Justice for Vernita
Mother of girl slain in 1984 awaits Coleman's execution


Juanita Wheat is waiting for the day when Alton Coleman will be executed.

``To me I couldn't say that I'm happy, I couldn't say that I'm sad. Just relieved knowing what's coming and justice is being done,'' she said from the living room of her Kenosha apartment.

Her daughter's killer -- who is set to die on April 26 in Ohio -- is the reason Wheat says her life has been a nightmare for the past 17 years.

``There's not a night, there's not a day, there's not a minute or second I don't think about her,'' Wheat says, as a look of pain washes over her smooth face. ``When he took her, he took part of me.''

The years have passed but not the anguish since 9-year-old Vernita Wheat was abducted and brutally killed in 1984. Time has eased some of the guilt but not the sadness that still weighs on Wheat like a heavy coat. Sometimes that old wound on Wheat's 55-year-old heart still opens up and bleeds.

``I still cry,'' she says. ``I'll cry until I'm dead and gone.''

Wheat, who is planning to attend the execution, is hoping Coleman's death will give her some peace of mind.

``It feels like my heart is being mended back where it was torn apart,'' she says.

It is not easy to mend the tear Vernita's death inflicted on the family. No one except Wheat and her family can understand what they have gone through, Wheat says.

``They can say, `I can imagine.' They don't know unless it happened to them,'' she says.

Vernita's death not only has tormented them it has changed them and shaped them into the people they are today.

Vernita's 22-year-old brother, Brandon, is serving time at Kettle Moraine Correctional Facility for conspiracy to commit robbery, dangerous use of a weapon and possession of cocaine with intent to deliver. He was 5 years old when his sister died.

``I know I'd be a better individual if she was here and nothing happened to her,'' he said from prison last week.

News about Coleman's death gives Wheat's family a measure of relief.

``I don't like to see anybody go through a traumatic experience, but I wholeheartedly condone this just act that's about to be served against Alton Coleman,'' said Vernita Wheat's eldest brother, Anthony, 37, who was 19 years old and in college when his sister was killed.

Deadly rampage

Coleman's scheduled execution opens up a story that sat dormant for many years in Kenosha, but still remains one of the most publicized and gruesome in Kenosha's history.

On May 29, 1984, Coleman, who befriended Wheat about a month earlier, took Vernita after he asked her mother if he could take her to his home to get a gift. Her body was found a few weeks later in an abandoned apartment building in Waukegan, Ill., under some carpeting, newspapers and debris. She had been strangled with coaxial cable wire.

Vernita's killing kicked off a murder and crime rampage spanning almost two months and five states, involving Coleman and his girlfriend, Debra Brown. According to Kenosha News reports at the time, Coleman and Brown were connected with at least seven different murders as well as sexual assaults, robberies, kidnappings and other crimes in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.

The spree ended with Coleman's arrest in Evanston, Ill. Between the time he killed Vernita and when he was found in Evanston, the FBI put Coleman on its Most Wanted List.

Coleman has since been sentenced to death in the murders of three people, including Vernita in Illinois. He has also been convicted in the murders of 15year-old Tonnie Storey of Cincinnati and Tameka Turks, 7, in Gary, Ind.

He and Brown drove Tameka and her aunt, Annie Hillard, 9, into the woods where Tameka was beaten and strangled with a rope and Hillard was raped, choked and left for dead in the woods.

Next month, he will receive the death penalty for killing 44year-old Marlene Walters. Ohio police found Walters beaten to death in the basement of her suburban Cincinnati home. Her husband was badly beaten in the attack.

Mending wounds

Vernita's death shocked the community and traumatized her family, a trauma that continues to this day.

Matt Chancey, assistant state's attorney in Waukegan who prosecuted Coleman, sighs and takes long pauses when he talks about Coleman. The case still bothers him.

``I've been a prosecutor for 18 of the 23 years I've been an attorney,'' he says. ``Alton Coleman, as far as I'm concerned, is the worst person I came across.''

When Coleman, who is from Waukegan, killed Vernita, he was a known troublemaker and menace. Several years earlier he was convicted for the rape and abduction of an elderly woman. There were other incidents of what is now called date rape, but those cases were difficult to prove.

When he killed Vernita he had a rape case pending. He was out on bond after the original $100,000 bond was reduced to $20,000, according to the Kenosha News.

As Coleman got older, his victims got younger and he got more violent, Chancey said. The brutality and coldness of Coleman's killings were very disturbing, Chancey says, because Coleman would gain the trust of the child's parent.

``Next thing you know the child is gone and dead,'' he says.

About a month before Coleman killed Vernita, he befriended Vernita's mother and started seeing Wheat, stopping by her house and inquiring pleasantly about her children.

The night of May 29, Coleman took Vernita and her brother Brandon to a fair in Kenosha. When he returned to her home he said the fair was closed and he had a stereo he wanted to give Wheat for Mother's Day and wanted to bring her children to get it from his nearby apartment. Wheat let him take Vernita.

`You'll be right backrquote

``For a long time I blamed myself,'' Wheat says of Vernita's death.

She lost almost 75 pounds and stopped caring. Her mother told her to stop blaming herself and told her to stop crying because she still had two other children who needed her.

God, she says, kept her going.

``I wanted to be let down,'' she says. ``He lifted me back up and gave me another chance. He was not ready for me yet.''

For a long time Wheat asked God why this happened to her. Over the years she thinks God might have been trying to teach her a lesson -- to hold on tight to your children and keep them close.

``I would tell any mother, `Don't trust everybody you see,rquote'' she says.

Wheat's son Brandon sees now that it was not his mother's fault, but for most of his life he blamed his mother for Vernita's death. He says he shut down after the death of his sister.

``Basically I was angry at the world,'' he said from prison. ``To this day I still have anger inside of me, but I'm trying to control it. That's why I'm in here, by not opening up to individuals.''

He says he has not celebrated a birthday on the outside since he turned 15. He started getting into trouble when he was 11 or 12.

``I wanted attention, and I guess that was the only way I thought I could get attention because there was no attention at my house,'' he says. ``I still didn't trust my mother .'85 I sought attention by doing wrong.''

Brandon has finally been able to open up to people about his feelings, he said. He lives for the day he gets out of prison and can come home to his mother. Until then, he goes to school, attends church and lifts weights daily to work off his anger.

Thinking about what happened to his sister does not bother him like it used to, but he is still disturbed by it. He still misses Vernita being around and remembers her fixing him breakfast, tying his shoes in the morning and playing with him outside.

When he does think of that night his sister left, he thinks of one image: Vernita crying and telling her mother she did not want to go with Coleman and her mother saying, ``He'll bring you back.''

``She turned around and looked at me and then my mother,'' Brandon remembers, ``and said, `I love you, Mom.' Mom said, `You'll be right back.''

Appeal to be filed

Coleman is scheduled to die by lethal injection.

His lawyer, Dale Baich of Habeus Corpus, the Federal Public Defender's Office based in Phoenix, said that Coleman will die in Ohio instead of the other two states where he was sentenced because his appeals have come closest among the three states to running their course.

The Ohio Supreme Court recently denied a motion to extend Coleman's execution date. A writ of certiorari, a request for review, is currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Baich has filed another writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court asking the justices to resolve the conflict between two panel decisions made in the U.S. Court of Appeals. One decision vacated the death sentence for the death of Walters and the other upheld it. The decision to uphold the sentence has since been upheld.

The basis of his appeal is that the jury in the panel decision that upheld the death sentence did not know about Coleman's background at the time of the trial.

What they did not know is that he has a borderline personality disorder and brain damage, Baich says.

Coleman's childhood also was a study in violence, neglect and trauma. Thrown in a garbage can when he was a child, Coleman was raised by his grandmother, who was a practitioner of voodoo. She made him kill animals and collect their body parts for magic potions.

Coleman was also involved in group sex, sometimes including his mother or grandmother, as well as bestiality and pedophilia, Baich says.

``A child raised in that environment doesn't have a chance,'' Baich says. ``It doesn't excuse his conduct but it explains it.''

Other people have a different view of Coleman.

``People have their theories,'' Chancey says. ``My theory is he's evil. He's chosen to do evil things. The more he did the more he thought he was above being caught, above being punished.''

He can see why Wheat wants to attend Coleman's execution.

``Personally, I'd like to be there myself,'' he says. ``I think there are certain cases that demand that the person committing the crime be executed '85 I want him to know what he's done hasn't been forgotten and there are people who aren't going to let go until he's gone.''

Looking ahead, and back

Since Vernita died, Wheat says she asked God two things: to see her children grown up and to see Coleman die.

Almost 20 years after her daughter's death, Wheat, who works at an assisted living facility, hopes and prays she will one day live a normal life, one without the enormous burden of grief on her shoulders. She is thinking about one day -- after Coleman's execution -- of leaving Kenosha and moving to Louisiana.

Vernita, who lived part of her childhood in Arkansas, always wanted to go back to the South.

``I haven't been happy, what you'd call a relaxed and happy woman '85 and I'd like to do that before I leave this world, be happy in life,'' Wheat says.

With God's help, she thinks she might someday reach that point.

``God made it for me this far; I believe he'll make it to the end,'' she says.

Vernita's presence in Wheat's thoughts will likely never go away.

Sometimes when Wheat sits in her worn brown Lazy Boy she looks out a window decorated with cranberry-colored curtains at the children playing outside. They remind her of Vernita.

``A lot of times I'm sitting in this chair looking out the window and kids put me in the mind of her,'' she says.

She often thinks about who Vernita would have been, what she would be doing now. She pictures her in college, having a career in business, maybe married. Before she died, Vernita was a straight-A student at Wilson Elementary School and loved to sing.

``She'd be doing something with her life. I know that,'' Wheat says.

Last Tuesday would have been Vernita's 27th birthday. Like every year since 1985, Wheat spent the day contemplating the birthday girl who was not there to celebrate herself.

``Every birthday I don't do nothing but sit here,'' Wheat says from her brown chair. ``I say `happy birthday' to her. I know it's silly, but I do.''

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