Longform

Killer Candidate

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After Judge Hoggatt threw out the murder charge, Coleman didn't respond by thanking God that he'd been let off the hook after a relatively short ordeal.

Nor did he publicly mourn the fact that he'd killed someone, whether his actions were legally defensible or not.

He was indignant about how he'd been treated. And he was ready to pick a fight.

"I think he'd been in shock after it happened," says Randy Norrick. "And the unfortunate thing is that, immediately, he had to deal with his defense. . . . You get to the other side of it, where you get angry that you're being prosecuted, beyond what the law should be.

"I think that's really incredibly difficult to deal with," Norrick adds. "One day, you're making a lot of money. And the next day, you're in jail. And people don't realize how fast the money goes."

Coleman believed that he had been wronged. And it didn't feel like an innocent mistake.

In January 2004, he filed a letter notifying the county of his intent to sue over its "malicious prosecution." He'd spent $40,000 in legal fees, he wrote, and lost a contract with the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

He would settle, he wrote, for $1.8 million.

Then, in April, he filed a libel suit against Annette's closest friends, Colby Rawson and Linda Runion.

The suit doesn't accuse them of spreading lies to the media. (Both say they never talked to a single reporter.) Instead, the suit focuses on statements they made to the sheriff's detectives — and rumors they supposedly spread around town.

Coleman never did sue the county. And his suit against Rawson and Runion ended up backfiring, badly.

He almost won on default, since Rawson and Runion were too broke to hire an attorney. But then they found Rick Gonzales. A veteran of the Tucson scene, Gonzales had represented Annette Chalker's young sons in the family's wrongful-death suit.



He had no respect for Coleman — and no fear of him, either.

"I was a public defender," Gonzales says. "I knew this was not a killer. In my sense, through everything I gather in looking at this case and the people that I talked to, he was nothing more than a bully. This was a bully who's always had his mommy and daddy to cover his butt."

Once Gonzales signed on to defend the libel charges, he called Coleman for a deposition. Specifically, he wanted to ask about something that Linda Runion claimed Coleman had told her just after the murder: "I shot the fucking bitch."

But Coleman, facing the possibility that the county would refile criminal charges, was forced to plead his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

And that made it impossible for Coleman to prove that Runion was lying — or even proceed with the suit. Gonzales says the judge issued a ruling for his clients. Coleman, he says, may now be on the hook for as much as $27,000 in legal fees.

By then, though, the libel suit was the least of Coleman's worries — because, to Coleman's shock, Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer was building another criminal case against him.

Rheinheimer wasn't in office at the time of the first charges. But he'd been bothered by the way the charges had been dismissed so quickly, and he assigned a young prosecutor to look into building a better case.

At first, it looked like they had something. When prosecutors asked the grand jury for a charge of second-degree homicide, the grand jury returned a more serious bill of first-degree homicide.

But that was also the same charge the judge had thrown out before. And this time, it met a similar fate.

Coleman was now represented by longtime Tucson attorney Stanton Bloom. Bloom pointed out numerous procedural errors on the prosecutor's part, most notably the fact that he continued to present evidence while one grand juror took a bathroom break.

The mistakes didn't speak to the quality of the case, but they were enough for a good defense attorney to argue that the prosecutor's case was unfairly tainted.

Sure enough, Judge Hoggatt dismissed the charges. But when Bloom begged him to throw the case out for good, Hoggatt refused. Rheinheimer could return immediately to the grand jury, if he chose.

Instead, however, the case collapsed.

Rheinheimer says he received some bad news right around the time of Hoggatt's decision. Previously, prosecutors had been convinced that Coleman fired the gun at a distance — which would destroy the idea that the gun had gone off accidentally as Coleman defended himself.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske