Born Elton Coleman in November 1955, the middle of five children from a prostitute in the Waukegan ghetto, the future terror of the Midwest was raised by his maternal grandmother. Dubbed "Pissy" by his playmates, for a childhood tendency to wet his pants, Coleman grew up running with street gangs, cultivating an unsavory reputation. A black who preferred blacks as victims, his numerous arrests were concentrated in the area of sex crimes, a propensity which led him on a lethal crime spree and, eventually, to the death house.
In January 1974, Coleman was arrested for the abduction, rape, and robbery of an elderly woman in Waukegan. A bargained guilty plea to simple robbery earned him a sentence of two to six years in Joliet prison, where he was later accused of molesting male inmates. A prison psychiatric profile dubbed Coleman a "pansexual, willing to have intercourse with any object, women, men, children, whatever." Free on parole, he was charged with rape again in 1976 and 1980, winning acquittal each time when a jury believed that his victims consented to sex. His record reveals a total of four rape charges, two counts of deviate sexual assault, five of unlawful restraint, and one count for indecent liberties with a child. The latter victim was a niece of Coleman's; an angry mother filed the charge, but later changed her mind in court. The judge, dismayed, branded her new story "completely implausible." "I think," he declared, "the woman as she stands here today is terrified by this man."
Briefly married, Coleman was abandoned by his teenaged wife, who sought police protection when she went to claim her various belongings from their home. She "just couldn't take it no more," and years later, in court, she would offer descriptions of Coleman's obsession with bondage, young girls, and perverse, violent sex.
In February 1980, Coleman was accused of raping a Waukegan girl at knife point, and while never indicted, he was also suspect in the rape and strangling of Gina Frazier, age 15, in 1982. Reduction of his bail in the Waukegan case put Coleman on the street in time to launch a rampage which would place him on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list.
Coleman's young accomplice in the weeks to come was Debra Denise Brown, age 21. The fifth of eleven children from a respectable home, she had been engaged to marry another man when she met Coleman and fell into a semblance of love. Breaking off her engagement, she became Coleman's live-in lover -- and, later, his confederate in crime. On May 29, 1984, Vernita Wheat, age nine, convinced her mother to let her accompany "Robert Knight" and his girlfriend to Waukegan, fifteen miles from their home in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The purpose of the trip was to retrieve a stereo, described by Vernita and "Knight" as a belated Mother's Day present. When the three had not returned the next morning, officers were notified. A photo lineup readily identified "Robert Knight" as Alton Coleman; his companion had been Debra Brown.
With Coleman's sinister record in mind, a federal grand jury indicted both suspects on kidnapping charges, and the FBI went to work. On June 18, Tamika Turks, age seven, and her nine-year-old aunt were walking near their home in Gary, Indiana, when Coleman and Brown pulled in to the curb, asking directions. Money was offered in exchange for help, and both girls climbed into the car. Confronted with a knife, they were driven to a wooded area twelve miles away, where Coleman raped and choked Tamika Turks, while Debra held her down. Tamika's aunt was also raped and beaten, but she managed to escape. Selection of familiar photographs by the survivor added further charges to the growing list, and still the fugitives remained elusive. The strangled body of Vernita Wheat was found on June 19, in an abandoned building in downtown Waukegan. That same afternoon, police in Gary received a missing-person report on Donna Williams, 25, a local beauty operator. She had last been seen en route to pick up a "nice young couple from Boston," who had agreed to visit her church. None of them showed for the service, but witnesses identified photos of Coleman and Brown as recent visitors to the salon where Williams worked. On June 27, the missing woman's car was located in Detroit, but Coleman and Brown had already surfaced in Motor City, with a vengeance.
On June 24, the couple accosted a Detroit woman outside her home, brandishing knives and demanding that she drive them to Ohio. The intended victim saved herself by deliberately crashing into a parked truck, fleeing on foot while the killers took off in her damaged vehicle.
On June 28, Coleman and Brown invaded the home of Palmer and Maggie Jones, in Dearborn Heights, surprising the middle-aged couple at breakfast. The latest victims were beaten with a club, robbed of $86, and left bleeding on the floor while the fugitives fled in their car. Two days later, a pair of Detroit men offered the couple a ride. When Coleman drew a gun, the driver grappled with him briefly and escaped. His passenger, an invalid, was tossed out on the street, amazingly unharmed. Verified sightings of Coleman and Brown were recorded every day between July 2 and 7. On July 2, a middle-aged Detroit couple were attacked in their home, beaten with a pipe and subjected to Coleman's incoherent harangue on how blacks were forcing him to murder other members of his race. The victims' stolen car was dropped off in Toledo, where another couple was assaulted, handcuffed in their home, relieved of transportation. A Toledo bartender reportedly exchanged shots with Coleman, after the fugitives tried to abduct one of the bartender's patrons.
On July 7, Coleman and Brown spent the night with Virginia Temple, 30, and her ten-year-old daughter, Rochelle, in Toledo. Before they left next morning, both were strangled, the girl raped, their bodies stuffed into a crawlspace beneath the looted home.
Four days later, on July 11, the remains of Donna Williams were discovered in Detroit. She had been strangled with a pair of pantyhose. That afternoon, the FBI announced that Coleman had been elevated to a most unusual eleventh place on its "Most Wanted" list, an option used when vicious crimes in progress mark a suspect as particularly dangerous.
And the body-count kept rising. In Cincinnati, Tonnie Storey, age 15, had last been seen with individuals resembling Brown and Coleman; four days later, when her corpse was found, she had been stabbed repeatedly, with two shots in the head. On July 13, Marlene Walters, 44, became the first white victim of the crime spree, bludgeoned in her home at Norwood, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb. Harry Walters, gravely injured, managed to describe the killers of his wife as two young blacks who had arrived on ten-speed bikes and talked their way inside the house, expressing interest in the purchase of a camper. When they fled, they had been driving Harry's car.
On July 16, Coleman and his sidekick abducted Oline Carmichal, a Lexington college professor, driving him back to Dayton, Ohio, where they left him unharmed, locked in the trunk of his car. Rescued on July 17, Carmichal described his kidnappers as two black men and a woman. The mystery was cleared up shortly, with the arrest of Lexington native Thomas Harris, who explained that he was "kind of forced" to help the fugitives. Harris claimed he had talked Coleman and Brown out of killing their latest prisoner. A half hour after Carmichal was freed, an elderly minister and his wife were found, battered but breathing, in their Dayton home. Investigation showed that Coleman and Brown, using pseudonyms, had met the couple a week earlier, spending two nights in their home and parting on amiable terms when the minister drove them to Cincinnati "for a prayer meeting." On July 17, the couple had returned, beating their former hosts severely and making off with the minister's station wagon.
The latest stolen vehicle was dumped the next day in Indianapolis, beside a car wash, where owner Eugene Scott, 77, and his car were reported missing. Scott was found by searchers hours later, in a ditch near Zionsville; he had been stabbed repeatedly, shot four times in the head.
The long trail reached its end in Evanston, Illinois, on July 20, 1984. An anonymous tip from a "friend" of the fugitives alerted police to their presence in the neighborhood, and they were soon spotted at a local park. Five officers surrounded the couple, relieving Coleman of two bloody knives and lifting an unloaded .38 from Brown's purse. That afternoon, Eugene Scott's missing car was found in Evanston, five blocks from where the suspects were arrested. Debra Brown had left her fingerprints inside.
In Chicago, a federal magistrate set bond in the Wheat case at $25 million cash. "This nation has been under a siege," he declared. "This nation has been under a reign of terror not knowing when the next victim was going to be taken. I am going to make sure no other victim will be subject to this man." Another bond of $20 million cash was set for Debra Brown.
The magistrate need not have worried. Tried separately for the murders of Marlene Walters and Tonnie Storey, in Cincinnati, both were convicted and sentenced to death in each case. In Indiana, Coleman picked up another death sentence for the murder of Tamika Turks; l00 years was added for the rape and the attempted murder of her aunt. Debra Brown was also convicted in that case, hoping for a lighter sentence when she slipped the judge a note that read: "I am a more kind and understanding and lovable person than people think I am." Unmoved, the judge pronounced matching sentences of death, on the murder charge, and consecutive 40-year terms on charges of kidnapping and child-molesting. Illinois supplied the coup de grace, sentencing Coleman to die for the kidnap and murder of Vernita Wheat.
"I'm dead already," Coleman told the court before pronouncement of his sentence in Waukegan. "You are talking to a dead man." Satisfied that he was right, authorities declined to prosecute the couple in their four outstanding homicides.