Guilty verdicts end 18-year mystery for mother of murder-for-hire victim

Victim's mother says of two convicted, 'their hearts must be made out of rocks.'

By EVAN YOUNG

Shortly after 3 p.m. on June 14, the mystery Melba Coleman and her family had been trying to solve for nearly 18 years came to an end.

They finally knew who killed her son.

James Kornhardt and Steven Mueller were convicted last week of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire in connection with Danny Coleman’s death on Oct. 22, 1992. His wife, Karen, pleaded guilty to the same charges earlier this month.

During a recent interview with the Call, Melba, 82, talked about Danny’s life — and not knowing for almost two decades who was responsible for his death.

“It really makes you wonder,” she said. “After a while I thought: Well, whoever did it got away with it. I had just about given up. I didn’t think they’d ever solve it.”

Federal prosecutors say Karen planned her husband’s murder with prison inmate Larry Nolan over the course of two years. Nolan recruited Kornhardt, his friend and a former firefighter with the Mehlville Fire Protection District, to carry it out. Shortly before the murder, Kornhardt recruited Mueller, an Oakville resident, to assist him.

Danny was beaten to death and, prosecutors contend, shot in a house in the 7800 block of Michigan Avenue in south St. Louis city — just down the street from his and Karen’s home. His body was placed in his own pickup truck, driven to a field off Interstate 44 in Franklin County, doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Within a year of Danny’s murder, Karen began collecting thousands of dollars on her husband’s life insurance policies. She paid $15,000 to Kornhardt for the murder. He paid Mueller $1,000 to $1,200.

“It was just really hard to believe that anybody could do something like that to such a nice person,” Melba said, “because Danny had a million friends, and they all loved him.”

Danny was born in 1954 and grew up in south St. Louis.

One of three children, Danny loved the outdoors and later would become an avid hunter.

He attended grade school in the St. Boniface Parish but didn’t go to high school. Melba said her son had another idea in mind: join the military and play football. He enlisted in the Army at 16 and, after basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, was sent to Germany. His father died shortly thereafter in 1971, Melba said.

Danny’s football dreams were dashed when he severely injured his leg in a motorcycle accident while on a weekend pass in Barcelona. It was while he was recovering at the Fort Leonard Wood hospital that Danny met Karen, his cousin’s friend, Melba said. Danny received a medical discharge from the Army and, after dating just a few months, he and Karen were married, Melba said.

Having received his high school diploma in the military, Danny began a nearly 20-year college career — pursuing various degrees and taking classes all the way up until his death.

“He never seemed to learn enough to make him happy,” she said.

Danny and Karen had a son, Joby, in 1974. Melba recalled noticing a change in Karen once she and Danny started a family.

“Truthfully, I liked Karen. Would’ve done anything for her,” Melba said. “I think she was a good wife to him until after they had Joby. She never was too happy being a mom, I don’t think. She was always busy, wanting to do something. Joby wasn’t her first priority like he should’ve been, but he grew up to be a nice young man.”

The family moved into a house in the 6900 block of Michigan Avenue in south St. Louis, and Danny eventually got a job as a design engineer at Multiplex, a beverage dispenser company in Ballwin.

“He enjoyed that,” Melba said. “It was like he hit the thing that he wanted.”

Around 3:45 a.m. on Oct. 23, 1992, Melba woke to a phone call from Joby, who said his father hadn’t come home from work the night before. His truck was discovered in a field, and there was a body inside, her grandson said.

“I told him: You know that’s not your father. But he said: We don’t know,” Melba recalled.

Family members soon identified the body as Danny’s. Melba remembers her first encounter with Karen that day.

“She gave me a hug and said: Well somebody killed him. We don’t know anything yet,” Melba said. “And that was it. That was the extent of her grieving as far as I’m concerned. She never cried.”

At the same time, Franklin County detectives were combing the field where Danny’s truck and body were discovered. They seized several pieces of evidence, including a box of matches with two fingerprints on it. However, the prints’ owners could not be identified, and Danny’s murder became a cold case for nearly seven years.

The Coleman family continued to invite Karen to Christmas breakfast and other gatherings for the next several years, even though their relationship with her wasn’t as close as it was before Danny’s death, Melba said.

Karen also was around during the family’s conversations about Danny’s death.

“Everybody in the family had an opinion about what happened to Danny,” said Jack Green, Melba’s nephew whom she lives with in Imperial. “Maybe he saw something he shouldn’t have, a robbery or a drug deal. Maybe he was lured into the field.”

“We talked about it, and we would include (Karen) in our conversations about what could’ve happened to him,” Melba said. “She never said a word. I don’t ever remember her making a remark. She just listened.”

Larry Nolan died in prison in 1997. Two years later, his fellow inmate, Michael Kempker, told authorities that Kornhardt and Karen “somebody” were among those involved in Danny’s murder. During an intense interview with police shortly afterward, Karen admitted she had knowledge of her husband’s murder and agreed that Kornhardt was involved. She suffered a mental breakdown in 1999 and 2000 and gradually became less involved with the Coleman family, Melba said.

In 2002, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Dittmeier asked Melba to meet him at his office in downtown St. Louis. When she arrived, she learned the FBI considered Danny’s wife a suspect in his murder.

“That just almost stopped my heart,” Melba said. “We’d solved the case a million times.”

“But we weren’t even close,” Green added.

Dittmeier told Melba not to speak about their conversation, lest Karen wise up to the investigation. However, before Melba left that day, he said, “I’ll get these people for you. I promise I will.”

The two kept in touch on a monthly basis until Karen and Kornhardt were arrested in December 2008.

Of receiving word Karen had been taken into custody, Melba said, “That was the thrill I’d been wanting to hear, that they’d gotten her.”

Karen spent Christmas 2007 with the Coleman family, and by that point she’d become “mean” and “absolutely insulting to me,” Melba said.

It would be the last time the family saw her. Though they attended the weeklong trial of Kornhardt and Mueller earlier this month, Melba and Joby were not in the courtroom when Karen took the stand to testify for the prosecution.

“They were afraid that if she saw us she wouldn’t say anything, so they asked us not to be there,” Melba said.

As the “guilty” verdicts came down last week, Melba recalled the promise Dittmeier made to her eight years before.

“After all these years, Mr. Dittmeier did what he said he was going to do,” she said. “It felt like I breathed deeper and better than I had in years and years. All I could do is cry and wish I could hug the world because I knew how Danny died. Didn’t make it any easier, but I understood. Her greed killed him, and they learned they can’t get away with murder.”

She said she’d be “forever” grateful to Dittmeier, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Rea and the other government officials who worked on the case. Danny, she said, would’ve been proud of their determination.

And as for Kornhardt and Mueller, who face a minimum sentence of life in prison, Melba said, “I kind of feel sorry for them. For what they did it for, their hearts must be made out of rocks. They can’t have a heart to do something like that to another human being. I feel sorry for them. If God doesn’t have mercy on them, who’s going to?”