On July 20, 1984, Alton Coleman and Debra Brown were finally apprehended by police in Illinois after going on a two-month, six-state killing spree that left eight people dead.
At the time, Coleman — who had already been in prison for sex crimes — was scheduled to stand trial for the rape of a 14-year-old girl in Illinois, but instead, the then-28-year-old went on the run with Brown, 21, in tow. Prior to getting involved with Coleman, Brown – who was borderline intellectually disabled and eventually diagnosed with dependent personality disorder – had never been in trouble with the law.
On May 29, their killing spree began with the murder of nine-year-old Vernita Wheat, who Coleman kidnapped from Wisconsin and brought to Illinois after befriending her mother. While police began searching for Wheat almost immediately after the abduction, her body wasn’t found until June 19, in an abandoned building just blocks away from Coleman’s grandmother’s apartment. She had been raped and strangled.
That same day, the body of seven-year-old Tamika Turks was discovered in Gary, Indiana, the day after she and her nine-year-old aunt Annie were abducted on June 18. Both girls were sexually assaulted by the couple and Tamika was strangled to death. Annie was left for dead, but managed to survive. Also on June 19, the couple is believed to have abducted Donna Williams, 25 – her body was discovered on July 11, and she too had been strangled and raped.Coleman and Brown next turned up in Michigan on June 28, where they broke into a couple’s home and viciously attacked them with a lead pipe, though both thankfully survived. Coleman and Brown stole money and their car and headed to Ohio, where they befriended Virginia Temple, a mom to several children, including nine-year-old Rachelle. Their bodies were discovered inside a crawl space in Temple’s home, and both had been strangled. A bracelet belonging to Temple was later discovered underneath the body of Tonnie Storey in Cincinnati, who disappeared on July 12. Storey had also been raped and strangled by Coleman and Brown.
On July 13, Coleman and Brown entered the Norwood, Ohio, home of Harry and Marlene Walters, under the guise of purchasing a camper the couple was selling. There, Coleman beat Harry Walters over the head with a wooden candlestick, then raped Marlene and bludgeoned her to death before taking off in the couple’s car. Harry survived and later testified against Coleman and Brown.
On July 15, the couple landed in Kentucky and kidnapped a college professor named Oline Carmical, Jr., stealing his car and locking him in the trunk. They drove back to Dayton, Ohio, and abandoned the vehicle on July 17, leaving Carmical alive.
Now the subject of a nationwide manhunt, Coleman and Brown encountered a Reverend and his wife whom they had met and stayed with (but did not harm) when they first came to Dayton; by then, they knew the pair was wanted for a string of murders. Coleman and Brown held the couple at gunpoint, but still did not harm them. “I’m not going to kill you, but we generally kill them where we go,” Coleman reportedly said, before he and Brown stole their car. That same day, Coleman was added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.Coleman and Brown began to drive back to Evanston, Illinois, but made a detour to Indianapolis, where they killed 75-year-old Eugene Scott, stealing his car and dumping the vehicle they had stolen in Dayton. When they got to Evanston, they were quickly recognized by someone from Coleman’s old neighborhood and he called police. By then, law enforcement officials from all six states were hunting the couple. On July 20, after being approached cautiously by detectives, Coleman and Brown were brought into custody and identified at the station via their fingerprints.
While Coleman and Brown are believed to have killed eight people, they were ultimately only prosecuted in Ohio for the murders of Tonnie Storey and Marlene Walters. Law enforcement from all six states were involved in deciding that the best strategy for ensuring Coleman and Brown would receive the harshest punishment possible was to let Ohio, a death-penalty state, have the first crack at prosecuting them. The strategy was successful, and the couple was convicted of both murders and given the death penalty (Coleman actually was given two death-penalty sentences in Ohio). Coleman was also given the death penalty in Illinois and in Indiana, while Brown received an additional death penalty sentence in Indiana.
In 1991, Brown’s death sentence in Ohio was commuted to life in prison by Governor Richard Celeste just before he left office. Though Brown received a death-penalty sentence in Indiana, she is serving her prison sentence in Ohio, without the possibility of parole. It’s not clear if Indiana intends to follow through on pursuing her execution. Brown reportedly continues to show a complete lack of remorse for her crimes.
Coleman appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court several times, but ultimately failed in getting his conviction overturned. Nearly two dozen survivors and family members of his victims watched as he was executed by lethal injection on April 26, 2002.
Main photo: Alton Coleman and Debra Brown [AP Images]