How One Critical Error by the City Fire Marshal Ended a Stellar Career
SAN ANGELO, TX — When City of San Angelo Fire Marshal Ross Coleman abruptly resigned in June, no one knew why. He had elevated the office to a higher profile, successfully made the case for improving fire safety in the city, and bridged relationships with the business community, particularly the San Angelo Home Builders Association, for improving fire safety in new subdivision developments.
San Angelo Fire Chief Brian Dunn praised Coleman’s short career here.
“Ross Coleman has done an excellent job working with the businesses in San Angelo to help them get current with the fire code. He has sent personnel in the Fire Prevention Office to the National Fire Academy to increase their abilities and certification levels, this is tremendous benefit to the citizens,” said San Angelo Fire Chief Brian Dunn in a statement in June upon Coleman's resignation.
"He has helped move the department forward in policies and procedures to make the citizens and the fire personnel safer,” Dunn stated.
Coleman was also a fierce advocate for transparency of the fire department and fire investigations. He worked tirelessly on media relations, likely helping with recruitment for firefighter personnel.
This month, we found out why Coleman abruptly resigned. He was facing charges in a draft Oct. 22 indictment for tampering with evidence with the intent to impair, a third-degree felony.
The charges stem from the arson investigation of Gary Wright, the husband of the man and wife (Brenda) team who set fire to their north side San Angelo home and awaited on the porch with weapons drawn to shoot first responders. Wright confessed to Coleman in an interview that the couple was “fed up with life, behind on their mortgage and had no more money.”
Coleman led the arson investigation that led to plea deals and both Wrights are in prison. Brenda Wright is serving 15 years. Gary Wright was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
We gathered what happened in a series of interviews with a number of sources close to the case, including personnel in the City Fire Marshal’s office. No one will speak on the record.
During the investigation, Coleman and his investigators conducted multiple interviews with the defendants. Those interviews were recorded. More than one interview made at various times compelled confessions from the Wrights of what they had done. Indeed, the report Coleman submitted contains the confessions, as we published in Feb. 2017.
At the end of one of the many recordings, a conversation was recorded with just personnel at the fire marshal’s office making uncomplimentary remarks about 51st District Attorney Allison Palmer. Tension existed between the fire marshal’s office and the local DA over her handling of arson cases. We have not heard the recording, but there is no doubt Coleman did not desire to escalate the dissension between his office and the DA.
Sometime in 2017, that recording with the back-and-forth dissing of the DA went missing from Coleman’s office. Other recordings fulfilled the needs of the investigation, however, as both cases ended in convictions. That particular recording was not turned in as evidence. It was missing or destroyed.
Upon moving to the new offices at the former First Financial Bank Building, now the City Hall Annex, a CD copy of that recording mysteriously reappeared. Coleman, upon realizing what the CD contained, turned it over to the DA. The indictment prepared for Coleman's case states that the tampering of evidence happened on April 17, 2018.
The DA sat on making a decision for months. At issue was the conflict of interest because of the content at the end of the purported recording was Coleman’s investigators expressing uncomplimentary remarks about her. Palmer doesn’t speak to the press, but we are told that she offered to recuse herself from Coleman’s case. She was not recused, however.
The other question the DA had to confront was the integrity of the judicial process. In this case, the contents of the recording were identical to other recorded evidence, and likely could not change the outcome of the criminal trial. However, the suppression of evidence in high profile trials is red meat for defense attorneys seeking ways to obtain acquittals on technicalities.
The Brady Doctrine, forged out of a 1963 Supreme Court Case, requires that the prosecution turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defendant in a criminal case. Exculpatory evidence is evidence that might exonerate the defendant.
In this case, the recorded confession was not exculpatory, we are told. Yet, from a DA’s perspective, allowing Coleman’s withholding the recording to go unpunished may open the door for other law enforcement agencies to withhold evidence without accountability, pointing to Coleman’s incident as precedent. Perhaps the only way to obtain accountability is a district court criminal action.
Whether Coleman intentionally withheld the evidence or just lost it and declared it was a duplicate of other evidence and didn’t matter, the DA charged that Coleman, “knowing the investigation was in progress…intentionally and knowingly” concealed the recording of the interview with Gary Wright.
How the recording mysteriously reappeared during the Fire Marshal’s move to their new office is also a consideration. Did someone in the fire marshal’s office want Coleman gone and plant the recording during the disarray of the move? For days, we have been given anonymous tips about the existence of an indictment. The City no longer employs two of the fire investigators in Coleman’s office.
The DA offered, and Coleman accepted, a pre-trial diversion. For the next two years, Coleman has to undergo supervision by the Tom Green County probation office. He has a 12 a.m. curfew and must report to his probation office by mail once per month. He cannot drink, and is subject to random drug and alcohol tests. He has to pay the probation office $60 per month.
If he makes it through two years of this, the case disappears from his record, as if it never happened… at least in court records.
One critical error by an officer of the court, Coleman, a criminal investigator, may have destroyed his career that was otherwise unblemished.
Update Nov. 28, 2018, 5 p.m.
Clarification: Coleman was not indicted, but indictment papers were prepared. In a pre-trial diversion, the defendant waives a grand jury indictment and instead consents to the filing and prosecution "by information." The record of the information is removed from Coleman's record after successful completion of the terms of the pre-trial diversion.