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Coleman Convicted of Fourth Murder

January 20, 1987

WAUKEGAN, Ill. (AP) _ Convicted killer Alton Coleman was found guilty Monday of the kidnap-murder of a 9-year-old Wisconsin girl whose disappearance marked the beginning of a seven-week Midwest crime spree in the summer of 1984.

The Circuit Court jury found Coleman guilty of aggravated kidnapping and murder in the strangulation death of Vernita Wheat. It was Coleman’s fourth murder conviction. He was sentenced to death earlier for two Ohio murders and an Indiana slaying, and faces the death penalty again in a sentencing hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

Coleman, 31, of Waukegan, served as his own counsel in the Lake County trial, in which more than 40 witnesses testified over five days.

Coleman was accused of taking the child from her home in nearby Kenosha, Wis., on May 29, 1984, and killing her in Waukegan, where her decomposed body was found three weeks later in an abandoned building.

Coleman pleaded for acquittal, saying prosecutors ″don’t have the right person.

″There is no dispute that she’s dead. The problem is I didn’t do it. ... I ask for no sympathy. I ask for justice. It reminds me of David and Goliath. I’m up against Goliath in this affair,″ he said.

But Lake County Assistant State’s Attorney Matthew Chancey countered: ″He bluffed Vernita Wheat and now he’s trying to con you. This man is lying scum.″

The jurors, selected in Rock Island because of extensive publicity the case received here, deliberated about five hours.

The victim’s mother and relatives were present in the jammed courtroom of Circuit Judge Fred Geiger, and many other spectators were turned away at the door.

Juanita Wheat, the girl’s mother, said she first met Coleman early in May 1984 while hanging laundry outside her Kenosha apartment building.

Using the alias Robert Knight, Coleman visited the Wheat home at least twice, including the night of May 29 when he took Vernita to pick up a belated Mother’s Day gift, Ms. Wheat said.

They never returned.

Witnesses said Coleman took the girl to a Kenosha bar and then across the border to Illinois where a cab driver dropped them off just blocks from an abandoned building, where the girl’s body was discovered three weeks later.

The prosecution’s strongest evidence was Coleman’s left thumbprint found on the building’s bathroom door.

Coleman, who did not testify on his own behalf, asked witnesses if they had seen him in the building with the girl, and no one testified they had. Coleman stressed that point to the jury.

Coleman and a companion, Debra Brown, 23, were convicted of the murders of Tonnie Storey, 15, of Cincinnati; Tamika Turks, 7, of Gary, Ind.; and Marlene Walters, 44, of Norwood, Ohio. Ms. Brown was not charged in the Wheat slaying.

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