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It would take 18 years for justice to catch up with Danny Coleman’s killers. When it did, the depths of the conspiracy against him would shock many.
Danny Harold Coleman was born in 1954 and grew up in South St. Louis, one of three children. Despite growing up in the city, Danny loved the outdoors and was an avid hunter.
“Danny was a very caring individual. He was a hunter and safety instructor for children to teach them how to handle guns,” friend Richard Zaleuke told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
At the age of 16, Danny enlisted in the U.S. Army, but his military career was cut short in 1971 when he badly broke his leg in a motorcycle accident while on leave. Danny needed a metal pin to be put in his right leg in order for it to heal correctly.
While recovering from surgery in a Missouri hospital, he met his future wife Karen, whose cousin was a friend of his. Like Danny, Karen had grown up in South St. Louis. She shared his enthusiasm for the outdoors and loved hunting and fishing.
Danny and Karen married in 1973 and their son, Joby, was born in 1974. Danny became a mechanical engineer at a beverage dispenser company and also had a flooring business on the side while Karen worked as a secretary at a printing company.
But on the night of Oct. 22, 1992, just past 9, a motorist on I-44 north of Stanton, Missouri, came upon a truck burning in a field. When firefighters arrived to extinguish the blaze, they made a gruesome discovery.
“They determined there was a body in the vehicle,” former F.B.I. Special Agent Gregory LaCombe told “Snapped.” “There were some skeletal remains and dental remains. Everything else was consumed in the fire.”
The body had no identification on it though detectives found a ring, a gold watch, and a belt buckle they hoped would provide answers. A metal rod from a previous operation was found in the victim’s leg.
While the vehicle’s license plates were missing, whoever was responsible forgot to remove the vehicle identification number etched into the truck’s frame.
“The vehicle identification number came back to Karen and Danny Coleman and an address in St. Louis, which was about a 45-minute drive from where the vehicle and the body were recovered,” explained LaCombe.
Detectives arrived at the Coleman residence around 2:30 that morning and found Karen and her 18-year-old son, Joby, at home. They didn’t know where Danny was and they were worried about him.
The Colemans said the items found at the scene belonged to Danny. The leg pin was the final piece of the puzzle.
Karen told detectives she and Danny had a loving marriage, and said there was no one who wished her husband any harm.
An autopsy determined that he had been beaten to death and that portions of his chest and skull were missing, according to court documents.
Investigators were at a loss for how Coleman’s body ended up in Franklin County, miles from his home. A box of kitchen matches were found at the scene and a fingerprint was pulled off its cellophane wrapper.
“We had assumed that was more than likely used to set the fire,” former Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke. Unfortunately, the fingerprint could not be matched to any existing offenders at the time.
But in speaking with Danny’s friends, detectives learned that the Colemans' marriage was not as rosy as the picture Karen had painted.
“It was determined that Karen was dealing methamphetamine and that Danny had voiced his disdain about that drug dealing and that he was very upset about what she was doing,” explained LaCombe.
And that wasn't all.
“As we got into it, other things started to emerge, that she may be having an affair,” Toelke said.
This shocked those who knew the Colemans.
“I didn’t know that she had a double life and was into drugs and having an affair. If Danny knew any of that he would have divorced her in a heartbeat,” said Zaleuke.
Detectives interviewed several men that Karen allegedly had affairs with. None were determined to be suspects in Danny’s murder, nor could Karen be connected to his death.
Danny Coleman’s murder remained an open case from 1993 until 1998. Despite detectives' best efforts, they couldn’t garner enough evidence to make an arrest.
In 1999, prison inmate Michael Kempker notified the F.B.I. that his former cellmate, Larry Nolan, confessed to helping facilitate the murder of Danny Coleman, according to court documents. Nolan had died in prison in 1997 from hepatitis.
Karen Coleman was friends with Larry’s wife, Michelle Nolan, and visited him in prison. She eventually asked him to help her find someone to murder her husband so she could cash in on his life insurance policies and death benefits worth over $50,000.
Nolan recruited his friend James Kornhardt, a fireman with the Mehlville Fire District in Saint Louis County, Missouri. Karen agreed to pay Kornhardt $15,000 to commit the murder and provided detailed notes about his daily schedule, according to the St. Louis Call.
Detectives attempted to interview Kornhardt but he denied any involvement in the murder and said he had never met Karen Coleman. However, the paper trail of money after Karen’s insurance payouts told a different story.
“We were able to track several payments, at least several of them in $5,000 installments, to Jim Kornhardt,” LaCombe explained.
Though detectives believed they knew who murdered Danny Coleman, they took their time building an airtight case. In 2008, the U.S. Attorney's Office in St. Louis agreed to prosecute at the federal level.
That December, Karen Coleman and James Kornhardt were indicated on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and murder for hire and taken into custody, reported the Missourian newspaper.
After being fingerprinted, Kornhardt’s prints were matched to the box of matches found at the crime scene. And while in custody, Kornhardt called his friend, Steven Mueller, asking him to dispose of a gun, a silencer, and ammunition hidden in his home, all of which linked him to the murder, according to the St. Louis Call.
Steven Mueller was brought in for questioning and admitted to disposing of the incriminating evidence and participating in the murder of Danny Coleman.
Mueller said that on the night of October 22, 1992, he, Kornhardt, and a man named "Dozer" lured Coleman to a house owned by Michelle Nolan's brother. There, they beat him with bats and fighting sticks and shot him three times, according to court documents.
“Steven Meuller admitted to us that he was the one that actually shot him,” former F.B.I. Task Force Detective Jeff Roediger told “Snapped.”
The killers then drove Coleman’s truck to Stanton and with his dead body in the passenger seat and set it on fire.
Before she could go on trial, Karen Coleman pleaded guilty plea to one felony count of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and one felony count of murder-for-hire. She agreed to testify against Kornhardt and Mueller in exchange for a 20-year prison sentence, according to the St. Louis Call.
In June 2010, James K. Kornhardt and Steven A. Mueller were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for hire and murder for hire. They were subsequently sentenced to life in prison, according to St. Louis’ Riverfront Times newspaper.
For more on this case and others like it, watch "Snapped," airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
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