Head of security for religious figure convicted of murdering wife, two sons
04/26/2018 4:59 pm PDT
A crime so cruel and so salacious in nature that it's difficult to even wrap your head around. A story that involves a successful husband and wife, a world-famous preacher, sex and lies.
In a suburban Illinois neighborhood, Christopher and Sheri Coleman raised their family -- it is also where Sheri and their two boys were murdered.
Violent crime is something that happens across the river in St. Louis, not in the quiet suburb of Columbia, Illinois. That's one reason Christopher Coleman decided to raise his family there.
Church had always been at the core of Coleman's family. His parents Connie and Ron are co-pastors of the Grace Church in Chester, Illinois.
In the Marines, Chris Coleman was a dog-handler. And it was at a K-9 training seminar where he met the love of his life: Sheri Weiss was an M.P. in the U.S. Air Force. Chris and Sheri drove up to Chicago one weekend and got married. There was a child already on the way, according to Chris's father Ron. That was Garrett, and his little brother Gavin was not far behind.
Chris had an important job that paid more than $100,000 a year as a bodyguard for world-famous Christian televangelist Joyce Meyer. Joyce is an old friend of the Colemans and had known Chris since he was a little boy.
Meyer is well respected around the world. But there are some people who may not like televangelists, and who turn their criticisms into condemnation.
Chris Coleman claimed he too was the target of hate, telling relatives and law enforcement that he got chilling emails like one that reads: "Tell Joyce to stop preaching the [----] or Chris's family will die. I will kill them all as they sleep."
And when one of those threats was allegedly stuffed into his mailbox outside the Coleman house, everyone began to worry.
Chris's mother Connie says Sheri was extra frightened, because that letter was delivered while Chris was traveling with Joyce Meyer in Hawaii. When he returned, he filed a police report.
Justin Barlow lived across the street. And what better neighbor to do the job: he's a detective-sergeant for the Columbia Police. He positioned the camera to focus on the Colemans' mailbox.
Columbia cops also put on extra patrols, but they never saw anyone lurking around. The camera did capture images of Chris playing catch with Garrett and Gavin. Twelve hours after that family outing, the boys and their mother were dead.
It was 6:43 a.m. on May 5, 2009 when a call came into Detective Barlow. Chris was at the gym and said he couldn't reach Sheri by phone. When Barlow entered the house for a welfare check, he saw a harrowing scene.
"All three were strangled in their beds," said Hayes. "They remained in their beds. Sheri Coleman had three ligature marks that indicated that she fought, and fought hard, and also had a black eye. There was spray-painted walls that I looked at through a window that said 'Punished.' There were other messages to the effect that 'You knew this was coming.'
"This was a monster. Somebody who would spray-paint the walls, spray-paint one of the boys, strangle the kids while they slept -- it was a monster," said KTVI Reporter Chris Hayes.
The small police department calls in reinforcements from the state police and the FBI. The brutal and macabre nature of the crime had cops wondering, Were they looking for a possible serial killer?
The brutal strangulation murders of Sheri Coleman and her two little boys turns the house on the lake into a major crime scene.
Columbia, Illinois cops call for assistance from nearby police departments. Investigators wonder whether a possible fanatic, believed to have sent death threats to Chris Coleman, is the cold-blooded killer. Miraculously, the main target, Chris, had escaped the carnage.
One email said "Tell Chris his family is dead. They don't deserve to live with someone that protects the [----] Joyce." In another profanity-laced email: "Deny your God publically or else! No more oppurtunities." Notice both publicly and opportunities are misspelled.
And in the final chilling letter sent before the triple homicide: "THIS IS MY LAST WARNING! YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN."
But why would someone make death threats against an unknown bodyguard? It was a question that puzzled detectives as they searched for digital crumbs that could link to the murder.
"They had so many detectives on this case and they had a computer forensic expert who was tearing apart his laptop, who found that these letters were generated on his work laptop using his work log-in," said KTVI Reporter Chris Hayes.
Detectives traced the emails to Chris's own IP address. That means the emailed threats were sent to Chris from inside his own house.
Chris Coleman tells detectives when he left his house to go to the gym across the river, everyone was alive and well. Surveillance video shows him pulling out of the driveway at 5:43 a.m.
But there's one huge hole in his story: His family was already dead when he left.
Famed pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City, reviewed the autopsy reports and concluded: "The three Colemans were killed before 3 a.m., a few hours before Mr. Coleman left the home at 5:43 a.m."
"The camera pointed at the front of his house showed nothing the morning of the murders," said Hayes. "And then Chris says his family is alive when he leaves at 5:45 a.m., yet officers who are touching the bodies say that they're cold and stiff. Many hours before Chris left Dr. Baden says they died."
Chris says when Sheri didn't answer the phone he asked his neighbor, off-duty police sergeant Justin Barlow, to check on her. Barlow called for backup. The surveillance video shows him walking into the Coleman residence at 6:51 a.m. That's when he discovers the bodies and the spray-painted messages on the walls. Chris is seen pulling into his driveway at 6:56 a.m., 15 seconds before the first officers arrive.
The other thing police said that they were very suspicious about is when they told Chris that his wife and two children were murdered, he never really asked how or what happened.
"The evidence indicates Chris did not make any attempt to go up those stairs," Chris Hayes tells Crime Watch Daily. "Officers envisioned that they would have to restrain this man from going and seeing his dead family. They did not. He did not try to go upstairs. He did not ask 'How were they killed?' He sat somewhere on the front yard with his head in his hands."
"By the time I got up there he was sitting outside on the driveway and then they took him into an ambulance, I went in and sat with him," said Ron Coleman. "It was a horrible morning."
"Somebody noticed scratches on his arm," said Hayes. "He looked at the scratches on his arm and started punching the gurney in the ambulance."
Even with that strange behavior, and growing police suspicions, Chris's father Ron says there's no way his son was the killer.
"That takes a very sick person to be able to strangle your family. I mean you've got to really have problems, and Chris didn't have those problems," said Ron.
But were there problems Chris's parents didn't know about?
"The Colemans looked like a loving family from photographs, but friends gave an entirely different picture," said Hayes. "Friends said that they were close to divorce, that Sheri was unhappy."
Cybercrime investigators discover texts Sheri had sent to a friend.
"Sheri told her 'If something happens to me, Chris did it,'" said Hayes.
In those texts Sheri wrote: "Chris wants a divorce"; "He said me and my kids are in the way of his job."
Marriage troubles aren't enough to make a murder charge stick. Then cops discover someone named "Tara."
As Chris Coleman is at the gravesite burying his family, he texts the mysterious Tara. Did this grieving husband and father kill to cover up a double life?
Cops investigating the horrific triple homicide of Sheri Coleman and her two young sons find a jaw-dropping digital clue in Chris Coleman's computer. It's an X-rated video.
Chris Coleman is supposed to be guarding his boss, televangelist Joyce Meyer, in Hawaii, not letting his guard down with a naked woman in his hotel room in Hawaii. The woman is "Tara," who is Sheri's best friend from high school. Tara is a cocktail waitress at a poker room in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Tara and Chris exchanged naughty selfies and videos so provocative we can't show you everything.
"On his computer, Chris Coleman had details about Tara [----]: her measurement, her ring size, and the name of a baby that they would have. The name was going to be 'Zoe,'" said KTVI Reporter Chris Hayes. "Chris said he was friends, while detectives in Florida found out that it was an affair with a promise to marry."
But he's already married with children. How would the son of a preacher man pull that one off? Chris's dad Pastor Ron Coleman has this explanation:
"Tara was just meeting a need that Sheri at the time wasn't taking care of," said Ron Coleman. "I mean, every man has got 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."
So are you saying that Sheri was a bad wife?
"Just at that short brief time, she had stepped back from doing her job as a wife," said Ron.
Chris doesn't know it yet, but the cops know all about Tara. And they know with 100-percent certainty that those email threats came from his own computer.
Only hours after the bodies were found, detectives bring Chris Coleman into the interrogation room.
"Last night did you guys get into any kind of argument or anything?"
"No, it was awesome, she fell asleep in my arms on the couch. If I had just been there this morning."
"All those police officers that you saw, they were all scurrying about the neighborhood. Why would somebody tell us that they thought that there was an argument at that house last night?"
"I have no idea. I've been a hundred-percent honest, 'cause there wasn't one."
"OK, but, did anything else happen that you're not telling me? Chris, I'm getting the sense that you're not being 100-percent truthful. Did you go to bed at the same time?"
"Yeah, brushed teeth and I did all that stuff and I went around to check to make sure everything was locked, like I always do."
When detectives are out of the room, Chris gets a text from his dad.
"My dad just texted me asking if I needed a lawyer. Do I need to get one for any reason?"
"Well, right now we're just kind of going over everything with you as far as what you did the night before."
"Had you seen anyone else outside of your wife?"
"What do you mean?"
"In a romantic way? Um, no, um, Tara in Florida, I talked to her a ton lately. Just a friend. Someone to talk to."
Cops ask Chris how Sheri seemed on the morning he left for the gym. Remember, the pathologist concluded that she was already dead.
"She seemed fine when you left? Nothing that you could tell?"
"No. She was fine."
"When you left the house this morning, was your wife alive?"
"OK. What would you say if I told you that I don't think she was?"
"Uh, I don't know, I don't know what to tell you, I mean I think she was."
Chris says he "thinks" his wife was alive when he left the house that morning. There was nothing on surveillance video that shows anyone snuck into the home in the middle of the night.
"Listen man, she wasn't alive when, when you left."
"She was alive."
"No she wasn't."
"She was, she was laying right beside me."
"Listen to me, we can go back and forth with this all day long, but the physical evidence doesn't lie. She was, she was not alive when you left this morning. The children weren't alive when you left this morning."
"Yes they were."
"No. Come on Chris."
"We've gotta get over this."
"Were you involved in her death?"
"OK. Was someone you know involved in her death?"
"I don't know!"
"Did you know, did you talk to anybody about arranging her death?"
"No, absolutely not."
Detectives now circle back to Tara.
"Were you having an affair with anybody?"
"OK, you said you had a good close friendship. But were you actually, um, doing anything that that you felt wouldn't be approved by your wife?"
"Some of the conversations, probably."
All that circumstantial evidence is beginning to point to Chris as the man who might have had the motive to strangle his wife and two boys. Then the cops drop a bombshell.
"The St. Petersburg homicide unit is talking to Tara right now, and she's showing us the pictures that you sent her. You got Tara down there in St. Petersburg spilling her guts to a room full of homicide detectives that do nothing but homicides."
It's becoming obvious to detectives that the deranged strangler who killed Sheri Coleman and her two sons is sitting right in front of them.
"So you're saying some madman sat in the shadows and waited and watched for you to leave, and then entered that house, is that what you're trying to tell me?"
"That's the only thing I can assume."
They know that he's the one who misspelled the word "opportunities" in one of those emails.
"A detective had found that Chris Coleman commonly misspelled the word 'opportunities' in his regular writing, and in one of the threat letters, 'opportunity' is misspelled the same way," said KTVI Reporter Chris Hayes.
And they know that there's no serial killer on the loose. Chris Coleman is the only one who spray-painted those Manson Family-style messages on the walls of the murder house.
Cops found a receipt dated three months earlier, when Chris bought the can of apple-red paint. But his father Ron Coleman says that doesn't mean Chris is the killer.
The spray-paint on the walls matched the spray-paint bottle that your son admits to have purchased.
"Well, yeah, he purchased it because him and Garrett was making a bullseye for them to shoot their paint guns at, and whoever did it grabbed the can," said Ron.
So if Chris is the killer, what would be his motive for murder?
"I know you guys went to Hawaii together. I know that she used your credit card, all right, to sit there and pay her bills last month."
Tara is Chris's secret mistress -- not so secret anymore to detectives.
"What do you think she's going to tell those guys down there in St. Petersburg about you and this relationship, all right?"
Columbia, Illinois cops asked St. Petersburg Police Major Shannon Halstead and her team to interview Tara just hours after the triple homicide.
"When I went to visit Tara at her condo, she answered the door and she was visibly upset. I knew right away, I had a gut instinct, that she was gonna somehow be an important piece of this investigation," Major Halstead tells Crime Watch Daily.
"How long have you been in a relationship with Chris?"
"Since late November, early December."
"Where all have you guys been together?"
"Uh, Phoenix and Hawaii, Maui."
"What would he tell his wife when he was gone?"
"He would have just told, that he was working."
"So Sheri was not aware of the affair that you and him were having?"
"No. I know she suspected, but."
In the first of three interviews with police, Tara reveals that she had become possessive of her married lover.
"He always would take pictures when he's going to sleep to prove that, you know, he wasn't sleeping with her or anything."
"See now, to us he tried to paint that it was a rosy, perfect marriage."
"No. They never kissed, never hugged."
"But you had even registered on some wedding sites and stuff, looked at some rings."
"I looked at stuff. But, you know, with his job he, you know, can't be living with anybody unless he's married."
"Had you guys ever talked about having children together?"
What is your opinion of Chris's mistress, and what she said how they were planning to get married and she had a promise ring?
"She bought the promise ring," said Ron Coleman, Chris's father. "There was no seriousness to that. Chris was actually trying to get away from it when his wife and him was getting along better."
He was trying to break it off with the mistress?
"Yes, yes, and that wasn't working," said Ron.
But Chris won't be able to break away from Tara's blow-by-blow of their secret affair. She now voluntarily goes downtown to St. Petersburg Police Headquarters for a more formal interview.
"Did he send you some type of message shortly after all this happened, after he had come home and discovered all this?"
"He texted me."
"What was the message from there?"
"From then? Um, 'Call you when I can, I'm all right.'"
Tara then reveals Chris texted her only moments ago. Apparently he was right in the middle of his own interrogation.
"I got a text. I know, you know that. He texted me, I just thought I'd tell, you know."
"He just texted, that's fine. What'd he want now?"
"Just that he was thinking about me and the wake was at 3 tomorrow."
Columbia, Illinois detectives soon arrive in St. Petersburg, Florida. And in a third interview, they surprise Tara with information about where some of her sexy selfies ended up.
"Since going through your phone, your computer, and obviously we've done the same with Chris's and even his dad's. And there happens to be a picture of you, rather compromising, on his father's computer."
"OK. That's pretty interesting. I don't know anything about that."
Tara is clearly nervous, crossing and uncrossing her legs.
"Did Chris tell you anything about these, or that he was planning anything like this?"
"Did you have any knowledge of these homicides?"
"Like it or not, I'm forcing, your name is Tara 'Motive' [----]."
But Tara had absolutely no involvement in the triple murders. She's only a witness.
"Chris Coleman was in a pressure cooker," said Major Shannon Halstead. "He was getting pressure from Sheri Coleman. He was getting pressure from the ministry. And then ultimately I think Tara was giving him ultimatums."
Back in Illinois, Chris Coleman isn't admitting any guilt. So cops throw a Hail Mary.
"We've got to have a 'Come to Jesus' type of meeting. And unless you really forgive yourself, and you're sorry for what you did, there's no way that you're going to go to Heaven and see your kids and your family again when you die. You're gonna go straight to Hell."
Chris isn't going to Hell just yet. But he's on the way to the closest thing: county jail.
Chris Coleman wore a bulletproof vest as he entered court for his triple murder trial.
Prosecutors say he strangled his wife Sheri and their two young sons while they were asleep. And at the small town courthouse, the star witness arrives, the bodyguard's mistress, Tara.
"And the mistress wore a promise ring on the stand," said reporter Chris Hayes.
Prosecutors introduce the steamy selfies and the X-rated videos to show Chris had the motive to kill so he could marry Tara.
Prosecutors allege Chris Coleman killed his family because he feared he would lose his job as televangelist Joyce Meyer's bodyguard if he got a divorce.
But then they played pre-taped testimony from Meyer.
"We have many people that work for us who have been divorced, and a person is not necessarily do they lose their job because they get a divorce, it wouldn't have been the divorce so much as the immorality," Meyer says in the testimony.
The state says Chris emailed the threats from his own computer. He claims some mystery man hacked it. But Meyer discounted that too, saying she never saw anyone else use his computer.
"The jury came back and said 'Guilty, guilty, guilty,'" said Chris Hayes.
And when word hits the streets, a large group of people outside the courthouse were cheering, despite the fact it was raining.
The judge sentenced Chris Coleman to three life terms without parole.
We wanted to hear Chris Coleman's side of the story, so we spoke to him in an exclusive prison interview.
If you can, describe to me what your relationship with your wife was at the time of the murders.
"Oh, OK, yeah, actually my relationship with my wife at the time of the murders was actually good. You know, it hurts me to say that I did, like so many other men do, men fall into a different relationship, and made some wrong choices with all of that."
Tara stated and she told the jury that you, on the day of the murders, were going to serve your wife with divorce papers.
"Correct. That is what she stated and you know I have to be honest, that I was, you know, deceiving her and was in the process of moving away from her, Tara, as far as in a relationship."
Let's talk about the specific threats against you, because the police ultimately determined that those threatening emails that were being sent to you came from your very own laptop. How do you answer that? It makes it seem like you did it yourself.
"I had two laptops. I of course didn't travel with both of them. The Dell laptop was used by my wife, it was left at the office, it was left in my car. Then it would make sense that there would be thus the only opportunity that somebody had access to my laptop."
Coleman claims his own surveillance video he set up at his house showed a mystery man delivering one of those threats into his mailbox.
"You could see a person on the camera with a hooded sweatshirt putting something in the mailbox, but you couldn't identify him, who it was because of the hooded sweatshirt."
And where is that video?
"I don't, I don't have it. I came back home, and from Hawaii, and asked Sheri about it, and we looked at it and I seen the same thing she did, and I did not have a means at the time to download it to a DVR and record it."
But Chris, again, it's very hard to believe that the head of security for an international figure doesn't know how to download some surveillance video that could be crucial to someone threatening their family.
"Oh, I'm not saying I didn't know how to do it, but that's not the issue. I was still waiting for products and some other part of the system to arrive."
Famed pathologist Dr. Michael Baden concluded that Sheri and the kids were killed before 3 a.m., when Chris Coleman would have been at home. But unbelievably, Chris says Baden got the science all wrong.
You left the house before 6 that morning, so how could all of this taken place without you not knowing about it?
"Ha ha. As a body has deceased, it's at a body's normal temperature, and then as it cools down to room temperature, the rate that it cools slows down, and so you find that window and then you work backwards. If you actually use the lowest temperature that was recorded, it actually comes back to 5:47 in the morning as the time of the deceased."
That's like you're suggesting that's like we've got a two-minute window.
"No, because nothing of that is what you call precise or exact."
Now it's time to ask the key question:
Did you kill your wife and your two boys because you wanted a life with your mistress?
"No, absolutely not, I am 100-percent innocent."
If you didn't do it, then who did it?
"I believe, and I have no doubt whatsoever, it is the person that matches the unknown fingerprints and the unknown footprints and the unknown DNA at the crime scene."
Chris, why would someone want to kill your family but not kill you?
"I don't, I've mulled that over in my head a lot."
If you truly were innocent, why didn't you put on a bigger and stronger defense?
"My understanding was we were going to have a stronger defense."
And you didn't.
"I know I didn't. Absolutely not."
Chris Coleman's attorney just this month requested a new trial. Coleman maintains his innocence, as do his parents.
An interesting footnote on this story: A juror in Coleman's trial told reporters the first vote in deliberations was 7 to 5 in favor of "not guilty." However, the jury was later swayed by what they believed to be lies about his statements to police.
Chris Coleman says he and his parents will continue to fight to get him a new trial.