Montana State Prison inmate Dewey Eugene Coleman died on Sunday at the Lewistown Infirmary of natural causes, according to a news release from the Montana Department of Corrections. He was 67.
Coleman was on death row for almost 15 years before his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
“I’m not sending flowers,” said Eleanor Harstad Neurohr on Monday. Neurohr is the mother of Peggy Lee Harstad, the woman Coleman was convicted of killing in 1974.
On July 4, 1974, Harstad, 21, was returning home to Rosebud from a Fourth of July rodeo in Harlowton. She was spending the summer at her family’s farm before beginning her teaching career in Plains.
On the drive, her path crossed Dewey Eugene Coleman and Robert Dennis Nank. The two had been riding a motorcycle through Montana after leaving a veterans' hospital in Wyoming, where they had been treated for medical issues related to mental health. Their motorcycle had broken down and were stopping vehicles asking for assistance.
When Harstad came upon the two men, they took control of her vehicle, a light-green car with a white-and-green checkerboard top. A friend had brought the car back from California for Harstad, Neurohr said.
The men drove Harstad to a secluded area where they bound and sexually assaulted her; Nank later stated he was impotent at the time and did not succeed in assaulting Harstad. They drove with Harstad a little longer before they allowed her to get dressed again and then killed her by holding her down in the Yellowstone River until she drowned.
The next day, Neurohr drove to the Harstad family ranch outside Forsyth into town to grab coffee with friends and run errands. As she headed into town, she saw the unmistakable checkered top of her daughter’s car. She thought it was unusual to see a car so similar to her daughter’s, but believed it was a road worker’s. She was at a cafe when a call came in to the business; John Harstad, Peggy Harstad’s father, was on the line.
“He asked me if I knew where Peggy was, and I said, 'Yes, I think she’s at a girlfriend’s house or maybe with Lynda, her sister,'" Neurohr said in an interview with the Gazette on Monday. “And John said, ‘Well, a car with her license plate was found parked along Frontage Road.'"
Neurohr and her husband saw their daughter everywhere after that. The whole town rallied to help them find her. They even called in a Native American clairvoyant from Hardin who stayed at the Harstad ranch. Neurohr still credits the woman with pointing the family to the area on the Yellowstone River where Harstad’s body was found.
“Peggy was right across from where she said she would be,” Neurohr said. “Two fisherman found her, and I remember, it had rained a lot that year, so the river was very high, and Coleman and Nank hadn’t put Peggy in the main stream, so, when the water receded, the two fisherman saw her body.”
Her body was discovered in late August 1974 on the north bank of the Yellowstone River near Forsyth.
“They wouldn’t let me see her,” Neurohr said. “I wanted so badly to see her.”
The night before Peggy Harstad's death, she kissed both her parents and thanked them for all they’d done for her.
“She was kind, a loving, good-natured person,” Neurohr said. When Harstad would come home from college, her sister Lynda Ottun would walk over from where she and her husband lived, and the three women would visit in the kitchen together. The girls would sit together on the counters laughing and chatting while Neurohr prepared dinner or lunch, Neurohr said.
“I miss that,” Neurohr said. After Peggy Harstad’s death, Neurohr said she could never again get close to her older daughter.
“Sometimes I wish I’d asked her, talked to her about it,” Neurohr said. “But we were all hurting, hurting so deeply.”
Nank and Coleman were arrested in October 1974 in Boise. Nank entered a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty, in exchange for testifying against Coleman. Nank confessed that he and Coleman had raped, beaten and drowned Harstad, while Coleman denied that he was involved. Both were charged with deliberate homicide, aggravated kidnapping and rape, according to Gazette archives.
Nank died in 1999 according to Montana State Death Records.
Coleman was convicted and sentenced to 100 years for the homicide and 40 years for the rape charge. He received the death sentence for his conviction of aggravated kidnapping, a mandatory sentence at the time. That law was repealed in 1977.
Coleman appealed his sentence, and the Montana Supreme Court determined the mandatory death sentence to be unconstitutional. Coleman was again sentenced to death in 1978 under a new statute.
Just days before the hanging was to take place, Coleman was granted a stay of execution.
Coleman later argued that his death sentence was handed down because he was black, and that Nank was given preferential treatment because he was white.
The two men are interchangeable to Neurohr, who said the death penalty wasn’t good enough for either.
“My daughter suffered at their hands,” Neurohr said. “They should suffer. That was my hate talking at the time, but I still feel what they got was far too plush.”
Both men pointed the finger at the other after the death of her daughter, but both could have stopped it, she said.
“Killing my daughter, through that, I lost my husband,” Neurohr said. John Harstad died from a heart attack in 1989, a month after an interview with the Gazette about his daughter's death, in which he remarked on the overwhelming support from the community. "It was just all too late," he had said of their efforts.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Coleman in 1988, commuting his death sentence to life imprisonment.
Neurohr is the last surviving member of Peggy Harstad’s direct family. Her sister, Lynda Ottun, died from cancer in 2005. Her adoptive brother, Rowland Limberhand Harstad, died in 2009 from a heart attack. The youngest brother, Monte Harstad, died in 2013, also following a battle with cancer.
“Monte always thought he should have been with her,” Neurohr said. “Even though he was just a little tyke, he thought, maybe if he’d been with her, she would have come home.”
In May 1974, a few months before Harstad was killed, she told her mother where she wanted to be buried when she died. She pointed to a big hill where she used to ride her horse, Neurohr said. From the top, she could see the family’s entire ranch.
“I remember I told her, ‘Peggy, we’re not going to talk about it, we’re not going to think about it,” Neurohr said. "'Parents don’t bury their children.'"
Coleman would have been eligible for parole this year. A previous hearing with the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole in 2011 did not go in his favor.
“I’m happy about it,” Neurohr said of Coleman's death. “But there’s closure, it gives you a feeling, I can’t really explain the feeling, it has all come to the end.”