Paranoia and mash-up of conspiracy theories gripped surf instructor before child killings
In the days and weeks before Matthew Taylor Coleman allegedly killed his two young children with a spearfishing gun in Mexico, the Santa Barbara surf school owner obsessed over hand signals.
He pored over images of celebrities on social media and even old childhood photos of friends, interpreting universal gestures such as the peace sign or “OK” signal as evidence of an evil cabal secretly communicating their alliance, according to search warrant affidavits filed in the case.
Coleman, 40, and his wife had delved into QAnon together, she told investigators. A central tenet of the sprawling conspiracy theory is the existence of a secret society of elites bent on evil. But the more Coleman researched what he saw as “signs,” he became convinced that the purported cabal had infiltrated his inner circle — his church, his friendships and eventually his own home, the court document states.
Specifically, he told investigators that he believed his wife had passed serpent blood from “lizard people” onto the children — 10-month-old Roxy and 2-year-old Kaleo. He said he was the only one who could stop them from eventually spreading an alien species that would release carnage over Earth, the affidavit says.
The latest affidavit, filed last week in San Diego federal court, offers the most detailed account yet of the mash-up of conspiracy theories and increased paranoia that friends, family and Coleman himself say were churning in his head before the killings last August.
The latest search warrant, which attempts to gain access to Coleman’s personal and professional Instagram accounts, aims to gather evidence that could help determine his state of mind leading up to the slayings, including whether he suffers from a legitimate or feigned mental illness, the FBI wrote to the court.
Santa Barbara residents are struggling to make sense of a tragedy involving Matt Coleman, head of a local surf school, and the killings of his two young children.
Coleman has admitted to the slayings in detailed confessions during several interviews with law enforcement, according to statements outlined in court records. However, he has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of murdering U.S. nationals on foreign soil.
Court records do not indicate whether a psychiatric exam has been performed, which could determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial. Nor has his defense team said in court filings if insanity will be argued as a defense.
If the attorneys do go that route, they have an incredibly high legal burden and must prove that Coleman was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his acts as a result of a severe mental disease.
His lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.
Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami and an expert on conspiracy theories, warned against placing singular blame on a person’s exposure and belief in conspiracy theories. The “QAnon made him do it” narrative makes for good news headlines, he said, but mental illness or some other individual trait is more likely at play.
“A lot of people are exposed to those ideas, but they don’t act in those ways,” said Uscinski, who co-wrote the book “American Conspiracy Theories.” “The question has to be: What about this person is leading him to act?”
Signs and symbols
The Colemans’ Santa Barbara community has been struggling to square the person they know with the brutality of the crime.
Coleman, who attended Point Loma Nazarene University as an undergrad, ran Lovewater surf school and was known as a doting father and husband who was rooted in his Christian faith. There has been no mention of prior mental illness.
The affidavit does not say when he and his wife began researching QAnon, or whether Coleman had previously dabbled in other conspiracy theories.
Coleman told investigators he was even hearing from the anonymous messenger behind the movement, “Q” himself, according to the affidavit.
Santa Barbara residents are struggling to make sense of a tragedy involving Matt Coleman, head of a local surf school, and the killings of his two young children
However, many of the conspiracy theories that Coleman has described in his interviews with law enforcement venture far beyond QAnon.
Coleman credits learning about lizard people on Twitter and from “that British guy with white hair” — which investigators said was likely a reference to a noted conspiracy theorist who has been accused of being a Holocaust denier and promoting antisemitic tropes in his books. The writings touch on themes of shape-shifting reptilian beings, the Illuminati, interbreeding with Nordic peoples and an evil global elite.
Coleman also focused on signs and symbols — a common thread in conspiracy theories. He said he was drawing special meaning from Strong’s numbers — an index of every word in the Bible — and hand gestures, according to the affidavit.
The interest in gestures was apparently shared, at least in part, by his wife, Abby, according to investigators. She could not be reached for comment.
On Aug. 3, a week before the slayings, she sent her husband screenshots of Instagram memes from a far-right conspiracy theory account that goes by the motto “Symbolism is the language of the satanic elite.”
The screenshots cast suspicion on a famous conservative commentator who is shown making hand gestures. “We have to question everyone at this point,” the post says, in part.
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Coleman had also reportedly fingered one of his close friends as being in on some amorphous conspiracy against him based on a Facebook photo of him as a teenager making hand gestures.
Shortly after Coleman and the kids went missing, Coleman’s wife called the friend to the family home and showed him the Facebook picture. She then reportedly accused the friend of “being in on it” and eventually chased him from her home, according to the affidavit. The document does not further describe what exactly she suspected him of being in on.
The friend told investigators that Coleman had made similar comments to him about photos of other people, calling them evil disguised as good and describing them as “compromised,” the affidavit says.
Tragedy in Mexico
Coleman disappeared with the children in the family’s Mercedes Sprinter van on Aug. 7.
His wife called police and was able to track his iPhone, which put him in Mexico.
He texted her assurances about 3 a.m. on Aug. 9, saying he was “starting to get some clarity” but was still confused and planned to keep “processing through everything.” He mentioned burning his grandmother’s old Bibles because they might have a chip in them.
“Hope all this craziness ends soon,” he wrote. “Love you.”
His wife responded around 9 a.m., telling him to take care of their children.
“We are doing this together babe. Praying for clarity over you and your mind this morning,” she wrote. “Everything you’ve believed and known to be true is happening right now. I’m partnering with you from SB. Let’s take back our city. The gateway of revival for the state of California and the nation and the world. You were created to change the course of world history.”
By then her children were already dead. Their bodies were found earlier that morning by farmworkers in a ditch off a Rosarito highway.
Coleman was arrested about 1 p.m. as he tried to drive back into the U.S. through the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
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He told investigators that the visions, signs and strange coincidences began to coalesce a few days prior, and that while he lay in bed in Mexico — before the killings — he saw all the pieces being decoded like the film “The Matrix,” and he was the central character, Neo, the affidavit says.
Uscinski, the conspiracy theory expert, said Coleman’s “I” statements — making the conspiracy theories less about a group of people in power and more about him and his inner circle — are an indication that other, more individualized factors drove the violence.
“These are serious mental problems that go just beyond beliefs, beyond who has power within society and what they are doing with that power when no one is looking,” he said. “It’s more likely the things driving these behaviors are just a part of humanity. ... And that’s not very comforting.”
Prosecutors in this case could pursue the death penalty — a rare sanction in federal cases. The decision is ultimately made at the highest levels of the Justice Department.
A team of public defenders in Los Angeles would have a chance to present a mitigating argument to Justice officials before a final decision is made. That could happen as early as June, once the lawyers have had a chance to analyze the enormous amount of evidence handed over thus far.
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