It was more than six years ago, on January 19, 1989, that a passerby happened upon the body, dumped on the side of a country road in DeSoto. Murders are few in this docile suburb south of Dallas, and each draws full attention from the town's police force. But the Coleman case has proven troublesome.
Shortly after the discovery of the body, DeSoto police Sergeant J.D. Horvath obtained an arrest warrant for the early leading candidate in the killing--a local businessman named Matthew James McMillan. Before his death, Coleman had supposedly told friends that he was afraid McMillan was out to kill him.
McMillan sat in jail for three months while investigators tried to build a case against him. It wasn't there. Other than the dead man's supposed fear of him, there was scant evidence pointing toward McMillan. He cooperated fully with the investigation, and passed lie detector tests. By the time police let him go, the lead investigators in the case considered McMillan innocent. Several years later, in fact, a court would order that all records of McMillan's arrest be destroyed since he was never charged in the case.
Investigators had jumped the gun by arresting McMillan. But things like that can happen in the fevered rush of a murder investigation, particularly in a quiet town where the police don't encounter homicides very often. McMillan went on about his life, and an interesting life it would prove to be.
Suspicion in the case shifted to a wholly different possibility. Evidence indicated that it may have been Coleman who had been planning to kill McMillan. Coleman had used a forged signature to take out an insurance policy on McMillan's life, police records show, and allegedly offered one acquaintance $25,000 for "taking Matthew out."
Police theorized that Coleman was in the process of arranging the hit when something went awry, and Coleman himself wound up taking a dozen or so slugs from the hit man's .45. The hit man may have arranged to collect advance payment from Coleman, and then proceeded to eliminate the middleman and make off with the money.
Armed with a license plate number and some descriptions, detectives even had a strong hunch who Coleman's hit man-turned-killer might have been.
They were never able to amass enough evidence to make an arrest, though, and the case lingered without resolution. At least until 1994, when J.D. Horvath became the DeSoto chief of police, culminating his rise through the ranks. Despite what the evidence suggested, and what his own department's investigators said, Horvath did not believe that he had arrested an innocent man four years earlier.
Not long after taking charge of the department in the summer of 1994, Horvath revived the Coleman investigation, and became personally involved in the case. His goal was--and remains--pinning the murder once and for all on McMillan, who he still contends is the most likely suspect.
"I think there is substantial evidence that McMillan murdered Coleman," the chief said in an interview last week.
Public records and other documents reviewed by the Dallas Observer, however, show that, in his zeal to build a case against McMillan, Horvath has skirted the rules, immersing his department in accusations of corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence.
McMillan contends that Horvath is a short-sighted policeman who refuses to admit he has made a mistake. The result of Horvath's determination, McMillan says, is that any hope of finding Coleman's true killer has fallen victim to the chief's obsession with nailing a man who is innocent.
Horvath has been accused by McMillan--as well as a former member of his own police force--of allowing his single-minded quest to lead him afoul of the law by divulging confidential police information, violating the court order that called for records of McMillan's arrest to be expunged, and conspiring to have McMillan wrongfully charged with a crime.
Along the way, documents and interviews indicate, the chief's behavior has so mucked up the case that it may not be possible ever to prosecute anyone for the killing. Even the bullets that killed Coleman--potentially critical evidence at a murder trial--have been lost; Horvath says he is not to blame.
In one of the most bizarre chapters of Horvath's efforts to jail McMillan, the chief managed to wander into the fringes of a sensational murder case in England. Horvath forged an alliance with the defense team in the case, which gave him $4,000 to travel to England and testify for the defense of the accused murderer. In return, Horvath says he was able to gather more information for his case against McMillan.