In Memory of Leo Coleman Jr., and His 1997 Suspicious Death: ‘It’s About Time!’

Demonstrators briefly gathered for a photo, but practiced social distancing for most of the evening. Photos by Annelise Pierce.

Wednesday night, June 17, in the sleepy, small town of Anderson, Calif’, almost three dozen people gathered in memory of Leo Coleman Jr.

His suspicious 1997 death, by hanging at age 31, is still an open case with the Anderson Police Department. While the case was officially ruled a suicide by the police, many feel it was more likely he was lynched. An article about Coleman’s death, published in March of 1998 by the Commemorator, a Black Panther publication, indicates that no autopsy was done (despite promises made to the family) because the coroner had never done an autopsy on a black man. According to that article, Coleman’s father found swastikas and other racist Aryan symbols etched into the wood of the trees surrounding where his son’s body was found, but when he returned to the site later, the etchings had been obscured.

Wednesday night, Leo Coleman Jr.’s daughter, Taneisha Coleman, stood on the curb in front of Anderson Police Department in a white shirt with her father’s name written on it in black Sharpie. She was alternately tearful, hugging friends, and proud, smiling and cheering as passing cars honked and held up raised fists. She said she wholeheartedly supported the community coming together for the memorial event, meant to shed light on the tragic death of her father. Her family’s goal, she said, was to encourage those who have information about Leo Coleman’s death to bring it into the light.

Stan Lowrence, holding a sign next to his wife Kat, said of the community’s recent attention to Leo Coleman’s death, “It’s about time!” Both said they feel that the case has not been taken seriously enough, and they want to see justice done for Leo Coleman Jr. and his family.

The event’s organizer, Chris Solberg, was happy with the turnout. “It’s so peaceful,” he said. “There’s no yelling, no screaming. This is a memorial. I’m really happy the family are here.”

A driver stops to drop off water for demonstrators. He told Richard Keiser, the demonstrator holding the water, that he is a retired police officer who believes in the cause of protestors.

Minister Kennith Schjoth Jr., of St. Marks Ministry Baptist Church, also stood with a sign and with his right fist raised. Schjoth said he believes the religious leaders around Shasta County need to come out and support the people during the protests for black equality. He seems to be serving by example as he’s participated in six protests since George Floyd’s death.

“The young people here give me hope for our future,” Schjoth said.

One of those young people to whom Schjoth referred is Heather Fullmer. She’s been protesting at City Hall every night for weeks, raising attention for racial inequality and police brutality.

Regarding Leo Coleman’s suspicious death, Fullmer said, “This is one of the stories I heard that really made a difference. We walked to this curb from my house. You can’t get away from that. Everyone knows it’s right here at our doorstep. Anderson needs this protest.”

Heather Fullmer wears a t shirt a friend made in memory of Leo Coleman Jr. The QR code on the shirt links to the Black Panther article about Coleman’s death.

A woman who asked not to be identified said she’s always cared about racial justice, but the issue became personal to her recently when one of her own grandchildren experienced racist treatment when visiting her at work.

“Big things happen because the little things are allowed to happen,” she said. “When little kids can be called the N-word it’s systemic.”

Ruth Jones, a long-time friend of the Coleman family, holds a sign with a picture of Leo Coleman Jr.

Ruth Jones was at the memorial with a sign that depicted a photo of Leo Coleman Jr. Jones told the group she met Coleman’s parents, Ernestine and Leo Coleman Sr., shortly after moving to the area in 1964. She spoke tearfully of how hard it’s been for Ernestine.

“She’s been through a lot.” Jones said. “It’s not easy for someone to take your child and not get justice. You want to know what happened to your child. A lot of people want to push things under the rug, but it’s not supposed to be like that. We would like to see justice come.”

Although Anderson Police Chief Mike Johnson did not attend the Wednesday night event, he released a statement following the protest. Johnson said he’s paid careful attention to Leo Coleman Jr.’s suspicious death since arriving at the Anderson Police Department (APD) in 2013. In January 2020, he said, APD assigned their most senior and experienced investigator to the Coleman case.

“The men and women of APD care about this community and are committed to uncovering the truth, seeking justice, and serving without bias, prejudice, or regard. We will continue to investigate this matter and vet out all information, leads, and suspects before rendering a final disposition.”

Individuals with any information related to Leo Coleman Jr.’s death are asked to contact the Anderson Police Department.

Annelise Pierce
Annelise Pierce is fascinated by the intersection of people and policy. She has a special interest in criminal justice, poverty, mental health and education. Her long and storied writing career began at age 11 when she won the Louisa May Alcott Foundation's Gothic Romance short story competition. (Spoiler alert - both hero and heroine die.) Annelise welcomes your (civil) interactions at AnnelisePierce@anewscafe.com
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