With the popularity of films like The Professional, Natural Born Killers, and Thelma and Louise, there is a certain romance that surrounds the “couple on a crime spree.” Even the real life Bonnie and Clyde are often viewed in a favorable light.
But when it comes down to it, every real crime spree has victims, people who experience very real harm. It’s when we think about the impact on those people that the crime spree couple doesn’t seem so glamorous anymore.
Alton Coleman had a rough upbringing. Born in a single-parent home, he lived with his grandmother in Waukegan, Illinois while his mother worked 3 jobs to support them. With the addition of several mental disorders, he had a lot of difficulty in school.
Plenty of Problems
Later in life, Coleman would be diagnosed with mixed personality disorder with antisocial, narcissistic, and obsessive features. On top of that, he suffered from epileptic spasms, psychosis, and borderline personality disorder…
Down the Wrong Path
For all of those reasons, it would probably come as no surprise to you that Coleman became a middle-school drop-out. After he had quit school, Coleman began to have trouble with the law. By 1983, he’d been arrested so many times that he was well known to Illinois law enforcement.
Though many of the charges were for robbery, perhaps more troubling was that between 1973 and 1983, he’d been charged with different sex crimes half a dozen times. Coleman never spent very long in prison for those crimes. He’d been acquitted twice, 2 times the charges were dismissed and 2 times, he’d plead guilty to lesser charges for a reduced sentence…
She’s Got Problems Too
It was in 1983 that Coleman met a woman named Debra Brown. Brown had a troubled childhood of her own. One of 11 children, she’d suffered severe head trauma as a child that left her borderline intellectually disabled and with dependent personality disorder.
I Choose Him
Though she was engaged to another man at the time, the 21-year-old Brown left her fiance for the 28-year-old Coleman. She moved out from the home she shared with her family and moved in with him shortly afterwards…
On The Lam
Just a few months later, Coleman was scheduled to go on trial for charges in another sex crime. This time, he was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. Perhaps because he suspected that this would be a charge he couldn’t get out of, Coleman skipped his court date and went on the run from the law.
Though Brown had never had any trouble with the law before, she went with him on the run. It was bad enough that Coleman was trying to evade justice for such a horrible crime. But rather than laying low the couple went on an unbelievable crime spree that shook up the entire country…
The spree began on May 29, 1984 with the kidnapping of a 9-year-old girl named Vernita Wheat, the daughter of a woman Coleman had befriended in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A couple of days later, Coleman borrowed a car from another “friend” to go to the store, never to return.
Less than one month later, Wheat’s badly decomposed body was found in an abandoned building 4 blocks from Coleman’s grandmother’s apartment. Forensic investigators determined that the little girl had been strangled after being sexually assaulted…
Next, Coleman and Brown were in Gary, Indiana where they encountered 2 young girls, 9-year-old Annie and her niece, 7-year-old Tamika. The couple sexually assaulted the two young girls and left them for dead, though Annie would survive.
Coincidentally, Tamika’s body and wheat’s body were both found on July 19th, which was also the same day that Coleman and Brown abducted a 25-year-old woman named Donna from Gary. Donna’s body was later discovered in Detroit, Michigan. Like all of the twisted couples other victims, she’d been sexually assaulted and strangled…
More And More Victims
The pattern continued on, with Coleman and Brown abducting, sexually assaulting and strangling young women and little girls. They even attacked a mother and her 9-year-old daughter, leaving their bodies in the women’s home with the rest of her abandoned children. They had also a number of thefts and robberies to pay for their spree.
By July 12th, investigators were certain that Coleman was the one behind this crime spree thanks to a number of witnesses accounts. Because the pair had been crossing state lines as they went on their rampage, the investigation came under the jurisdiction of the FBI and Coleman was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List…
By that point, Coleman and Brown were the subjects of a huge, nationwide manhunt. A little over a week after they’d been added to the FBI’s list, the couple was walking across the street in Evanston, Illinois. By chance, they passed directly in front of a man stopped at the red light who was from Coleman’s neighborhood in Waukegan.
The man immediately drove to a nearby gas station and borrowed their phone to call the police. Coleman and Brown must have noticed the officers looking for them because when the officers got close, they split up and took off in separate directions…
Armed And Dangerous
Still, police were able to catch up with both of the suspects. Neither Coleman nor Brown had identification on them and both claimed to be someone else, but police found a handgun in Brown’s bag and a steak knife between two pairs of sweat socks Coleman was wearing, so both were taken into custody, where they were identified by their fingerprints.
In the week after they were arrested, more than 50 law enforcement officials from Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio all met together to plan their strategy for prosecuting the couple. In total, they were being charged with 8 murders, 7 rapes, 3 kidnappings, and 14 armed robberies they’d committed over the 6 states in the last 2 months…
Because the crimes had been committed over numerous states, law enforcement agents wanted to coordinate their prosecutions with the aim of getting the death penalty for Coleman and Brown. For that reason, they were tried in Ohio.
Both Coleman and Brown were found guilty of a slew of different charges and received multiple death sentences. After a string of appeals, Coleman was executed by lethal injection in 2002. Brown was spared execution and was instead sentenced to life in prison when Governor Richard Celeste commuted her sentence, citing her intellectual disability and her “master-slave” relationship with Coleman.