Everyone called him Pissy. Those are the names kids come up with when you're twelve years old and still wetting the bed. Unemotional as a child, he was prone to long bouts of silence that eventually left him friendless. Most boys seek comfort from their mothers, but his mother was a prostitute with four other children to raise. She was too busy running the streets to distill his fears, to teach him that sex was created as an act of love between two adults, not the selfish acts of aggression that he saw while trailing her on midnight runs.
But how can a mother teach something that she never learned for herself? She was introduced to prostitution through her own mother, a madam who ran one of the most popular brothels in Waukegan, Illinois, an hour south of Chicago. So then, the boy's introduction to sex was warped in ways far more dangerous than stumbling upon his father's porn collection. And prostitution is never accurately presented: it is always Jane Fonda solving cases with Donald Sutherland in Klute or Julia Roberts stealing Richard Gere's heart in Pretty Woman. The truth, however, involves an irreparably damaged self-esteem, which can lead to a harsh disconnect between sex, money and emotion. It involves women who've never been properly applauded for their beauty or their mind, girls who've never developed a sense of self worth. Instead, they give their body over at a moment's notice -- hardly a unique talent and end up as disposable as an empty roll of toilet paper.
The boy could not communicate the way that he wanted to, so he did it aggressively, the way it was done in the projects that raised him. He ran with street gangs and took in everything around him. He learned how to be street smart and persuasive. But mostly he learned how to kick the judicial system in the balls: how to say what needed to be said and do what needed to be done. After he raped and robbed an elderly woman, he served only two years in prison because the victim would not testify against him in court. Shortly thereafter, he was accused of molesting his niece. The accuser, his sister, soon dropped the case. The judge considered her sudden about face improbable, yet had no choice but to let him go.
His time in prison did not rehabilitate him, it only taught him more effective methods for getting what he wanted, when he wanted it. What he wanted most was sex. He wanted it often and he wanted it rough, addled with blood and pain and bondage and sin. He felt it would make him complete. Like many all or nothing propositions, it didn't bring the peace he desired. And in time, he decided that if he couldn't have peace in his own mind, he wouldn't allow anyone else to either.
By 1983, the boy had grown into a handsome, honey-colored, smooth-talking hustler. He had also been fingered in several assaults and arsons. Most people, he had discovered, were trusting and would believe anything that was well presented. So instead of reforming his heart, he reformed his presentation. No one had caught him yet and no one was going to. At 27 years old, he was too young to be the devil himself, but was paying dues to be the next in line: the devil's son-in-law, perhaps. Word of his insanity spread throughout the inner city, ensuring that no one would call him Pissy anymore. Now they had to call him by his real name. They had to call him Alton Coleman.
The summer of 1984 was glorious. The Olympics were back on American soil. The Democratic National Convention was revving up in San Francisco. Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics met in the NBA Finals for the very first time. Though the crack epidemic and Ronald Reagan's slashing of countless after school programs devastated the black community at large, my central Toledo neighborhood had yet to show evidence of the damage that was to come. It was still a tight knit, middle-class black community, full of curious children whose eyes were starry with wonder. And it was the perfect place for a pair of young black fugitives from Illinois to nest until they plotted their next murder.
Debra Denise Brown had been, by most accounts, a pleasant but unexceptional girl before she met Alton Coleman sometime in the early '80s. By 1984, she was a 21-year-old high school dropout with marginal initiative, and a woman easily swayed by dynamic personalities. Alton ordered her to move in with him, promised her the world, threatened her family when they tried to intervene, and instilled a fear and dependency inside her that she couldn't shake. She fell hard for him, was drawn to his charisma and assertiveness, and disregarded his prior convictions as happenstance. Their birthdays were five days apart.
And so the cycle began: if Alton needed money, Debra used her body to get it. If Alton wanted her body, Debra gave it to him. When Alton beat Debra, it was her fault because of something that she said or did. Their union paralleled the only relationships they'd ever seen in Chicago, where people violently sought whatever power or control they could find. But even that relationship wasn't enough for Alton: in early 1984, he befriended a young Chicago woman, then raped and murdered her daughter. The police were coming, so Alton had to skip town. Would Debra come along? Of course she would. She loved him. And she feared him too much to say no.
They bolted Illinois and rented an apartment in destitute, predominantly black Gary, Indiana. While there, they kidnapped two little girls, beat and raped them, then murdered the youngest. By mid-June, they were in Detroit, where they abducted and murdered 25-year-old Donna Williams. A week later, they robbed and beat an elderly Dearborn Heights couple, then robbed two Detroit men at gunpoint. As scattered as the crimes appeared, seasoned Midwestern detectives honed in on their patterns. Mainly, they focused on Coleman and Brown's approach. They always came across as likable people in need of help -- stranded motorists on the freeway, a young, married couple in need of a few extra bucks -- then, once they gained the victim's trust, they turned on them. Then they violated them in the most brutal matter possible. Their philosophy ran deeper than taking someone's kindness for weakness. They were inflicting malice upon a cold world, one whose warm embrace had come far too late.
On the night of July 7th, 1984, Coleman and Brown arrived in Toledo. They tried to kidnap a patron from a local bar, traded gunshots with the bartender, and left empty handed. Later, they befriended 30-year-old Virginia Temple, who agreed to let them stay at her Auburn Avenue home for the evening. By the morning, Coleman and Brown were gone and both Temple and her 10-year-old daughter, Rochelle, were reported missing. That same day, as Coleman rode a bike down Isherwood Avenue, he spotted a 42-year-old, fair-skinned brunette enjoying a hot summer day on her front porch. Sizing her up for the kill, he smiled as he rounded the corner onto Freeman Street. His smile was the gateway drug, for he had a young, clean-cut face that women often found attractive. But this woman met him with an icy glare that made him think twice. Instead of stopping, Coleman simply asked her, "How you doin' today, Ma'am?" and continued up the street.
That woman, my mother, thought nothing of the encounter and remained on the porch for another hour or so. When she went inside, my father was in the kitchen watching the news. It was then that she learned that the dead bodies of Virginia and Rochelle Temple had been found in a crawl space inside their home. The thin young man she'd just dismissed had been accused of their murder.
Years later, she said, "There just seemed to be something evil about him. I don't know what it was. He was a nice-looking young man and he smiled at me. But I'm glad that I frowned at him so that he knew I meant business."
By the time that the Temple bodies were found, the search for Coleman and Brown had become a manhunt. (One report named them 11th on the FBIs Most Wanted List.) The national media descended upon my neighborhood like locusts. I was seven years old, and my mom had just stared down a ruthless killer and emerged without a scratch. We were going to be on television. I was going to be a superstar!
In 1984, thanks to popular sitcom actors Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, pint-sized black boys with smart mouths were all the rage. "My momma saw Alton Coleman," I told the reporter, "and he went that way." I pointed far up Freeman Street, though as far as my credibility was concerned, I might as well have pointed to the moon. The cameras followed my every move and the local journalists wrote feverishly. Random friends and family called my parents to say, "I just saw Jason on TV with Dan Rather!" For a day or two, it seemed like I was famous. Unfortunately, my celebrity subsided fast, and then we were just back to our cold reality: two serial killers were on the loose in our neighborhood.
Alton Coleman and Debra Brown single-handedly turned my vibrant community into a ghost town. Doors were locked and bolted, people you'd known for years were suddenly viewed with suspicion. No man, woman or child dared to walk up my street, which created a vacancy on my block that seemed unnatural. It was the middle of the summer.
Many of the national news reports focused on the ease with which Coleman and Brown ingratiated themselves into black neighborhoods. Consequently, they theorized that we were more accessories than victims -- it was our fault for continuing to fall under their spell. It wasn't until Coleman and Brown left Toledo and beat an elderly white woman to death in Cincinnati that the media realized that black people, too, can be betrayed by unstable niggers.
After several more murders in Cincinnati, Coleman and Brown went back to Illinois. They had burned all their bridges, run out of aliases, and grown tired of hiding. Stopping one day in Evanston, they paused to watch a pickup basketball game at a local park. As policemen approached, Coleman and Brown walked away from the scene, but did not run. When they were handcuffed, they proclaimed their innocence, but didn't resist arrest. Officers were amazed by how easy they were to subdue.
Fifty-three days after their spree began, Coleman and Brown were responsible for eight homicides, seven rapes, three kidnappings and fourteen armed robberies. Although the crimes took place in four different states, both were incarcerated in Ohio. And even now, after they've been removed from the streets and Coleman was put to death by lethal injection in 2002, the victim's families have little closure.
My neighborhood would gradually return to its former simplicity. We were once again able to laugh and play in the summer sun, thankful that our livelihoods weren't at risk, and that our safety was no longer at stake. But for the first time in our young lives, a sense of responsibility hovered over our independence. We now laughed and played for those who no longer could, for those who had grown up too soon.
This article is heavily indebted to Mark Gribben's CRIME TV web article, "Alton Coleman & Debra Brown: Odyssey of Mayhem." This essay was written as part of an unpublished book of biographical memoirs called Stupid Names People Give Their Kids.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
8.19.09 @ 6:52a
Wow. Amazing. Am so, so glad your mom frowned.
8.19.09 @ 2:32p
likewise, obviously, lol. thanks for reading Alex.
8.19.09 @ 10:10p
Jason, this is powerful. And we love your momma!
8.20.09 @ 8:29a
Yo' mama is cool! But then so are you! I don't remember reading about Coleman and Brown at the time of their rampage. I reckon this sorta opens the old profile item to question: serial killers are white. Okay, so MOST serial killers are white, but it's obviously an equal opportunity crime. I remember when the Soviets were saying they had no serial killers in the Soviet Union, that serial killing was an American phenomenon, and then Citizen X showed up. There doesn't seem to be a cure for irresistable impulse.