By Kevin S. Giles
When I heard the murderer Dewey Coleman had died, I searched my bookshelves until I found it. There, yellowed and dusty, was the book about the terrible crime he committed in eastern Montana one summer when the grass grew long and green along a lonely highway.
It shouldn’t have happened. Peggy Harstad, just 21 years old and looking forward to her first teaching job in the fall, should have kept driving on July 4, 1974. She was coming home from a rodeo, all alone. Why would she stop to help two scruffy men standing beside a disabled motorcycle along the road?
I edited the manuscript that later became Death Sentence, written by John Forsythe. His account contained explicit descriptions of Peggy’s abduction and the sick behavior that followed. He was the county attorney who prosecuted the case and much of his book read like testimony in court. What struck me was the riveting detail. By 1980s standards, the story felt too emotionally close, too exact and vivid and undeniably revealing about Peggy’s last hours.
I’ve since revised my reservations about the book’s contents, in part because we now live in a world where lurid and explicit tales of violent crime is commonplace on television. Still, the public’s appetite for such detail ignores the pain inflicted on victims’ families. Ultimately, we must find a balance between personal privacy and the public good. For Peggy’s family, and for me as a young journalist, Forsythe’s Death Sentence represented an unveiling of animalistic impulses, a crushing of the sense and purpose of life.
Coleman’s death brought it all back. He was described as a “model inmate,” but what’s the meaning of that? Did he follow all the rules at Montana State Prison? Did he find God? Did he feel remorse for kidnapping, raping and murdering a young Rosebud County woman whose only mistake that evening in 1974 was compassion? It was clear Coleman would die in prison because he was serving life without parole. That he would find a way out so soon, at age 67, disappointed Peggy’s mother, who said after his death: “I’m not sending flowers.”
Coleman’s passing was only the latest in a trail of death that began with Peggy. Her father, John Harstad, died of a heart attack a few years after her murder. Her only sister died of cancer. Her brother and adoptive brother both died. Forsythe, who coincidentally prosecuted the case in the county seat of Forsyth, died in 2013, just months after his wife died of cancer. Coleman’s co-killer, Robert Nank, died in 1999.
Fate or curse, Coleman’s crude homicidal violence seemingly unleashed a torrent of death. It was all hinted there, in Forsythe’s pages, a script of draconian concern: A month before Peggy’s murder, she gave her mother a birthday present and said: “Take care of it, Mom. It may be the last you get from me. … Don’t let them bury me in the cemetery. I want you to bury me on my favorite spot on the ranch. … If anything happens to me, don’t let them perform an autopsy.”
Peggy’s words come straight from Forsythe’s book, which comes straight from court testimony. We understand little of premonitions, yet she spoke as if she knew her murder was imminent.
Had I been a more experienced editor when editing Death Sentence for publication in 1983 I might have asked Forsythe to excise some of the more salacious references. Descriptions that won a case in court wouldn’t win over readers, or so I thought. I was more of a copy editor in those days, meaning I spent more time fixing word usage than framing the manuscript’s big picture.
Still, what does it matter? Peggy is gone.
Nank got a “deal” for testifying against Coleman, convicted and sent to death row. Coleman sidestepped orders to hang after judicial review and died, reportedly, of natural causes.
Years after editing Forsythe’s book, I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for the first time. It occurred to me that Death Sentence wasn’t much different, in essence if not in style. Capote was a literary master, Forsythe a prosecutor. They both managed to communicate the maniacal horror of murder. Forsythe’s book remains listed on Internet bookselling sites, apparently having undergone a revision that included an expanded title: Death Sentence: Murder on the Prairie. I don’t know if the second edition toned down language and images in the first.
Forsythe quoted a psychiatrist’s examination of Coleman that took place three weeks before he killed Peggy: “Twenty-seven year old male was admitted to the hospital … stating he had been nervous for about three years. The patient has been depressed considerably with crying episodes. … Subject stated that he had several times attempted suicide with pills. Two days prior to admission to the hospital he stated that he was stopped from jumping off a bridge by his roommate. He did not know why he wanted to kill himself.”
And so we could dismiss Coleman “as one of Montana’s most notorious killers,” but Montana has had too many of them. It’s better to remember that one murder is no less notorious than another. If Death Sentence teaches us anything, it’s that real crime happens to real people. Forsythe put Peggy’s murder in stark terms no reader will forget.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books are set in his native western Montana. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)