OPINION: Unsolved slaying in Hazlehurst another case of delayed justice

Rhonda Sue Coleman was killed in 1990; her parents are still waiting for answers
Rhonda Sue Coleman, 18, of Hazlehurst was killed in 1990. Her case has gone unsolved for decades but a new podcast from Atlanta-based Sean Kipe, "Fox Hunter," has offered new leads. (Courtesy of Milton and Gayle Coleman)

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Rhonda Sue Coleman, 18, of Hazlehurst was killed in 1990. Her case has gone unsolved for decades but a new podcast from Atlanta-based Sean Kipe, "Fox Hunter," has offered new leads. (Courtesy of Milton and Gayle Coleman)

More than 30 years have passed since the day Rhonda Sue Coleman left her home in Hazlehurst and did not return.

Rhonda, 18, was a graduating senior and had attended an event at a classmate’s home on a Thursday. That night, a friend found her car still running by the side of the road, her purse in the passenger seat and her footprints leading from her 1989 Chevy Cavalier to an unidentified vehicle. Three days later, police found her partially burned body in a wooded area the next county over.

Since then, her parents, Milton and Gayle Coleman, have fought valiantly to bring the killer to justice but have been frustrated by the lack of information, the poorly managed investigation and what they believe could be a cover-up by law enforcement.

“Over the years, we can’t get a lot of answers,” said Milton Coleman, who spoke with me by phone as he and his wife drove through town. Whenever they have asked for information, law enforcement officers have said “we can’t answer that,” Coleman said.

They didn’t even know the cause of their daughter’s death, which is listed as unknown on her death certificate.

For decades, the community has supported the much loved couple in their efforts to uncover information about Rhonda’s slaying, but Hazlehurst is a small town and not everyone has always felt comfortable sharing what they know. Milton and Gayle Coleman are both 70 now. They know they don’t have a lot of time left to get justice for their daughter, and they are at the point where they no longer care who they tick off.

Early this year, Sean Kipe, an Atlanta-based podcaster, picked up the threads of Rhonda’s case and unearthed new information, including physical evidence that will be revealed this week in an unanticipated 11th episode of “Fox Hunter.”

Kipe, an actor and musician with 20 years in the entertainment business, stumbled into podcasting, but found success uncovering new information in a 47-year-old murder case during his first podcast, “In the Red Clay.” He was drawn to Rhonda’s story in the hopes of doing the same. “The end goal is to give this family answers and to put the person or the people responsible for her death in prison where they belong,” Kipe said.

Supporters have raised more than $160,000 to offer as a reward for information. Just last week, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began interviewing new witnesses revealed in the podcast, Kipe said. And Milton and Gayle Coleman are helping to draft legislation that would change the way cold cases like Rhonda’s are handled in the future by allowing family members access to certain information and by having a special investigator take another look after a certain time period.

“The case is active and ongoing. There is nothing new to report,” said the director of public affairs for the GBI when I reached out with questions.

A year ago, in an effort to address the unsolved cases across the state, the GBI formed a formal cold case unit to focus exclusively on longstanding unsolved cases, GBI Director Vic Reynolds told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December 2020. A six-person team, comprised of retired agency investigators, work on cases that may have been open for as long as 40 years.

Rhonda’s case isn’t unique, but her story is particularly relatable.

She was young, beautiful, sporty and popular. She was planning to attend Georgia Southern in Statesboro to study nursing and work with newborns.

If a young woman isn’t safe coming home from a friend’s house on a weekday evening, then how can any woman feel safe?

In 2019, 49 women were murdered by men in Georgia, according to data from the Violence Policy Center. An estimated 9 in 10 women knew their killer.

Rhonda’s parents have long believed she was killed by someone she knew.

Describing how he went off to search for his daughter when she did not arrive home by curfew, Coleman spoke of arriving at the scene where Rhonda’s car had been abandoned. There he found police deputies already on-site. He ran through all the possibilities in his mind, but after a three-day search, on May 20, 1990, her body was found 15 miles from her car. They would find out from news reports that her body was partially burned. They would learn much later, and still unofficially, that the cause of death was strangulation or positional asphyxia.

A few years ago, frustrated with decades of dead ends, Milton and Gayle Coleman hired a private investigator, who began interviewing more people and conducting polygraph tests. But after so many years, people who may have had information have died.

Community members have speculated about possible suspects, but with testimony from Rhonda’s family and friends, Kipe lays the groundwork for an avenue of questioning directed at law enforcement officials.

Although Rhonda was found in Montgomery County, Jeff Davis County took over the case, something that doesn’t sit well with the Coleman family or with Kipe.

In the podcast, Kipe makes a point to interview a number of locals with information about the case, but Rhonda’s family remains frustrated that law enforcement has yet to take significant action.

“Why are there volumes of circumstantial evidence yet no arrests?” Kipe opined when we spoke on the phone. “Why is the district attorney not able to get a copy of the case file? Why is the case file being so highly protected by the GBI?”

Kipe is quick to note that he is by no means anti-law enforcement, but Rhonda’s case is bigger than just Rhonda, he said.

We know things can change with time — new evidence is uncovered, new technology can help evaluate old evidence and new media like podcasts can reach a wider audience.

And maybe, in this case, time will convince someone with information that a young woman’s life is worth more than fear of any consequence.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.