'Your worst nightmare is about to happen': Normal night for Coleman family turns into early-morning horror

News-DemocratApril 27, 2011 

They were a typical family that last night.

Jurors on Tuesday saw Chris Coleman detailing the family's activities of May 4, 2009, in a videotaped statement to police after his family was murdered. Sheri Coleman cooked dinner: chicken and pasta. Chris Coleman played catch in the yard with Garett. They took the boys out for snow cones.

Chris Coleman went to the gym and came home to put the boys to bed. They brushed their teeth and said their prayers.

He watched a movie downstairs with Sheri. She fell asleep in his arms.

Chris Coleman was also texting his girlfriend that night, while he was at the gym and even as he was in the same room with his wife, according to Monroe County State's Attorney Kris Reitz.

And there was the black eye. Sheri Coleman's left eye appeared swollen in an autopsy photo, Dr. Michael Baden told jurors at Coleman's murder trial Tuesday. It came from trauma some time before she died.

"There would be no reason to punch a dead person," Baden said.

The 31-year-old mother was the first to be strangled with a cord. It would have taken four to five minutes for her brain to die, then her heart would stop beating, Baden testified.

Then 9-year-old Gavin was killed. Then 11-year-old Garett.

Baden also testified that the family was killed "many hours" before police crawled in through a basement window and found red spray-painted graffiti and the bodies of the mother and sons at 7 a.m. May 5, 2009, in the house at 2954 Robert Drive in Columbia. Baden is a pathologist and star of HBO's "Autopsy" series. He was brought in as an expert witness on the case.

He based his estimate of the times of death on photos of gravity pooling the victims' blood, the stiffness found in their bodies and their body temperatures. He said they died at 3 a.m. or before, but definitely before 5 a.m.

Defendant Chris Coleman told police he left his house at 5:43 a.m. that day to work out at Gold's Gym in South St. Louis. He called police at 6:50 a.m., distressed because he could not reach his wife on the phone.

Reitz asked: Could Sheri Coleman and her sons have been strangled in the hour and a half while Christopher Coleman was gone to the gym?

"No. It wasn't even a close call," Baden said.

Baden said when Sheri Coleman's nude body was rolled over at 11 a.m. for crime scene photos, there was intense blood pooling, known as livor mortis. Her body appeared stiff in the photo, demonstrating rigor mortis.

"That was the most significant factor to me. That didn't happen in six or seven hours. It had to have occurred over a period of more than eight hours," Baden testified.

Coroners took the temperature of Sheri Coleman's liver at 11 a.m. and recorded 90.4 degrees. Then it was taken again at the funeral home at 1:17 p.m. and was recorded as 87.4 degrees.

Defense attorney Jim Stern said that was a rate of 1.5 degrees an hour, which he calculated put Sheri Coleman's time of death after 5:30 a.m., while her husband was at the gym.

Baden said Stern got it wrong, because the body does not start losing heat for three to four hours after death.

On Monday, local pathologist Dr. Raj Nanduri said she was initially resistant to giving a time of death, but her best guess was the three died between 3 and 5 a.m.

Baden said Nanduri only had her autopsy to go by. He said the photos showing livor and rigor mortis were very significant factors in determining when the family was killed. He stated he has been at thousands of homicide scenes during his work as a medical examiner, while Nanduri, a forensic pathologist, wouldn't go to the crime scene, but would perform the autopsy to determine cause of death -- which he agreed was ligature strangulation.

Stern asked about the "time of death" quarrel with Nanduri.

"I don't have a quarrel with her findings. Doctors who do autopsies for coroners rely on their autopsy findings. You have to go to the scene to determine a time of death, make measurements, look at the position of the body when it was found," Baden said.

Major Case Squad Commander Jeff Connor contacted Baden to establish time of death for the Coleman family days into the investigation. Within hours of hearing Baden's opinion, Reitz issued murder charges against Chris Coleman.

Baden is famous for his involvement in the O.J. Simpson trial, John Belushi's death and as a consultant reinvestigating the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Day two of the triple murder trial began with three people standing outside to see Chris Coleman enter the courthouse.

Then there were two older women hoping to get a glimpse of Baden. They missed him.

Fewer media trucks were outside, yet one man complained on his cell phone that he couldn't get in as a spectator because media members filled most of the seats in the courtroom.

At noon, Coleman's family hurried from the courtroom and went outside. They got to the sidewalk in time to pass a police cruiser containing Chris Coleman, who sat in the back watching his family before he was taken to his lunch.

Circuit Judge Milton Wharton spent his lunch break from the murder trial performing a wedding at the courthouse.

Former Columbia Police Detective Justin Barlow was the other prosecution witnesses Tuesday. He testified about threatening letters found in Coleman's mailbox, including one left on April 27 that stated "your worst nightmare is about to happen."

Barlow lived across the street from the Colemans. He testified that he got a man to install a video surveillance system of the Colemans' mailbox after Chris Coleman said he was getting threats related to working as a bodyguard for televangelist Joyce Meyer. Barlow's camera showed Chris Coleman leaving the house for his morning workout the day of the murders.

The threats were against Coleman and his family if Meyer did not stop preaching. Prosecutors said Coleman sent himself the threats to create an alibi for the murders.

They also said the murders were motivated by Coleman's desire to keep his six-figure job with Joyce Meyer Ministries -- a job he would lose if he divorced -- and to free himself to be with his mistress, his wife's high-school friend Tara Lintz.

Lintz, who worked as a Florida dog track waitress, is expected to testify later this week.

Jurors began on Tuesday watching a six-hour videotaped interrogation of Chris Coleman by Barlow and Illinois State Police Sgt. Dave Bivens. During the first 30 minutes of the video, Chris Coleman is texting, then sobbing.

The rest of the video will be shown to jurors today.

Barlow also testified on Tuesday afternoon about finding the bodies of Sheri Coleman and her sons, including Chris Coleman's arrival at the house 13 minutes after he made the distress call to Barlow from the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.

"As we were trying to wrap our heads around what was happening, I heard Christopher Coleman downstairs saying, 'What's going on? What's going on?'" Barlow said.

He went down and told his neighbor, "They didn't make it."

Editors' note: Due to the nature of this case, story comments have been removed.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570.