Trial begins for 1992 death of St. Louis man

Wednesday, June 9, 2010 | 6:01 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Two men arrested on suspicion of a contract killing 17 years ago stand trial in federal court in St. Louis less than a week after the woman who arranged her husband's death pleaded guilty.

Attorneys presented opening statements Tuesday in the trial of James K. Kornhardt and Steven A. Mueller, both charged with conspiracy to commit murder for hire and murder for hire, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

They are accused in the Oct. 22, 1992, death of Danny Coleman, 38, who was beaten to death in a south St. Louis home, then taken in his pickup truck to a Franklin County field, where he and the vehicle were set on fire.

Coleman's wife, Karen Coleman, pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy and murder-for-hire charges. Prosecutors said she had her husband killed for the insurance money.

Kornhardt was a Mehlville firefighter, and Mueller was his longtime friend. Prosecutors said the plot was orchestrated by an inmate at Missouri State Penitentiary, Larry G. Nolan, who died in 1997.

Investigators linked Kornhardt to the killing in 1999 after interviewing an inmate in prison and matching Kornhardt's fingerprints with those on a discarded box of matches at the scene where Coleman and his truck were torched.

During opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Dittmeier told jurors that Karen Coleman first approached Nolan in 1990 about killing her husband for insurance money. Dittmeier said Nolan came up with a complicated plot that involved Kornhardt and Mueller.

Dittmeier said the plot eventually grew to include another inmate, the inmate's father and various acquaintances.

Mueller was implicated when investigators listened to Kornhardt's phone calls from jail and heard him ask Mueller to dispose of two guns, a silencer and ammunition hidden in Kornhardt's house, Dittmeier said.

He said Mueller admitted more of his involvement in the plot under questioning by federal agents.

Kornhardt's attorney, Scott Rosenblum, said his client had no role in the murder and was being blamed by a prison inmate who helped Nolan and knew something about the conspiracy.

Rosenblum said another inmate had named Kornhardt in a bid to help himself after being convinced to "play ball with the law."

He said Mueller was a "sap" who would admit anything, the Post-Dispatch reported.

Mueller's attorney, Steve Stenger, said Mueller was a shy, socially awkward man who was 50 years old but still lived with his parents.

Stenger noted that Mueller had made 12 different statements in nine different interviews.

"Once he started, he couldn't be stopped," he said.

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