Murder is sometimes no different than cleaning a public rest room: Many people may desperately want the job done, but few have the stomach to do it themselves. So they pay someone else. In legal circles, it’s called “solicitation for murder-for-hire.”

Numbers on this particular crime niche are hazy, but hired killings have popped up enough in local news over the past year to indicate that it’s no longer a small world–it’s a Current Affair world. Hired killings are inevitably more sensational than the garden-variety do-it-yourself murder. Why? Slimy as the typical murderer must be, those who don’t even have the integrity to commit their own murders are slimier still. And as stupid as the typical murderer probably is, how stupid do you have to be to let someone else in on it?

Hired killings are so common here lately that on November 9 Tribune readers saw no fewer than three cases in the Chicagoland section. First came the trial of Dr. Wynne Superson, recently convicted of trying to find someone to murder her ex-husband. The “hit man” was an undercover Naperville investigator. Du Page prosecutors played a tape of Superson talking to a police informant allegedly about hiring a hit man, in which Superson says she can’t afford to pay anything but would give oral sex daily for ten years.

On the next page, the Tribune noted a development in the ongoing case of Richard J. Bailey, accused of cheating wealthy women through worthless horse sales and hiring someone to kill heiress Helen Vorhees Brach. The sliminess factor is multiplied here because the Bailey investigation led to the current spate of prosecutions for killing horses for insurance money.

And finally, the November 9 Tribune reported a trial date and new witness in the James Kelly case. The former Merrill Lynch executive is accused of trying to hire three people to kill his ex-wife before doing the job himself. Jayne Kelly’s body, with a knife plunged through her chest and protruding from her back, was found by her 12-year-old daughter. “She was actually pinned to the floor,” says Du Page County assistant state’s attorney Joseph Birkett. “It went through her heart to the floor. Big knife.” James Kelly, who has pleaded not guilty, made headlines in September when it was disclosed that he was volunteering in a children’s soccer program at Cabrini-Green while out on bail. He neglected to tell anyone, including his new girlfriend, why he had so much free time.

Hired murders have been prominent on the national scene as well, and these cases easily support the extrasensational theory. Few will forget Holly Hunter in the television docudrama about the Texas mom accused of hiring someone to kill the mother of her daughter’s cheerleading rival. The recent case of Lobster Boy also has potential as a made-for-TV movie. In trials that captivated Florida this fall, Mary Stiles and her son, Harry Glenn Newman, were convicted of paying a neighborhood teenager $1,500 in 1992 to kill Stiles’s husband, Grady Stiles Jr., known by the carnival sideshow name “Lobster Boy” because he was born with pincers for hands and stumps for legs.

Lobster Boy was shot in the head on Thanksgiving while he watched television in a recliner. He’d reportedly terrorized his family, and Mrs. Stiles pleaded battered wife syndrome. Her son Newman–known as “the Human Blockhead” for his own carnival act of hammering nails into his nostrils–showed no remorse at his trial. “I’d do anything for my mother, anything,” he said. “There ain’t no price for my mother’s love.”

Incredibly, our homegrown hired murders do not pale in comparison. A local even came up with a new twist last year: Summit resident Susan Potempa, who suffered from breast cancer, may have paid for her own hit man to kill her while her family was away at a Bears game. Potempa allegedly hired neighbor Reginald Williams for $2,100. According to police, Williams strangled her with his bare hands, pocketed his fee, and left. But Potempa supposedly regained consciousness, got in her car, and tracked him down, demanding that he do the job right. Williams then allegedly beat her to death with a power drill. One can only wonder, if the police scenario is true, what went through Williams’s mind when the ostensibly dead Potempa drove up.

The current crop of cases don’t disappoint either. Consider a few:

Arthur Smith. Authorities suspect this former Chicago cop was hired to kill ex-Chicagoan Rita Quam. Why else would he have gone all the way to a Colorado mountain town, sweating in an uncomfortable fake wig, beard, and mustache, to try shooting Quam while she gathered rocks for a garden? Quam says that Smith, apparently not a crack shot, missed her several times before his gun jammed–even though he walked right up to her with the weapon hidden in a gift box. He was beating Quam on the head with a big rock when a deputy arrived. Smith avoided arrest by collapsing and dying from massive heart failure, possibly brought on by the thin mountain air.

Quam knew Smith through her ex-husband, Howard Quam, a Chicago restaurateur whose lawyer says he was on a boat trip at the time. The Quams divorced last year. In a Tribune story, attorney Steven Venit said his client Howard Quam was “shocked and dismayed” to get back from vacation to find out his friend Arthur Smith had tried to kill his ex-wife. Venit also claimed Rita Quam and Smith were “romantically involved.” According to Eagle County sheriff’s detective Jeff Beavers, Rita Quam told police she believes her ex-husband sent Smith, motivated by $2.4 million in jointly owned property.

Marjorie Cook. These days, it’s hard to imagine trusting a teenager to shovel your snow, much less kill your husband. Yet that’s exactly what Skokie resident Marjorie Cook allegedly did. Cook, 49, was arrested in March along with her 14-year-old daughter. According to prosecutors, Cook’s daughter recruited a 17-year-old hit man, and Cook paid him $3,000 to kill her husband, Ward Cook, an Evanston fire captain.

Prosecutors also say she asked the teenager to do the job while Ward Cook was on duty, in the mistaken belief that she would collect more insurance benefits that way. “That’s a bone of contention,” says Marjorie Cook’s attorney Steven Greenberg, disputing this final charge. “She asked [the teenager] not to do it at the home, and the only other place she knows that he goes is work, so you can read that any way you want.”

Ward Cook told the Tribune as he left court after his wife’s first hearing, “I’m a lucky man. I can foresee a life-style change.” Later, he would picket an Evanston yard sale held by Marjorie Cook’s friends to raise her bail, holding a sign that read “No sale, only jail.” A sale organizer told the Sun-Times, “He brought in more people than he discouraged.”

In July Marjorie Cook claimed she was a battered wife, though Skokie police records showed no calls for help from the Cook home. No date has been set for Cook’s trial. Ward Cook dropped his attempt to gain custody of his daughter after learning unspecified “additional information,” though his lawyer told a reporter “he still doesn’t believe she wanted to kill him.”

Eric Robles. Eric Robles and Sean Helgesen are “typical high school kids,” according to Elgin High School’s athletic director. If so, perhaps Elgin parents should sleep with one eye open. One Saturday in April 1993 Robles called up his girlfriend to remind her to come to his Catholic confirmation ceremony the next day. Then he hung up and allegedly helped Sean Helgesen kill his parents, Diana and Peter Robles, by slashing their throats and stabbing them to death. Eric Robles paid Helgesen $100 to do it by himself, say police, but Helgesen apparently wanted an extra hand. Diana and Peter Robles were “butchered in their own home,” said Du Page County state’s attorney James Ryan. Helgesen’s high school baseball coach said afterward, with no intended irony, “He had such a strong arm. He was really working with it.”

Police found Robles and Helgesen outside Robles’s father’s car near the high school later that night, with the license plates taped over. Robles was bleeding from a stab wound in his leg. Police speculated he held down at least one of his parents to make Helgesen’s job easier, and in the zeal to please his employer Helgesen accidentally stabbed Eric Robles too. Police allege the pair had spent a week plotting the killings, which in teenage terms counts as strategic planning.

Robles and Helgesen both pleaded not guilty, which could be problematic since they each confessed within hours of the murders and the confessions have been ruled admissible as evidence. Helgesen even took detectives on a videotaped tour of the blood-drenched Robles home.

According to a taped statement played in Du Page Circuit Court, Eric Robles told authorities his father was an alcoholic who had abused him and his brother when they were younger and still pushed them around. “‘Clean this up, clean that up,'” he told detectives, quoting his father. “‘This isn’t done, that isn’t done.’ . . . If you left a cup downstairs, he would be after you. But if he did it, well that was all right.” Robles said he wanted to save his mother from his father’s emotional abuse. Diana Robles, who had polio and needed crutches to walk, was found still alive with her throat cut from ear to ear. She was wearing her leg braces, but without her crutches, and died soon after arriving in the emergency room. Peter Robles was stabbed 29 times.

Eric Robles told police he hired Helgesen because “he’s the only guy I knew who would do it.” Robles acted surprised when they arrested him for murder. “I didn’t kill them,” he protested to Du Page prosecutor Joseph Birkett. “I wanted them dead. I paid somebody to do it.”

Kevin Schwall. Wilmette native Kevin Schwall, 19, found it easier and cheaper to hire a hit man to kill his pregnant ex-girlfriend than to help support a baby, according to police. This summer Schwall allegedly asked a friend who he thought had street-gang connections to find a hit man, and the friend went to police. Soon Schwall was on videotape, police say, giving an undercover cop $75 and a Timex watch as a down payment on a $300 hit. Prosecutors charge that Schwall instructed his fake hit man to shoot his girlfriend in the stomach so the fetus would die even if she didn’t.

Schwall was out on bond under home confinement until a September court hearing in which he tried unsuccessfully to get permission to go outside and paint the family garage. On the way home from court, he and his mom stopped at Osco for groceries, unaware they were being followed by a radio reporter who promptly reported their indiscretion. Schwall’s bond was revoked for a weekend before he was sent back home on a monitoring device.

Charles Landwer. This Bartlett auto mechanic was originally convicted of solicitation for murder in 1991. The Illinois Appellate Court later ordered a new trial because of errors in the jury instructions and closing arguments, but the state has petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court to review that reversal and a decision is pending.

Landwer was charged with trying to hire Du Page state’s attorney’s investigator Robert Holguin for $600 to kill two former employees who might have testified against him in an auto-theft case. At first, Landwer almost didn’t use Holguin as a hit man because he said he knew “a guy who will take a baby from a carriage and slam it on the ground for $100.”

At the trial, Landwer claimed he’d been talked into having his former employees killed–he only “wanted to send them to a hospital for seven days. You know, a nice hospital with the needles and nurses and stuff.” On the stand, Landwer described being torn between just hurting or killing the two: “It’s like a little devil and a little angel talking to you. One says ‘hospital,’ one says ‘murder.'”

Landwer’s attorney Jeffrey Fawell says the evidence points to “a very good entrapment case” against Du Page prosecutors. “You get headlines with solicitation to commit murder,” Fawell says. “You don’t get headlines with solicitation to commit battery.”

Landwer testified at his 1991 trial that a year earlier he wanted to terrorize another employee he feared was talking to police by having a man named Barbeque Jerry “go over and scare the guy. Rip up a phone book in front of the kid. That would stop him. You know, hit him or grab him or turn him upside down.”

Edward Lyng. Edward Lyng, 59, a wealthy northwest-suburban businessman, made headlines this year when he was finally convicted of murdering his wife 17 years ago. Lyng apparently doesn’t know when to quit, because he then allegedly hired a fellow inmate awaiting trial for armed robbery to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. The alleged payment, practical if nothing else, was the inmate’s bail–$7,500.

Police say Lyng, perhaps drawing on personal expertise, advised his hit man about three different ways to get rid of the body: make it decompose quickly in a grave, dump it in Canada, or take it four hours away where nobody would look for it. A November 30 Tribune story reported that Lyng was indicted for trying to hire yet another former inmate to kill both the first inmate hit man and another ex-girlfriend. According to authorities, Lyng offered the latest hit man his Cadillac as a down payment.

This spring Lyng’s attorney complained that his client was kept in solitary confinement and let out only in leg irons and handcuffs, but later conceded, “This fellow doesn’t generate much sympathy.”

Nice Work If You Can Get ‘Em

Exactly how many Americans shy away from the messy task of killing a troublesome colleague or spouse, choosing instead to help the economy by providing employment for someone else? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep track, and neither does the FBI. The few Chicago-area municipalities that do count hired murders started only recently, and their numbers are slightly off since some culprits are ultimately charged under a different category, such as conspiracy to murder. Until 1990, for instance, Chicago police lumped hired murders under “other,” according to police spokesman Patrick Camden.

The existing numbers present a confused picture. Only one hired killing happened in Chicago during 1993, says Camden. “Out of about 900 murders a year, that’s a statistical blurb at best,” he scoffs. “I can’t say ‘Talk to Detective Jones, he handles these kinds of things.’ It’s not something that receives a lot of attention on this end. There’s not a lot of it.”

But Chicago lags behind the rest of the region in at least one crime category, namely solicitation for murder-for-hire. Cook County has experienced a decline in hired-murder cases, but the suburbs still outstrip the city. Cook County as a whole saw 16 cases in 1990, 14 in ’91, 8 in ’92, 4 in ’93, and 6 so far in ’94. Du Page County has seen eight cases since 1990, with a high of three in 1991, and even relatively bucolic Kane County charged two cases last year. Put it down to the tedium of suburban life, or to wealthier suburbanites who have the disposable income to avoid unpleasant chores like yard work and murder. Citizens of the city that works are probably more likely to roll up their shirtsleeves and dig in for themselves.

Lake County has no official numbers, but assistant state’s attorney George Strickland has prosecuted four hired murders in the past five years and believes “they’re more common than they used to be. There’s a general cheapening of human life it seems, and as the value of human life goes down philosophically it seems to go down financially speaking. People seem willing to do it for less compelling reasons and less money.”

Du Page County assistant state’s attorney David Bayer agrees. “It’s kind of scary; it’s amazing. And you know, the penalty is severe. I guess defendants don’t sit around thinking about that, but 20 years is the least you can get if you’re convicted. Solicitation for murder-for-hire is 20 to 40 years. Severe penalties, but I guess it doesn’t deter people–either that or they just don’t know about it until they get caught,” he says, laughing.

Kane County assistant state’s attorney Meg Gorecki notes, “There’s no probation [in solicitation for murder-for-hire offenses], whereas if [the defendant] is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a form of murder, he could get probation. Which would be surprising to some people. The legislature has written that right into the actual statute under the penalty. I think it’s to send a message that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated.”

In fact, the 20-to-40-year penalty for solicitation for murder-for-hire is even steeper than the penalty for solicitation for murder, which begets 15 to 30 years, says Gorecki. In murder-for-hire, someone pays someone else–however little–to kill the victim. “We’ve investigated cases . . . where [the payment] was discussed as a couple of hundred dollars or cocaine,” says Strickland, adding, “hell, there’s people out there who’d do it as a favor.” The favor, which avoids an exchange of money, would instead make the crime solicitation for murder, with its shorter sentence. “So always remember to ask for it as a favor, don’t offer money right up front for it unless you really have to,” Strickland advises.

“Take Out My Wife–Please”

Though it has its share of uniquely bizarre twists, the case of Donald Coulson has many of the earmarks of a classic local murder-for-hire. Coulson, 60, an electrical contractor and former village trustee in Libertyville, was charged with solicitation for murder-for-hire but pleaded guilty this year to the lesser charge of attempted aggravated battery with a firearm after his wife Arlene, the intended victim, allegedly stopped cooperating with Lake County prosecutor George Strickland. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Motive: Marital problems. Coulson had allegedly been having a long-term affair with a woman he met through the Boy Scouts.

“Generally speaking, people do it out of spite,” says Strickland. “You don’t see it as much for instance being done by organized crime as it used to happen, at least not in this area. You see it in divorce cases. Marital problems is probably number one on the list, and then after that it has to do with someone’s love life, as opposed to business rivals or anything.”

When the employer of a hit man is the victim’s wife, we should point out, she often claims to have been battered, as in the Lobster Boy and Marjorie Cook cases.

For jailed defendants awaiting trial, the motive is even more transparent. Du Page County charged two jail inmates with solicitation for murder-for-hire last year, says Du Page County prosecutor Birkett. “Many times defendants who are in custody are first of all contemplating what’s happened to them, how they got where they are, and what the future might hold for them,” he says. “And many times whether they’re going to spend a substantial portion of the rest of their lives in prison depends on testimony from someone on the outside.”

Police contend Coulson falls under the “marital problems” category, though he and his mistress initially denied their affair. Before she stopped cooperating with prosecutors, Arlene Coulson provided police with a videotape she found at home of her husband and his mistress, in which, as Strickland tactfully put it in court, “generally speaking, sexual activity ensued.”

Biggest Mistake: Meeting with an undercover sheriff posing as a hit man.

By definition, employers of hit men can’t keep the impending murder to themselves. Eventually someone tells the cops, and usually an undercover officer poses as the prospective hit man. The one exception to this scenario involves battered wives, who tend to hire neighborhood teens instead of undercover cops.

While murder-for-hire is rare in the spectrum of violent crime, Birkett says a successful murder-for-hire is rarer “because of the old adage loose lips sink ships.” This is especially true for scheming jail inmates. “For everyone in jail contemplating a hit on someone outside, there’s thousands of people inside willing to share that information,” says Birkett. “Most of the time–I probably shouldn’t even say this because prospective defendants might read this and not talk–but news travels fast inside a jail cell. And one way or another it filters down to law enforcement.”

Coulson, not being incarcerated at the time, asked an acquaintance at a local electrical supply shop to recommend someone for a “job.” Following the normal course of events, Coulson ended up meeting with Lake County sheriff’s police corporal Curt Corsi, who posed as a mob hit man. The following exchange taken from one of their taped conversations shows Coulson’s less-than-rigorous approach to researching his hit man.

Coulson: I don’t know you obviously and I don’t want to really when you come down to it.

Corsi: And I don’t wanna know you.

Coulson: Yeah. And . . . and when you hear about these things all the time being set up, stings and all this kind of crap, what kind of assurance do I have that you’re not just some undercover police force or something like that?

Corsi: What assurance do I have that you aren’t a cop?

Coulson: Oh. I . . . I started . . . I started the whole thing. Ya know. And I really . . . uh . . . I . . . I don’t have any assurance and you don’t either.

Corsi: No. So we’re . . . we’re kind of like on the same level.

Coulson: Yeah. Right. But see I know . . . I know I’m not wired or anything. I . . . I . . .

Corsi: I’m not either.

Coulson: All right. OK. I . . . somewhere along the line here we gotta have some trust.

Intended Victim: Wife, Arlene Coulson, 56, first grade teacher.

Since the employers of hit men tend to be men–to be precise, husbands experiencing marital difficulties–victims tend to be women, to be precise, wives. While children have shown themselves to be fully capable of hiring help to rub out their parents, the murder-for-hire is usually a cheap divorce. Some hit-man employers preempt the traditional divorce proceedings, while others wait until the divorce earns the sobriquets “bitter” and “drawn out.”

In the marriage category, Coulson was an early bird. No divorce was in the works, though Arlene Coulson sensibly filed for divorce after Donald’s arrest–a common reaction for hunted spouses.

But Coulson put his own peculiar signature on the crime by pretending the victim was actually a friend’s wife who was suffering from cancer. He told Corsi that he was acting on his friend’s behalf, saying, “It’s killing him. Ya know. All the treatments and all that stuff. . . . I hate to see the guy just becoming a basket case too. Ya know. Remortgage his house and everything. Uh . . . it’s killing him, and he won’t have shit. He’s got doctor bills that are coming in now that are unbelievable.”

Fee: $3,000

Hit men operate in a strange kind of open market, and their wildly varying fees reflect that. Local cases see fees anywhere from $100 to $250,000, sometimes with an additional payment ranging from guns and drugs to stereo equipment.

Coulson’s case falls in the mid-range. He was neither so cheap as to let the price of his wife’s life fall under $1,000, nor was he generous enough to pay the original asking price of $5,000. “The situation is . . . it boils down to how much,” Coulson said to fake hit man Corsi at their first meeting, according to the prosecution’s tape transcript. “What were you prepared to offer?” asked Corsi. “Well, this guy’s no millionaire by any means,” answered Coulson, still pretending to arrange the hit for a friend. “Well, the original sum that I heard was five thousand,” Corsi replied. “I don’t know if [he] could go that high,” said Coulson. “I think this guy is ready to pay like three.”

Method: Hit man was to shoot Arlene Coulson in a staged home invasion while Coulson was on a fishing trip. Coulson planned to call his children and ask them to go check on their mother so one of them would find her body.

Employers of hit men generally prefer to have an alibi that puts them far from the crime scene. In that sense, Howard Quam’s lawyer should consider that his client’s timely boat trip may begin to look suspicious rather than providential.

In Coulson’s case, he tried to arrange to go away fishing with the Libertyville chief of police, of all people. “And the chief was not good friends with him,” Strickland says. “The chief was saying to himself, ‘Why is this guy asking me on this fishing trip?’ And of course, although the sheriff’s department did this case, if the murder had happened in Libertyville it would’ve been a Libertyville department murder case, so literally their boss would’ve been the alibi.”

As Coulson explained it to Corsi, “Then what we’ll do is call one of the kids and say, ‘Hey, can you go see where mom is?’ . . . The kid’ll go there and the kid will find the mother . . . and then we’ll just drop what we’re doing and come back early. By then it’ll be all cleaned up and be gone, and we’ll be accounted for. We won’t be there. Nowhere in the area. Now, does that make sense to you?”

Before lighting on the fishing trip, however, Coulson and Corsi went through several possible scenarios. The tapes imply Coulson at first resisted the idea of having his wife killed at their home. “I don’t think this guy wants to come home and have to stumble across that. Ya know what I mean?” he told Corsi.

Corsi suggested running her down with a car. “Yeah, but I don’t know,” Coulson mused. “This gal drives everywhere, I think. I don’t know how you would get her out in the open.” Later, Coulson rejected the hit-and-run plan outright: “Uh . . . hit and run that’s . . . if I were to propose that to him he’d . . . he’d probably never forgive me. Something like . . . uh . . . oh, ya know, an accidental shooting or something.”

At one point Coulson considered having the hit done during his regular Wednesday night bingo game at the American Legion post, though he later changed his mind:

Coulson: But then he has to come home and find the . . . uh . . . the thing. That . . . he’s really got butterflies about that . . . Ya know what I mean? If he had to walk in to do that I think he’d . . . really [be] concerned. Ya know what I mean? Uh . . . we could have somebody else take care of that, take it away and clean things up . . .

Corsi: Ya know. What, are you gonna lay it off on one of the kids?

Coulson: Yeah. Sure. That’d be a hell of a lot easier to walk in there and say, “Hey.” Ya know. “Mom’s shot.” Ya know. That’s it. Let them call the police and the whole bit then.

Nice Touches: Like DNA, each murder-for-hire case has its own distinguishing marks that separate it from humdrum, everyday melodramas. The Coulson case is full of its own sordid points of interest.

The Coulsons’ license plate number was their wedding date. After telling the hit man the victim was the sick wife of a friend, Donald Coulson gave him a picture of Arlene Coulson. Arlene Coulson figured out the plot herself after noticing the missing picture and finding the X-rated video. She made her sons her life insurance beneficiaries and confronted Coulson, asking if he had a contract out on her life. Carl Coulson, the couple’s oldest son, said to an investigating officer that he had told his mother that he’d noticed his father had a recent interest in “poisons and death.”

And even though most of Coulson’s plotting is captured on video and audiotape, Arlene Coulson dropped her divorce petition, stopped cooperating with prosecutors, and asked the court to stop an order keeping her husband away from her. The pair apparently planned to enjoy a 38th anniversary dinner after the August 31 hearing at which Donald pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of attempted aggravated battery with a firearm.

Coulson also provided some exceptional instructions to his hit man. First, he asked for a clean shot. “The heart would probably be ideal. . . . I don’t think he wants [to] mess up this gal. Ya know. Not by any means. I think he wants to have, ya know, a nice funeral and the whole bit,” he told Corsi.

Later, Coulson added another condition: “Well, see the thing is if you could possibly avoid any kind of terror or scaring the shit out of her, like a nice, clean shot in the back or something like that. Ya know. . . . ‘Cause this guy doesn’t want any fear or scare . . . any last . . . last minute trauma to scare the living shit out of her at the end. Ya know what I mean?”

Bonus Quote: “He’s a nice and likable guy.” –John Schulien, Lake County Board member and chairman of the Lake County Republican Party, after Coulson’s arrest

When otherwise unremarkable people are arrested for trying to hire someone to kill their husbands, wives, or parents, thorough journalism calls for canvassing for quotes from friends and neighbors. Often, of course, the neighbors have no clue as to what kind of person they’ve been congenially waving at for years. Others tell little anecdotes. One of Marjorie Cook’s neighbors told the Tribune that Cook feared her husband would discover her large credit card balances. “She once asked me to take in her mail while she went away, even though Ward was staying home. She said, ‘You don’t know Ward,'” the neighbor confided to the reporter.

Eric Robles and Sean Helgesen produced a bonanza of shocked quotes from their young high school friends. One said: “I guess [Eric] just freaked out. He didn’t have any problems that I knew of.” On the Robles family, another offered: “They weren’t very friendly. They were intimidating. Sometimes you’d see them and they wouldn’t say anything. They’d just stare.” And from a former girlfriend of Robles: “I wouldn’t have spent so much time with him if I thought he had a problem. If I saw him right now, I’d go up and hug him. He is not a murderer.”

Status: Coulson was sentenced October 19 to seven years in prison.

Since murders-for-hire are notoriously unsuccessful, most hit-man employers are eventually sentenced to jail. Coulson got off particularly easy due to Arlene Coulson’s decision to stop cooperating with the prosecution, prompting prosecutors to settle for a guilty plea to attempted aggravated battery with a firearm. Coulson had hoped, in fact, to get away with parole.

Attorneys for hit-man employers tend to use one of several strategies to convince a court that their clients are either innocent or deserve light sentences. The strategies protesting innocence can be called “My Client May Be Slime but He’d Never Do That” and “So He Met With a Hit Man, so What? He Didn’t Really Mean It.” The strategy for seeking a light sentence is “OK, OK, He Did It, but He’s Still a Nice Guy.”

Most common, perhaps, is the “He Didn’t Really Mean It” defense. “It’s kind of the only argument left,” points out Du Page assistant state’s attorney David Bayer. “Something like that, most people out there say, ‘How could anyone really want someone killed?’ So the average citizen may have some question as to how they could really mean it. And in these kinds of cases there aren’t a lot of options for the defense, especially when it’s on tape.”

Coulson’s defense managed to combine all three strategies to become the awkward “My Client May Be Slime and He Did It, but He Didn’t Really Mean It and He’s Still a Nice Guy.” Pleas for leniency came from Coulson himself, Coulson’s lawyer, Arlene Coulson, and a lawyer representing Arlene Coulson. The only person at the October 19 sentencing who seemed to think Donald Coulson was anything less than virtuous was the prosecutor, George Strickland–and that includes Coulson’s family, sitting unhappily in the first row, and Coulson’s mistress, sitting quietly in the back row.

“Mr. Coulson is not a fool,” Strickland began his closing argument, mentioning Coulson’s Korean war service. “He’s been on this earth for a while. . . . What Mr. Coulson turned into at some point, besides a compulsive liar, is someone who undertook a plan to have his wife executed.”

Strickland argued that Coulson had no chance for rehabilitation, since he took no responsibility for the crime and, according to Strickland, continued lying to court officials throughout the trial procedure, principally by claiming to have finished his affair with his mistress in favor of his wife while simultaneously telling his mistress he was leaving his wife.

“It’s really startling, the scope of his lying,” said Strickland, adding that the mistress didn’t know Coulson was going back to his wife until he admitted it in open court. Strickland asked Lake County judge Charles Scott to send Coulson away for ten years.

Coulson’s side predictably disagreed. His attorney Thomas Hannigan had already presented several character witnesses, though in this case the term would seem to be oxymoronic. Kiwanis Club member Bruce Pessin testified that Coulson was active in the local Kiwanis chapter, volunteering for membership chairman. “Our club was small and could have folded without new members. . . . He brought in two members in a fairly short period of time,” said Pessin. Paul Boescher, the Coulson children’s elementary school principal and a 25-year friend of Donald Coulson, said, “I personally thought he was an exemplary citizen. . . . He was respected not only by me but other people.”

The last witness, Harry Swanson, knew Coulson both through the Boy Scouts and through their American Legion post. Coulson was a scoutmaster, said Swanson, and when they went camping “Donald Coulson was our cook,” a scary statement given Carl Coulson’s earlier testimony about his father’s interest in “poisons and death.”

As for the American Legion, Swanson said Coulson “was our commander, then he was our membership chairman, and in the last few years he’s been coming every Wednesday night and helping run our bingo program.” Perhaps Swanson didn’t know that at one point Coulson planned on using his bingo night as an alibi while the hit took place on Arlene. As Coulson says at one point on the prosecution’s tapes, “That way when we come home from bingo she just won’t be there.”

Arlene Coulson had her own lawyer, Robert Hauser, plead for probation during closing arguments. Coulson, he said, was a decorated war veteran, a Boy Scout leader, “and, from what I understand, a good father,” perhaps forgetting that Coulson had hoped his children would find their mother’s body.

“I don’t know if he went through a mid-life crisis,” said Hauser, understandably groping a bit. “I don’t know what he was doing. Clearly he was screwing around, and he still has a feeling for [his mistress]. How that translates into doing ten years in a penitentiary, I don’t see it.”

Coulson’s attorney Hannigan took up the torch again with his closing statement. “I don’t know that having an affair warrants sending someone to the penitentiary,” Hannigan said, insisting that Coulson tried to back out of the hit. “The first thing Donald Coulson says when he sees the hit man is ‘I don’t know if this will work, my friend can’t afford $5,000.'” Hannigan may have confused stinginess with proof of innocence.

“Regarding the affair, if Mr. Strickland believes it was a long-term relationship, then there was no pressure to end a life,” Hannigan continued. “But [Strickland] sits back, throws it on the wall, and hopes it sticks. . . . Sixty years to earn the respect of his community . . . and in 60 minutes [Coulson] destroyed it by agreeing to meet with the hit man. But he is a good man. And he has no prior record. And the [probation officer’s report indicates] that this is not likely to happen again.”

Then Arlene Coulson herself, choking back tears, begged the judge for leniency. “Please have mercy on my husband. I do believe he’s a good man. I do know he has some problems, but I ask you to consider my request.”

And finally Donald Coulson had a go at it. “I made a horrible, horrible mistake,” he said, in a whopping understatement. “I don’t know how I got myself involved in a situation so bad so fast. It became a whirlwind. . . . I destroyed a whole life, a life built for 60 years. . . . I was under tremendous stress. . . . I’ve ruined my life, I’ve destroyed it.” He can no longer, he noted, participate in the Boy Scouts. “I can no longer be a merit badge counselor. But most of all is the anguish I’ve brought upon my family. . . . It’s just been a terrible, terrible experience for me.” Strangely, he never directly mentioned ruining his wife’s life, or the anguish he specifically caused his wife.

Judge Scott was having none of it. “Firstly, as to the tapes I saw, they show me, and they would strike anybody the same way, a man who was there to barter the assassination of his wife,” said Scott. Though Coulson canceled the hit man at the last minute, Scott said, “The falling back by Mr. Coulson was not caused by his finer humane sensibilities, or his love and concern for his wife and family, but because he thought things were getting too touchy.”

Scott said he couldn’t find that Coulson’s supposed stress “would tend to excuse his behavior,” but noted dryly that “given the public notice, I doubt that Mr. Coulson would attempt to have his wife murdered again.”

After Scott sentenced Coulson to seven years, the hearing ended as if scripted for Matlock. Coulson was led away in handcuffs. Mrs. Coulson collapsed in tears, supported by a family friend and her children gathered around her. The mistress slipped quietly out the back. And prosecutor Strickland gravely gathered his materials and left, trailed by several reporters.

Outside the courtroom, Strickland walked over to a group of police officers involved in the case. “Wow!” said one cop, injecting a welcome dose of reality back into the proceedings. “That was more’n I thought he’d get!”

A Hit Parade

Having dissected the trial of Donald Coulson, we can reduce other recent murder-for-hire cases down to the fun facts. Here goes:

Hit-man Employer: Sean Fitzpatrick

Biggest Mistake: Hiring a Du Page Metropolitan Enforcement Group agent

Hit Man: Du Page Metropolitan Enforcement Group agent Thomas Gallahue

Intended Victim: Jeannine Prokopec, mother of Fitzpatrick’s then 15-month-old son

Fee: $500, plus a finder’s fee of two stereo speakers for the guy who got him a hit man

Motive: Custody battle

Method: Suggestions included a drive-by shooting, breaking her legs, and stabbing her in the chest.

Nice Touch: When arrested last March, Fitzpatrick was already serving four years probation and a 60-day nights-and-weekends sentence at a work-release center for burglary and forgery. Petitions had already been filed to revoke his probation because he was arrested a month earlier for driving without a license. Fitzpatrick and Prokopec both had asked for orders of protection on each other, which could explain why Fitzpatrick felt he couldn’t do the job himself. He showed up late to the meeting at which he was to pay the hit man, and with only $240 of the $500. He borrowed the $240 from a relative. While in jail awaiting trial, the indomitable Fitzpatrick tried hiring someone else to kill both Prokopec and the person who first put him in touch with the undercover agent. This time he offered $3,000. He tried to arrange the second hit by pushing a handwritten note on the jail floor to another inmate, asking him to read it and flush it down the toilet. Following classic defense strategy, Fitzpatrick’s lawyer argued, “Sean is not an angel, but his intent is critical, and he never intended to follow through with paying the $500. . . . He is 18, the father of two children out of wedlock, and he is young and foolish, but there was never an intent to kill Jean.” In his own defense, Fitzpatrick told the jury, “I wanted her to have broken legs and get messed up a little bit. But I would have killed myself if she would have been killed.”

Status: Convicted of two counts of solicitation for murder and two counts of solicitation for murder-for-hire. Awaiting sentencing.

Hit-man Employer: Charles David Garner

Biggest Mistake: Unfamiliar with family insurance arrangements

Hit Man: Fellow U.S. Army soldier Kevin Miller; both Garner and Miller were stationed in Germany.

Victim: Wife, Catherine Garner

Fee: $250,000

Motive: $500,000 in insurance money; gaining custody of son. As it turned out, wife’s policy was only worth $100,000, and she named her son as the sole beneficiary.

Method: Miller shot Catherine Garner in the driveway of her parents’ home in northwest-suburban Inverness. It was Halloween night and she was returning from trick-or-treating with her two-year-old son, Max.

Nice Touch: Married his pregnant German girlfriend seven months after his wife was murdered. The defense attorney claimed Garner was too incompetent to plan his wife’s murder. As part of his “My Client May Be Slime but He Wouldn’t Do That” strategy, Garner’s attorney said, “Garner may be a bad husband, a bad father, and he very well may be a jerk. But he’s not a killer.” Garner, leaving court following the verdict, said under his breath, “This is bullshit.” At his own trial, Miller claimed he traveled all the way from Germany just to try to rob Garner’s wife, without Garner’s knowledge, then slipped on some grass and accidentally killed her.

Status: Convicted by a military court, received a mandatory life sentence.

Hit-man Employer: Richard Kagan, 47, Loop attorney

Biggest Mistake: Hiring a hit man with poor aim

Hit Man: Former client Ronald Petkus, 43, alleged enforcer for Hell’s Henchmen motorcycle gang

Intended Victim: Wife, Margaret Kagan, 47, substitute teacher

Fee: $10,000

Motive: Messy divorce

Method: Bumbling hit man Petkus followed Margaret Kagan around for a month trying unsuccessfully to shoot her, then planted a pipe bomb under her car at a Metra station while she was downtown in divorce court. Margaret Kagan suffered only minor burns on her legs.

Nice Touches: After the botched hit, Margaret Kagan hired a bodyguard–and so did Richard Kagan. At the trial, Richard Kagan’s lawyer noted that hit man Petkus received only $200 from Kagan, supposedly as a Christmas present, and asked Petkus why he hadn’t demanded a more substantial down payment if he was expected to execute a hit. “I trusted him,” said Petkus. When found guilty, Kagan looked at his girlfriend and mouthed “I love you” in front of a courtroom audience that included his two daughters. At his sentencing, Kagan spoke of himself in glowing terms for two and a half hours, including how he used to change his daughters’ diapers. Lake County assistant state’s attorney George Strickland told the court, “If he ever develops a conscience, he will wake up one day screaming.”

Bonus Quote: “She nursed him back to health, and then he left,” one neighbor told the Tribune, describing how Margaret Kagan took care of Richard Kagan after he had a stroke.

Status: Sentenced to 42 years in prison.

Hit-man employer: Dennis King, 55, northwest-suburban businessman

Biggest Mistake: Kept calling his nephew–who was recording their conversations–asking him to get someone to kill Mrs. King, even though he told his nephew he suspected someone was recording their phone calls

Hit Man: None actually hired, but offered nephew in Wyoming $5,000 to find one

Intended Victim: Wife, Frances King

Fee: Offered $20,000 for the hit man

Motive: Messy divorce

Method: Undefined

Nice Touch: Briefly called off hit when he thought wife was sick; unclear if this was humane or just practical. In court, he maintained the $2,000 he sent his nephew to fund a hit man’s trip to Chicago was actually a gift so his nephew could “have a better Christmas.” King said he was just fantasizing during the approximately 40 conversations in which he tried to persuade his nephew to find a hit man. In one of the tape-recorded conversations, King said secrecy was vital because Frances King “richly, fully expects to get whacked.”

Status: Sentenced to 12 years and one month.

Hit-man Employer: Marvin Steinberg, 53, of Elk Grove Village

Biggest Mistake: Hiring an undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

Hit Man: Mark Shaffer, ATF undercover agent

Intended Victim: Robert Gaughan of Berwyn

Fee: Six guns and $3,500

Motive: Gaughan allegedly owed Steinberg $37,000

Method: Undefined

Nice Touch: Steinberg used a go-between to hire the hit man, who turned out to be an undercover ATF agent. The ATF agent gave the go-between pictures in which prospective victim Gaughan was made up to look like he’d been shot in the head and left bleeding in the snow. The go-between phoned Steinberg and said there was “tar leaking off the roof, and the roofing job was done.”

Status: Sentenced to 8 years for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, which he will serve on top of a 31-year sentence for drug dealing.

Hit-man Employer: Robert Stickles, 31, former manager of the Stained Glass Factory Outlet at Gurnee Mills

Biggest Mistake: Hiring an undercover detective

Hit Man: Waukegan detective Michael Quinn

Intended Victim: Phyllis Wilson, stepmother of a 17-year-old employee at Stained Glass Factory Outlet

Fee: $600

Motive: Wilson told son to quit hanging around with his weird manager

Method: Undefined, but according to police tapes when asked what to do with the body Stickles said, “After a couple of days have someone find her. Drop her off in Oak Forest or someplace.”

Nice Touch: Also allegedly discussed murdering the 17-year-old’s father or the teenager himself. “He had trouble making up his mind who he wanted to murder,” says state’s attorney Michael J. Waller. Stickles did have a previous record: he was convicted in 1991 for possession of explosives, when he tried to blow up his own van with dynamite and blame it on his ex-wife.

Status: Sentenced last year to 25 years in prison.

Hit-man Employer: Millionaire Robert Tezak, 46, Will County businessman and former Will County coroner

Biggest Mistake: Trusting a check forger

Hit Man: Former cell mate Sheldon Shannon, check forger

Intended Victim: Kenneth Floyd

Fee: $1,000 partial payment

Motive: Thought Floyd would testify at his upcoming arson trial that he was paid to torch Tezak’s Galaxy Bowling Alley in Crest Hill.

Nice Touch: Paid Floyd $15,000 to torch the bowling alley, and allegedly wanted the money back after the fire did little damage. Also threatened to kill his former daughter-in-law, with whom he had an eight-year affair, if she testified against him. Had his son relay that message. Originally made his fortune marketing the card game Uno, prompting Republican state senator Ed Petka to tell the Tribune, “It’s the stuff people dream about. The guy pulled a horseshoe out of his butt.”

Status: Pleaded guilty to arson and threatening to kill a witness; sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison, 5 years probation, and ordered to pay $1.25 million in fines and restitution.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.