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.

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It is not clear to me why he would risk it all when he had nothing gain.There are some strange goings on here. Surly there must be a lot more to it

So was it misplaced and when they moved buildings it was found? Then when the Fire Marshal found it he took it to the DA? NOT sure how it’s tampering when he TOOK it to them! He walked into the lions den. Seems he did the right thing by turning it in.

Here's a possible spin on Coleman's railroading, when Coleman was selected fire marshal he came from out of town was selected over some existing personnel in the dept. that thought/were told they were going to get to replace retiring Vardeman and Truitt and this pissed a few folks off. One or both of the 2 fire investigators personnel that was let go by the city were probably the ones that conspired with Allison to get Coleman ousted thinking they would get even and the marshal position. Its a shame that Ross Coleman's career was ruined because a couple of hill rat slugs endangered the public and set their house on fire. Just food for thought(:

The more I hear about DA Palmer, the less I like her. Something about this case really stinks & I think the smell is coming from the building next to the courthouse..,

How did she get appointed judge? Her husband gets picked up for DWI and possession of marijuana a few years ago, I'm sure that was handled fairly. His mistake wasn't the comments, it was the cover up, that seems to always be the case.

There is no one as powerful as a DA. They can protect the guilty and jail the innocent. This is not the first time something like this has occurred in San Angelo and it won't be the last. Maybe we should let our peace officers elect the DA.

They are all bedfellows. After the DA and judge let a repeat and well known offender out on probation for a drive by shooting, which wasn't revoked after his second charge of assault with a deadly weapon, the police then allowed him to proceed after stopping him on a traffic violation. He then graduated to murder, my beautiful baby girl, for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, before you accuse me of just being angry, it was testified to in court that the piece of trash was driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and with stolen guns in the car. Your tax dollars paid for their room and board for over a year and a half before it was brought to trial. When I mentioned to DA Palmer that her husband's'casep' was resolved quickly, she threatened to exclude me from any further contact from her office regarding my only child's murder, DID exclude me from the courtroom during the trial and never spoke to me again. The piece of trash immediately appealed. DA Palmer only rescheduled that court date one time-to my daughter's birthday. Just a little insight into your former 'da' and current 'judge'. I cry myself to sleep every night begging God to send my baby girl for me; and as for my mornings, well, they are spent in disappointment that I woke up.

My condolences to you for what has happened. It sounds as though legitimate channels have utterly failed you. Rest assured, you're not the only person that something like this has happened to.

Rumor has it that some of the movers and shakers in the area are mentally deranged sadists who tend recruit the like-minded into their ranks. Family ties seem to play a huge role. Water's bad, rent's high. Place is a miniature anarcho-tyrannical dystopia, I tell you.

If something that seems "off" happened to you, it's incumbent upon you to spread the word and make sure everyone who can know about it, does know about it—especially those outside of the community. There's a lot that goes on in little San Angelo.

Don't you ever think the bad guys are ever going to relent. Neither should anyone else.

What goes up must come down. As far as Palmer's husband's case, there was no case. Charges were not filed. I hope I get to witness this corrupt and unlawful 'DA's' fall. I suspect the walls are closing in, prompting 'Judge' Walther's retirement. There has never been true justice or law in San Angelo. The DA, attorneys and judges are a murderer's best friend.

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