At 6:34 a.m. May 5, 2009, Detective Justin Barlow of the Columbia, Ill., Police Department answered his cell phone to hear neighbor Chris Coleman say he had repeatedly called his wife Sheri but she failed to answer. Sheri and their sons Garett, 11, and Gavin, 9, were usually up by now. Could Barlow check on Chris’s family?
Barlow knew that Chris, who worked as head of security for Joyce Meyer Ministries, had received threats through email and letters warning that he and his family would be harmed unless he quit working for Meyer. Police increased patrols in the neighborhood when informed of these threats. Barlow, who lived across from the Colemans, had put a camera in his own home, trained on the Coleman house.
Barlow called the station. Officers were dispatched to the Coleman house.
Barlow rang the doorbell. No one answered.
Sergeant Jason Donjon joined Barlow. He walked to the back, where he found a basement window open. There were no footprints on the dewy grass.
Donjon shouted, “Columbia PD!” Walking in, he and Barlow saw hateful spray painted messages on the walls. One read, “U Have Paid,” another, “Punished.”
Vehicles arrived — one belonged to Officer Steve Patton; the other to Chris. Patton intercepted Chris before he could enter: ”Don’t go inside the house, Chris.”
Officers found Sheri, Garett, and Gavin strangled to death.
Son of a Preacher Man Receives Threats
The son of a minister, Chris learned of Joyce Meyer through his father. Originally hired to train a guard dog for Joyce, Chris quickly rose to security head.
The Coleman family appeared close. Chris and Sheri made an attractive couple: he muscular and friendly, she petite and bubbly. Michael W. Cuneo writes in One Last Kiss, “When Chris was home, he seemed an exemplary father. He’d take the boys out for treats, watch sports with them on TV, and play catch with them in the driveway. . . . And every single evening that he was home, he’d take Garett and Gavin upstairs to their bedrooms and say prayers with them. Then he’d tuck them into bed and kiss them goodnight.”
However, since November 2008, Chris had been having an affair with cocktail waitress Tara Lintz. Tara wanted marriage.
Joyce Meyer disapproved of divorce, especially among high-ranking employees. Should Chris divorce, he might be demoted or even fired.
On November 14, 2008, Joyce Meyer received an email from the account firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris also received this email. It warned, “Tell Joyce to stop preaching the bullshit or Chris’s family will die.” Minutes later, Chris received another threatening email from the same account.
In the following days and weeks, more threatening emails were sent to Joyce and Chris. Chris alerted the Columbia Police Department, which provided extra patrols in his neighborhood.
On January 2, 2009, Chris called police and said he had found a threatening letter in his home mailbox. Columbia Police Chief Joe Edwards responded by ordering patrols to keep an even closer watch on the Coleman residence.
Tara told Chris he must leave Sheri by May 4, 2009.
On April 27, 2009, Chris informed Officer Shawn Westfall that he’d received another threatening letter. Officer Westfall discussed it with Detective — and Coleman neighbor — Justin Barlow. Barlow installed a camera in his home and pointed it at Coleman’s.
For several years, Garett and Gavin had slept over on May 4 at the home of friend Brandon Riegerix. This was a combined celebration of Garett’s April 30 birthday and Brandon’s May 5 birthday. However, on the evening of May 4, 2009 a dejected Garett told Brandon’s mother, “My dad said we can’t do it. We can’t sleep over. Tonight’s not a good night.”
While Sheri started dinner and the boys played, Tara phoned Chris. Had he served Sheri with divorce papers? This was May 4, 2009 — the deadline.
Chris lied that papers had been drawn up but typos prevented him from serving them to Sheri. He said his attorney was having them re-typed and he would serve them to Sheri the next day.
Immediately Suspected and Thoroughly Investigated
After viewing the horror, Patton and Barlow returned downstairs where they tried to be gentle as they broke the news to Chris. He wept but officers thought the crying seemed forced.
Out of Chris’s hearing range, Patton said, “You want to know your chief suspect. That’s him right there, Chris Coleman.”
Barlow agreed as did Donjon.
At the station, Barlow and Detective Dave Bivens interviewed Chris.
When Barlow asked Chris to recount that morning, Chris said he awakened at 5:30 a.m. and soon left for the gym. He text-messaged Sheri from the gym and tried calling while driving home. He recalled, “She didn’t respond so that’s when I called you.”
The cops left the room when each received a text message from Major Jeff Connor. They learned about Tara and medical evidence indicating victims’ times of death.
After the cops returned, Bivens asked, “Have you been seeing someone other than you wife?”
“No,” Chris answered. Then he admitted that he often “talked” with a woman named Tara.
Later, Bivens asked, “When you left the house this morning, was your wife alive?”
Chris said she was. Bivens told Chris of physical evidence indicating she and the children were all dead by 5:30 a.m. that morning when Chris left the house.
Chris insisted they were alive.
Investigators reviewed film taken by Barlow’s camera — 68 minutes went by between the time Chris pulled out of his driveway at 5:43 a.m. and the time Barlow arrived at 6:51 a.m. During that time, no one went in or out the front door.
The absence of a trail on the dewy grass in the back made that avenue of entry unlikely.
Medical personnel found that hair consistent with Sheri’s was on Gavin’s left arm and near Garett’s head. They theorized that Sheri was strangled first and then the boys. All were strangled with a cord that was never found.
Investigators examining emailed threats found that the word ”opportunities” had been misspelled “oppurtunities.” Detective Ken Wojtowicz discovered that Chris made identical misspellings in known writings. Wojtowicz subpoenaed Google for information about the “destroychris” account. Google revealed the Internet protocol address on which it had originated – and Wojtowicz found that IP address on Chris’s laptop. No one but Chris could have done sent those emails unless that person had physically handled Chris’s laptop and used his password.
Chris had created the account on November 14, 2008 indicating that he may have been planning to kill his family six months before doing it.
Famous pathologist Dr. Michael Baden was asked to review relevant materials. He concluded it was impossible for the victims to have died after Chris left for the gym at 5:43 a.m. Baden’s opinion clinched it for State’s Attorney Kris Reitz who issued a warrant for Chris’s arrest.
Chris pleaded not guilty. The court ordered him held without bond.
The investigation continued. Chemical analysis showed that the spray paint at the Coleman house was manufactured by Rust-Oleum and was a color called “Apple Red.” Officer Karla Heine combed through Chris’s credit card statements. She found a purchase for an “Apple Red” can of Rust-Oleum spray paint at a hardware store.
Trial for Family Slaughter
Reitz filed notice on August 14, 2009, that he would seek the death penalty against Chris. The attorneys then handling Chris’s case were not certified to defend death penalty cases in Illinois. That September, Judge Milton Wharton appointed John O’Gara and James Stern – two attorneys who were certified – to defend Chris. An attorney already working on the case, William Margulis, became certified soon afterward.
The trial began on April 25, 2011. Officers and medical personnel testified to the horror at the Coleman residence. Pathologist Dr. Raj Nanduri testified the victims died between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on May 5, 2009. Dr. Baden testified that they were dead before 5:00 a.m.
Officer Barlow testified to putting a surveillance camera in his home. The tape recorded the morning of May 5 was played in court. The jury could see that no intruder entered the front of the house between the time Chris left and police arrived.
The interview Barlow and Bivens conducted with Chris was played, as was a videotaped deposition from Joyce Meyer, who said employees could lose their jobs or be demoted for divorcing.
Forensic scientist Michael Brown testified that no DNA of anyone outside the immediate family was found on the bodies.
Detective Wojtowicz testified that the threatening emails had been sent from Chris’s own laptop. Purdue University Computer Forensics Professor Marcus Rogers backed Wojtowicz’s testimony.
Witnesses established that the spray paint used in the messages was the Apple Red of the Rust-Oleum company, and Detective Karla Heine testified that Chris had purchased it with a credit card at a hardware store on February 9, 2009.
The defense called handwriting and forensic linguistic experts who testified that there were no significant similarities between Chris’s known writings and either the threats or spray-painted messages.
Chris did not testify.
Summing up for the defense, Jim Stern derided the circumstantial nature of the prosecution case and asserted there was no physical evidence irrefutably pointing to Chris. He accused police of failing to adequately investigate other possible suspects.
The jury convicted Chris of three counts of first-degree murder.
Chris waived his right to have the jury decide the sentence.
“He felt his own children die in his own hands,” Reitz said in arguing for Chris’s execution. “He’s not like us. He doesn’t value life the same way we do.”
O’Gara implored that life would give Chris “the possibility of some sort of redemption.”
Judge Wharton observed that “dying an old man in a cell” was a “most potent retribution” and sentenced Chris to life without the possibility of parole. If sentenced to death, Coleman’s fate would likely have been the same — Illinois governor Pat Quinn vowed in March to commute all death sentences given before the state’s execution ban kicked in on July 1, 2011.
Chris is incarcerated at the Pontiac Correctional Center. He maintains his innocence as is appealing his case.
Sources on following page.