Some cold cases linger for decades without any leads. But in one unique case out of Utah, a prime suspect was identified in the murder of 24 year-old Douglas Ray Coleman and all but admitted to the killing – but was never charged.
Coleman was an openly gay man who was shot dead less than a month after Anthony Adams, a black gay activist and member of the Salt Lake City Socialist Workers Party was found stabbed to death in his apartment. Friends and colleagues of Adams called his death an “assassination” and claimed he was killed for his political beliefs and sexuality.
While Coleman and Adams reportedly didn’t know each other, their murders marked a spate of killings that targeted the gay community in Salt Lake City. While the Salt Lake City city council now consists mainly of LGBTQ+ representatives, it’s long been a religiously conservative town, and in the late 1970s that made it especially deadly for its openly queer residents. It also made it extremely difficult for gay people to find justice from law enforcement due to dangerous stereotypes they weren’t credible witnesses due to their “lifestyles.”
Image: Kris Robinette via Salt Lake Tribune
Who was Doug Coleman?
Accounts of Coleman’s life portray him as a relatively quiet artist who, per his obituary, “had received awards on Peach Days [an annual harvest celebration and fair in Utah] for his oil paintings.”
Coleman reportedly was recognized at gay bars but didn’t have a penchant for being ostentatious or flamboyant – the Salt Lake Tribune noted in a 2023 reportthat Coleman was “a regular” in the local gay scene but “also kept to himself.”
Before his death at age 26, Coleman had battled mental health challenges, including paranoid schizophrenia. He was reportedly “cycling in and out of mental health facilities,” per the Salt Lake Tribune, not long before he was killed. His brother, Dennis Coleman, told the Tribune Doug “was just a normal kid from a normal family that had the unfortunate experience of having a disease.” Doug was survived by his parents, four brothers and one sister. Some members of the Coleman family were active members of the Mormon church.
Image: Kris Robinette via Salt Lake Tribune
The Advocate’s attempts to reach Dennis Coleman were unsuccessful.
During the workday, Doug Coleman worked as a produce manager at a Brigham City Safeway store. He also reportedly worked at Rastskeller Pizza in downtown Salt Lake City and lived with a coworker and his girlfriend – next door to the man who’d end up being a prime suspect in the murder, a 62-year-old retiree named Bruce Hughes.
Coleman was last seen at Salt Lake City’s Sun Tavern bar on Nov. 30, 1978. That same night, his body was found in a boxcar along a stretch of railroad tracks not far from the city’s Pacific Union rail depot. Shell casings from a .22 pistol were found near his body. Coleman had been fatally shot twice, once in the head and once in the chest.
The main suspect
The evidence against Hughes seems damning and all but conclusive. Cases are considered cold if there isn’t sufficient evidence to charge a suspect, but in Coleman’s case, it’s striking how much information police had and still failed to make an arrest.
A ballistics expert determined Hughes’ gun was likely the one used to kill Coleman. The casings found at the scene matched a weapon Hughes had sold to a pawn shop.
Hughes was a longtime firearm owner and pawned all of his weapons shortly after the murder. Per the Tribune, when asked why he sold the guns, Hughes said he “didn’t want them to be misused.” And when asked how he’d account for his gun matching the crime scene, Hughes glibly said “oh gee, I had no explanation for it.” He reportedly also told police that unless someone had broken into his home, stolen the gun from its hiding place under his mattress, killed Coleman and returned it, there wasn’t any other explanation for his weapon being used for the shooting.
This wasn’t all. Hughes was Coleman’s neighbor, and he had a fascination with Coleman’s female roommate. One time, the woman complained to Hughes about Coleman and Hughes openly threatened to kill him. Hughes even admitted this to police, confessing that he threatened Coleman “because he was ignorant.” Further, the Tribune reported Hughes claimed he would shoot Coleman and make it look like a burglary gone wrong.
Images: Salt Lake City PD
Hughes had also worked in the same railyard where Coleman’s body was found. He admitted to police that he’d seen Coleman the day of the murder, but said he was there “looking for scrap metal.”
The Tribune viewed Coleman’s police report, which noted Hughes told police the name of a friend who might know where his guns were kept – but officers never followed up.
Finally, although witnesses found it difficult to conclusively identify Hughes, a worker at the railyard described the suspect as having similar hair as Hughes and neighbors noted he owned a jacket similar to that of the reported suspect’s.
So why wasn’t Hughes charged? Former U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber toldthe Utah Investigative Journalism Project that prosecutors likely weren’t confident in spite of all the evidence they had because the main witnesses were “colorful characters” – members of the gay community or sex workers.
And there was another suspect – Perry Stanger, a religious man who left Salt Lake City the day Coleman was killed. Stanger’s own mother said he had a penchant for acting violent in the name of God and noted she thought he could have killed Coleman. Stanger was arrested and institutionalized for mental health issues, but he was never charged because he reportedly never had access to a firearm.
Still, it’s difficult to reconcile the evidence and borderline confession from Hughes with police’s hesitancy to arrest him. Salt Lake police didn’t immediately return The Advocate’s request for comment.
It’s not clear exactly why there was a spike in murders against the gay community in Salt Lake City at this time. But what is certain is that the gay community was sent reeling from both murders, and it took years for many of Salt Lake City’s queer residents to feel safe again.
Hughes was elderly when questioned about the killing and consequently not around to answer any more. Unfortunately for Coleman’s loved ones, the trail stopped with Hughes and the case remains cold.
Have a tip about this case to share with law enforcement? Contact the Salt Lake City Police Department at 801-799-3000.