Coleman sentenced to 20 years in federal prison

Judge tells Karen Coleman: ‘You can’t straighten this out.’

By EVAN YOUNG

A judge last week sentenced an Arnold woman to 20 years in federal prison for her role in the murder-for-hire of her husband 18 years ago.

U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw on Aug. 31 sentenced Karen Coleman, 55, to 20 years in prison on one count of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and 20 years in prison on one count of murder-for-hire.

She will serve the two terms concurrently. Coleman requested she serve her sentence at a prison in the St. Louis area.

The murder-for-hire charges are in connection with the murder of Coleman’s husband, Danny, in October 1992.

Prosecutors say Karen Coleman recruited prison inmate Larry Nolan in 1990 to arrange the murder of Danny Coleman. Nolan recruited Dittmer resident James Kornhardt, a Mehlville Fire Protection District firefighter at the time, to carry out the murder.

Kornhardt later asked his friend, Oakville resident Steven Mueller, to assist with the murder. Mueller ran unsuccessfully for the MFPD Board of Directors in 2005.

Kornhardt, Mueller and another, unidentified man murdered Danny Coleman shortly after 5 p.m. on Oct. 22, 1992, in the central room of a house in the 7800 block of Michigan Avenue in south St. Louis city, prosecutors said. They then placed his body in his own pickup truck, drove the truck to an isolated field off Interstate 44 in Franklin County and set the vehicle on fire.

Authorities discovered Danny Coleman’s body in the truck later that evening. A search of the field the next day yielded a box of kitchen matches with a coupon nearby, several loose matches and other evidence near the charred pickup. Investigators later lifted two separate fingerprints off the box of matches and several years later matched one set to Kornhardt.

Karen Coleman collected thousands of dollars on various insurance policies that were payable upon her husband’s death, prosecutors said.

Kornhardt eventually was paid $15,000 for the murder, prosecutors said. Mueller was paid $1,000 to $1,200 for his participation, they said.

Nolan died in 1997 in prison. Two years later, a fellow inmate revealed to authorities that Nolan had told him Karen Coleman and Kornhardt were involved in Danny Coleman’s murder, prosecutors said.

Karen Coleman and Kornhardt were arrested and indicted on the murder-for-hire charges in December 2008. Mueller was arrested and indicted on the same charges in April 2009 after a series of interviews with investigators during which he gradually admitted his involvement in the murder.

Mueller was questioned after investigators identified him in a December 2008 recorded telephone call Kornhardt made from jail to his Dittmer home.

Karen Coleman pleaded guilty to both murder-for-hire charges less than a week before she, Kornhardt and Mueller were to stand trial. She agreed to testify for the prosecution during the trial, and the U.S. District Attorney’s office recommended she be sentenced to not less than 20 years in prison.

A jury convicted Kornhardt and Mueller on June 14 of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire. Kornhardt also was found guilty of obstruction of justice for his actions to destroy a firearm, silencer and ammunition all related to the 1992 murder.

Kornhardt and Mueller will be sentenced Sept. 23 and face a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison.

At last week’s sentencing hearing in Shaw’s courtroom, Kevin Curran, Karen Coleman’s public defender, asked the judge to consider his client’s guilty plea and cooperation with prosecutors when deciding her sentence, even though she initially pleaded not guilty in 2008 after her indictment.

“She decided to cooperate with virtually no discussion about what cooperating would do for her,” Curran said. “She wanted to do the right thing. Her cooperation wasn’t driven by numbers.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Dittmeier told Shaw that Coleman was fully aware her cooperation could lead to a plea deal.

Dressed in a blue Lincoln County jail jumpsuit, Coleman broke down as Curran read a letter she wrote addressed to the court and her family members.

Danny and Karen Coleman’s son, Joby, and Danny Coleman’s mother, Melba Coleman, were among family members who attended last week’s sentencing.

Karen Coleman said in the letter that she “suffers deeply every day” because of her crime. She admitted to being an alcohol and drug addict but said she takes complete responsibility for her actions.

“Now that I’m sober, things look different,” Coleman wrote.

In the letter, she apologized several times to family members and said she hoped they could “begin the healing process.”

“While I have no one to blame but myself, I still love you,” Coleman wrote.

Shaw told Coleman he understood that “you feel remorse, you have a conscience and you know you did wrong.”

However, murder-for-hire is “something that just can’t be rectified,” the judge said.

“I have problems with people who do things that hurt people,” Shaw told Coleman. “Those kinds of things bother me as a judge and as a person.”

He added, “You can’t straighten this out.”