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DATELINE: LITTLE AXE
A haunting feeling that he could have done more –
that he somehow could have rescued 8-year-old Shane Alan Coffman
from the hell where he lived and died – grips the Rev. Sunny Stuart.
The Baptist pastor’s voice cracks as he reflects on the Shane he
The blond-haired boy who hopped and skipped off the church van
each Sunday morning. The bright child who at age 5 memorized a
difficult Scripture and proudly accepted a new Bible. The would-be
third-grader so hungry he dug other children’s scraps out of the
garbage after eating his own school lunch.
Then there was the Shane who showed up at vacation Bible school
with whip marks on his legs.
“I’d like to say to these little children,” Stuart said of
Shane’s surviving five brothers and sisters, “I didn’t desert you,
I just didn’t know where you were, and I’m sorry.”
He paused to regain his composure, then added, “And I’m sorry I
didn’t do something more to find you and protect you and help you.”
Nine days ago, a man cleaning rural Cleveland County property
made the horrifying discovery: Shane’s decomposing remains buried
like a worm under dirt in an abandoned freezer.
Until November, Tim Goff had rented to Shane’s mother, Bertha
Jean Coffman, a trailer where the family lived at 114 Midnight
Drive, near 156 Avenue and Indian Hills Road.
Cleveland County sheriff’s deputies promptly arrested Bertha
Coffman, 39, and her boyfriend, Donald Lee Gilson, 35. They later
were charged with killing Shane and hiding his body in the freezer.
Later last week, the Cleveland County district attorney’s office
added child-abuse charges involving the surviving children to the
counts facing the mother and boyfriend, who remain jailed without
Prosecutors allege the death occurred about Aug. 15.
For six months, it seems, the world forgot Shane Alan Coffman.
Last year, 39,831 cases of child abuse were reported in Oklahoma.
Of those, investigators confirmed abuse in 11,700 cases. Thirty-four
deaths were attributed to child abuse.
Oklahoma Kids Count, a project of the Oklahoma Institute for
Child Advocacy, reported the state’s confirmed child abuse cases
have jumped more than 50 percent in the last decade.
But outside of McAlester’s high-profile Ryan Luke murder case,
most child-abuse cases go virtually unnoticed by the media, the
politicians – and the public.
A variety of factors, however, combined to push Shane’s case out
of the wastebasket of distressing statistics and to the forefront
of Oklahoma’s collective conscience:
The incomprehensible nature of the body’s disposal; “the
system’s” failure to prevent the tragedy, despite repeated
child-abuse complaints; and probably most important, Gov. Frank
Keating’s interest in the case and demand for a full report from
the state Department of Human Services.
The First Reports
Each Sunday morning, the church van would roll through the woods
to the disheveled mobile home where Shane and his family lived
between Little Axe and Newalla.
Most weeks for four years, the Coffman children would run to the
“I believe when they got in that van, life changed for them,”
the Rev. Stuart said of the children, all of whom he baptized.
The van took the children to the 600-member First Baptist Church
of Little Axe.
There they would find Stuart standing at the door below the
white steeple, ready to greet them with handshakes, hugs – and all
the breakfast and lunch they could swallow.
For a few hours at least, “they knew no one was going to beat
them, that they were going to get something to eat, that they could
go home after church and be full and not hungry,” Stuart recalled.
Even if they often smelled of urine, the children displayed good
manners and behaved during the sermon. Sometimes they would come
with clean clothes and their hair combed. Other times their clothes
and hands would be dirty and the little boys’ feet sockless.
Shane’s sister, Crystal, now 7, was about 3 years old the first
of four times Stuart contacted human services officials with
concerns about the children’s welfare.
As the pastor remembers, some of the church women had taken the
little girl to the bathroom one morning when they noticed black,
blue and yellowish-looking marks on her buttocks. He can’t recall
the exact date.
Stuart said he learned that Crystal’s mother had punished her by
withholding food and water.
“The little girl’s thirsty; she’s 3 years old,” Stuart said.
When Crystal was caught drinking out of the toilet, she was
beaten, the pastor said the mother admitted to him and the human
Human services officials later contacted Stuart to tell him they
had informed Crystal’s father – also Shane’s father, a truck driver
identified as Al Thomas – about the alleged abuse.
“However, to my knowledge, the child was left in the home,”
Stuart said. “I’m not aware that they had the child examined. But
this was a severe beating.”
The next time Stuart called human services officials concerning
Shane. A Bible school teacher brought the marks on the boy’s legs
to the pastor’s attention.
“I don’t know which line I called, and I didn’t press it hard
because I know sometimes children have scratches and marks … but
they were notified,” he said of the human services department.
“That seemed to be like a minor infraction. I mean, still that’s
A third report was made when Little Axe school employees
notified Stuart that the Coffman children were digging discarded
food out of the trash and eating it.
“I felt like these kids were hungry and were starving. I don’t
know what action DHS took. I know what action we took.”
Waiting for Food
From that moment, the children were offered seconds and thirds
on their Sunday meals. And no one tried to rush them into Sunday
school class at 10 a.m.
“We just let them eat until their little bellies were full,”
At the same time, church members began delivering bags of
groceries to the Coffman residence.
But even that, they said, did not ensure the children would get
Stuart said church members learned that the children were
punished in two main ways: by starving them and by preventing them
from going to church.
One older man frequently took dozens of doughnuts and gallons of
milk or hot chocolate to the trailer, the pastor recalled. The
children would be waiting, looking out the window for him to arrive.
But often, a former boyfriend of the mother would take the food
and put it away, saying, “We’ll put this up for later.” Most times,
beer cans and ashtrays of cigarette butts covered the floor.
“So the old gentleman who was taking food to this home would
say, No, eat this food now.’ … And he’d stay there to make sure
these little kids got to eat.”
The Emotional Trauma
Stuart’s fourth report to the state Department of Human Services
came in November 1994.
Two of the boys told their Sunday school teacher that a sister
had been sexually molested by a boyfriend of their mother, known
only by his first name.
That Monday, detective Sgt. Joanne Sellars with the Cleveland
County Sheriff’s Department was sent to investigate, Stuart said.
He said Sellars determined the residence was unsuitable for
children and immediately took Crystal, who was home, into
protective custody. The detective then went to the Little Axe
School and picked up the remaining five children, including Shane.
Stuart described the condition in which Sellars found the
“I think the report will reveal that the only food in the house
was some rice in a refrigerator bowl. There were naked wires
sticking out … broken windows, doors beat up, holes in the wall
… no beds or blankets for the children … it was nasty, filthy,
No charge was filed concerning the sexual molestation complaint,
despite, Stuart said, the mother corroborating the children’s story.
The pastor said he thinks officials believed the children were
too young to testify.
However, the discovery of Shane’s body – and the resulting
publicity – has prompted Cleveland County officials to re-examine
the molestation complaint.
But District Attorney Tim Kuykendall also told The Oklahoman
that his staff is weighing the emotional trauma that more charges
could cause the children.
“I do not see us filing anything in the immediate future because
of the emotional trauma for the victims,” Kuykendall said. “We are
not pushing that at this moment because we are weighing just how
detrimental that could be to the kids.”
Short Time Away
After Shane and his siblings were taken from Bertha Coffman, a
hearing was conducted in Norman and the children were sent to live
with foster parents in Holdenville.
Three different sets of foster parents kept two children each.
The arrangement didn’t last long.
Rep. Laura Boyd, D-Norman, said she learned a judge approved a
petition declaring Bertha Coffman’s children legally deprived
because of the way she treated them. But by January 1995, the
mother had met all of the conditions set out, so the petition was
Boyd’s comment came last week as she proposed legislation that
would require at least three months of oversight after a family’s
child abuse case was examined and closed.
During the month he was away from his mother, Shane stayed with
the Jerry Orsburn family in Holdenville, along with his brother
Tran, now 11.
Orsburn experienced a major shock last week when Shane’s
photograph – and the story of his death – flashed across his
The Holdenville man, who has three daughters of his own,
recalled that Shane liked to chase the chickens at Orsburn’s
parents’ place outside town. And the brothers liked to play
cops-and-robbers with their toy guns.
“He was a good kid. We enjoyed having him,” Orsburn said of
Shane. “He was a little bit quiet and withdrawn.”
Just thinking of Shane makes Orsburn smile, he said. But his
voice was shaking as he talked.
“I believe that something should have been done,” Orsburn said.
“I’m looking forward to the report that Gov. Keating gets back.”
At human services officials’ request, Stuart and his wife drove
to Holdenville to pick up the children and return them to their
Stuart said he doesn’t know what criteria Bertha Coffman
satisfied, but he would love to talk with the person who decided
she had a fit home.
“It was filthy, no chairs to sit on and no table in the house,”
he said. “And the mother was concerned something about a stereo she
That night, the minister and his wife also encountered a new
face at the residence: Gilson, the mother’s new boyfriend.
Father of Four Slain
Before he was shot to death in a 1985 domestic dispute, Danny
Dean Coffman fathered Bertha Coffman’s first four children, the
jailed woman’s mother says.
Danny Coffman was 32 and Bertha Little was 26 when they received
an Oklahoma County marriage license in March 1983. Birth records
show Jeremy Coffman, born in August 1982, was seven months old at
Isaac Coffman was born in August 1983, followed by Tran Coffman
in September 1994. Tia Coffman arrived in January 1986 – 10 days
after Danny Coffman’s death.
Danny Coffman was killed at his father’s Webbers Falls-area
home, said Frank Anderson, a Muskogee County Sheriff’s Department
Anderson said he recalls the shooting in which Danny Coffman was
killed with a .38-caliber pistol. The shooting occurred about 10
p.m. on the night before Christmas Eve in 1985. A medical
examiner’s death certificate shows he died the next day in the
Muskogee General Hospital emergency room.
Danny Coffman’s brother, Dearl, was arrested four days later. He
pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of assault and battery with a
deadly weapon. He served a five-year suspended sentence, said Jerry
Massie, state Corrections Department spokesman.
Earlier in 1985, Danny Coffman had filed for divorce from Bertha
Coffman. The June 28, 1985, divorce petition in Oklahoma County
District Court alleged the mother took two of their children and
deserted Danny Coffman two weeks earlier.
The petition alleged that Bertha Coffman was an unfit mother and
should return Tran, then 10 months old, to the father immediately.
Danny Coffman also asked for the couple’s household furniture and
He accused his wife of adultery and “presently living in incest
with her brother.” Danny Coffman described himself as a good and
faithful husband without fault. However, The Oklahoman’s archives
reveal he was arrested at least twice during their relationship for
driving under the influence.
Domestic problems apparently run in Bertha Coffman’s family.
As one source put it, “the system” has dealt with Bertha
Coffman’s family for 35 years.
Bertha Coffman “is a product of the system,” said the source,
who is close to Shane’s murder investigation. The source spoke only
on condition of anonymity.
The jailed woman’s mother, Edna Pauline Sperry of south Oklahoma
City, recalls that human services officials took four of her 10
children into custody in 1961. Bertha Coffman would have been 4 at
Sperry said family trouble began with a 1959 car wreck in
Missouri. Sperry’s husband was driving when the crash killed one of
their children and injured another.
Then in 1961, after the family moved to Oklahoma, a trip to
visit the husband’s relatives in Purcell turned violent. She said
she had taken the children for hamburgers when angry relatives
surrounded her outside the old East End Bar in Purcell. She said
police arrested her and took the four children.
As a result, Bertha Coffman grew up in foster care and was
molested by a foster father, Sperry said.
Sperry recalled that her dead grandson, Shane, loved to fish and
camp with his uncle from Okmulgee. She said she remembered taking
the boy to a south Oklahoma City park for picnics.
She said he loved to slide and play on a swing.
“He had a little smiley face,” said his grandmother, who as of
late last week still had custody of Bertha Coffman’s oldest child,
Now Sperry is making plans to fly to New York City to talk
about the case – for pay – on a talk television show.
Sperry said she does not know what occurred before Shane’s
death. She told The Oklahoman her daughter called her from jail and
said Shane just passed out one day.
The grandmother said Bertha Coffman gave this version of events:
She placed Shane in a bathtub to revive him after he passed out.
The boy then regained consciousness and said, “I love you, Momma.”
Then she left him in the bathroom and walked into the kitchen. When
she returned, the boy had died, but not by drowning.
Sperry said her daughter told her, “I didn’t mean to, Momma. I
love my babies. I really do. I am not taking all the blame for
this. Don (Gilson) is a good guy.”
Mobile Home Abandoned
Somewhere around the time prosecutors think the couple killed
Shane, the family abandoned the mobile home where the body was
Church members did not know what had happened to the family, but
heard they had moved to Texas.
Pastor Stuart said he learned only after Shane’s remains were
found that Bertha Coffman had sent a letter to Little Axe school
officials. In the certified letter, the mother informed school
officials she planned to home-school her children.
As Stuart learned later, the family moved just a few miles away
to Gilson’s mobile home. His mobile home, next door to his mother
and stepfather’s house near 192 Avenue and Franklin Road, is about
10 miles south of Newalla.
Gilson’s mother, Lorna Wilson, said she first noticed Bertha
Coffman’s brown van parked occasionally outside her son’s trailer
“This went on more and more, and for longer periods of time, and
then I started noticing there were kids in it (the van), in the
heat of the day for hours,” she said.
She said when she finally cornered her son about the children
being left in the van, he told her, ” Those are not my kids, and I
don’t have anything to say about it.’ ”
Both Lorna Wilson and Gilson’s stepfather, Floyd Wilson,
describe the charges against him as totally out of character.
“All his life, he has been such a caring and tender-hearted
boy,” his mother said, except when he lets women control him.
Lorna Wilson said a car wreck three years ago left him with
massive head injuries and headaches and changed his personality.
Just as he was starting to be happy and cheerful again, he met
Bertha Coffman, she said.
Floyd Wilson said Gilson called from jail and told him: “She
thought she was going to lose her kids if they found out … so she
asked me to help her hide the body. I did. I didn’t know there was
any jail time or anything. I thought it was a misdemeanor or
something. I didn’t know it was a criminal act.”
A Thanksgiving Basket
Before she realized Bertha Coffman was living with her son,
Lorna Wilson said she heard the girlfriend was on welfare.
However, Bertha Coffman was not receiving food stamps or Aid to
Families with Dependent Children payments, a check of state human
services department records by The Oklahoman has revealed.
So, Gilson’s mother said, she asked her son if Bertha Coffman
would mind the Wilsons’ church giving her family a Thanksgiving
“He said, No, I don’t think so.’ I said, Fine, I’ll get one.’ ”
The day before Thanksgiving, the Pink Baptist Church delivered a
ham and about eight bags of groceries to Bertha Coffman, Lorna
Then Gilson, Bertha Coffman and three of her children came over
to the Wilsons’ house for Christmas. Lorna Wilson recalled that the
girls seemed especially thin, but she attributed that to their
mother’s genes. The Wilsons gave each of the children coloring
books as Christmas gifts.
When Cleveland County deputies took Gilson and Bertha Coffman
into custody for questioning Feb. 9, they left four of her children
with the Wilsons for about 48 hours.
That decision has drawn criticism from the children’s
grandmother and Stuart, the Little Axe pastor, particularly because
two of the children required hospitalization for malnutrition.
Cleveland County Sheriff DeWayne Beggs defended the deputies’
Beggs said after authorities determined the bones were human
remains, it was about 11 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9. Deputies asked Bertha
Coffman and Gilson to go to the sheriff’s office for questioning.
Bertha Coffman requested her four children be left with Gilson’s
Gilson’s parents have had good reputations in the community for
years, Beggs told The Oklahoman.
He said by Sunday afternoon, Feb. 11, state human services
officials had picked up the children. He said it was not until
Sunday that the sheriff’s department knew the children needed
No Faith In System
Throughout recent days, Stuart’s spiritual faith has not
wavered, but he has lost faith in “the system.”
A Scripture posted on his door avows his philosophy: “We know
that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who
are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28.)
Stuart has received permission from Shane’s father to pick up
the boy’s body when the medical examiner releases it, and the
church plans a funeral. At the service, Stuart said he will recite
“To be honest, he (Shane) is better off than the other children
probably have been for years, because his suffering is over. He’s
with the Lord. He’s in heaven.”
He praised Gov. Keating’s call for an investigation, but he
worries documents will be forged and a cover-up will occur.
“What I’m concerned about is that we’ll have this great big
investigation and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars … and
then when it’s said and done, we come out with an Everybody did
the best they could; this is unfortunate. But the fact of the
matter is, that’s not the truth. And there’s some of us that know
that’s not the truth.”
For the pastor, an immediate worry is the fate of the surviving
five children. He complained that human services officials had not
allowed him to visit them.
He said his church would take the children.
“We’ll see that they’re loved and educated … and they’ll never
have to go hungry again. They’ll never have to worry about clothes or
medicine or a home …
“But we won’t be allowed to do that because we have certain laws
that take that out of our hands and place it in the hands of the
Staff writers Mick Hinton, Bryan Painter, Anthony Thornton, Nolan
Clay and Ed Godfrey contributed to this report.