COLUMBIA, Ill. – Police in Columbia, Illinois walked into a house of horrors on the morning of May 5, 2009. Thirty-one-year-old Sheri Coleman and her sons, 11-year-old Garret and 9-year-old Gavin, had been strangled to death in their beds. It would take two years and thousands of hours of police work before they would have justice.
Sheri Weiss met Chris Coleman at a K-9 training seminar at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in May 1997. Weiss, 21, was an MP in the Air Force; Coleman, a Marine, was 22. They dated just a few months before Weiss was pregnant with Garret and the two married. Gavin was born about two years later.
Chris Coleman grew up the son of Ron and Connie Coleman, evangelical pastors in Monroe County, Illinois.
Joyce Meyer, a televangelist and head of an international Christian ministry who knew the Colemans, hired Chris to work on her security team. It wasn’t long before Chris became Joyce’s personal bodyguard, earning a salary of $100,000.
Chris, Sheri, and their boys lived in a two-story home in the 2800 block of Robert Drive in Columbia, Illinois, a short drive away from Chris’ parents in Chester. Friends and neighbors described Chris and Sheri as a wonderful couple and, with Gavin and Garret, a beautiful family.
The warning letters:
But in mid-Nov. 2008, a threatening email filled with obscenities is sent to Chris Coleman, Joyce Meyer, and her son. In early Jan. 2009, Coleman reached out to a neighbor who worked for the Columbia Police Department, Det. Sgt. Justin Barlow. He told Barlow and local authorities about a threatening letter that had been left in his mailbox. Police agreed to patrol the neighborhood and Barlow installed a security camera pointed at the Colemans’ mailbox. Neither the camera nor the extra patrols yielded any results.
Over this same period of time, Sheri would tell friends that Chris’ demeanor had changed. She suspected an affair. She also confided to a friend that “If something happens to me, Chris did it.”
In late April, Chris Coleman contacted local police again about another note with threats against his family.
On the morning of May 5, 2009, Chris Coleman left his home in the 2800 block of Robert Drive to go work out at a gym in south St. Louis County. He called Sheri’s cellphone and left a message. He texted her again while at the gym and called once more when he was on his way home.
Chris called Barlow and the Columbia Police Department and requested they check on Sheri and the boys.
Barlow met a Columbia police officer in front of the Coleman residence. They too discovered a basement window had been opened. The pair entered the basement and made their way through the house. During the search, they saw spray-paint on the walls saying, in big red letters, “I am always watching,” “U have paid,” and “punished.”
Police found the bodies of Sheri, Garett, and Gavin in their beds. They had ligature marks on their necks, indicating they had been strangled with a cord or rope.
While police were searching the house, Chris had pulled into the driveway just before 7 a.m. Another officer had arrived and kept Chris outside the residence. Barlow and the other Columbia officer leave the home and inform Chris his family is dead.
Chris is taken to Columbia Police headquarters and interviewed. Investigators suspected Chris could be involved in his family’s deaths. Digital evidence recovered from Sheri’s phone and Chris’ laptop pointed to marital problems and pointed suspicion over an affair with a woman named Tara Lintz.
As detectives grilled Chris, they learned Lintz was Sheri’s friend and lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. Chris told authorities he knew Lintz and the two were friends themselves. At this same time, officers in Florida were questioning Lintz about the nature of her relationship with Chris Coleman.
A picture emerged of a man engaging in an affair with his wife’s friend. The two had rendezvous in Arizona and Hawaii while Chris was traveling for work, and exchanged numerous texts, pictures, and videos of a sexual nature.
Coleman’s family held funerals for Sheri, Gavin, and Garett on May 9 at Evergreen Cemetery in Chester. Sheri’s family had the bodies brought to a funeral home in a Chicago suburb days later for a visitation. Chris Coleman did not attend that service.
All the while, detectives with the Major Case Squad were piecing together a case against Chris. Computer and data specialists inspected his laptop; handwriting analysts looked at the threatening emails, notes, and spraypainted messages in the home; and forensic examiners poured over police paperwork and the autopsy reports on the victims.
Evidence was also recovered from a stretch of Interstate 255 that authorities searched near the Jefferson Barracks Bridge – the same route Coleman would typically take going to and from the gym. However, cellphone tracking would later show Chris took a longer route home on the morning of May 5.
Investigators had very good reason to suspect Chris Coleman killed Sheri and their sons. In an interview with reporters days later, the head of the Major Case Squad, Major Jeff Connor, said he believed he knew who killed Sheri, Gavin, and Garett.
After a conference call with famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, in which the doctor said Sheri and her kids were almost certainly murdered before Chris left the house that morning, police believed they had their man.
Chris Coleman was arrested on May 19, 2009, at his parents’ home in Chester, Illinois, and charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Police said Coleman spray-painted his walls to make it look like someone else killed his family.
After lengthy delays and pushes to move the proceedings elsewhere, the trial began on April 25, 2011, in Waterloo, Illinois. Jurors were selected from Perry County to avoid the possibility of a tainted jury.
Prosecutors attempted to paint a picture of a man desperate to get out of a marriage and run off with his mistress, by pinning his family’s murders on a mystery assailant.
Dr. Baden testified on behalf of the prosecution about the time of death of Sheri and her boys – they were likely killed hours before Chris Coleman left his home that morning. A computer forensic analyst told jurors the threatening emails sent to Chris in the months prior to the murders were actually sent from Coleman’s own laptop using his login information.
Law enforcement from the Columbia Police Department, including the Colemans’ neighbor Justin Barlow, testified about the immediate aftermath of the murders and subsequent investigation into Chris Coleman. A Columbia detective said she found a receipt for red spraypaint in Coleman’s house and eventually traced it to a hardware store.
Joyce Meyer made a recorded testimony, which was played before the court. She had not known of the affair but intimated that Coleman might have been fired had she known about his infidelity. However, she also said her ministry employed people who’ve been divorced.
Prosecutors also called Tara Lintz to the stand. Lintz, who was ordered to travel from Florida to St. Louis to testify, told jurors she and Chris met and began their affair in Nov. 2008. She said Chris planned on leaving his wife for her and had given Lintz a promise ring during their affair. Lintz testified that Chris said he was going to serve Sheri divorce papers on May 4 or 5.
The defense maintained that someone had hacked Coleman’s computer to send the threatening messages and snuck into the family’s home on the morning of May 5, 2009, to commit the murders.
Chris Coleman did not take the stand during the 9-day trial.
After 15 hours of deliberation over two days, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts on May 5, 2011 – the two-year anniversary of the murders.
Juror Kim Ferrari told FOX 2 after the conviction the jury believed Chris Coleman was guilty but four of them needed more proof before delivering a verdict. They found it, almost by accident, on photographs that had been sitting in the jury room since the deliberations began.
“I thought we were going to be a hung jury but then the more that we kept going, the more it made me see we just had to keep after it, and that we would find the information we needed, and then we did eventually find it,” she said.
What they found were photographs of Chris Coleman and Tara Lintz on the back of a foam board, with Oct. 2008 dates printed on them, which proved to the jurors their affair began earlier than they had previously been told. Remember: Coleman had long asserted that he and Lintz began their affair in Nov. 2008.
“When we found that bit of evidence everybody was like, ‘Okay, we’re done,’” Ferrari said.
Ferarri said she was willing to sentence Coleman to death and believes the jury would have given him the death penalty, had they been given the chance.
Days after the conviction, Coleman waived his right to be sentenced by the jury and put his fate in the hands of Judge Milton Wharton, who presided over the court case. Wharton sentenced Coleman to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“It was a surprise,” Ferarri said. “I am very surprised that (Coleman) did that but I think that he knew that we were going to sentence him to the death penalty.”
Asked if she was disappointed the judge did not impose a death sentence, Ferarri said no.
“Because even though I say I am okay with the death penalty, this way he is going to have to sit in prison for the rest of his life and think about what he did every day for the rest of his life,” she said.
Such a sentence would have been symbolic anyway. Former Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation in March 2011 outlawing the death penalty.
Coleman was sent to Pontiac Correctional Center in Illinois, located between Bloomington and Chicago. In June 2011, a judge denied Coleman’s request for a retrial. Coleman was transferred to Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wisconsin that August for safety reasons.
Changing grave sites:
In Dec. 2012, the bodies of Sheri, Gavin, and Garett were exhumed from their graves at Evergreen Cemetery in Chester and relocated to Sheri’s hometown just outside Chicago.
Chris Coleman’s family fought a protracted legal battle to keep the bodies in Chester, but a judge ultimately decided that a convicted murderer should not be able to keep control of his victims. Chris’ own future gravesite would have been right next to his murdered wife and sons.
Coleman’s parents, who still live in the southern Illinois town, said they had an equal right to be near their grandkids. The gravestone marking Sheri and her boys remained at Evergreen Cemetery because it had been paid for by Ron and Connie Coleman.
Coleman and his attorneys attempted to appeal his prison term yet again, but in Jan. 2015, a judge upheld the conviction and life sentence.
In an April 2018 interview with ‘Crime Watch Daily,’ Chris Coleman maintained his innocence and said he was set up.
“Actually, what never came out in court is I had two laptops and I traveled with one and I left the other one either at home or at the office,” he said during a phone interview. “They were never both on me at the same time and the one that was connected to the threats was the one that I would leave either at home or at work.”
On the same program, Pastor Ron Coleman insisted on his son’s innocence, adding that an affair would not have been a motive for the murders.
“Tara was just meeting a need at the time that Sheri wasn’t taking care of,” he said.
Ron continued: “Well, I mean, every man has his desires and every man has to be respected. It’s built into every man, if your wife doesn’t respect you, then you’re going to find respect someplace else.”
When asked if he thought Sheri was being a bad wife, Ron Coleman responded, “Just that at that short brief time she stepped back from doing her job as a wife.”
Also in April, attorneys filed a request for a new trial on Coleman’s behalf based on a claim of improper evidence. Specifically, those extra photos jurors discovered that led them to a conviction. A judge granted an evidentiary hearing in March 2019 to move the proceedings forward but in July 2020, that same judge denied the appeal for a new trial.
And what of the Colemans’ home on Robert Drive? According to Realtor.com, the home has been sold twice since the murders. It is currently off the market.
Prior reporting from FOX 2’s Chris Hayes was used in this story.