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    Marine accused in 2 killings

    Authorities say Sgt. James Coleman killed his girlfriend and her infant son, concealing the bodies in his Tampa apartment.

    By TAMARA LUSH and CANDACE RONDEAUX
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 28, 2002


    photo
    Jessica Hine, 19, and her baby, Devonte, were slain this month.
    TAMPA -- For one week, Marine Sgt. James Coleman went to work at Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, leaving a gruesome secret behind each time he shut the door to his apartment, police say.

    He had strangled his 19-year-old girlfriend on Dec. 7, police say, and kept her body inside. He lowered the thermostat to 50 degrees to try to slow the body's deterioration.

    Coleman also hid another horrific secret that week, police say.

    His girlfriend's 10-week-old baby, Devonte, was inside the apartment. When he went to work, Coleman left the baby boy alone, hungry and crying.

    Devonte fell ill that week, Coleman later told police.

    "He was concerned for its welfare and decided he couldn't see it suffer anymore, and decided at that point that it was time to eliminate the baby," said Tampa police Detective John Yaratch, who wouldn't say how the baby was killed.

    Coleman told police he was reluctant to move the baby from the apartment, so he placed the infant's tiny body in the freezer.

    The next day, Coleman put his girlfriend's body in a brown leather suitcase, police said. He hoisted the suitcase into his white Mercedes and drove to Volusia County, where he dumped the body and the suitcase in woods near an Ormond Beach storage shed.

    The discovery of Jessica Hine's body on Dec. 21 touched off a massive investigation that swept through several counties. It ended Thursday night in Tampa with Coleman's arrest on one first-degree murder charge and one second-degree murder charge.

    Coleman
    Coleman, 24, was held without bail at the Hillsborough County Jail.

    His relationship with Hine was toxic, family members said, punctuated by breakups and batterings.

    About a month before Devonte was born, Coleman was charged with aggravated battery after he attacked Hine, police said. Coleman had never been arrested in Florida before.

    Hine had confided to family members that Coleman was becoming increasingly violent.

    "She told me (Coleman) kept on threatening her life and she was scared for her life," said Hine's older sister, Lucinda Mason.

    "I never thought he would kill the baby. I didn't think he would be that insane to do something like that."

    Her secret revealed

    Before Hine became a mother, she lived in St. Petersburg. She spent much of her time rollerblading and chatting on the Internet.

    Hine had brushes with the law in 1996 and 2001, when she was arrested on battery charges in Manatee and Pasco counties.

    "If she had any friends at all it was on the computer," said Hine's mother, Shirley Mason.

    That's how she met Coleman.

    The two began seeing each other at the end of 2001 after a few weeks of exchanging electronic messages. Coleman visited Hine's family home several times after they began dating and made a favorable impression on the teenage girl's family.

    Coleman was from Ohio. He had been in the Marines since June of 1997 and worked in the Inspector General's Office at Central Command, where he investigated personnel cases.

    "He was fine," Shirley Mason said. "He was a little quiet and withdrawn."

    Hine continued to live in St. Petersburg on and off until moving into Coleman's Tampa apartment seven months ago. Hine told her mother she was happy and that Coleman was going to be a good father to her unborn child.

    But soon after, she told her sisters that she and Coleman had been fighting often.

    On Sept. 15, shortly before Devonte was born, Coleman tried to strangle Hine when an argument got out of control, Hine's mother said. Hine called the police, then she called home.

    "She called me up and told me, 'Mommy, please come and get me. I can't feel the baby no more,' " Shirley Mason said.

    Mason, who began receiving radiation therapy for thyroid cancer earlier this year, said doctors had advised her against caring for her grandson in her home.

    So Hine and the baby couldn't stay with her in St. Petersburg. Hine went back to Coleman, authorities said, despite the pending battery charge.

    Devonte Coleman was born Oct. 1. A few weeks later, Hine told Coleman her secret.

    Coleman was not Devonte's father. Blood tests later confirmed it.

    A classic cycle of violence

    After Devonte's birth, the relationship between Coleman and Hine kept deteriorating. Hine spent the first two months of her son's life dealing with court hearings, talking to police and recanting her own stories.

    "This is your classic domestic violence cycle," said Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi. "It's heartbreaking."

    A week after Coleman was charged with battery, Hine called the State Attorney's Office to ask that the charges be dropped, Bondi said. On Oct. 14, Hine met with an assistant state attorney and agreed to press misdemeanor battery charges against Coleman.

    Coleman drove Hine to that meeting, Bondi said.

    On Oct. 28, Hine called Tampa police to say that Coleman wouldn't let her leave the apartment.

    On Nov. 1, she got a temporary restraining order against Coleman. It was dropped when she didn't show up for a court hearing a week and a half later.

    She called police again on Nov. 15, making similar allegations.

    Detectives did not have any evidence that she had been physically hurt. They couldn't find Coleman to talk to him, said Detective Yaratch, and they couldn't locate Hine for followup interviews. The Hillsborough state attorney declined to prosecute one of the cases because Hine refused to answer a subpoena. They, too, couldn't locate her.

    Meanwhile, Hine's family wanted to celebrate the holidays with Devonte, the newest member of the family.

    Shirley Mason, 39, knew she probably wouldn't get to see her grandson much, so she gave him his present early -- a tiny blue ornament to hang on his first Christmas tree.

    "She seemed happy," Mason said of her daughter. "And it was so exciting that it was going to be his first Christmas."

    That was Nov. 23. It was the last time Mason saw her daughter and grandson alive.

    The next day, Coleman reported that his Mercedes had been stolen by Hine. Sometime in the days before Thanksgiving, Jacksonville police stopped the Mercedes and determined that the alleged car theft was a civil matter.

    Hine -- who had her infant with her -- drove the car to a homeless shelter.

    The day after Thanksgiving, police said, Coleman went to Jacksonville to pick up his car. Hine and her baby returned to Tampa with him, police said.

    A deadly solution

    Neighbors at the Camden apartments at 4800 West Shore Drive said they heard constant yelling and screaming from apartment 307.

    "Almost every night," said Nabil Gadari, 23, who lives upstairs from Coleman's apartment. "They were psycho people."

    When they weren't screaming at each other, Coleman played loud rap music into the night, Gadari said. He said he once saw Hine sitting on the steps with her baby, weeping.

    According to authorities, a social worker from the state Department of Children and Families went to the apartment twice. The first visit was on Dec. 2, when housing alternatives were discussed.

    "It wasn't clear to us that Coleman was in the picture," said Shawnna Donovan, a spokeswoman for DCF. "In fact, (Hine) told us he was not in the picture."

    On Dec. 7, police said Coleman and Hine got into an argument about the volume on the television.

    Hine threatened to call police. Yaratch said the possibility of another arrest scared Coleman.

    "He knew he was going to go back to jail for domestic violence," Yaratch said. "He knew that was going to be the end of his career."

    Coleman choked Hine to death, police said. With the body decomposing and the baby crying, Coleman tried to resume a normal life, Yaratch said.

    A DCF worker showed up at the apartment on Dec. 10 to give Hine a day-care referral, but no one answered the door.

    Days later, after Coleman killed the baby, he carefully wrapped the body in a flower-print sheet, then in a cardboard box, police said. He put the box in the freezer, Yaratch said.

    Detectives can't understand why Coleman didn't drop the baby off somewhere or try to save the infant's life.

    "It just didn't really matter. He was afraid he was going to lose his career," Yaratch said. "Everybody that commits something like this thinks they will get away with it for a time."

    A St. Petersburg funeral home has donated its services and a burial plot for Hine and her infant. Shirley Mason said the family will hold a joint funeral for mother and child on Friday.

    "Devonte's going to be buried in his mom's arms, because that's where he belongs," Mason said.

    -- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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