Killer Candidate

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But forensic testing didn't prove that point, as prosecutors had hoped. Instead, Rheinheimer says, the tests were inconclusive. The gun might well have been fired at close range.

With Gail sticking to her story, and the forensic tests inconclusive, the county attorney didn't have much.

"When you look at this situation, where you have someone shooting a person who's unarmed, the first reaction you have is that, 'This doesn't happen without someone committing a crime,'" Rheinheimer says. "That's the emotional reaction — and it's also the educated reaction, because that's usually the case.

"But if you accept Coleman's explanation, then there is no crime there. And we couldn't prove it didn't happen that way."

Because Judge Hoggatt left the door open, even now Cochise County prosecutors could, conceivably, file charges against Coleman. Maybe a lesser charge, like manslaughter, but a criminal charge nonetheless.

Most men, it's fair to say, would take that as a good reason to lie low.

But lying low has never been Dan Coleman's way. This past March, just 18 days after Hoggatt's final ruling, Coleman filed papers to run for the statehouse.

Some friends urged him to think twice.

"I didn't think it was a great idea," Norrick admits. "I just didn't know how it would play." Asked whether he tried to dissuade his stepson from running, Boyer offers an uncharacteristic "no comment."

Coleman's plans, not surprisingly, inspired great mirth in Cochise County. Bring up his name at any county office, and clerks will immediately ask if the rumors that the Dan Coleman is running for office can possibly be true. Down at the Cafe Rodeo, a waitress who gives her name as "just Tessa" says the news immediately sent her to the phone.

"I was like, 'Oh my God,'" she says, eyes wide. "I've gotta make sure I call my uncle, my sister and my cousin in Phoenix and make sure they don't vote for him!"

Far from being sheepish about his past, however, Coleman charged into it, head-on. Indeed, one of his first contributions came from Borowiec, his defense attorney on the first set of charges.

Borowiec confirms that, yes, it's highly unusual to give a former murder defendant a campaign contribution. But Borowiec likes Coleman well enough that he also wrote a testimonial for his Web site.

The site identifies Borowiec only as the former "presiding judge" for Cochise County; it doesn't mention his role on Coleman's murder case.

"His personality is maybe a little abrasive," Borowiec says. "And maybe he rubs people the wrong way. But he's very bright, well-educated. He's got a pretty darn good background.

"He's a very able person, and he just happens to be, in my opinion, a victim of an unfortunate accident, for which some people want him prosecuted."

If having a thick skin is essential to succeeding in politics, Dan Coleman may be well on his way.

He is surprisingly amenable, even when questions get tough. He agrees to an interview, a photo shoot, a roster of follow-up questions. He willingly turns over correspondence that paints him in an unflattering light.

That's not to say he's the least bit self-critical. One reason he responds so easily to attacks may well be his unshakable belief in his own righteousness.

Take the Chalker family.

While she and Coleman have broken up, Gail Chalker continues to support his innocence. She declined an interview with New Times, but issued this statement:

"It's been more than three years since Annette's death, and it's still hard for me to talk about it. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about my sister and all the pain and suffering my family has had to endure.

"The fact is, her death was an accident, and Dan Coleman is innocent. I miss Annette, and she will always be in my heart."

But the other Chalkers universally blame Coleman for Annette's death. They acknowledge that their feelings have put a major strain on their relationship with Gail, but they want to see Coleman prosecuted.

And while even Coleman's staunchest supporters take pains to acknowledge the family's anguish, Coleman himself won't go there. He calls Jerry Chalker a "bitter old man."

His attitude seems far too strident. After all, he's not talking about some showdown at the O.K. Corral, some outlaw who needed to be faced down.

Even though Annette Chalker was drunk, even if she was belligerent, she was his girlfriend's sister, a single mother, another man's fiancée.

It's clear just from her sister Gail's statement how devastating her death has been to the people who loved her.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske