Office of the Attorney General News Release Archive

Monday, June 24, 2002

MEDIA ADVISORY

Robert Otis Coulson Scheduled to be Executed

AUSTIN - Texas Attorney General John Cornyn offers the following information on Robert Otis Coulson, who is scheduled to be executed after 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25, 2002.

On June 22, 1994, Robert Otis Coulson was sentenced to death for the capital murders of his sister and brother-in-law, Robin and Rick Wentworth, which occurred in Houston, Texas, on Nov. 13, 1992. Also killed in the same transaction were his parents, Otis and Mary Coulson, and his sister Sarah Coulson. Coulson was the adopted son of Otis and Mary, and Robin Wentworth's natural brother. A summary of the evidence presented at trial follows.

FACTS OF THE CRIME

The victims were discovered by the Houston Fire Department while extinguishing a house fire on Nov. 13, 1992. Coulson had individually subdued each victim, bound their hands and feet, and secured a plastic bag over their heads. All five victims died of asphyxia due to suffocation. After the victims were dead, Coulson poured gasoline on the bodies and set the house on fire.

The morning of Saturday, Nov. 14, 1992, investigators were alerted by a family friend that the remaining family member, Robert Coulson and his roommate, Jared Althaus, were spending the weekend at the Althaus' family farm in Caldwell. Jason Althaus, Jared's older brother, drove to the farm to inform Coulson of the deaths and told him to go immediately to the police station. Coulson and Althaus arrived at the police station around 5:30 p.m. and were interviewed separately. Coulson gave the police a written statement. Coulson said he had last been at his parents' home on Thursday, November 12, however, no one was home. Coulson said he and Althaus had stopped for gas on the way to the farm around 4:15 p.m. that Friday.

Jared Althaus also gave the police a statement in which he said he and Coulson left for the farm around 4:00 p.m. on Friday. Althaus gave the police a receipt for the purchase of gasoline. Coulson consented to a search of the car they were driving, however, nothing was found.

On Sunday, November 15, Coulson contacted his parents' attorney seeking information about the size of the estate. During dinner with the attorney and Coulson's uncle, Coulson became concerned when he learned that he might not be the sole beneficiary. Coulson's sister Sarah had recently had a baby, which was placed for adoption and might be entitled to half the estate. Coulson wanted to know what the child's legal rights were and who had adopted the baby.

Around 10:00 p.m. that Monday, the police confronted a distraught Jared Althaus at a motel in San Marcos. Althaus agreed to meet with the officers back in Houston and gave a second statement to the police in which he recanted his alibi for Coulson. Althaus stated that he dropped Coulson off at his parents' house and picked him up a few hours later; however, he did not know that Coulson had murdered his family at that time. When Althaus learned of the deaths, Coulson allegedly threatened to do the same to Althaus' family and girlfriend if he did not go along with Coulson's alibi.

A police officer, who was conducting surveillance of Coulson and his activities at the funeral, November 17, watched Coulson during the service and noticed that Coulson showed no emotion at the church or grave side service. After the funeral, the officer watched Coulson leave the church to walk a friend to her car. On his way back, Coulson was observed by the officer to smile, snap his fingers and clap his hands, and do what the officer described as a dance step before returning to his previous solemn expression.

That same day, Jared Althaus, who was still in custody, finally confessed his involvement in the premeditated plan to murder Coulson's family. Althaus recanted his two previous statements, confessed that he had helped Coulson plan the killings for several months, and that he had helped Coulson carry out his family's murder but that he was not at the Coulson house when they were killed. Althaus claimed that Coulson enlisted him in a plan to kill Coulson's parents approximately three or four months prior to their deaths.

Approximately three months before the murders, Coulson and Althaus began purchasing supplies, including duct tape, zip cords, and a stun gun for immobilizing the victims. Coulson selected the stun gun and bought it, but Althaus paid for it. Coulson purchased trash compactor bags because they were the strongest. Coulson placed the supplies in Althaus' gray backpack, including Althaus' .9 millimeter gun, and stored it in his parents' garage attic the day before the murders. Althaus bought a gasoline container the night before the murders because Coulson did not want to be seen doing it.

The Wednesday before the murders, Coulson and Althaus chose a dark spot in the neighborhood as the drop-off point. Coulson and Althaus went to San Marcos so that Coulson could talk to his uncle Peter to make sure he would not be coming to town that weekend. Peter verified that Coulson had visited. While Coulson was at his parents' house on Thursday to drop off the backpack, he went through his parents' files and checked their wills to see who the heirs were. Thursday evening, Coulson and Althaus went to the house to drop off the gas and to see how dark the house was at that time of the evening.

Althaus left work at 3:00 p.m. the day of the murders and met Coulson at the apartment complex where Coulson, who was using his girlfriend's black Toyota Celica, was waiting to load the car. Coulson asserted he was dressed in casual attire because there were cameras at the apartment complex and he wanted to be seen wearing casual clothing. However, on the way to the crime scene, Coulson changed into dark jeans, a blue sweatshirt, a baseball hat, sunglasses and white tennis shoes. Althaus dropped Coulson off around 4:15 p.m. and then drove to a gas station to get a receipt to use as an alibi. Althaus drove around for a while before returning to the house around 6:00 p.m. Althaus circled three times until Coulson came running out of the bushes carrying the gas can, backpack and a crowbar.

Coulson told Althaus it had not gone as planned. Althaus drove while Coulson disposed of the evidence out the window of the car. Coulson was familiar with the roads from his former job as a delivery man, so he told Althaus which way to turn. Whenever there was a ditch or culvert, Coulson would throw out an item. Many items were recovered on what would have been the passenger side of the car. As they drove, Coulson vividly described the details of the murder; Coulson was not crying or emotional and he showed no remorse.

According to Althaus' testimony, Coulson called the house that Friday and told his parents that he had news about a business deal and that he needed to talk to them. When he arrived at the house, Coulson told his mother he wanted to talk to her about something, then he took her into the spare bedroom on the left side of the house. Coulson tried to immobilize her with the stun gun but it did not work. Coulson told Althaus that his mother struggled the most and that he had to smother her with a pillow before binding her hands and feet. Coulson told Althaus that his father was a "wimp" and was easily taken care of. Coulson went into Sarah's room next and tried to use the stun gun but it still didn't work. While he bound her, he told her he needed some money and that nothing was going to happen. Coulson said that Sarah did not put up a fight and that he told her he was sorry and he loved her and then hugged her. Sarah allegedly thanked him for waiting until she had her baby, then he put the bag on her head and zip-corded it.

Coulson had called Robin earlier in the week and told her to show up around 5:00 p.m. that he had something to tell them all; however, she and Rick arrived early while Coulson was still in the room with Sarah. By the time Coulson got out of the room, Rick had jimmied the locked screen door and was inside the house. Coulson was unable to separate Rick from Robin, who was six months pregnant. Coulson threatened them with the gun, telling them that Althaus was in another room with their parents and would kill them if they did anything. Coulson hit both of them in the head with a crowbar, striking Rick more than once. He then bound and gagged them and put bags on their heads. Coulson had planned to remove the trash bags and zip cords to make it look as if they died of smoke inhalation, however, while he was pouring gasoline over the bodies, the fumes ignited in the room containing his parents bodies, from what he presumed was the hot water heater. Coulson lit the rest of the bodies with matches.

After Althaus' confession, the police accompanied Althaus to collect evidence that he and Coulson had discarded. The police arranged a meeting between Althaus and Coulson at a local hotel. During the meeting, Coulson was tape-recorded making several incriminating statements, including repeatedly pressuring Althaus to maintain their previously established alibi; telling him the police had nothing on them; and that the police had to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was Coulson's car that was seen in the neighborhood, and that Coulson and Althaus had done it. Coulson also made statements that later contradicted his testimony at trial. Coulson was arrested as he tried to leave the hotel. He was carrying a notebook at the time; the tape-recorded conversation indicated Coulson attempted write in this notebook rather than talk to Althaus out loud.

While en route to the police station, Coulson made several incriminating statements to the police. The police told Coulson that Althaus had confessed. They showed Coulson pictures of the evidence they collected and read him his Miranda rights. Coulson then said he did not hate his family as most people thought, but that he was having financial difficulties and this was the only way out. He stated that society considers you a failure if you do not succeed financially.

Coulson said he had overcharged credit cards, was in debt from college, and owed everyone, and this was the only way he could make it in life financially. He never denied having killed his family. When asked if he intended that Rick and Robin be at the house on that Friday, he responded by nodding his head up and down. When asked "why," Coulson paused and said that question was too difficult to answer.

In his defense, Coulson presented several witnesses to counter the State's evidence. A neighbor testified that he had not seen Coulson in the neighborhood that day. Also, several friends and neighbors of his parents testified that they had never heard Coulson say derogatory things about his family, and never knew of any problems between them.

Coulson testified in his own defense. He "explained" all the evidence in a more favorable light and denied killing any member of his family. Coulson accused Althaus of being romantically interested in him, and of being obsessed with him. Coulson claimed he was uncomfortable around Althaus and intended to move out, despite the tape-recorded conversation in which Coulson tells Althaus that he loves him, that he will not interfere in Althaus' relationships anymore. (While it does not appear that the two were romantically involved, the tape-recorded conversation contradicts any assertion that Coulson was uncomfortable with Althaus' feelings toward him.)

On cross examination, Coulson denied the testimony of eight witnesses, including his cousin and several police officers, and accused them of lying under oath. Coulson also claimed that three other witnesses were mistaken about what they heard.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Coulson was tried before the 182nd District Court of Harris County, Texas, and found guilty of capital murder on June 16, 1994. After a separate punishment phase, the court sentenced Coulson to death on June 22, 1994.

Coulson's conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. His conviction became final on Jan. 14, 1997, when the time for filing a petition for writ of certiorari in this Court expired.

Coulson filed an application for post conviction writ of habeas corpus in the state court on Sept. 5, 1997. On Nov. 3, 1998, the 180th District Court of Harris County held an evidentiary hearing on the petition for writ of habeas corpus concerning allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct. The court adopted the State's proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on Jan. 5, 1999, and found that Coulson failed to demonstrate that his conviction was unlawfully obtained. The Court of Criminal Appeals denied state habeas relief on June 9, 1999.

Coulson filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal court on Aug. 9, 1999, and supplemental briefs in support. The Federal District Court granted the Director's motion for summary judgment on Aug. 31, 2000. Concurrent with this decision, the district court granted Coulson a certificate of appealability as to his false evidence claim, but denied COA as to all others. Coulson filed a motion for reconsideration and a motion to alter or amend judgment on Sept. 9, 2000. The district court granted the motion for reconsideration of judgment, but once again granted the Director's motion for summary judgment and dismissed Coulson's petition with prejudice. The court granted in part Coulson's motion to alter or amend judgment, and extended COA to cover two additional claims.

After hearing oral argument, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's denial of relief. The Supreme Court denied Coulson's petition for writ of certiorari on March 18, 2002.

PRIOR CRIMINAL HISTORY

Coulson had no prior criminal history.

MISCELLANEOUS

For additional information and statistics, please log on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, www.tdcj.state.tx.us.

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