At 1 p.m. on Thursday, in courtroom 880 on the 8th floor of the Roybal Federal Building in downtown LA, Matthew Coleman made his first public appearance exactly one month after he allegedly murdered his two young children in Mexico by shooting them with a spear gun.Coleman, 40, a deeply devout Christian who taught kids surfing in Santa Barbara, told FBI agents that he carried out the heinous crimes because he was “enlightened” by QAnon and other conspiracies and he believed his children were going to “grow into monsters.” Killing them was the only way to “save the world.”
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
This week a federal grand jury indicted Coleman on two counts of foreign first-degree murder of U.S. nationals, charges that could potentially carry the death penalty.“There are no words to describe the profound grief that envelops an entire community when a child is murdered,” acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman, said in a press release announcing the indictment. “The Department of Justice is determined to achieve justice for these victims and their loved ones.”The indictment, reviewed by VICE News, put it bluntly, accusing Coleman of committing the offense “in an especially heinous, cruel, and depraved manner in that it involved torture and serious physical abuse.”Grossman said he has yet to decide if the state will pursue the death penalty in this case.Coleman’s appearance in court Thursday in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Wilner was essentially a formality. During the brief hearing, prosecutors sought to have the proceedings relocated to the Southern District of California. As part of that process, the defendant must either agree to the change or ask for an identity hearing, at which the U.S. must prove that the defendant is the same person named in the indictment.
On Thursday, Coleman’s lawyer asked for such a hearing, which is now scheduled to take place on Sept. 21.It is unclear why Coleman’s legal team, who did not respond to VICE News’ questions, asked for this hearing, but it is normally used by individuals who claim they’re not the same person who’s being accused of the crime in another jurisdiction.While the decision appears strange, it is also fitting for a crime allegedly committed by a person who appeared completely detached from the public persona projected by Coleman.In the days and weeks since Coleman took his two children in his car and traveled to a resort in Mexico before brutally murdering them, the community of Santa Barbara has effectively put up a wall of silence and refused to talk about how one of their own could do something so horrific.Coleman has lived in Santa Barbara virtually his entire life, and from the outside he appeared to have an idyllic existence. Surfing, his passion, was also his job; he ran a surf school with his wife. His Christian faith was central to everything he did, and he even led a Christian surf group.His social media accounts projected a life filled with happiness and love, surrounded by both friends and family.He regularly posted pictures of his wife Abby and their two children: 2-year-old Kaleo and 10-month-old Roxy. The captions on the photos said how lucky he felt to have been blessed with such a loving family.
But following last month’s awful events, a closer inspection of those posts shows possible warning signs about Coleman’s radicalization and descent into conspiracies.“What an amazing son, so fun to watch him slowly become all that he was created to be, the sound of Heaven's dove,” Coleman wrote on Instagram under a picture of his son. “One who awakens people to the fact that they are eternally chosen, accepted and cherished by a loving father, a freedom ringer, and a joy bringer.”Less than a year ago, on the day his wife, Abby, gave birth to their daughter Roxy, Coleman wrote about having visions during the birth.“I kept feeling the sense that she was going to be born at a very pivotal time in history, and that she would represent a dawn or even an awakening, to years of great blessing for our family, and nation,” Coleman wrote on Instagram.At the time these messages likely didn’t raise any red flags among Coleman’s family and friends, but following his admissions to FBI agents last month that “he was enlightened by QAnon and Illuminati conspiracy theories and was receiving visions and signs revealing that his wife possessed serpent DNA and had passed it onto his children” these comments are clear signs that Coleman was was becoming radicalized by some conspiracy theories.VICE News attempted to contact dozens of people who knew Matthew Coleman, but none of them would speak openly about him, his faith, or what may have led to him allegedly murder his children.
But one of them did speak out in a Facebook group dedicated to the Coleman case.In the post, Santa Barbara resident Helen Rose said she “grew up in the same household with him” after his parents took her in and that she viewed Coleman as a brother. She believes that he was suffering from some psychiatric condition that was allowed to fester in a community that accepted such behavior as normal.“I believe that Matt has an undiagnosed mental illness to an extreme that may have been recognized in other communities, but the community he was an integral part of, the fundamentalist Christian evangelical community, seeing ‘signs and interpreting messages from God’ is accepted and encouraged,” Rose wrote in the Facebook post, reviewed by
VICE News.This view was backed up by another person who knew Coleman and who spoke anonymously to the QAnon Anonymous podcast recently.“Ordinarily if someone says they are receiving visions or revelations or whatever people might think it was odd or concerning, but in a narcissistic privileged bubble he has always lived in—Santa Barbara—it made him unique and interesting,” they said.One Santa Barbara resident who knew the Colemans and has attended some of the same churches, confirmed this view of the evangelical community in Santa Barbara, and told VICE News that the radicalization is happening not at Sunday services, but in private meeting rooms and even in people’s homes.
“It's happening in people’s homes, it's going out of the church into the homes. And these people are becoming extremely radicalized. It’s not just my mother-in-law who’s completely lost her mind, it’s not just my brother-in-laws and sister-in-laws, it’s the nephews and nieces, the children are being heavily indoctrinated as well. It’s very bad for the entire community, and this is not Christian.”The religious community in Santa Barbara is “very insular, very radical and very much following the neo-Christian movement,” referring to a new brand of evangelicalism that emphasizes speaking in tongues, hands-on healing, and receiving visions.Rose said that Coleman was always “fanatically Christian” and that he would read his Bible alone for hours even as a teenager. However she added that this was never seen as something to worry about in the community because Christianity was so widely accepted.Rose claims that some of Coleman’s friends did know he had begun looking into QAnon conspiracies online, but none raised any red flags because they never believed it would reach the point of him committing violence.People who knew Coleman, but who did not want to speak on the record told VICE News he had attended half a dozen Santa Barbara churches, including Calvary Chapel, Isla Vista, Montecito Covenant, Veronica Springs, Reality Carpinteria, and Anthem.None of the churches would put forward someone to talk to VICE News about Coleman.
John Mullen, one of the leaders of Veronica Springs, said the Coleman’s hadn’t attended the church in a couple of years, and yet the church recently held several events to support Abby Coleman, including an online fundraising campaign, according to an email sent out to parishioners and reviewed by VICE News.Calvary Chapel’s pastor Tommy Schneider told VICE News he couldn’t speak about Coleman’s radicalization because he was “so far away from intimacy with Matthew’s life that I have no idea really where he was.”And yet in the days following Coleman’s arrest last month, Schneider addressed the issue during a service at his church, saying: “He's taken care of your children, walked in your circles, been the best man at some of your weddings. This is a person that we know.”Mark Seversen, the lead pastor at Montecito Covenant Church, denied a claim made to VICE News by one of Coleman’s acquaintances that he had been attending the church recently. “He spent some of his growing up years here but has not attended since high school,” Seversen said.The other churches did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment.QAnon, which has been gaining traction within evangelical churches recently, is a conspiracy movement with many different strands, but central to all of those is the deeply held believe that a group of Democrat and Hollywood elites is running a global child sex-trafficking ring.
For Coleman, those claims made in online forums and videos would have simply appeared to back up his experiences in the real world: According to the website of his Lovewater surf school, he has spent years working closely with the Hope Refuge, a nonprofit in Santa Barbara that helps the victims of sex trafficking.The founder of Hope Refuge is Bob Ryan, who is also the pastor at the Veronica Springs church that Coleman once attended. Ryan did not respond to several emails and phone calls from VICE News, while Hope Refuge did not respond to email inquiries.One other church Coleman has been linked to is Bethel, a neo-charismatic megachurch in Redding, California. The church has been accused of being a cult, and its leaders, Bill and Beni Johnson, have courted controversy in the past, including their efforts to bring a young child back to life. Sources speaking to VICE News said that they were aware that leaders in some of the churches attended by Coleman have visited Bethel and Coleman and his wife were both following the Johnsons and other leaders from Bethel on their Instagram and Facebook accounts.Something led Coleman to drive his children 250 miles from their home, their mother and their idyllic life on the California coast and allegedly murder them in cold blood. And whatever that was, it’s terrifying some residents in Santa Barbara right now who are worried that unless something changes, it will happen again.“Once you see somebody within the QAnon movement act the way that this person acted, it's a social contagion and it makes me worried about the other children in our community,” one Santa Barbara resident told VICE News.
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.