Defense attorneys question credibility of witnesses, lack of forensic evidence

Karen Coleman testifies against defendants; defense questions her plea agreement

By EVAN YOUNG

Attorneys for James Kornhardt and Steven Mueller tore into the U.S. government’s murder-for-hire case against the two men last week, and told a jury in closing arguments Monday that the dubious credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses and its overall lack of physical and forensic evidence clearly spelled out a “not guilty” verdict.

But that jury on Monday found Kornhardt and Mueller guilty on felony charges of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire in connection with the death of St. Louis resident Danny Coleman, 38, on Oct. 22, 1992. Kornhardt also was found guilty of obstruction of justice.

Danny Coleman’s wife, Karen, pleaded guilty just four days before the trial began to the same conspiracy and murder-for-hire charges.

Danny Coleman was beaten and shot to death by Kornhardt, Mueller and another, unidentified person in a home on the 7800 block of Michigan Avenue in south St. Louis city, then set on fire in his own truck in a Franklin County field, prosecutors contend.

Investigators the next day found a box of matches with two fingerprints on it — one of which was identified in 1999 as that of Kornhardt’s left thumb. He was arrested nine years later. Mueller’s name came into play after prosecutors say Kornhardt called him from jail and asked him to get rid of a revolver, silencer and ammunition that were in Kornhardt’s basement and garage. Mueller gradually admitted his involvement in the murder to authorities a few months later.

Karen Coleman testified against Kornhardt and Mueller last week, and in exchange for that testimony, prosecutors have said they will recommend she serve a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison — instead of the mandatory minimum sentence for murder-for-hire of life in prison without the possibility of parole. But the defense last week sought to use Karen Coleman’s deal with the government — as well as other “play-ball-with-the-law” agreements between prosecutors and individuals who otherwise may have been charged in the conspiracy — to its advantage.

Defense attorneys also called into question the consistency of Danny Coleman’s autopsy report and crime scene findings with the government’s allegations.

During opening statements last week, Kornhardt’s attorney, Scott Rosenblum, said his client did not know the extent of the criminal record of his friend Larry Nolan, who prosecutors say orchestrated the Coleman murder from his prison cell. Kornhardt mistakenly chose to remain friends with Nolan after he was incarcerated in the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1989. That friendship ultimately implicated Kornhardt in a crime he didn’t commit, Rosenblum said.

Rosenblum also took aim at Karen Coleman, portraying her, along with Nolan and his wife, Michelle, as heavy drug abusers and dealers.

Karen Coleman also has changed her story about her knowledge of the murder over the past 10 years, lying to authorities and once even denying she ever conducted financial transactions with Kornhardt, Rosenblum said. Her story only became consistent when it was clear she could obtain a plea deal with the government, he said.

The attorney also questioned how much Larry Nolan’s fellow inmate, Michael Kempker, actually knew about the conspiracy when he reached out to authorities in 1999, two years after Nolan’s death. Kempker told police he “figured” Kornhardt, Karen “somebody” and Michelle Nolan were involved in the murder because they “were always running around together,” Rosenblum contended.

He suggested Kempker was only trying to help himself get out of prison.

As for Kornhardt’s conversation with Mueller from jail, Rosenblum contended Kornhardt wanted to rid his house of firearms so he could use its equity to be released on bail.

Mueller’s attorney, Steve Stenger, described his client as a “shy, socially awkward” man who’s lived with his parents all his life and has no criminal history. Mueller has few friends, is “easily taken in,” “non-confrontational” and “seeks to please” others, Stenger told the jury.

In wanting to please others, Mueller became part of a crime he had nothing to do with and eventually made a false confession against himself, Stenger said.

During nine separate interviews with investigators in 2009, shortly before his indictment, Mueller told 12 different versions of the events of Oct. 22, 1992, Stenger estimated. For example, Stenger said, Mueller gave conflicting descriptions of weapons used in the murder and told authorities Danny Coleman was killed in a garage behind the Michigan Avenue home — which doesn’t have a garage — but eventually changed that location to the middle room of the house.

Investigators also never found any blood or DNA evidence in the home that would indicate Kornhardt, Mueller — or even Danny Coleman — had ever been there, Stenger said.

Among the first witnesses to take the stand for the prosecution last week were Franklin County fire and law enforcement officials who were sent to the field where Danny Coleman’s body and truck were discovered around 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 22, 1992.

One of the witnesses, the Franklin County detective who seized evidence the next morning, admitted under cross-examination that no one checked the barcode on the box of matches to determine when it was purchased; no one checked the expiration date on a coupon found near the box; and no one established a perimeter on the field from Oct. 22 to Oct. 23 to keep people off the property.

Another witness, the fingerprint examiner who analyzed the two latent prints lifted from the box of matches, admitted under cross-examination there was no way of knowing which fingerprint was placed on the box first: that of Kornhardt’s left thumb or the other, unidentified print.

Kempker testified over the course of two days last week. During cross-examination, he told Rosenblum that, after providing investigators with information in 1999 on the Coleman murder, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Dittmeier provided a letter that eventually helped him obtain parole.

Kempker also admitted Larry Nolan was angry with Kornhardt and Karen Coleman shortly before he died in 1997. Nolan believed the two owed him money, and he was bitter that they’d stopped visiting him in prison, Kempker said.

During her direct testimony with Dittmeier last week, Karen Coleman said she asked Kornhardt to kill her husband at a meeting near the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. They were there so she could give him $2,000 to “bribe a congressman” to get Larry Nolan out of prison, she said.

During cross-examination by Rosenblum, however, Coleman admitted to changing her story multiple times since 1999. She said she lied to investigators “to keep my butt out of jail,” adding, though, that she suffered a nervous breakdown in 1999 and 2000, which affected her memory.

She said investigators, not her, first connected Kornhardt to the murder during an interview at her home in 1999, shortly after Kempker spoke with police. In a heated moment during that four-hour session, an officer with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department got in Coleman’s face and “said I was a cold-hearted (expletive) and that I needed to ‘fess up,” she said. Coleman admitted knowledge of the murder and merely agreed with the officer that Kornhardt was involved because “it makes sense.”

Asked by Rosenblum if she could produce any of the letters between her and Larry Nolan regarding Kornhardt and the murder of her husband, Coleman said she burned them all years ago. She admitted not mentioning to investigators the $15,000 she paid Kornhardt for murdering her husband until after her indictment in 2008.

Coleman also admitted to being close friends and doing drugs with Nolan’s wife, Michelle. Though they discussed Danny Coleman’s life insurance policies, Michelle was not involved in the murder plot — she only thought Danny Coleman was going to be beaten up, Coleman said.

The two women had a falling out in the mid-’90s because Michelle Nolan thought Larry Nolan was cheating on her with Karen Coleman. Coleman said she and Larry Nolan were only friends, though he raped her before he went to prison in 1989, and she often led him to believe she would marry him once he got out of the penitentiary.

She called Larry Nolan “pure evil.”

Under cross-examination from Stenger, Coleman said she’d never met Mueller.

Joseph Briskey, who owned the Michigan Avenue house where Danny Coleman was murdered, testified for the prosecution. He said he was leaving St. Louis on a business trip to Mountain View in late October 1992 when his sister, Michelle Nolan, asked for a spare key to his house. Danny Coleman “was beating Karen severely” and a “couple of guys wanted to rough him up,” Briskey said she told him. He testified that, when he returned home Oct. 23, he noticed damage to a bookshelf in the main room of his house and several rugs were missing, but he smelled no trace of bleach or other cleaners. Michelle Nolan informed him of Danny Coleman’s murder, but he never allowed her to tell him how and where it was done “to avoid any collusion,” he said.

Under cross-examination, Briskey told Rosenblum that authorities never checked with his employer to see if he was actually out of town on Oct. 22, 1992, and that he had no way of proving he was.

He said he, too, had lied to investigators over the years to protect his sister and himself from going to prison, and to protect his parents from enduring such an ordeal.

He also said he was “measured in my responses” to some of investigators’ questions, and never volunteered information he wasn’t specifically asked. At one point during a phone interview with a agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Briskey admitted he said his sister would come clean about her knowledge of the murder “if she’s not prosecuted.”

Neither Briskey nor Michelle Nolan has been arrested or charged in the case.

Mary Case, the pathologist who performed Danny Coleman’s autopsy, was among the last witnesses to testify for the prosecution last week. Though Danny Coleman’s body was severely burned throughout and was missing ribs and a piece of skull, she concluded in her report the cause of his death was blunt head trauma and saw no evidence of gunshot wounds.

Another witness, ATF agent Theodore Heitzler, testified about his interviews with Mueller from February to April of 2009. Mueller knew his rights during those sessions, as well as during his grand jury testimony, but nevertheless was cooperative as he revealed his knowledge of the murder.

But under cross-examination from Mueller’s other attorney, John Lynch, Heitzler said authorities were unable to retrieve the weapons that Mueller said he retrieved from Kornhardt’s house and threw off the Jefferson Barracks Bridge. Heitzler also admitted swabs taken in the Michigan Avenue house did not match Mueller’s DNA profile. He further said no audio or video recordings were made of his interviews with Mueller.

When Mueller was asked to identify Danny Coleman, he was not given several photos of different people from which to choose — only one photo of Danny Coleman. And Heitzler admitted that while its “central thread” remained the same, Mueller’s story frequently changed and was inconsistent during his sessions with the ATF. However, the agent said he never brought up those variations in his grand jury testimony.

“Mr. Heitzler, do you know what tunnel vision is?” Lynch asked.

“Yes,” Heitzler replied.

“Do you have tunnel vision in this case?” Lynch asked

Heitzler replied, “No, I believe we came down to what happened that night.”

“Based on the confession of one person?” Lynch asked.

“The central thread stayed the same … Steven Mueller killed Danny Coleman,” Heitzler said.

“Steven Mueller said he killed Danny Coleman. But you have no evidence to prove it, correct?” Lynch said.

Heitzler replied, “That’s correct.”