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Coleman: Debra, you're a little afraid, aren't you?
Brown: Yes.
Coleman: Bear with me, Debra. You know this is rough.
Coleman while cross-examining Brown at his own trial

Alton Coleman and Debra Denise Brown were a couple of spree killers who, in June 1984, embarked on an interstate string of heinous crimes across the Midwestern U.S. They were caught a month later, and were each sentenced to death as well as several years of imprisonment. Coleman was executed in April 2002, while Brown's two death sentences were commuted in 1989 and 1991.


Alton Coleman[]

Alton Coleman

Alton Coleman.

Coleman was born in 1955 in Waukegan, Illinois, the third of five siblings. His mother, a prostitute who held three jobs, threw him in a garbage can when he was an infant, but he was retrieved by his grandmother, who lived in the same house as her daughter. According to Robert Evans, a minister who knew him from birth, Alton was raised in a bad environment marked by rejection, drug, prostitution, and sexual abuse. He was reportedly involved in group sex and bestiality with both his mother and grandmother, the latter of whom also made him kill and dismember animals as part of voodoo practices. Among his peers, he was usually teased and called "pissy" because he regularly wet his pants. He turned to delinquency early in his life, joined a local street gang, and eventually dropped out of school in ninth grade. Coleman never held more than an occasional odd job.

On December 27, 1973, at eighteen, Coleman committed his first known sexual offense: he, along with an accomplice, abducted fifty-four-year-old Eleanor MacIntire at gunpoint, raped her, and stole her money and car. Through plea negotiations, Coleman was only convicted of armed robbery, and spent time at Joliet Penitentiary. Paroled out, in late 1976 he was again put on trial for raping seventeen-year-old Sherri Patterson, but acquitted when he managed to convince the jury that the act was consensual. While in pre-trial detention at Lake County Jail, he was charged with sexually assaulting three fellow male prisoners, but was only convicted of battery.

In 1980, he was again acquitted on charges of raping 22-year-old Dorothy Hawkins, a member of the U.S. Navy. In 1981, he was involved in the sexual assault of an underage girl, and may have himself raped a fourteen-year-old friend of the latter. Anyway, the case against him was dismissed for lack of probable cause. In 1982, he was a suspect in the rape-murder of a fifteen-year-old girl. In July 1983, he was charged with twice molesting his own eight-year-old niece, Melinda Snow, by Snow's mother, and Alton's half-sister, Terry Coleman. Again, the case was dismissed, this time because of insufficient evidence. On February 28, 1984, in North Chicago, Coleman raped at knifepoint fourteen-year-old Chalandra Thompson, whose mother, Dorothea, he had approached two days before. He was arrested for this crime and arraigned on May 30, shortly before embarking on a crime spree with his girlfriend, Debra Brown.

On May 29, going by the alias "Robert Knight", he had similarly approached Juanita Wheat in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and abducted her daughter, nine-year-old Vernita. The latter was possibly raped and strangled by him in an abandoned building in Waukegan, during the early morning hours of the day of his court appearance, May 30. On May 31, Coleman befriended one Robert Carpenter, spent the night at his home, and, on June 1, borrowed his car. He never returned. Vernita's badly decomposed body was found on June 19, 1984: one day after the beginning of the Coleman and Brown's crime spree.

Debra Brown[]

Debra Brown

Debra Brown.

Brown was born in 1962 in Waukegan, one of eleven siblings. As opposed to Coleman, she was from a stable background, had no prior criminal record, and, when she first met Alton in 1983, was engaged to another man. Eventually, she decided to leave his boyfriend and family to move in with Coleman and provide homecare to the latter's grandmother.

1984 Crime Spree[]

Indiana and Michigan[]

As soon as FBI agents investigating the kidnapping of Vernita Wheat realized Coleman had crossed state lines with the little girl, a federal warrant for kidnapping was issued out on him (another one, this time for murder, was issued after the discovery of Vernita's body). Coleman, on his part, went into hiding shortly after appearing in court for the Chalandra Thompson rape, and moved to Indiana along with Brown.

On June 18, in Gary, the couple approached seven-year-old Tamika Turks and nine-year-old Annie Hilliard as they were running an errand. With a ruse, the two were brought to a secluded wooded area and tied up. When Tamika started crying, she was brutally stomped by Coleman, carried away, and left for dead. Annie was then forced to perform oral sex on both Coleman and Brown, and raped. When the two heard Tamika moaning from the woods, they went to her and strangled her with a belt. They attempted to do the same thing with Annie, but she miraculously survived and was found by a passerby.

On June 19, Coleman and Brown, posing as a couple ("Phil" and "Pam") from Boston, befriended Donna Williams, 25. That evening, Williams was reported missing, last seen leaving her church to pick up her new friends. On June 26, Donna's car was found in Detroit, Michigan, containing Coleman's fingerprints and a fake ID belonging to Brown. The badly decomposed body of Williams was eventually found on July 11, inside an abandoned building near the place where the car was found. She had been strangled, while it could not be determined whether she had been also sexually assaulted or not.

On June 24, the duo kidnapped a 28-year-old Detroit woman at knifepoint in front of her home, and demanded to be driven to Ohio. The hostage intentionally crashed her car into a parked truck and ran away. Four days later, on June 28, Coleman and Brown invaded the residence of Palmer and Marge Jones, 62 and 59, in Dearborn Heights. The Jones were badly beaten, robbed, and their car was stolen. On July 2, they entered the Detroit home of fifty-five-year-old Marion Gaston, the companion of a woman they had befriended earlier: Mary Billups, also 55. Both Gaston and Billups were tied up, gagged, and beaten with a wrench. Gaston's car was stolen by the pair, who moved to Ohio.


On July 5, in Toledo, Ohio, they met and were invited to the home of Reverend Ernie Jackson. Through the latter, the pair learned the address a single mother who had come visiting him: thirty-year-old Virginia Temple. On July 6, Coleman and Brown went to the house where Virginia lived with her five children, including her older daughter, ten-year-old Rochelle, and had dinner with them. During the night or early morning of July 7, the two forced Virginia and Rochelle in the basement, beat and strangled them, then placed their bodies inside a crawl space. Again, it could not be determined whether Virginia was sexually assaulted or not, but Rochelle surely was, as she was found bleeding from her private parts. The house was also robbed of clothing and jewelry. After the July 11 discovery of Donna Williams' body, back in Detroit, Coleman was placed eleventh (a rare occurrence) on the FBI's Most Wanted List. The very same day of the Temple murders, the couple entered the home of Frank and Dorothy Duvendack (77 and 73 respectively), bound them, gagged them with paper tissues, then stole some money and a car.

On July 12, in Cincinnati, fifteen-year-old Tonnie Storey was reported missing by her parents. She was last seen the day before in the company of an African-American male and woman. The male was later identified by a witness as Alton Coleman. On July 19, the badly decomposed body of Storey was discovered in a vacant apartment building. She had been strangled, while the state of the body once again did not make it possible to ascertain whether the victim was raped or not. Forensic evidence, along with a bracelet belonging to the late Virginia Temple, pointed to Coleman and Brown.

On July 13, the pair entered the house of Harry and Marlene Walters (45 and 44 respectively), using the pretext of wanting to purchase a camper the married couple had put on sale. When the Walters' nineteen-year-old daughter, Sherri, came home in the afternoon, she found the house ransacked, and her parents bound, gagged, and badly beaten in the basement. Marlene had died from multiple blunt-force injuries inflicted with a crowbar and pliers, while Harry was still semi-conscious and was later able to identify his assailants.

Kentucky and Return[]

On July 16, Coleman, Brown, and an accomplice named Thomas Harris abducted thirty-three-year-old Oline Carmical, Jr. from a Lexington, Kentucky, motel parking lot. Then, the three placed a phone call to Carmichael's wife, demanding ransom. They never showed up to pick-up the money at the agreed location. Oline was eventually found, still alive, in the trunk of his own car, which had been abandoned in Dayton, Ohio. Just as FBI profilers had expected, the couple was now going backwards to their "comfort zone".

In Dayton, on July 17, Coleman and Brown visited Reverend Millard Gay, 79, and his wife Kathryn, 77, a couple who had hosted them while they were acting in Toledo. When Rev. Gay told them he knew who they really were, a scuffle ensued, and Gay was pistol-whipped. The couple was then tied up, and an unsuccessful attempt was made to strangle Kathryn. Before leaving with some money and their car, Coleman made one last attempt to kill Kathryn by shooting her with his gun, but it malfunctioned. Clothing belonging to Virginia Temple was found on the scene. On July 19, the lifeless body of Eugene Scott, 79, was found in a ditch outside Indianapolis. He had been shot and stabbed repeatedly. Scott's car was later found parked near the location where Coleman and Brown were arrested.

Arrest, Trials, and Aftermath[]

Coleman and Brown at their arraignment

Coleman and Brown at their arraignment.

Recent mugshots of Coleman and Brown

Recent mugshots of Coleman and Brown.

On July 20, Coleman and Brown were finally arrested in Mason Park, Evanston, Illinois, following a tip-off by a passing motorist who had recognized Coleman from his neighborhood in Waukegan. When approached by police officers, they surrendered without incident and provided two aliases. A loaded revolver was found in Brown's purse, while Coleman had a steak knife hidden in one of his boots. They were eventually identified through their fingerprints.

Coleman was tried in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and was sentenced to death (as well as several years of imprisonment) four times: one for the murder of Marlene Walters (May 6, 1985), one for the murder of Tonnie Storey (June 24, 1985), one for the murder of Tamika Turks (April 13, 1986), and one for the kidnap/murder of Vernita Wheat (February 6, 1987). During the course of his Ohio and Illinois trials, Coleman acted as his own lawyer, and got to the point of calling Brown (who was separately tried) as a rebuttal witness. He personally cross-examined her, in an attempt to make it look like she had in fact murdered Marlene Walters, not him. Needless to say that the strategy didn't work.

On her own part, Brown received two death sentences, in Ohio and Indiana, for her role in the Walters and Turks murders. In 1989, her Ohio death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Governor Richard Celeste (a known death penalty opponent) due to her diagnosed mental retardation. In 1991, her Indiana sentence was similarly commuted to 60 years (which, combined with the other sentences she received, makes 140 years of imprisonment). Both were also sentenced to twenty years for the interstate abduction of Oline Carmical. Coleman was executed by lethal injection on April 22, 2002, at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. His last words were Psalm 23. Brown is currently incarcerated at Dayton Correctional Institution. She expressed remorse for her crimes and apologized to the victims' families in a 2005 video.

Modus Operandi[]

As a serial rapist, Coleman would either lure or approach his victims with a ruse (e.g. befriending the mothers of his underage victims) or directly employ brute force. During the course of his crime spree with Brown, he would mainly befriend "good samaritans" and elderly couples, tie them up, gag them, and beat them, either fatally or non-fatally, with incidental blunt instruments. Most of the victims were attacked out of necessity, as a means to obtain money, goods, and/or a car they would use to move from state to state. Usually, when the victim was raped, the pair employed ligature strangulation to dispose of her. On at least two instances, the duo employed a gun. In their very last murder, they also stabbed their victim.


John Douglas' Investigative Support Unit was called in during the Coleman/Brown manhunt and asked a fugitive assessment. It seemed pretty clear that Coleman was the dominant personality of the duo, and that he was prompted to embark on an interstate rampage when stress caused by his court appearance became unbearable to him. From his background and rap sheet, Douglas was able to deduce that what motivated him were his fantasies of sexually dominating and controlling other people, because, like many other serial rapists, this is what made him feel good and satisfied in his life, a satisfaction he certainly didn't get from personal accomplishments or relationships.

The fact that most of his violence was directed against other blacks spoke of the essentially sexual nature of his crimes, rather than some general rage against society, which was also there and showed up in later acts (e.g. while beating Mary Billups and Marion Gaston, he went into a delirious tirade about how blacks were forcing him to murder other blacks, as if that could somehow explain and justify his actions). Since all he ever knew was a life of lawlessness from an early age, Coleman was able to assimilate his sexual crimes into a way of providing to himself, like if it were his own job (that's why he robbed and carjacked his victims in addition to raping, beating, and killing them).

Also, profilers correctly deduced Coleman couldn't stay away too long from someplace he found familiar or secure. Once he was out of Waukegan or the Chicago area, he was out of his element. In fact, they even predicted the highway he eventually took back home. For what concerns Brown, whom Douglas personally interviewed in prison, he found her to be a very passive, compliant person who would be defined by whoever was influencing her. Her relationship with Coleman was almost one of slave to master. On the other hand, she never displayed any evidence of conscience, and if again put under the influence of someone like Coleman, Douglas thought, she could even resume where she left off.

In prison, Coleman was diagnosed with mixed personality disorder, displaying antisocial, narcissistic and obsessive features, with additional diagnoses including epileptic spasms, psychosis and borderline personality disorder. Brown was diagnosed as a borderline intellectually disabled with dependent personality disorder.

Known Victims[]

Vernita Wheat

Vernita Wheat.

Tamika Turks

Tamika Turks.

Annie Hilliard

Annie Hilliard.

Donna Williams

Donna Williams.

Virginia Temple

Virginia Temple.

Harry and Marlene Walters with their children

Harry and Marlene Walters with their children.

Oline Carmical, Jr.

Oline Carmical, Jr.

Mutual Victims[]

  • 1984:
    • June 18: Gary, Indiana:
      • Tamika Turks, 7 (tied up, stomped, and strangled with a belt)
      • Annie Hilliard, 9 (survived; was tied up, raped by both, and almost strangled with a belt)
    • June 19: Detroit, Michigan:
      • Donna Williams, 25 (possibly raped by Coleman and strangled with ligature; her car was stolen)
    • June 24: Detroit: An unnamed 28-year-old woman (abducted at knifepoint; she escaped; her car was stolen)
    • June 28: Dearborn Heights, Michigan: Palmer and Marge Jones (survived; both were badly beaten, robbed, and their car was stolen)
      • Palmer Jones, 62
      • Marge Jones, 59
    • July 2: Detroit, Michigan: Mary Billups and Marion Gaston (both survived):
      • Mary Billups, 55 (threatened with a knife, knocked unconscious, tied up, gagged, and beaten with a wrench)
      • Marion Gaston, 55 (threatened with a knife, tied up, gagged, and beaten with a wrench; his car was stolen)
    • July 6-7: Toledo, Ohio:
      • The Temple murders: (the house was robbed)
        • Virginia Temple, 30 (possibly raped by Coleman, beaten, and strangled)
        • Rochelle Temple, 10 (raped by Coleman, beaten, and strangled)
      • Frank and Doroty Duvendack (both survived; were bound, gagged, robbed, and their car was stolen)
        • Frank Duvendack, 77
        • Dorothy Duvendack, 73
    • July 11: Cincinnati, Ohio: Tonnie Storey, 15 (possibly raped by Coleman and strangled)
    • July 13: Cincinnati: Harry and Marlene Walters (both were bound, gagged, and beaten with blunt instruments; the house was robbed):
      • Harry Walters, 45 (survived; suffered brain injury as a result of the beating)
      • Marlene Walters, 44
    • July 16: Lexington, Kentucky: Oline Carmical, Jr., 33 (survived; was abducted and held hostage in the trunk of his own car)
    • July 17: Dayton, Ohio: Millard and Kathryn Gay (both survived; were robbed and their car was stolen)
      • Reverend Millard Gay, 79 (was pistol-whipped and tied up)
      • Kathryn Gay, 76 (was almost strangled and attempted to shoot; the gun malfunctioned)
    • July 19: Indianapolis, Indiana: Eugene Scott, 79 (shot and stabbed repeatedly; his car was stolen)

Crimes Committed by Coleman Individually[]

With the exception of the North Chicago attack, all of the following occurred in Waukegan, Illinois.

  • 1960: Stole one of his mother's clients' watch
  • April 28, 1972: A victimless burglary
  • 1973:
    • May 29: A disorderly conduct
    • December 27: Eleanor MacIntire, 54 (survived; was abducted, raped, and robbed)
  • 1976
    • September 13: Sherri Patterson, 17 (raped only)
    • September 19: Lake County Jail: Three unnamed male prisoners aged 19 and 18 (all raped only)
  • July 11, 1980: Dorothy Hawkins, 22 (raped only)
  • September 28, 1981: Lisa Pheiffer, 14 (possibly raped only)
  • 1982: An unnamed fifteen-year-old girl (possibly; was raped at knifepoint and strangled)
  • 1983: June and July: Melinda Snow, 8 (his niece; possibly molested)
  • 1984:
    • February 28: North Chicago: Chalandra Thompson, 14 (raped only)
    • May 29: Vernita Wheat, 9 (abducted from Kenosha, Wisconsin, tied up, possibly raped, and strangled; her body was found three weeks later)

On Criminal Minds[]

While Coleman and Brown were never directly mentioned or referenced on the show, they appear to have been an inspiration for the following unsubs:

  • Season One
    • Mark Gregory ("Charm and Harm") - Both were narcissistic rapists and serial offenders-turned-spree killers (Gregory was a serial killer, while Coleman was a serial rapist) who were prompted to embark on interstate killing sprees when faced with the consequences of their crimes (arrest in Gregory's case, trial in Coleman's case), were the subjects of frantic manhunts by federal authorities, were able to constantly avoid capture by gaining people's trust and changing appearance, killed a total of eight victims, and their M.O. involved abduction and beating. Also, both committed their very first crime and ended their sprees in the same state (Gregory in Tennessee, Coleman in Illinois).
  • Season Four
    • George Foyet ("Omnivore", "To Hell and Back, Part 2", and "100") - Both were antisocial, narcissistic serial offenders-turned-spree killers (Foyet was a serial killer, while Coleman was a serial rapist) who mainly targeted women and couples but had a varied victimology, employed ruses to approach their victims, and their M.O. involved shooting, stabbing, and bludgeoning with incidental objects. Also, both left items stolen from previous victims on subsequent crime scenes. Foyet also appeared in Season Five.
  • Season Six
    • Raymond Donovan and Sydney Manning ("The Thirteenth Step") - Both were engaged couples of interstate spree killers and robbers who were active in the Midwest, were the subjects of manhunts by federal authorities, moved through car thefts, and their M.O. involved beating with blunt instruments (including a crowbar), shooting, rape (once in Donovan and Manning's case), and abduction (once in Donovan and Manning's case). Also, both Coleman and Donovan were diagnosed as sociopaths.