendship of his victims before sending them off to bloody deaths.

        “The Walters were very trusting, very caring people,” said Mr. Williams, who went to high school with both Norwood victims. “That's why they would let these two in their home.”
       

Weapons: Candlestick, vise grip

        The Walters family's nightmare began in the early afternoon on July 13, 1984, when a young black man and black woman, riding bicycles, pulled up to their home and asked about buying a camper that was parked in the Walterses' yard.

        Mrs. Walters served the pair lemonade while Mr. Walters went upstairs to find the title to the camper.

        While Mr. Walters was gone, Mr. Coleman beat the mother of three grown children to death with a candlestick, striking her about two dozen times. Her face and scalp were ripped with a vise grip.

        When Mr. Walters returned, he, too, was struck with the candlestick. A sliver of bone rammed into his brain, causing permanent damage.

        What happened to the Walterses still moves the Rev. Howard M. “Bud” Allison, the family's pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Norwood.

        “I can't help but think about Marlene Walters at that moment, what she suffered,” said the Rev. Mr. Allison, now pastor of a church in Lima, Ohio.

        “She was sort of a frightened person, a nervous type, someone who was more within herself,” he said. “I can't imagine the horror she went through.”

        The Walterses were left for dead. They were found in the basement later that day by their daughter Sherri.

        Mr. Coleman and Ms. Brown stole the family's 1983 Plymouth Valiant. Several days later, it was found near Lexington. The pair had abandoned the car when they stole the car of Cumberland College professor Oline Carmical, stuffed him in the trunk and drove him to Dayton, Ohio, where he was found alive after the pair fled.

        On July 19, the pair was arrested by police in Evanston, Ill., when police spotted a car owned by 79-year-old Eugene Scott of Indianapolis, who had been murdered the day before.

        Mr. Williams remembers going to Chicago with Hamilton County prosecutors and Cincinnati police detectives to negotiate for the first crack at Mr. Coleman and Ms. Brown for the Storey and Walters murders.

        “The U.S. attorney walked outside after the meeting,” Mr. Williams said. “The TV cameras were everywhere: and he said we had the best case.

        “And we did.”
       

Cries for justice

        The Walters family has declined interviews since Mr. Coleman's execution was scheduled.

        But last week in Columbus, Mr. Walters testified before the Ohio Adult Parole Authority at Mr. Coleman's clemency hearing. Mr. Walters decried the fact that it has been nearly 17 years since Mr. Coleman's conviction and he is still alive.

        “I am told that the scales of justice are blind,” Mr. Walters said. “I know she must also be deaf, too, because the legal system has not yet heard the cries for justice.”

        In a family statement signed by Mr. Walters, his son, his two daughters and their grandchildren, the family said the loss of Marlene Walters “impacts our lives every single day.”

        “Any consideration that he should not pay with his life diminishes the lives he took,” the statement said.

        Mr. Coleman's lawyers, Dale Baich of Arizona and Mr. Stebbins, argued that Mr. Coleman should be spared because of his troubled childhood, including organic brain dysfunction caused by his mother's drug use before his birth and growing up with an abusive mother and grandmother.

        “The question we must ask ourselves is do we want to kill people who are brain-damaged?” Mr. Baich said.

        The parole board denied Mr. Coleman's request for clemency.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen was a young assistant prosecutor in Preble County at the time of the Coleman murder spree. He said he has not seen any “solid evidence” that Mr. Coleman led the troubled childhood his lawyers have portrayed.

        “Psychologists and psychiatrists tend to take this kind of stuff as gospel when a criminal tells them he was abused,” Mr. Allen said. “I don't know that I buy it.

        “I think this guy is the poster boy for capital punishment,” he said. “If anybody deserves it, it's him.”
       

Summer of death

        If Mr. Coleman is executed Friday, people throughout the Midwest will be watching.

        Police say eight deaths in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan were the product of Mr. Coleman's rampage through the Midwest in the summer of 1984.

        Four times, he and Ms. Brown were convicted and sentenced to death in murders committed on their six-state crime spree.

        The only capital murder that Mr. Coleman committed without the help of Ms. Brown was his first: The death of 9-year-old Vernita Wheat of Kenosha, Wis.

        The then-28-year-old drifter turned up in Kenosha, using the name “Robert Knight,” where he befriended Juanita Wheat, mother of Vernita and a 5-year-old son.

        On May 29, Mr. Coleman offered to buy a stereo for the girl, and his mother gave permission to take her to a store.

        On June 19, the little girl's badly decomposed body was found in an abandoned building in Waukegan, Ill., Mr. Coleman's hometown. She was strangled with cable TV wire.

        “What he did to that little girl still makes me sick when I think about it,” said Marc Hansen, a former Waukegan police officer who investigated the Vernita Wheat case. “If you could kill him twice, I'd be all in favor of it.”
       



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