by Tim Gilmore, 8/3/2023
1. Changing the Course of History
Harry Frank Long loved drinking whiskey and stealing cars and driving them as fast as he could. He would argue the killing of Thomas Kimble Coleman was only incidental; he didn’t even remember it. For the Colemans, however, the murder changed the course of the family.
Thomas Coleman built the Texan Motel and opened it two years before his murder. A carpenter and contractor, he built houses in Jacksonville’s North Shore neighborhood along the Trout River. The motel was an “entrepreneurial dream of being able to make a home and family business and have those things together,” says his grandson, Ray Coleman, an attorney.
Harry Frank Long, blind to his moment, never knew his crime launched careers in law enforcement and law practice. Thomas Coleman’s son became a homicide detective. His grandson and great-grandsons became attorneys. The tragic irony is how a good man’s murder changed history. He never got to see it.
Pieces of the old motel remain, now called the Sunshine Inn, carved up and rebuilt and added on. Subsequent owners filled in the swimming pool, added a second story to the back building. The current owner tells me he knows nothing about the building prior to three years ago when he took it over. Most of us know little more than our moment, if that. Certainly the two men whose lives crossed with guns here 70 years ago could little imagine what that moment has wrought.
2. “Snaketrack Trail”
The police car gave chase for five miles through blackjack pinewoods before the sun rose that Sunday morning, early autumn, when the 1950s were new. When smug, skinny, smirking 26 year old Harry Frank Long smashed into a oak, he hopped from the stolen car and fled on foot but didn’t get far. He told Patrolman W.D. Lee that he lived on Chase Street. No such address existed. At first, Lee didn’t recognize Long was mocking him.
Long was angry that he’d been fired. On Saturday, September 8, 1951, W.K. Motor Car Co. at Garden and O Streets in Pensacola had fired him for drinking on the job. Sometime after midnight, liquored up, Long broke into the dealership, threw equipment across the garage and trashed the place. He stole two checks worth a combined $800, tools, a battery charger, and a 1950 model car. He’d spent the last six and a half years in Fort Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, having gone absent without leave from the Army at the end of World War II.
Sometime after midnight, the patrolman stopped Long headed west toward Alabama on Mobile Highway near Eleven Mile Creek. Long had no driver’s license, said he was headed to the next side road where his aunt lived just to the left. Lee followed. Long passed the road. When Lee stopped him a second time, Long apologized. He’d meant the second left.
So Lee let Long go and followed him to the next road. Long turned left, then drove into the woods and turned off his lights. The patrolman turned off his own lights and followed Long into the dark. When Long spotted Lee creeping blindly up behind him, he hit the gas and sped through the woods.
The cars reached 70 miles per hour, according to The Pensacola News-Journal, sideswiping pines and making a “snaketrack trail” through the forest. When Long surrendered “peaceably” after slamming into an obstinate oak, Lee radioed back, but couldn’t tell where he was. The patrol car was “spraddle-wheeled, scratched and bent,” and the patrolman had no idea where in the godless wilderness this miscreant had led him.
If you couldn’t keep Harry Frank out of jail, you also couldn’t keep him from drinking whiskey and stealing cars. On October 29, 1952, The Pensacola Times reported that a police officer watched Harry Frank Long, 27 years old, slink into a 1951 Kaiser sedan at a car lot, after hours, and start the motor. He’d visited the lot earlier, he insisted. He was just gonna try the car out.
Then in May 1954, Harry Frank Long and William Cordts escaped from a prison road crew and stole another car. The men were assigned to Prison Camp 18, along Roosevelt Boulevard at Doctors Inlet south of Jacksonville. Once they picked up a car, Deputy Sheriff Miles King chased them through Jacksonville’s Riverside at 60 miles per hour, then ran them off the road just south of Downtown.
That was five months after Long killed Thomas Kimble Coleman and barely into another auto theft sentence, but authorities still hadn’t connected Long to Coleman’s murder.
3. 10 Dollars
Thomas Kimble Coleman, Sr., “owner of the Texan Motel on the edge of the city,” had taken multiple bullets in an exchange of gunfire just as 1953 became 1954.
A witness said a car full of men sped north into Georgia. Coleman had just put the night’s receipts into the safe when the gunman entered the office. The men grappled. Coleman fired a couple of shots. The intruder shot Coleman, then leaned over the counter after Coleman went down and fired more shots point-blank into Coleman’s chest. He left with 10 dollars in coins, leaving behind $340 in a billfold in Coleman’s hip pocket.
Guests at the motel thought the shots were New Year’s fireworks. Coleman had just shown two late arrivals to their room and was locking up the office for the night. Newswires reported, “Bullet holes from the holdup man’s gun were in the ceiling, door and counter. Coleman’s gun was found on the floor.” He died 90 minutes later at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Deputy Sheriff Roy Sands, who watched Coleman die, later testified the motel owner was unable to “make a statement” about what had happened because he was “in so much pain and misery that he couldn’t answer any questions.”
4. “No Man in His Right Mind”
Thomas’s widow, Ida Mae, had a $100,000 life insurance policy with a double indemnity clause in the event of murder, so investigators circled her like sharks. It didn’t help her situation that it took authorities so long to track down her husband’s killer.
It took more than a year to link the killing to Harry Frank Long. Jax newspapers said, on March 19, 1955, a “break in the case came in January when Constable Lonnie Sikes obtained information naming four suspects,” but didn’t say how.
After police issued notice of a hefty reward for information, someone heard Harry Frank and a girlfriend arguing through the walls of another motel. Thomas Coleman’s grandson Ray says, “The person in the room next door heard her say, ‘If you ever do that again, I’ll tell the police about that man you killed at that other motel!’”
Police charged four young men with murder – Long, 17 year old Army Private John Malcolm Courson, 18 year old John Paul Smith and 21 year old Clyde Marvin Salis. After killing Coleman, Long had been arrested again for car theft, sentenced to two prison terms totaling nine years, then re-arrested after escaping the chain gain and stealing another car.
On Friday, May 27, 1955, Long delivered to the courtroom what The Florida Times-Union called “an unorthodox oration” in “a dramatic bid to escape the electric chair.” Long shouted to the jury, “I don’t want to die! I’m just 30 years old. I pray the good Lord Almighty will strike me dead at this minute if I know anything about it!” When Judge A.D. McNeill cautioned Long to calm down and “stick to the facts,” Long told the jury he was being “denied the right to speak.”
Nevertheless, “the balding prisoner,” the T-U said, “continued to talk at length.” Long said, “There’s been some kind of a deal made in this case,” referring to his three co-defendants who’d now turned state’s evidence and testified against him. His accomplices said the four of them had stolen two cars that night, that Long and Courson had held up a gas station back on Roosevelt Boulevard for $70, that the three younger men had watched the gun battle at the Texan Motel from inside a stolen Buick. They said Coleman fired the first shot while Long stood with his hands in his overcoat pockets and that Long brought out $10 in 50-cent pieces, which he then divided four ways.
Long told the court, “No man in his right mind would do that,” before admitting he was hardly in his “right mind.” He said, “They’re putting something on me I don’t have no knowledge of. I’m not putting anything off on these boys and I don’t feel they should try to put anything off on me.”
Long said he couldn’t remember killing Coleman, but couldn’t remember much of anything that night. He only drank medicinally, he said, as a cure for hangovers. Under direct examination, Long said he’d blacked out from a long day of drinking vodka and whiskey and didn’t remember driving out U.S. 1 to the Texan Motel.
“Do you remember engaging in a gun battle with Mr. Coleman?” his attorney, Lloyd Bass, asked him. “No sir,” he responded. “I cain’t say that I do remember.” Long said he wouldn’t drink at all, but that he had to relieve “severe headaches in the back part of my head.”
The day after the killing, Long said, he’d awoken about nine a.m. “in his garage apartment somewhere on Monroe Street” downtown, noticed he was fully clothed, then “took a couple of drinks of whiskey and went to work.” Long’s accomplices all testified Coleman had shot him in the arm, that Long had removed the bullet himself with a razor blade that night in his apartment, but when State Attorney William Hallowes asked him if he’d been shot that night, Long said, “Not that I know of.”
FBI ballistics experts testified that bullets removed from Coleman’s body had been fired from a gun in Long’s possession, a .32 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with a six inch barrel.
5. “To Make Somebody Know He Was Alive”
When Long was convicted, the Times-Union pointed out the murder and robbery had netted him only $2.50. Indeed, he’d split his $10 spoils four ways. The story once again noted his hair loss, calling him “the balding convict,” noted he’d “twice shouted protests during his six day trial” and had given “an unorthodox speech.”
Long said he’d consumed whiskey continuously to ease his headaches since he was a teenager. “I was put through the third degree in Cincinnati in 1943,” Harry Frank told the jury. “I was beat over the head. They were trying to make me confess something, but I didn’t confess. I was only 19 years old then. Since then I’ve had these headaches.”
He told the jury, “All I got to rely on is your mercy. I’m no God’s little angel, but I have no recollections whatsoever of doing this thing. I don’t think the full facts has been brought out.”
Appealing his death sentence in September 1958, his sister, Virginia Bonifay of Pensacola, said, “He’s been pushed around so much all his life, he always got in trouble to make somebody know he was alive.” The T-U headline said, “Sister’s Tearful Plea Fails to Save Killer.” Governor LeRoy Collins signed the death warrant.
6. Generations of Justice
While in the Air Force, stationed in Manston, England, Donald Coleman fell in love. He married Audrey Fagg and brought her back to Jacksonville the week before his father was murdered on New Year’s Eve. Donald never celebrated the New Year for the rest of his life.
Donald and his older brother Tommy attended every day of the trial. “Uncle Tommy had his jaw set that there would be retribution,” says Donald’s son Ray. “It’s a good thing Long was found guilty or my uncle would have spent his life in prison. My father said, ‘I’m going to watch that man die.’ And he did.” On September 29, 1958, Donald Coleman attended and watched the execution of his father’s murderer.
When Thomas built the Texan, it was the first big motel down U.S. 1 from Georgia into Jacksonville. Later, when Interstate 95 was built, enterprise on the old smaller highways died. Lots of those businesses had been motels, mom-and-pop “motor hotels,” and a whole way of family business died with them. After the murder, Thomas’s widow, Ida Mae, kept the motel going for a while. “Then she sold it, it defaulted and came back to her,” Ray says, and that happened three times.
On October 10, 1957, somebody named Al sent a Texan Motel postcard home to someone named Grace in Ellington, Connecticut. “Hi,” he said. “On the way home, should be in Fri night.” The card advertised free air-conditioning and TV in every motel room, a cocktail lounge and package store. The Cactus Room restaurant featured charcoal steaks and offered a children’s menu.
Donald was fired from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office when he refused to kill murder investigations for Chief Homicide Investigator J.C. Patrick. The most famous of those investigations was that of Johnnie Mae Chappell, a Black woman killed by four racists in the spring of 1964.
In the summer of 1970, 14 year old Ray lived at the motel and swam in the pool while he helped his father renovate the place. Donald ran his father’s motel as the Parada Inn, a sendup of the Ramada Inn, one of the big interstate hotel chains that throve after the death of the old roadside motels. Donald used the former restaurant as a warehouse for his post-police business venture, Coleman Carpets. Most of the Parada’s clientele were truckers who drove all night and slept during the day behind blacked-out windows.
Thomas Coleman’s killing was “not a big topic of conversation in the family,” his grandson says, but it was always there nonetheless, infusing the family narrative and psyche. “It was just assumed you knew about it and you knew what it meant.”
The irony of the career focus of the three generations thus far succeeding Thomas Kimble Coleman’s murder glares. “It’s truly astounding,” Ray says, “how many lives this cruel criminal touched. He deprived the family of the patriarch, but set in motion the drive for justice that led my father into law enforcement, that drove me to swear that no one would ever deny justice to a Coleman again, that led all three of my sons into practicing law.”
The killer, entirely blind to the moment of his crime, Ray says, “cemented his impact on the future through the lives he influenced to be better than he was.” Echoing the notion that the “best revenge” is a “life well lived,” Ray says, “Justice keeps on being served.”