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The Man Who Charged Himself With Murder

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At times, his life felt like a series of endless internal calculations, all part of an effort to, as he later explained, “balance myself out.” If he bought a coat, he might scribble on one pocket with a marker before putting it on, just to deprive himself of the chance to wear something completely new. He never had much money, and he was so determined to give away what he did have that a few times he stuffed bills into the coin slots of pay phones, then walked away. Afterward, he’d feel a little better—“I did think, Well, okay, now I don’t have to feel like I have too much regret,” he says—but the relief was only temporary.

Coleman and his wife had separated, but he still stopped by to visit his 7-year-old sons. Some days, he’d be seated with them at the table, sharing a meal, thinking how blessed he was to have such beautiful boys, and suddenly be seized by guilt. Did the man he shot at have any kids? What happened to them? And why should he get to spend time with his kids if there was a chance he’d robbed another child of his father?

Soon after Coleman walked into the 25th Precinct on that freezing night near the end of 2010, he found himself in the back of a police car, riding through East Harlem. At the 25th Precinct, he’d admitted to a detective the basic details of his crime: the location, type of gun used, description of victim. Once the detective heard the crime’s location, he called over to the precinct that covers that area.

By 12:30 a.m., Coleman was seated inside an interview room at the 23rd Precinct, surrounded by cinder-block walls. A detective asked him questions about what had occurred, then wrote down his answers, creating a narrative of what he said he had done. The last line of his confession: “The reason I turned myself in was because I felt awful about what I did and I wanted to make it right for this guy’s family.”

What Coleman didn’t know was that before he’d walked into this room, the detective had searched the precinct’s homicide log book and found what looked like a match: John Henkel, white, 32 years old, shot on northbound side of Park by 114th, “possible .40 caliber shell case.”

Only after Coleman signed his confession did he get an answer to the question that had been haunting him for seventeen years: “I just wanted to tell you that the guy died.”

In the hip-hop press, G. Dep’s confession became huge news. Had he really gone to the police and snitched on himself? Online commenters weighed in: “G-Dep is an idiot.” “Nobody does that-­EVER.” “What a dumb ass!” When Coleman’s family heard what he had done, they persuaded Anthony Ricco, one of the city’s top defense attorneys, to represent him. They hoped that the district attorney would let Coleman plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence.

That didn’t happen, and last spring, the case went to trial. Ricco tried to convince jurors that although Coleman confessed to a shooting, the police had matched his words to the wrong cold case. He teased out numerous discrepancies between Coleman’s confession and the Henkel murder—color of the victim’s hair, color of his jacket, time of year the murder occurred—but the jury didn’t buy it. In the end, it was Coleman’s own words—not only the written confession, but a videotaped confession he gave afterward—that got him convicted of second-degree murder.

An autopsy of John Henkel’s body revealed he’d been shot three times: in the chest, abdomen, and back. His brother identified his body, which featured a tattoo of the word love written vertically on his left forearm. The night he was shot, he was carrying a billy club. His wallet held only two bills: a $5 and a $1. A toxicology report later showed he had PCP in his system.

Henkel lived in Ridgewood, Queens. Why was he in East Harlem at 1 a.m.? “It’s logical to assume he was there for some drug-related purchase or to use drugs in some manner,” the prosecutor told jurors. Nobody from Henkel’s family testified, and there was no mention of any wife or kids left behind.

When a New York Post reporter tracked down his stepbrother Robert Henkel upstate to get his reaction to Coleman’s confession, Henkel said: “I think he’s an idiot … He has three kids and a wife. It was years and years and years ago. Finally, we’re not always thinking about it … and now it has to be dug up all again … After all this time, yes, he just should have shut up.” When asked to comment about Coleman for this story, Henkel said, “He can go fuck himself. Okay? Good-bye.”


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