COLUMBIA, Ill. (AP) – Enrico Mirabelli and other relatives of Sheri Coleman remember reacting with numbed silence to the horrific news: Coleman and her two young sons found strangled in their beds at home, sinister graffiti spray-painted on the walls.
Now, nearly two years later, the family is bracing for the trial of Coleman’s husband, Christopher, who prosecutors accuse of wiping out his family in a scheme to advance an affair and protect his job with a televangelist whose operation had a no-divorce policy for employees. Also bracing are the family’s former neighbors in this southwest Illinois town, where the Coleman house stands vacant and lifeless, aside from a lone red tulip peeking up through the flower bed.
Jury selection begins Monday in the oft-delayed Monroe County case against Coleman, a former Marine accused of a crime that has transfixed much of the St. Louis metropolitan area.
Investigators believe Coleman, 34, spent months setting up the killings of his wife and their two boys, 11 and 9, to make it appear the work of an intruder who had stalked the family. They say Coleman authored and sent threatening letters to his own home and ultimately spray-painted the vulgar messages on the walls.
Coleman claimed he wasn’t home at the time of the crime, and police found the bodies after he called asking them to check on his family. In contesting the prosecution’s largely circumstantial case, his defense attorneys tried unsuccessfully to persuade a judge to exclude testimony by Sheri Coleman’s friends, who claimed the mother had sought to save her unraveling marriage but feared her husband.
Some of those acquaintances have testified – and could repeat at trial – that Coleman confided to them that her husband had been physically abusive and should be the suspect if anything happened to her.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Coleman, though that will be mainly symbolic. Gov. Pat Quinn last month abolished capital punishment in Illinois, and the Democrat pledged to commute a death sentence given to anyone before the ban takes effect July 1.
Coleman remains in jail without bond.
Mirabelli, a Chicago lawyer and cousin of Sheri Coleman, said he still finds the killings haunting and has waited patiently for jurors who’ll be chosen in nearby Perry County to take up the case. Testimony is expected to begin April 25.
“It’s hard to believe that almost two years have passed. It’s such a traumatic event, and time doesn’t dull the impact,” Mirabelli said. “You want the trial to get started because you have questions, and you hope the trial is going to provide answers.”
At the same time, he said, the trial would force “family members to have to relive what happened, and that’s not going to be comfortable.”
Authorities say that, at the time of the killings, Coleman was months into a sexual relationship with Florida girlfriend Tara Lintz, a former high school classmate of Sheri Coleman. In court filings, investigators say Lintz admitted to the relationship and said Coleman planned to be divorced by mid-June 2009, though by that time he already was accused in the killings. Lintz, despite her reluctance, has been ordered to testify at Coleman’s trial.
Coleman also admitted the relationship to investigators, the documents say.
Coleman told police his wife and children were asleep when he left the house on May 5, 2009, to work out at a Missouri gym about five miles away, but that he grew concerned when he could not reach them by telephone. The bodies were found after he called police.
Investigators have said the victims were strangled with a ligature, perhaps a cord. Police say they found orange twine fashioned into a noose near a Mississippi River bridge that would have been along Coleman’s route to the gym, and that it resembled cord tied around straw bales behind the Coleman home.
A forensic pathologist, Michael Baden, testified in a pretrial hearing that, based on the stiffening condition of the victims’ bodies when they were found, the killings took place before Coleman left for the gym. But Coleman’s attorneys sought to discredit his testimony.
In the months before the killings, according to court documents, Coleman said he received anonymous threats involving his work as a bodyguard with Joyce Meyer Ministries, a Missouri-based evangelical group. The last allegedly warned, “THIS IS MY LAST WARNING! YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN!”
Prosecutors alleged in another court filing that a Purdue University cyber-forensics professor had determined that two threatening emails sent to the Coleman family came from Coleman’s own laptop computer, and that the sender had signed in using Coleman’s personal identification.
Meyer, the televangelist, was allowed to testify by deposition last week in a hearing that was closed to the public despite objections by two area newspapers. Coleman’s job with her ministry included a six-figure salary and overseas travel.
Since the killings, the white-sided, blue-shuttered house at 2854 Robert Drive has been unoccupied.
Some in the neighborhood feel it should be knocked down and replaced by a memorial to Coleman and her children. But neighbor Harold Rushing would much rather see the home – in the hands of a bank since last May – disagrees.
“As tragic as this all was, I don’t think it’ll solve anything by tearing it down,” said Rushing, who still remembers the two “energetic” Coleman boys romping in his back yard with his dogs. “Somebody will live there someday, but I don’t think that will happen until this case is over with.”
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press