WATERLOO • Christopher Coleman was convicted Thursday night of strangling his wife and two sons as part of a plan to start a new life with his mistress without sacrificing his job as bodyguard to televangelist Joyce Meyer.
Coleman, 34, looked exasperated as verdicts were read by the jury foreman about 7:35 p.m. in court in Waterloo on the second anniversary of the murders, finding him guilty of three counts of first-degree murder.
The decision came from a jury of 10 women and two men, who had stretched their deliberations into about 15 hours over two days.
Spectators waiting outside and people spilling out of downtown bars blended into a carnival atmosphere, with about 150 — most cheering — gathered under a light drizzle to watch Coleman being driven away in a sheriff's car.
Donna Fricker, who did not know the Colemans but lived in the same subdivision in Columbia, Ill., said she was in Waterloo when she heard about the verdict and "wanted to be here." She explained, "I wanted justice to be served, and it was."
Asked if she cheered, Fricker looked sheepish and replied, "I might have clapped a little bit."
She said, "I felt sorry for his parents. I just wanted to know that he didn't get away with it like he thought he would. He's not as smart as he thought."
Matt Tutor of Waterloo stood with friends in the crowd and said, "He finally got caught. He is finally guilty."
About 50 people clapped as jurors were driven away. One woman in the crowd, Sue Foster, of Waterloo, said, "I am a grandmother. He killed his children. How can he do that? That's not a man, that's a monster. We have supported him long enough in jail. He needs the death penalty."
Mario DeCicco, Sheri Coleman's brother, told reporters, "Now we know the truth," and said, "Justice was done today." A woman standing with the family moments after the verdict was read declared, "We got him!"
Coleman's parents, the Rev. Ronald and Connie Coleman, looking somber, declined to answer questions as they got into their car and left the town square. Another of their sons, Brad Coleman, said that his "whole family is still grieving for the loss of Sheri, Garett and Gavin." He added, "In our eyes, Chris is still innocent."
Circuit Judge Milton Wharton ordered the jurors to return at 10 a.m. today for a separate hearing to consider the prosecution's call for the death penalty. The hearing could last several days, but it appears to be only a formality. Because Illinois abolished capital punishment effective July 1, Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to commute any death sentences delivered before then to life in prison.
Ed Parkinson, an assistant attorney general who assisted with the prosecution, said after the verdict, "It was a good day for Sheri and the boys."
The lead prosecutor, State's Attorney Kris Reitz, said, "I did my talking in court."
Joe Edwards, the Columbia police chief, said he was "confident but not comfortable" as the deliberations wore on. "I was concerned, was there something we didn't do?" he asked. "Maybe there is something the jury is thinking about that we didn't."
He noted, "Two years to the day, it's incredible to hear 'guilty, guilty, guilty.'"
The verdict was welcomed in the Colemans' old neighborhood, where a bank foreclosed on the murder house and it still sits vacant.
"I'm ecstatic," said Shannon Hrdlicka, who lives down the way. "I think the right verdict came down."
Across the street, Ryan Monton said he hoped Coleman was sentenced to death. Monton fretted that the vacant house was a reminder of the crime. "It's eerie," he said. "I ride my bike past there and it's just hard to look at it, knowing what happened inside."
The Monroe County case was heard by a jury chosen in Perry County, Ill., farther from the intense publicity that attended the case since the victims' bodies were found May 5, 2009. Jurors have been bused to court in Waterloo for the nine days of trial since opening arguments April 25.
They were sent out to deliberate about 3 p.m. Wednesday, went back to their homes shortly after 8 p.m. and resumed their work in Waterloo before 10 a.m. Thursday.
The trial featured a lurid combination of sex, religion and violence woven together into a circumstantial case in which Coleman was not identified as the killer by physical evidence or any witness.
Prosecutors alleged that Coleman wanted to leave his wife, Sheri, 31, to marry her onetime best friend, Tara Lintz, of Largo, Fla., with whom he had a months-long affair. But exposing his adultery, officials said, would have jeopardized his $100,000-a-year job as bodyguard for Meyer, whose ministry is based in Fenton.
Coleman did not testify in the trial. The defense did not dispute the affair, although his lawyers did insist that the marriage was improving.
The state's case was buoyed by testimony from police computer experts that Coleman's own laptop, accessed by his own password, was the source of anonymous profane threats against his family that he had reported to police as early as November 2008. The prosecution claimed that the threats, attacking his work for Meyer, were part of a murder plan, intended to divert the attention of police once the killings were carried out.
Perhaps the most damaging testimony came from a prosecution consultant, Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner of New York City, who told the jury the victims were killed about 3 a.m. That's almost three hours before Coleman left home that morning, a point at which he said his family was alive.
Reitz called Baden his 'star witness."
The defense claimed that police turned to Baden only after the coroner's pathologist, Dr. Raj Nanduri, who performed the autopsies, refused to pinpoint a time. During the trial, she testified that it might have been between 3 and 5 a.m.
Coleman left at 5:43 a.m., confirmed by a nearby surveillance camera, for a workout at a gym in south St. Louis County. Before 7 a.m., he called a neighbor, Columbia police Detective Justin Barlow, to say he was worried that nobody was answering the phone at home, and asked that Barlow check his house.
Barlow and another officer found an open rear basement window, entered with guns drawn and found Sheri Coleman and sons Garett, 11, and Gavin, 9, strangled in their separate bedrooms. The killer had written obscene taunts on walls and the sheet covering one of the boys.
Coleman arrived home shortly later. But despite his panic, prosecutors noted, AT&T cellphone records show that he did not take a direct path home, but instead strayed north of Columbia.
Police later found that the paint used by the killer was the same brand and color as a can Coleman bought months before.
Lintz testified about the affair, and acknowledged that she was still wearing a "promise ring" Coleman had given her. She was not asked the status of the relationship now, nor whether she was aware of any murder plan. The judge permitted the prosecution to show the jury sexually charged photos and videos the couple made together or for each other.
Meyer, a longtime friend of Coleman's parents, testified by video deposition that she had not known of the affair and that he might have lost his job if she had known.
Mike King, the lawyer and spokesman for the ministry, declined comment Thursday night.
The defense presented just two witnesses: experts to rebut prosecution witness claims that the handwriting and linguistics of the premurder threats and sprayed messages were similar to Coleman's known writing.
During deliberations, jurors asked to see the window, which had been used as evidence, a source close to the court said. A manufacturer's representative said it did not appear to have been forced open or damaged.
The jury, instructed to convict Coleman if it found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, at one point asked the judge for a definition of "reasonable doubt," another source said. It was not known how he answered.
Steven Beckett, a law professor at the University of Illinois, told a reporter Thursday that it is a common jury question, but explained, "The law has no definition."
Among evidence the jury was not allowed to hear were statements by friends of Sheri Coleman's that she had told them that she was afraid of her husband and had carried a gun. Some friends did testify last week about her call for prayers, efforts to save her marriage and her feeling that she and her sons were in the way of her husband's plans. When one friend blurted out that Sheri Coleman had confided in her that her husband had beaten her, Wharton instructed jurors to pretend they never heard it.
Christopher Coleman grew up in Chester, Ill., and joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Chester High School in 1995. He was in the service when he met Sheri, a military police officer in the Air Force. After leaving the Marines, he started work building the Joyce Meyer Ministries' security department, and later became her bodyguard.
The region was so transfixed by the courtroom drama that Sandra Sauget, the Monroe County Circuit Clerk, said there was a waiting list of 165 area residents hoping to sit in on the trial.
Tim O'Neil, Patrick O'Connell and Marlon A. Walker of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.