Attorneys for a former Mehlville Fire Protection District firefighter and a former MFPD Board of Directors candidate maintained their clients’ innocence last week as the two men were sentenced to life in prison for their role in the 1992 murder of a St. Louis man.
U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw on Sept. 23 sentenced former firefighter James Kornhardt, 51, of Dittmer, and former MFPD board candidate Steven Mueller, 50, of Oakville, to life in federal prison on one count of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and on one count of murder-for-hire.
Kornhardt also was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison on one count of obstruction of justice.
A jury convicted Kornhardt and Mueller June 14 of killing Danny Coleman of St. Louis in October 1992.
Prosecutors have said Danny Coleman’s wife, Karen, in 1990 recruited prison inmate Larry Nolan to arrange her husband’s death. Nolan recruited Kornhardt to carry out the murder, and Kornhardt asked Mueller, his longtime friend, to help him, prosecutors said.
Kornhardt and Mueller beat and shot Danny Coleman to death 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 Danny Coleman’s body in his own pickup truck, drove the truck to an isolated field off Interstate 44 in Franklin County, doused the truck with gasoline 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, among other evidence, a box of matches containing two sets of fingerprints. Investigators eventually 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 in December 2008 on conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire charges.
Investigators identified Mueller in a December 2008 recorded telephone call Kornhardt made from jail to his Dittmer home. He gradually admitted his involvement in the murder during interviews with investigators. Mueller was arrested in April 2009 and charged with conspiracy and murder-for-hire. Kornhardt later was charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying a firearm, silencer and ammunition prosecutors say were used to kill Danny Coleman. Mueller told investigators he retrieved the items from Kornhardt’s home and threw them off the Jefferson Barracks bridge.
Karen Coleman pleaded guilty to all charges on June 3, less than a week before she, Kornhardt and Mueller were to stand trial. She testified for the prosecution during the trial and was sentenced Aug. 31 to 20 years in federal prison.
Before reading their sentences at separate hearings last week, Shaw asked Kornhardt and Mueller if they had anything to say.
“Sir, I’d just like to say I’m innocent,” Kornhardt said. “There’s not much more I can say at this time.”
“Well the jury thought differently,” the judge said. After sentencing Kornhardt, Shaw told the former firefighter, “Good luck.”
Mueller at his hearing told Shaw he had nothing to say.
Adam Fein, Kornhardt’s attorney, asked the judge to send Kornhardt to the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, where he believes his training as a firefighter and a paramedic would be useful.
Mueller’s attorney, Steve Stenger, asked that his client serve his sentence at a facility near the St. Louis area.
Both Fein and Stenger said after last week’s hearings they would appeal their clients’ conviction. Fein declined to comment further about Kornhardt’s case. Stenger said Mueller’s defense remains the same as it was during the trial nearly four months ago.
Defense attorneys at the trial tore into the prosecution’s case through several days of lengthy, and often aggressive, cross examination. They told the jury in closing arguments that the government’s witnesses weren’t credible and that its evidence did not implicate Kornhardt or Mueller in Danny Coleman’s death.
For his part, Stenger described Mueller as a “fool” who, in an effort to help Kornhardt, confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. Stenger in an interview pointed to Mueller’s account of how Danny Coleman was murdered. Stenger contends Mueller changed his story 12 times in nine interviews with investigators.
Specifically, Mueller couldn’t get straight in his confessions the number of times he supposedly shot Danny Coleman in the Michigan Avenue house, Stenger said. The pathologist who performed Danny Coleman’s autopsy in 1992 testified at the trial it appeared unlikely he was shot, he added.
“Mary Case (the pathologist) unequivocally said that there was nothing to support that Danny Coleman had been shot,” Stenger said. “Then you have Steven Mueller, part of the record, who says that he was shot. Steven Mueller says: ‘I shot him’ in one statement, ‘I shot him twice’ in another statement, ‘I shot him three times’ in one statement, someone put a gun to his (Mueller’s) head and told him to shoot him. That is puzzling to me still. I don’t know what to make of it.
“It strongly suggests to me that if a man comes in and testifies to me that he committed a crime in a particular matter, and the crime was simply not committed in that matter, I think that it’s likely it wasn’t committed by him … If you’re going to go out of your way to essentially convict yourself, why wouldn’t you go ahead and just convict yourself? Why would you tell an investigator, a government agent, that you committed a crime in a way that the evidence clearly shows was not committed?”
Mueller’s confessions were “bunk,” Stenger contends.
“This isn’t a defense tactic. I have nothing to hide. I laid it all out there,” Stenger said. “We didn’t dispute that he made the confessions. It was intrinsically in the confessions themselves. There were inconsistencies. And then worst of all, which the jury did not agree with, the confessions didn’t match the evidence in the case. To me the confessions are bunk. I don’t believe his confessions. He didn’t know enough about the crime to show that he truly committed.”
Jurors deliberated roughly 90 minutes before returning guilty verdicts — “awfully quick” for a weeklong trial, Stenger contends.
“I would go further than to say there was reasonable doubt,” Stenger said. “I think he’s innocent. I don’t think he did it. I really don’t believe he did.”