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Jury Finds Former Firefighter Guilty of 'Murder-for-Hire'

St. Louis Dispatch via YellowBrix

June 16, 2010

James Kornhardt shook his head and whispered to his attorney. “I can’t believe it,” he said Monday, moments after a federal jury in St. Louis convicted him and a close friend, Steven Mueller, of murder.

Across the courtroom, the family of Danny Coleman’s wept and then hugged prosecutors.

The scene ended a nearly 18-year investigation into a murder plot that broke open after a jailhouse tip led federal agents to the victim’s wife and the men she paid to kill Danny Coleman, 38, of St. Louis.

A jury deliberated just two hours before finding Kornhardt, a former Mehlville firefighter, and Mueller, the best man at his wedding, guilty of conspiracy and murder for hire. Coleman’s wife, Karen K. Coleman, pleaded guilty June 3 to the same charges and then testified that she paid Kornhardt $15,000 to kill her husband so she could collect his life insurance.

Danny Coleman was beaten to death on Oct. 22, 1992, in a house in the 7800 block of Michigan Avenue in St. Louis. The killers then took his body to a Franklin County field, where it and his truck were doused with gasoline and ignited.

The investigation into the death of Coleman, who worked at a drink-dispenser plant in Ballwin, proceeded in fits and starts until 2008, when Karen K. Coleman and Kornhardt were indicted. Mueller was indicted in May 2009.

Kornhardt and Mueller face life in prison without the possibility of parole when they are sentenced Sept. 16.


James K. Kornhardt

In exchange for her testimony, prosecutors said they will recommend a 20-year sentence for Karen K. Coleman.

In closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Dittmeier told jurors that Karen K. Coleman first approached a “career criminal” in a Missouri prison in 1990 to kill her husband. That inmate, Larry G. Nolan, orchestrated a conspiracy from behind bars that would eventually grow to include another inmate, that inmate’s father, Kornhardt, Mueller and various acquaintances.

After the murder, Karen K. Coleman received $45,000 in cash, and her mortgage was paid off as part of the death benefits, Dittmeier said.

Kornhardt was implicated in 1999, Dittmeier said, when an inmate gave investigators his name. Later, investigators matched his fingerprint to one taken from a discarded box of matches in the field where Coleman’s body was burned.

Mueller was unknown to law enforcement until early last year, when investigators listened to Kornhardt’s phone calls from jail and heard him call Mueller and ask him to dispose of two guns, a silencer and ammunition hidden in Kornhardt’s house, Dittmeier told jurors.

Mueller eventually admitted that he played a role in the murder. Kornhardt was convicted of obstruction of justice for instructing Mueller to dispose of evidence.

Scott Rosenblum, attorney for Kornhardt, argued that most of the government’s witnesses were convicted criminals and drug dealers who could not be trusted. He said Kornhardt’s fingerprint could have been on the matchbook long before someone took it to the field.

Steve Stenger, Mueller’s attorney, portrayed his client as a lonely, slow man looking for attention. He said Mueller confessed to the crimes only after manipulation by police.