The following story was developed by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project and the University of Utah’s “Cold Case” class investigating unsolved murders in the state. Students helped write and report the story through interviewing sources and filing records requests and found key internal city documents that named the prime suspects in the murder of Doug Coleman.
“How can you explain the fact that your gun is the same gun that killed Doug?” the detective asked Bruce Hughes.
Hughes was a 62-year-old retired rail yard worker. And in 1978, he found himself in an interrogation room with two Salt Lake City police detectives as a prime suspect in the murder of Doug Coleman. Coleman had been the second gay man murdered in the capital city that November. It was the same month gay political leader Harvey Milk was assassinated in San Francisco.
When asked how his gun could have killed Coleman, all Hughes could only say, “Oh gee, I had no explanation for it.”
Later, police would hedge on if it was certainly the same gun, but a ballistics expert thought the bullets had come from the weapon.
Hughes was one of the few people to see Coleman regularly; Coleman had moved in with the young man and woman who lived next door to Hughes.
And after the young woman complained to Hughes that Coleman had offended her, the older man’s affection for her had led him to threaten Coleman — something he freely admitted to.
“Why did you threaten to kill him?” a detective asked.
“Because he was ignorant,” Hughes replied. Hughes had threatened to shoot Coleman and claim he was killed during a burglary.
Despite a stack of incriminating evidence against him, Hughes was only interviewed by the police one time. He was never charged and the case went cold.
The gay community, as LGBTQ residents referred to themselves back then, was still reeling from the unsolved murder of local gay rights activist Anthony Adams. Some say the murders shut down a movement in the city, leaving many fearful and afraid to speak out.
All cold cases leave questions that haunt victims’ families and friends. One of the enduring mysteries of the Coleman case, however, is whether it could have been solved back in 1978?
The Salt Lake City Police Department reviewed the case in 2014 and quietly labeled the case “exceptionally cleared” in an internal city budget document. According to police, that label means the “suspect cannot be prosecuted” because they have died and because of a statute of limitations.
The department even took the unusual step of naming the two prime suspects — Hughes and Perry Stanger — both deceased since 1989. Family members of Coleman say they had never heard the names of the suspect Hughes until a reporter recently brought it to their attention.
The accidental martyr
The murder of Adams sent shock waves through the gay community in 1978 when he was found stabbed to death in Avenues apartment on Nov. 6, 1978. Adams, active in socialist politics, was discovered by colleagues on a socialist congressional campaign he worked on when he didn’t show up for a rally that weekend. Coleman’s murder was perhaps an even more disturbing aftershock as the community worried they were being targeted and that the police weren’t taking the cases seriously.
Coleman and Adams didn’t know each other, however, and were a study in contrasts. Adams was an outspoken activist leading boycotts and marching at rallies. Coleman was quiet. An artist who was recognized at gay bars as a regular but who also kept to himself.
On Nov. 30, 1978, Coleman left the Sun Tavern, likely headed home when a fateful detour brought him to an empty Union Pacific boxcar where he was shot in the head and stomach. His brother Dennis said one bullet went through his hand, as he may have put up to feebly try and stop what was coming. Instead, the bullet passed through and lodged in his temple. He lingered on in the cold boxcar until help arrived after a rail worker called police. Coleman was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
To Coleman’s family, his life had become a mystery and his death was a surprise they learned about on the news. When it was announced on the evening newscast, Doug’s mother collapsed to her knees.
The tragedy of Coleman’s life, in the eyes of his family, began years earlier when he began showing signs of paranoid schizophrenia, later cycling in and out of mental health facilities.
The Unified Police Department’s Cold Case website has a picture of Coleman in his final troubled years: a skinny young man with a classic ‘70s style mustache and poofy curly hair to match and soft brown eyes gazing through wire-framed glasses.
Dennis Coleman has a family picture from 1968 when his brother was a teenager. In that photo, he wears a wide grin and thick black-rimmed glasses in the same style worn by all his four siblings and his dad.
The brother said it’s hard to recall Coleman as a child — probably a result of him having been dead longer than he lived.
“He was just a normal kid from a normal family that had the unfortunate experience of having a disease,” Dennis Coleman said.
Doug Coleman was both athletic and artistic. He was an ambidextrous pitcher and when he wasn’t in the middle of the baseball diamond, he could be found in front of an easel with a paintbrush in hand. A meticulous painting of a sunflower even won him an award at the Box Elder County Fair.
Coleman’s sister Kris Robinette remembers how when he was at a birthday party at seven or eight years old, he would help other kids take part in games or help their mom serve slices of birthday cake. The family used to hold “carnivals” at their house and Coleman would pull neighborhood kids around in a wagon with his bike.
“He was just such a cute kid,” she said.
By high school, he started becoming unpredictable. He would get a twitch, and it became clear there was a conversation going on in his head that made it hard for him to focus on reality, his brother said.
He soon moved from the family home in Box Elder County to Salt Lake City.
Dennis Coleman said his brother may have drifted into marijuana use as self-medication. That’s when he started becoming lost to the family, and to himself, he said.
He once hitchhiked to Kansas City and walked into a bank because he knew his father was a banker back in Brigham City. The teller in Kansas City called his dad and helped Coleman get on a bus back home.
Dennis Coleman said his brother may only have lived as long as he did because his family had loved him so desperately and tried for so long to help him at a time when there were few resources to deal with schizophrenia.
“If he hadn’t had such a strong family, [bad] things probably would have happened a lot sooner to him,” Dennis Coleman said.
In his final year, Doug Coleman worked at Ratskeller Pizza in downtown Salt Lake City. A fellow employee, who jokingly referred to the restaurant as “The Rat,” let Coleman stay at the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, next door to Hughes.
The girlfriend described Coleman in police interviews as someone who would stare at you like you were a wall or crank the stereo up loud and dance strangely all by himself. He once propositioned her in a way that offended her so much she complained to Hughes, according to a police interview.
Based on interviews of Hughes and the young woman, she had developed a kind of father/daughter relationship with Hughes, who was three times her age and deeply protective of her.
Hughes was named a suspect in the case by the Salt Lake Police Department for multiple reasons.
He worked at the rail yard where Coleman was killed, which suggests that he would have known the layout of the yard.
He admitted to seeing Coleman near the rail yard the day of the murder, claiming he was in the area looking for scrap metal.
Rail yard workers and other potential witnesses had a difficult time identifying him, but a worker gave a description of a person who was fleeing the area who had an older style, short bouffant haircut, unlike the long hair worn by most young people in the 70′s.
The suspect fleeing the crime scene was wearing a three-quarter-length brown coat. Neighbors of Hughes said that he owned a similar jacket.
Arguably, the most damning evidence was Hughes’ gun. According to the police report, a ballistics expert “feels that the bullets taken from the body of the victim were fired from the gun owned by Bruce Hughes, however, the microscopic markings are lacking on the bullets making it impossible to be positive.”
When the police confronted Hughes he could not explain how his gun could have been used unless someone broke into his place, found the pistol under his mattress, used it to kill Coleman and then placed it back under his mattress.
Hughes, a lifelong gun owner, pawned his guns a few days after the murder. When asked why, he told police he didn’t want them to be “misused.”
Another suspect was considered, Perry Stanger.
Coleman stayed with Stanger, whom he had previously met at a mental health clinic, after moving out of his co-worker’s apartment.
Suspicion also followed Stanger for a number of reasons. He left Salt Lake City the day of Coleman’s murder. When police interviewed him, he was evasive about the killing and warned that his arrest would lead to “the greatest drought in history” and that the detectives would never see snow or rain again.
Stanger’s mother told police he “thinks that he has the spirit of God in him and when he becomes violent he says that he is doing what God tells him to do.” Police said the mother believed it possible that Stanger could have killed Coleman.
In 1978, however, police never presented possible charges against Stanger to the district attorney. Part of that may have been the fact that his mother told police he didn’t have access to a gun.
So why weren’t charges filed against Hughes?
The prosecutors at the time have since passed away, so The Utah Investigative Journalism Project shared case information with experts to get their opinion.
John Huber, former U.S. Attorney for Utah with over 26 years of litigation experience, spoke about the confidence that a prosecutor would have to have to bring this case to court.
“Only the people who know the story are colorful characters,” Huber said of Hughes, other witnesses and the young woman who was Hughes’ neighbor and is described by police as working as a go-go dancer.
”If it were two Mormon missionaries and six nuns, the prosecutor is going to have a lot more confidence to bring that case.”
Huber compared the low level of evidence needed for probable cause compared to winning a conviction at a trial like a school grading system.
“Probable cause is less than 50% compared to the need to getting an A to win at trial,” he said. Huber also acknowledged that given the biases a jury might have in 1978 against a gay victim, a prosecutor might have needed an A+ to convict Hughes.
Davis County prosecutor Troy Rawlings echoed this point.
“There was a very different culture, mindset and mentality in Utah back then compared to today,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings also cautioned that if there was opportunity for someone else to have used Hughes’ gun, that would have injected a reasonable doubt that could have foiled a conviction. Still, he said, if the murder happened today, investigators would not have stopped at one interview with Hughes. They would have canvassed for more leads. Coleman’s police report even notes Hughes mentioning the name of a friend who knew where he kept his guns but the file does not indicate that person was ever interviewed by police.
In general, this lack of follow-through could be chalked up to “laziness, if not negligence,” Rawlings said.
A Busy Year
A 1978 police report shows murders were up that year 75% from 1977. The force was busy overall with lots of cases: 459 assaults, 451 robberies and 131 rapes. Still, their murder clearance rate was 86%, having solved 18 of 21 murders.
Out of Salt Lake’s three uncleared murders in 1978, two of the victims — Adams and Coleman — were gay men. This in itself was a crime, with “homosexuality” classified as a sex crime. Police received 27 reports of “homosexuality” that year.
Cordon Parks is a retired Salt Lake City police detective who still works part-time for the department reviewing cold cases.
He said police worked the case diligently in 1978, noting that officers took composite sketches of Coleman to gay bars throughout the city, something that could have taken weeks to do.
“They covered all the bases they could,” he said.
He noted that back then, lots of evidence went missing because before the state crime lab was built, evidence was sent to the Center for Human Toxicology, a lab at the University of Utah, and a lot of evidence they gathered had been lost.
In the Coleman case, cigarette butts found at the scene have been lost that now could have been tested for DNA.
“They processed cigarette butts for blood type, which was about all they could do in ‘78,” Parks said. “Now they can get a DNA profile off less than a nanogram [of material]. A little less than a billionth of a gram of DNA can yield a full profile.”
And Hughes’ gun? Parks said it was returned to him instead of kept in evidence, eliminating the chance for modern ballistics testing.
“The 1970s, it was kind of like Star Wars, where the rebellion fights back against the Death Star. You know, all these little gay kids are doing the best they can to refute the overlords,” said Ben Williams, a Salt Lake City-based LGBTQ+ historian.
He notes that in 1977 a gay-friendly church had a permit to hold a dance at the Utah Capitol rotunda revoked when the state found out who would be dancing there. A gay publication from the time described the move as “legal discrimination.”
Later, activists would protest country singer and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant appearing at the Utah State Fair.
An article from the Provo Daily Herald reported that a candlelight vigil against Bryant’s appearance was broken up by tear gas — the person who released it was never identified.
That same year Coleman and Adams were murdered, the movement was silenced — for a time.
But now, the gay community of the 70s and 80s has transformed into the LGBTQ+ community. They are largely accepted by society in ways that the pioneering gay community members fought hard to make a reality. In 2022, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints even came out in support of federal legislation to recognize same-sex couples.
Hate crimes and uncertainties still face the community — but this resilient group of people isn’t going away. For Williams, the victories of today come from the battles of the past.
“There’s a great opposition in Utah and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why we grew so fast because when there is opposition in something, you all come together,” Williams said.