Spree Killers: Alton Coleman & Debra Denise Brown
What makes someone a sociopath? Often a history of being abused and psychological disorders are cited as prerequisites to violent criminal behavior. In the case of Alton Coleman this was certainly true. However, for Debra Denise Brown there may have been other factors to consider. Despite the two having very different personal backgrounds, they became one of the most infamous killer couples in United States history. This is the story of spree killers Alton Coleman & Debra Denise Brown.
Alton Coleman was born November 6th, 1955, in Waukegan, Illinois. His mother was a young prostitute with other children. She made the decision to throw Alton in the trash can, discarding him as garbage. However, her mother, Alton’s grandmother, rescued him from the trash bin and chose to raise the boy with help from his mother. Throughout his childhood, Alton was allegedly neglected and abused. His mother often worked as a prostitute in the home where Alton lived and he sometimes watched. His mother and grandmother also sexually abused the boy.
By the time Alton was five, he was arrested for the first time. This was a charge of theft. By the time he was eleven he already had a significant juvenile record and a gambling habit. He was nicknamed “pissy” by his grandmother due to bedwetting. Throughout his adolescence, Alton Brown was sexually abused and abused others sexually. He was arrested for sexually abusing a young family member, but the charges were dropped by the complainant. Between 1973 and 1983, Alton was arrested six times for sexually based crimes.
Debra Denise Brown was born November 11th, 1962. She was one of eleven children and struggled with learning throughout out her life. She suffered from head trauma as a child, but the cause of the trauma is not clear. Her IQ was noted to be very low, and she had what was described as a “dependent personality” (mycrimelibrary, 2021). Debra had no history of violence or criminal activity prior to meeting Alton Coleman in 1983.
Debra was engaged to another man when she met Alton in a bar in 1983. She quickly ended her engagement and moved in with Alton. She seemed to fall head over heals for Alton and began what has been described as a “master-slave relationship” (Nolen, 2002) with Alton. Alton was facing prison time in 1983. He had allegedly raped the fourteen-year-old daughter of his friend and was about to go to trial. Rather than go back to prison, Alton and Debra fled to Wisconsin.
On May 29th, 1984, nine-year-old Vernita Wheat went missing in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Alton Coleman had befriended her mother shortly before her disappearance and kidnapped Vernita. Alton, with Debra at his side, took Vernita back to his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. Vernita was sexually assaulted, tortured, and then strangled with a ligature. Her body was left in an abandoned building just blocks from Alton’s family home. On May 31st, Alton and Debra borrowed a friend’s vehicle and disappeared.
On June 19th, 1984, the badly decomposed body of Vernita Wheat (left) was found in the abandoned building. That same day the partially decomposed body of seven-year-old Tamika Turks was found in Gary, Indiana. Tamika’s nine-year-old family member, Annie, was found alive despite being savagely attacked and sexually assaulted. Annie told authorities that a couple, matching the description of Alton and Debra, had lured them into the woods. She said both Alton and Debra sexually and physically assaulted the two girls and attempted to strangle them both.
By June 19th, 1984, the bodies of both Tamika Turks (right) and Vernita Wheat had been discovered and the investigation pointed to Alton Coleman and Debra Denise Brown as prime suspects in both cases. That same day, the couple befriended twenty-five-year-old Donna Williams of Gary, Indiana. Donna disappeared shortly after meeting Alton and Debra. On June 28th. 1984, Alton and Debra broke into the home of a Dearborn Heights, Michigan couple. They handcuffed Palmer Jones and beat him severely. They also assaulted his wife but left both alive. They cut the phone line and robbed the couple of their car and money.
On July 5th, 1984, Alton and Debra arrived in Toledo, Ohio. They quickly made friends with Virginia Temple (left), who had several young children. It wasn’t long before friends and family realized they hadn’t heard from Virginia in a few days. Upon arriving at Virginia’s home, they found the younger children alone and frightened. Virginia’s family noted that a bracelet was missing from the home in addition to Virginia and her eldest child, nine-year-old Rochelle. The bodies of Virginia and Rochelle were quickly discovered in the home’s crawlspace. They had both been strangled and sexually assaulted.
The same morning as the murders of Virginia and Rochelle, Frank and Dorothy Duvendack of Toledo were robbed. Alton and Debra entered their home, cut their phone cords, and used the cords to bind the couple. They then stole their car, some money, and Mrs. Duvendack’s watch. The watch was later found under another victim of the couple. Later that day, Reverend and Mrs. Millard Gay of Dayton, Ohio encountered this dangerous couple. The couple kindly allowed Alton and Debra, who said they were down on their luck, to stay with them. They then took Debra and Alton with them on July 9th to church and then dropped the couple off on July 10th in Cincinnati.
On July 11th, 1984, the body of Donna Williams (right) was found badly decomposed near Detroit, Michigan. Her car was found close by. She had been strangled as well. Authorities were able to trace the timeline of Alton Coleman and Debra Denise Brown back to the area as they had robbed the Dearborn Heights couple in late June, stealing their car. The same day, fifteen-year-old Tonnie Storey disappeared walking to her summer school classes. She was found strangled in Walnut Hills, Ohio eight days later. The bracelet missing from Virginia Temple’s home was found under Tonnie’s body.
At this point, law enforcement throughout the entire Midwest were looking for Alton Coleman and Debra Denise Brown. In an article by the Detroit Free Press, Debra’s mother shared that she was worried her daughter may be under “some kind of spell” (Detroit Free Press, 1984) as Alton Coleman had told many people that he practiced voodoo. In fact, he had told many people that voodoo would prevent him from being caught by police. Debra’s mother said “I just don’t know the way her mind is working… It was like she was some kind of robot when she was with him… You couldn’t talk direct to her. You’d ask her a question, and she’d look at him, and he’d answer for her” (Detroit Free Press, 1984). On July 12th, 1984, Alton Coleman was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.
On July 13th, 1984, Coleman and Brown were in Norwood, Ohio. They attacked Harry Walters and his wife Marlene (right) after inquiring about a camper that Harry was selling. He said Alton picked up a wooden candlestick and hit him on the back of the head with it. He hit Harry so hard that a piece of his skull was broken off and lodged against his brain. He was unconscious after that hit, but his daughter found him and his wife later that day. His wife Marlene was deceased with ligature marks around her neck, her head covered with a bloody sheet, and her hands tied around her back. Marlene’s autopsy showed she had suffered 20-25 blows to the head. Her skull was severely crushed and parts of her skull and brain were missing. She also suffered twelve lacerations to her body including some made with vice grips.
The investigation into Marlene’s murder and Harry’s attack yielded valuable evidence including a broken bottle with fingerprints on it. The fingerprints matched Alton Coleman. They also found two different sets of bloody footprints, which would later be linked to Debra Brown and Alton Coleman. Missing from the home were several items including the family car, money, jewelry, and shoes. The vehicle was found two days later in Kentucky.
While in Kentucky, Alton and Debra kidnapped Oline Carmichael Jr., a college professor. They took his car and drove back to Dayton, Ohio with the man in the trunk of the car. On July 17th, they abandoned the car with the man still in the trunk. The car was found in McCabe Park in Dayton after pounding noises were heard from the trunk. Oline Carmichael was found unharmed and gave a description of his kidnappers, identified as Alton Coleman and Debra Denise Brown.
Coleman and Brown were soon back at a familiar place, the home of the Reverend Gay and his wife. This time, however, Reverend Gay recognized the couple as a wanted pair. Alton and Debra pulled guns on the couple. Reverend Gay asked him why they wanted to hurt him and his wife and claims Coleman responded, “I’m not going to kill you, but we generally kills them where we go” (Murderpedia). They left without harming the couple but stole their vehicle. Soon after they stole another vehicle, killing the 77-year-old man it belonged to.
The couple then headed back to Illinois, which would prove to be the mistake that would end their murder spree. On July 20th, 1984, an old acquaintance of Alton Coleman recognized him as he and Debra were crossing the street in Evanston, Illinois. The man called the police from a nearby gas station. Coleman and Brown were quickly located sitting on empty bleachers at Mason Park. The two were taken into custody, ending their rampage across the Midwest. Upon arrest, Alton was found carrying a knife and Debra had a gun in her purse.
Alton Coleman, age 29, and Debra Denise Brown, age 21, (above) were charged with serious crimes including murder, assault, robbery, attempted murder, kidnapping and rape in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Michigan. Authorities finally agreed to let Ohio try the couple first with U.S. Attorney Dan K. Web stating “We are convinced that prosecution (in Ohio) can most quickly and most likely result in the swiftest imposition of the death penalty against Alton Coleman and Debra Brown” (Murderpedia).
In separate trials, Alton Coleman and Debra Denise Brown were first tried in Ohio for the murder of Marlene Walters. She is the victim who was attacked in her home. Her husband was able to identify both defendants as the attackers in his home. A fingerprint matching Coleman’s was found on the broken bottle and bloody shoe prints were linked to the couple. Debra’s defense claimed that Debra and Alton had a “master-slave” relationship, Debra had a very low IQ, and Debra only did what Alton made her do. Both were convicted of Marlene’s murder.
At Alton Coleman’s sentencing hearing, Debra Brown shocked the courtroom when she announced that she killed Marlene Walters and Coleman quickly agreed, stating he was upstairs when Marlene was killed. Despite this, Alton was sentenced to death. The jury decided to spare Brown the death penalty however, sentencing her instead to life in prison. The Hamilton County prosecutor was successful in securing guilty sentences soon after for the murder of Tonnie Storey. For this crime, both Alton Coleman and Debra Brown were sentenced to death.
During the Ohio trials, video was shown to the jury in which Brown gave several incriminating statements. In reference to Tonnie Storey, Debra admitted to being in the building where her body was found and said, “I don’t give a damn how she lost her life, I don’t know her” (Smith, 1985). Additionally, an inmate testified that Debra admitted to the murder, claiming they killed Tonnie for her clothing.
In Indiana, the couple faced trial for the murder of Tamika Turks and the attack of Annie. Annie testified that she and Tamika were confronted by Debra Denise Brown and Coleman and convinced to go into the woods to play a game. She said that Debra removed Tamika’s shirt, tore it, and used the pieces of fabric to bind the girls. When Tamika cried, Debra held her nose and mouth closed while Coleman stomped on her chest. The couple then forced Annie to perform oral sex on both Debra and Alton before Alton raped the girls. They then choked Annie until she was unconscious. The beatings were so severe that the girls’ intestines were protruding from their vaginas. In May of 1986, both were found guilty on all counts. They were both sentenced to death in Indiana. They also received an additional forty years for attempted murder and child molestation.
Alton Coleman would end up with four death sentences: 2 in Ohio, 1 in Indiana, and 1 in Illinois for the murder of Vernita Wheat. He was the only condemned person in the country to have death sentences in three different states. The couple committed at minimum 8 murders, 7 rapes, 3 kidnappings, and 14 armed robberies. Debra Denise Brown received 2 death sentences, Ohio and Indiana, and a life imprisonment in Ohio.
Between 1985 and 2002, Alton Coleman appealed his sentences in Ohio multiple times but failed to reverse his fate. On April 26th, 2002, Alton Coleman was executed by lethal ejection in Ohio. The state had to make special arrangements to accommodate the numerous victims and their families that wanted to attend. For his final meal, Alton Coleman ordered a well-done filet mignon smothered with onions, fried chicken, salad with French dressing, sweet potato pie topped with whipped cream, French fries, collard greens, onion rings, cornbread, broccoli with melted cheese, and biscuits and gravy. He was also given Cherry Coke at his request. According to prison officials, Coleman never showed any signs of remorse for his crimes.
Debra Denise Brown never showed any remorse either, stating “I killed the bitch and I don’t give a damn. I had fun of it” in reference to Marlene Walters (Murderpedia). In 1991, Ohio Governor Richard Celeste granted Brown clemency, meaning she no longer faced death in Ohio. He cited her low IQ and abusive relationship with Coleman as reasons for granting clemency. She still had two life sentences to serve in Ohio.
Debra Brown (left) continued to file appeals in Indiana, hoping to have that death sentence also removed. She cited a history of mental health problems, physical abuse by her father, a history of drug overdose in 1980 and ongoing addiction issues, drastic personality changes noted by family after meeting Coleman, alleged physical abuse at the hands of Coleman, and her family’s claims of Coleman controlling Debra. Eventually, U.S. Supreme Court rulings determined that Brown was mentally handicapped. In 2019, the State of Indiana withdrew the demand to execute Brown given her mental handicap. She was resentenced to life in prison plus 140 years in prison.
This decision infuriated the family of Tamika Turks. Her mother LaVerne Turks told the Cincinnati Enquirer that she was angry at the decision and angrier that the state failed to notify her of the decision. She said “Debra Brown was right there with him, committing the same crimes. She bears the same responsibility for them, and she should share his punishment” (Associated Press, 2019). She remains incarcerated at the Dayton Correctional Institution.
Over the span of fifty days, this killer couple committed unspeakable acts on innocent victims. Many of their victims were children. Alton Coleman and Debra Denise Brown showed a lack of concern and respect for life and never expressed any remorse for their evil actions. The eight people they murdered, one whose name is not available, should be forever remembered. The victims include Vernita Wheat, age 9, Tamika Turks, age 7, Marlene Walters, age 43, Donna Williams, age 25, Virginia Temple, age 29, Rochelle Temple, age 9, Tonnie Storey, age 15, and a 77-year-old man whose name is not available.
Ohio Department of Corrections (Accessed 2021) Debra D Brown; Retrieved at: Offender Details (ohio.gov)
Noble, G. (2018) From the vault: serial killer and rapist Alton Coleman terrorized Tri-state in 1984; Retrieved at: Vault: Serial killer terrorized Cincy in 1984 (wcpo.com)
Murderpedia (Accessed 2021) Alton Coleman; Retrieved at: Alton Coleman | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers
Debra Denise Brown; Retrieved at: Debra Brown | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers
Mycrimelibrary (2021) Alton Coleman and Debra Brown serial killers; retrieved at: Alton Coleman And Debra Brown Serial Killers | My Crime Library
Findagrave (Accessed 2021) Vernita Traylene Wheat; Retrieved at: Vernita Traylene Wheat (1975-1984) - Find A Grave Memorial
Tamika S. Turks; Retrieved at: Tamika S. Turks (1977-1984) - Find A Grave Memorial
Marlene Cole Walters; Retrieved at: Marlene Cole Walters (1940-1984) - Find A Grave Memorial
Donna M. Williams; Retrieved at: Donna M. Williams (1959-1984) - Find A Grave Memorial
Tonnie Storey; Retrieved at: Tonnie Storey (1969-1984) - Find A Grave Memorial
Virginia Temple; Retrieved at: Virginia M. Temple (1954-1984) - Find A Grave Memorial
Associated Press (2019) Prosecutors drop effort to execute killer; The Cincinnati Enquirer; 2 Jan 2019
Olszewski, L. (1984) Mother fears ‘some kind of spell’; Detroit Free Press; 6 Jul 1984
The Indianapolis News (1984) Coleman search shifts to Ohio; The Indianapolis News; 17 July 1984
Smith, F. (1985) Juries weighs evidence in Coleman-Brown trials; The Cincinnati Enquirer; 7 June 1985