From The Vault: Serial killer and rapist Alton Coleman terrorized Tri-State in 1984

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CINCINNATI – Alton Coleman was street smart, charming and a smooth talker, police and prosecutors said. He also was a sexual predator and a brutal serial killer.

Coleman's friendly demeanor and way with words enabled him to get close to his unsuspecting victims, officials said. That's what happened to Marlene and Harry Walters of Norwood on July 13, 1984.

"He has a way of getting next to people," Capt. Thomas Williams, commander of the Norwood Police Criminal Investigative Section, said at the time. "He can talk his way into the home. He meets people on the street and he can discuss religion, he can discuss politics. He's very forward, very well spoken, very calm …

 "And very deadly."

In the six weeks before Coleman, 29, and his 21-year-old girlfriend, Debra Brown, knocked on the Walters' front door, the Illinois man had already raped and killed three girls under 10 and two young women from Wisconsin, Indiana and northern Ohio.

One of the girls was the daughter of a woman Coleman had befriended. One of the women he killed met Coleman through her minister. Coleman had lured her by saying he wanted to go to church with her.

WATCH a WCPO report on Coleman's and Brown's crimes:

 

Coleman found a sixth victim shortly after arriving in Cincinnati. Tonnie Storey, a 15-year-old student walking  to summer classes, disappeared on July 11, 1984. Her strangled body was found eight days later in an abandoned building in Walnut Hills.

"Alton Coleman is probably the most serious criminal to ever step foot in Hamilton County," assistant prosecutor Mark Piepmeier said at one of his two murder trials here in 1985.

Norwood police believed Coleman and Brown were looking for a way out of town and wanted to steal a car when they pedaled a pair of stolen bicycles down Floral Avenue, a quiet, middle-class street, about 11 o'clock that Friday morning.

Harry Walters, 45, was home on vacation from his job as a construction worker. Marlene, 44, was a Sunday school teacher, a part-time librarian and mother of three.  Their daughter, 19-year-old Sherri, lived with them but was not home.

Coleman and Brown asked to look at a camper the Walters had for sale in their driveway. Neighbors said Coleman and Brown spent hours at the Walters' home, chatting and drinking coffee on the porch. Eventually, Harry and Marlene invited them inside.

When Harry went upstairs to find the title to the camper, Coleman beat his wife over the head with a candlestick,  hitting her more than two dozen times, crushing her skull and killing her, police said.

When Harry returned, Coleman beat him in the head, too, knocking him out. The candlestick drove a sliver of his skull into his brain, causing some brain damage.  He was also stabbed in the abdomen.

Coleman and Brown bound their hands and feet and left them for dead, but Harry survived.

Sherri came home about 3:45 p.m. and found her parents covered in blood at the bottom of the basement stairs.

Coleman and Brown stole their Plymouth Reliant, and police found it two days later in a field in Lexington, Kentucky.

Within 24 hours of the attack, police and the FBI matched fingerprints at the Walters' house with Coleman's, and a frantic search was on.

Over the next few days, Coleman and Brown kidnapped two men, killed one, stole another car and headed for Coleman's hometown, Waukegan, Illinois. A week after Coleman killed Marlene Walters, someone recognized him in Evanston, Illinois, and police arrested them in a park there.

WATCH Coleman's sentencing in the video below:

 

When it came time to prosecute Coleman and Brown, the U.S. attorney said Hamilton County had the best case against them, so local prosecutors got first crack. Ultimately, jurors didn't hesitate convicting the pair, but they expressed some doubt about Brown's involvement in planning and executing the killings. Coleman and Brown claimed they were common-law husband and wife, but some experts suggested that they had a "master-slave" relationship and Brown, who tested for a low IQ, did whatever Coleman told her to do.

Hamilton County prosecutors decided to try Coleman and Brown separately. Coleman was sentenced to death in both cases, but jurors did not recommend the death sentence for Brown in the Walters case, and she was spared.  

At Coleman's sentencing, Brown dropped a bombshell when she claimed that she killed Marlene Walters, and Coleman agreed. He said Brown was "all doped up" and killed Walters while he was upstairs ransacking the house.

But the judge rejected their account.

Brown was sentenced to death for the Tonnie Storey killing, but she was granted clemency by Gov. Richard Celeste in 1991. She was sentenced to death in Indiana for one of the killings there, but 34 years later, she is still behind bars at the Dayton Correctional Institution. 

Almost 18 years after the twin killings in the Tri-State, Coleman went to the death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasvillle.

WATCH prison officials describe Coleman's execution in the video below:

 

During his and Brown's six-state wave of terror, Coleman committed eight murders, seven kidnappings and four rapes.

"He is a brutal, unfeeling person and he needs to die," Williams, the Norwood police investigator, said then.

"This is someone who deserves to meet his maker. He is one of the most vicious, cold-blooded serial killers in the history of the Midwest," said Mike Allen, then county prosecutor.

Harry Walters, his son and son-in-law, and Tonnie Storey's father and aunt told reporters they were going to Lucasville to watch Coleman die.

Coleman went to his death protesting that Brown, not he, killed Marlene Walters.

"I will not deny that I have destroyed lives, caused pain, grief and suffering beyond comprehension in 1984, but I did not kill Mrs. Marlene Walters," he wrote to the Ohio Parole Board.

Coleman was executed by lethal injection on April 26, 2002.

SEE other video and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.

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