Ex-Mehlville firefighter, Oakville man found guilty in murder-for-hire case

Prosecutors allege Kornhardt received $15,000 for murder.

By EVAN YOUNG

It took a jury just over 90 minutes Monday to reach a verdict in the nearly 18-year-old murder-for-hire case involving a former Mehlville Fire Protection District firefighter and a south county man.

Former MFPD firefighter James Kornhardt, 51, of Dittmer and Steven Mueller, 50, of Oakville were found guilty Monday in federal court of conspiring to commit murder-for-hire and of committing murder-for-hire in connection with the Oct. 22, 1992, death of St. Louis resident Danny Coleman. The jury of five men and seven women also found Kornhardt guilty of obstruction of justice.

Kornhardt and Mueller will be sentenced Sept. 16.

Their trial lasted exactly one week. All parties rested their case Friday morning, and closing arguments were made Monday morning. The jury received the case shortly after 1 p.m. and returned with the verdict just before 3 p.m. Monday.

Danny Coleman’s wife, Karen, 55, pleaded guilty four days before the trial began to the same conspiracy and murder-for-hire charges. She will be sentenced Aug. 31.

During opening statements June 8 and closing arguments Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Dittmeier outlined the prosecution’s case:

Karen Coleman in 1990 told her close friend, Michelle Nolan, she’d “had enough” of her husband and wanted to “get him out of her life.” Michelle Nolan suggested they meet with her husband, Larry Nolan, a “career criminal” incarcerated at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City whom Karen Coleman also knew.

Larry Nolan told Karen Coleman he could have Danny Coleman killed for $15,000.

She agreed, and Larry Nolan began to “broker out” the murder. He solicited Kornhardt — his “little fireman buddy” and his frequent visitor at the penitentiary — to carry it out. The two had worked together at the Carondelet Coke Plant.

Larry Nolan asked Michael Kempker, a fellow inmate, in 1991 if he could arrange for a silencer to be made for a revolver.

Kempker said one could be made for $1,000. Kornhardt delivered the revolver to Kemkper’s father in the penitentiary parking lot, and after several months, he returned with a silencer.

In October 1992, Kornhardt solicited Mueller’s participation in Danny Coleman’s murder, and Karen Coleman mailed a letter to Larry Nolan explaining her husband’s daily activities and phone numbers so Kornhardt would have access to him.

Danny Coleman was an avid duck hunter, and the original plan was to kill him by luring him into a field using hunting as a ruse.

But those plans changed. Nolan asked his brother-in-law, Joseph Briskey, if they could use his house in the 7800 block of Michigan Avenue in south St. Louis city to “rough up” Danny Coleman because he was “beating the crap” out of his wife.

Kornhardt, Mueller and another, unidentified man beat and shot Danny Coleman to death shortly after 5 p.m. on Oct. 22, 1992, in the central room of the Michigan Avenue house. 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.

Sullivan firefighters later that evening discovered Danny Coleman’s burnt body in the truck after dousing the flames. The Franklin County Sheriff’s Department was called in to investigate, and the next morning authorities found 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 but could not identify who placed them. The case hit a dead end and would sit dormant for nearly seven years.

In the meantime, Karen Coleman began collecting on insurance policies, including claims for loss on Danny Coleman’s truck and claims for proceeds payable upon his death. She collected $11,039 from her husband’s employer and $51,982 from the General American Life Insurance Co.

She also collected payment from the Liberty Life Insurance Co. and First Nationwide Mortgage Corp. of the outstanding principal, interest, escrow and insurance paid on their residence in the 6900 block of Michigan Avenue in St. Louis city.

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

Larry Nolan died in 1997 in prison. In 1999, Kempker told authorities he had information about Danny Coleman’s murder that Nolan revealed before his death.

Kempker told police that Michelle Nolan, Karen Coleman and Kornhardt were involved. In July 1999, authorities briefly took Kornhardt into custody and fingerprinted him. Examiners later matched his left thumb print to one of the prints lifted from the box of matches in 1992.

Kornhardt and Karen Coleman were arrested and indicted on the murder-for-hire charges on Dec. 12, 2008.

While in custody, Kornhardt called his now-former wife, Dianna, at their Dittmer home on Dec. 19, 2008. During that call, which was recorded, Kornhardt asked to speak to “Steve,” who later was identified as Mueller, and told him to “get rid of” items stored in the Kornhardts’ basement fireplace and detached garage. Mueller retrieved the items and dumped them over the Jefferson Barracks Bridge. Shortly before leaving the Kornhardts’ home, he remarked to Dianna, “I can’t believe Jim kept this (expletive) all these years.”

When questioned later by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Mueller admitted he removed a revolver, silencer and ammunition from Kornhardt’s house and said he “drove somebody” from the Franklin County field on the night of Oct. 22, 1992.

However, over the course of nine interviews, Mueller gradually admitted to authorities his involvement in the murder.

Mueller was arrested and indicted in April 2009.