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Milton and Gayle Coleman pose outside their home at Lake Sinclair June 20, 2021, in central Ga. (Jason Vorhees/The Macon Telegraph via AP)

HAZLEHURST, Ga. (AP) — The evening of May 17, 1990, Rhonda Sue Coleman walked into her parents living room and said goodbye.

The 18-year-old was heading to a party where she and other seniors at Jeff Davis County High would paint graduation banners.

The Colemans never let their daughter go out on a school night, but decided to make an exception. It would be the last time Milton and Gayle Coleman would see their only child alive.

"She leaned over, put her hand on the chairs and said she was fixing to leave," her mother recalled recently in an interview with The Telegraph. "I literally watched her walk out that door."

Rhonda gave Gayle a kiss and said, "I love you."

Rhonda didn't arrive home by her 10:30 p.m. curfew. It was unlike her to come in late, but when she did, she always called. It wasn't long before her father began looking for her.

A neighbor, Layla Marshall, spotted Rhonda's 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier parked on a dirt road with its lights on, the engine running and purse inside. The driver's door was open, but Rhonda was gone.

Marshall called the sheriff's department. Rhonda's father and a sheriff's deputy got there at the same time.

"We were looking before we got the news," Milton Coleman said. "Three days later, we found out she was found dead."

Coleman's body was discovered in neighboring Montgomery County by a hunter about 15 miles away from her car. Her body was fully clothed and partially burned. Investigators have never divulged how Coleman was killed.

For the last 31 years, questions have lingered in the small town of Hazlehurst, about 90 miles southeast of Macon.

Who killed Rhonda Sue Coleman? Why? How? And how have they kept it a secret?

 

'ONE BRICK AT A TIME'

Over the years, investigators have followed leads in the case, but no arrests have been made.

Jason Seacrist, assistant special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Douglas office, said recently he was unable to comment on whether there were any new leads.

In the months after Coleman was killed, her mother and father struggled to cope.

"It was hard. Basically, you rearrange your whole life," Milton said. "That was our life. She was our life. When you take that section out of it, you've got to start again. It was rough."

Gayle Coleman said it was difficult to leave the house.

"We had to rebuild our relationship without her. You have to start from the ground up," she said. "We didn't want to go out around town because you would see people and you could see the pity in their eyes. We didn't want to see that."

Hazlehurst's roughly 4,200 residents rallied around the Colemans after the murder. Many of the town's businesses shut down on the day of Rhonda's funeral, including the Piggly Wiggly where she worked. More than 1,000 people attended the service, some standing against the walls two and three deep as others spilled out into the vestibule of Southside Baptist Church.

There were more than 20,000 flowers laid at the roadside along Bell Telephone Road, just south of town where Coleman's car was found. Milton said the outpouring of love from the community was a direct reflection of the type of person that Rhonda was. Gayle said that locals served as a brace for the couple as they sought to rebuild their lives, as she put it, "one brick at a time."

"They were holding us up. We knew they were there. They helped us," Gayle said. "There ain't a soul in Hazlehurst that we still couldn't call at midnight and they wouldn't be right there."

 

'THAT WAS HER FUTURE, AND THEY TOOK IT AWAY FROM HER.'

Rhonda was 5-foot-5 with blonde hair and blue eyes.

When she and her folks lived uptown inside the city limits, she was into golf carts and motorcycles. The Colemans recall telling her that if she saved up enough for half of a motorcycle that she wanted, they would pay the rest.

It took Rhonda just three months, and Milton built her a track in the backyard to ride on.

Later when they moved to the country, Rhonda grew interested in horses, hog shows and ATVs. She also loved cars. She was on her fifth vehicle by the time she was 18 as the family routinely traded them in and out.

One Christmas, her parents surprised her by trading her car in for a four-wheel-drive truck. Her last vehicle, the Cavalier, was her first brand-new car.

"I liked to buy vehicles and fix them. She would take them," Milton said with a laugh. "That is how she would wind up with so many vehicles. She learned to drive by driving an old truck in the field back behind the house. It wasn't worth nothing, but you put them in that truck and turned them loose."

Rhonda had a love for real and stuffed animal. Her parents got a red cocker spaniel named Princess Molly Bock as a graduation gift.

Milton and Gayle weren't just Rhonda's parents: they were her best friends. Unlike most teenagers, Rhonda preferred bringing friends over to her house to hang out, rather than going out.

Gayle said Rhonda had one serious boyfriend over the years.

When she was with her parents, Rhonda was never too bashful to tell them, "I love you," or hug them no matter who was around. They had a special bond.

In the wake of Rhonda's death, Gayle said her relationship with Milton was strained at times. But they clung together as they tried to learn to live without their daughter.

"We could have — if we had let it — end up divorced," Gayle said. "But I believe that her love was the glue that held us together."

The couple considered moving out of the home they'd shared with Rhonda.

But, as Milton said, "That is home. We can't do that."

For 23 years, Rhonda's bedroom remained as she'd left it. The Colemans eventually removed her clothes from the closet and cleaned out her dresser. They turned it into a room for their great-niece. Gayle believes Rhonda would be proud to know that her room is again being lived in.

Certain times each year are hard for the Colemans. Graduation season is tough because they never saw Rhonda walk across the stage.

Rhonda wanted to be a nurse in the maternity ward of a hospital, eventually settling down and getting married. There was already a plot of land in Hazlehurst for her to build a home on and still be close to her parents.

"I think about watching her daddy walk her down the aisle to get married," Gayle said. "I think about sitting in the waiting room waiting on that first grandbaby. I think about if we would have had two or three grandbabies. You just wonder. That was her life. That was what she was going to do. That was her future, and they took it away from her."

 

STILL SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE

Jeff Davis County Sheriff Mark Hall, who was killed in the line of duty in 1992, investigated the case in the days after the murder. He told the Telegraph in 1990 that authorities believed Rhonda knew her assailant based on evidence gathered at the crime scene. He said it looked as though she had stepped out of her car to talk to someone.

"A pretty, sweet, little girl like that who had never done anything to anybody, and for some maniac — I don't know what the hell else you would call him — to do a thing like that to her," Hall said. "We have questioned a lot of people, but no one has been arrested yet."

In the months that followed, GBI Agent Martin Moses was assigned to Coleman's case due to its magnitude. The crime was widely reported across the region, making headlines in Atlanta papers. Moses also began probing another local woman's death.

In November of 1989, Jeannette Carter, 34, was bludgeoned to death six months before Coleman was murdered. Investigators later said the two cases were not related.

Over the years, the Coleman case has been passed along to various investigators.

After five and half years, GBI investigator Pam Rushton delved into the investigation. Rushton said that the evidence showed that a vehicle had pulled in behind her but that there were no signs of a struggle.

"This was a senseless murder," Rushton said in an interview with The Telegraph around the eighth anniversary of Rhonda's slaying. "At some point the truth's going to come out."

Jason Seacrist, another GBI agent, is one of the latest in a line of investigators to help with the case. He couldn't get into any specifics on where the GBI's investigation currently stands, but Seacrist did say that in a case like this, investigators are always looking into new evidence and using new technology.

"Letting the victim's family know what happened and being able to give them some answers is ultimately one of the most fulfilling things," he said. "And we want to hold whoever is responsible accountable."

The Colemans hired a private investigator a few years ago named Jody Ponsell.

Ponsell, a retired GBI agent and native of southeast Georgia, examined several facets of the case for Coleman's family and their attorney. Having worked as a narcotics agent throughout the region around the time Coleman was slain, Ponsell was familiar with local law enforcement officials. He knew the terrain. With an easy drawl and a meticulous manner, he was no outsider.

Ponsell now works as an investigator for the district attorney's office in the area that includes Jeff Davis County. Citing the ongoing official investigation, he declined to discuss what the authorities and what he himself may have learned about Coleman's death.

However, reached by phone recently, Ponsell said he hopes that answers emerge.

"I'm no different than any of the other officers that have worked on that case," he said. "It's very near and dear to all of us. ... Everyone wants to see an opportunity arise at some point for justice for Rhonda and for her family."

Rhonda's father, Milton, said Ponsell's investigation led to some eye-opening revelations, but he could not disclose what they were.

The Colemans continue to pursue justice for their daughter and honor her with ads in the local newspaper on special occasions. They never want anyone to forget about Rhonda, especially those who may be responsible for her murder.

"Every year we put things in the newspaper at Christmas and on her birthday," Gayle said. "We put it on Facebook so that (her killer) can see it."

Milton and Gayle are hopeful that one day soon justice will be served. They often think about what that day might be like when they get the news.

Milton had just one word to describe it: "closure."

Gayle said it would hopefully bring answers to the questions that many have wondered about over the years.

"It would stop us from constantly wondering who it is, constantly wondering why and how," Gayle said. "It would put that part of our mind at rest."

 

'LEARNED THE MEANING OF LOVE'

Over the years the case has attracted interest far and wide.

From local news outlets to NBC's "Dateline," Rhonda's murder has been the subject of speculation and discussion for more than three decades.

This summer, a new podcast about Rhonda's case is set to be released by Sean Kipe, who recently produced "In the Red Clay," a podcast that details the story of Billy Sunday Birt and his time with the Dixie Mafia.

The hope for the new podcast from Kipe, "Fox Hunter," is for someone to come forward with information that leads to the case being solved. Kipe plans to help increase the $25,000 reward on the podcast by getting listeners to help donate to a fund.

The Colemans still hope, after 31 years, that Rhonda's murder will be solved. Love, they said, has kept them going.

"It was mutual. That was the love we had," Milton said. "We didn't doubt our love for her or her love for us."

The person who killed Rhonda Sue Coleman may have taken her from her parents, her family and her friends, but she still lives on through the love that Gayle and Milton share with one another.

"We knew what love was in our families growing up," Gayle said. "When we had her, we really learned the meaning of love."

___

Telegraph reporter Joe Kovac Jr. contributed to this story.

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