My SUV climbed the bluff leading to the subdivision's entrance and I was greeted with a surreal sight on the well-manicured lawns and winding streets. Neighbors were standing outside weeping. Stone-faced investigators were searching sewer drains. Yellow crime scene tape wrapped a tidy two-story home.
The bodies of a young mother, Sheri Coleman, and her two pre-teen sons, Garett and Gavin, were found inside that home, neighbors whispered. Police officers told them the three had been strangled by an unknown assailant. Chris, the husband and father who worked as the security chief for international televangelist Joyce Meyer, had been away.
One woman shook so much as she discussed the details that she had to sit down on a curb. She worried that a killer was on the loose. Maybe her family would be next?
When my editor had called that morning to send me to check on talk of a shocking crime in Columbia, Ill., I was headed for familiar territory. My grandmother was born there, and I grew up in a next-door town called Millstadt, seven miles away. These are farm towns on the edge of St. Louis suburbia. Crime there seldom involved violence, more likely petty theft or graffiti.
This crime, in fact, did involve graffiti. Rumors were in the air that threatening messages had been spray-painted on the walls inside the slain family's home. Charles Manson-style.
The big headlines on the front page of our newspaper the next day captured the community's heartache: "Immense grief - Slayings of mother, her two sons shatter the calm in Columbia, Ill., subdivision." Pictures of the handsome family--attractive, pious, successful--grabbed the region's attention as moms and dads wondered how to explain this to their kids.
Investigators searched for clues in a multi-state hunt across Illinois, Missouri, and even Florida. The first 48 hours passed without anyone being charged, as neighbors talked of death threats the family had been receiving in the mail. Speculation intensified.
My life began to feel like a fast-paced crime drama. Some days, I would burn through batteries in two cell phones as I worked sources and followed sensational tips. I worked out of my car in the police department parking lot, and started tailing detectives as they worked the case. The journey took me to shopping malls, far flung towns and the foot of a Mississippi River bridge.
A dramatic series of events unfolded that spring and revealed a case dominated by religion, sex, and violence. One that I will never forget. And one that friends and parents everywhere still struggle to understand.
This story was contributed by Nick Pistor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and a consultant to 48 Hours.
Watch 48 Hours Mystery about the Coleman murders: The Writing on the Wall, Saturday, May 5, 10pm ET/PT