There was little dignity in Shane Alan Coffman’s short life. There was even less in his death.
The 8-year-old boy died in August from abuse, authorities said, and his body was shoved inside a broken freezer packed with red mud, a pink-handled spade and a headless doll. His body was found this month by a man who owned the trailer where the boy’s family had lived.
Shane’s mother, Bertha Jean Coffman, and her boyfriend, Donald Lee Gilson, were arraigned last week on charges of first-degree murder and concealing the death. Both were denied bond and placed in the county jail to await a preliminary hearing.
All but one of Shane’s five siblings, ages 7 to 12, have been placed in protective custody, the state Department of Human Services said. Two have been hospitalized for malnutrition; the 12-year-old boy was staying with a grandparent.
The children told authorities that they were starved as punishment and one of them said they had to resort to stealing dog food to eat, said Cleveland County Dist. Atty. Tim Kuykendall.
“There was severe malnourishment, open sores. One of the brother’s feet was deformed from lack of nourishment,” he said.
Bob Perrine, Coffman’s court-appointed lawyer, said that the two have admitted hiding the boy’s body, but not killing him.
“It’s a horrible thing to have happen to any child, but we shouldn’t condemn them as of yet,” Perrine said.
Tim Goff found Shane’s decomposed body in a large freezer in the yard behind the abandoned trailer in this rural community 35 miles south of Oklahoma City. Coffman, 39, and Gilson, 36, had lived there until last summer.
Assistant prosecutor Rick Sitzman said investigators believe that Shane was killed Aug. 15 by “excessive and unreasonable discipline.”
The exact cause of the death was not immediately revealed, but details of Shane’s suffering were beginning to unfold.
The pastor of the First Baptist Church, where Shane and his siblings attended Sunday school, said he called the Department of Human Services four times to complain that the children weren’t being cared for properly.
With each call, an investigator checked on the family. “But somewhere down the line, somebody didn’t follow through,” the Rev. Sunny Stuart said.
Gov. Frank Keating has told the department to detail its role in Shane’s case.
A department investigator placed the children in a foster home for about a month in 1994 after Coffman alleged that one of her daughters was sexually molested by a former boyfriend, said Sheriff’s Capt. Lee Ivy. Stuart said the children were returned after Coffman took steps recommended by social workers to get her home and life in better order.
Stuart said he and his congregation helped feed Shane and his brothers and sisters and gave them sleeping bags, clean clothes and toys. “Sometimes, those kids would be so hungry, we’d let them keep eating instead of going to Sunday school. I never seen little kids that could eat so much,” he said.
Parishioners will pay for Shane’s burial, he said.
Jan Sharp, a spokeswoman for the Little Axe School District, said the children were good students, but they were enrolled and withdrawn from the district several times in the last few years.
“The mother had written us a letter at the start of this school year and said she was going to home-school them,” Sharp said. “After we checked it out with our attorney, we found she had every right to do that.”
“It raised a red flag for us,” Sharp said. “But we can’t police home-school.”