A longtime gay Atlanta nightlife promoter was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to running an international drug smuggling operation that shipped meth, GHB and ketamine disguised as candy to buyers as far away as Israel.
Christopher Jon Coleman, 48, reported to a minimum security federal prison camp in Montgomery, Ala., on Oct. 13 to begin serving his 41-month sentence. On April 22, Coleman was indicted on three drug charges – two counts of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and one count of possession with intent to distribute ketamine. He faced a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison and a $2.5 million fine.
The indictment followed an investigation by federal drug agents, postal authorities and Israeli police that uncovered Coleman mailing illegal drugs to customers and hoarding cash in a bank safe deposit box. Court records show that U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents were first tipped to Coleman's drug smuggling by Israeli police in June 2013.
That's when Israeli police seized a package with the party drugs GHB and meth that Coleman mailed to a regular drug customer from his home near the intersection of North Druid Hills and LaVista roads in DeKalb County. An Israeli police officer then posed as Coleman's customer and through text messages told Coleman that he had a friend who wanted to purchase meth. The undercover officer and Coleman finalized details of the drug deal and on June 17, 2013, the officer paid Coleman $2,000 for about 28 grams of meth.
Coleman mailed the drugs in early July of that year in a package DEA agents tracked to a post office on Moreland Avenue in Little Five Points. Inside the package was more than 24 grams of meth sealed in a clear Ziploc bag. That, in turn, was stuffed inside a bag of candy, which was one of several candy bags in the package.
As that unfolded, agents from a multi-agency federal law enforcement task force began undercover surveillance of Coleman's home. On June 25, 2013, agents watched as Coleman drove to a post office on Briarcliff Road to drop off a package addressed to a man in Washington, D.C. A postal inspector obtained a warrant, searched the package and found 12.9 grams of meth.
Agents seize party drugs, cash and cocaine
On July 10, 2013, federal agents raided Coleman's home and found 557.8 grams of ketamine – an anesthetic used as a party drug, an eye dropper filled with butanediol (similar to GHB), more than six grams of cocaine in one of his jacket pockets, drug paraphernalia, a bag of empty gelatin capsules with a handwritten label “Empty capsules & Mollie & Xtacy,” mailing labels, and packages of candy. They also found receipts linking Coleman to the mailed packages of meth.
A day later, federal agents seized $38,400 from Coleman's safe deposit box at a Wells Fargo branch on North Druid Hills Road. Two days earlier, they followed Coleman as he stopped at the bank. Federal agents said the cash was proceeds from Coleman's drug sales and moved in court for its forfeiture, a move Coleman initially contested. Prosecutors later settled that claim by seizing $10,000 and returning $28,400 to Coleman.
Earlier this year, on April 22, a federal grand jury indicted Coleman on the three drug charges. U.S. Marshals arrested him on May 2 and he was later released on $25,000 bond. Coleman pleaded guilty on July 1, just days before the start of his trial, and agreed to the allegations prosecutors detailed in court documents.
On Sept. 4, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pannell, Jr., sentenced Coleman to 41 months in prison on each of the three criminal counts, ordering the sentences to be served concurrently. The sentence also included three years of supervised release for each count, to be served concurrently, and a 500-hour drug and alcohol treatment program while in prison. Pannell allowed Coleman to voluntarily report to prison when federal authorities notified him of the start of his sentence and assigned him to a facility.
With the criminal case pending last summer, Coleman continued to host events, including ones during Memorial Weekend in Pensacola in May, One Mighty Weekend during Gay Days at Walt Disney World in June and DJ Victor Calderone at Opera in July. Coleman's prison term started on Oct. 13, just four days after he hosted an event with gay comic and actor Leslie Jordan at Park Tavern during Atlanta Pride.
'Trustworthy, loyal, a devoted partner'
Before Coleman's sentencing, his boyfriend, several friends, family members and gay Atlantans provided character statements supporting him. His attorney, Donald Samuel, also asked for a lenient sentence based on Coleman's work with LGBT organizations, concerns for his health while in prison and his cooperation with prosecutors during the case.
“In 1989, Mr. Coleman was diagnosed with HIV. Since his diagnosis, he has struggled with depression and substance abuse,” Samuel wrote in a Sept. 3 court brief. “Since he was first charged in this case, Mr. Coleman has used his time to seek treatment for his drug use and improve his life and health.”
“While Mr. Coleman understands that he must be punished for his actions, he also understands the reality that he will likely be separated from his partner and family. While a term of incarceration may serve as a general deterrent effect, the devastating effect of being separated from his loved ones and potentially declining in his health makes any sentence imprisonment extremely harsh,” Samuel added.
Samuel also mentions Coleman's work with AID Atlanta, Jerusalem House, Joining Hearts and GLAAD Atlanta.
“All causes that are close to his own heart. Indeed, in their character letters his family and friends describe him as loving, trustworthy, loyal, a devoted partner, hard-worker, disciplined, compassionate, honest, good-hearted, a humanitarian, dedicated, and respectful,” Samuel wrote.
Coleman's boyfriend, Joe Hutchinson, told the court in an email that his “loving relationship” with Coleman saved him from “severe depression and low in my own life” and rescued him from substance abuse.
“Not only did he bring love into my life, but in saving me from my own self destruction and misery, he provided me with stability. He gave me a job working with him in his event promotional business. He helped me get off and away from substance abuse, he moved me into his own home and has never left my side or pushed me away to my own demise since,” Hutchinson wrote.
Dino Thompson-Sarmiento, CEO of Spotted Dog Agency and a senior advisor to GLAAD Atlanta, told the court in an email that Coleman's event promotions “never fail to impress.”
“Chris Coleman Enterprises can cut through red tape, anticipate potential issues, present workable solutions and, ultimately, keep us and our clients happy,” Thompson-Sarmiento wrote. “Their results never fail to impress. I have had the great fortune to work with him and his team more than a decade and he has always delivered services that far exceed our expectations. We will continue to engage Mr. Coleman and his company because we care about our clients, he understands our urgency as a public relations and branding firm to facilitate the very best in customer service.”
GLAAD honored Coleman at its signature annual Atlanta event in 2011. Coleman co-founded Social Tuesdays in 2008 as a weekly night of upscale gay cocktailing that grew into Hydrate Thursdays and Sol Sundays. He later launched Boyz Night Out at Halo and Blur at the now-defunct Blu. Coleman expanded his nightlife offerings to gay dance and after hours parties, Atlanta Pride events and bar crawls. His gay nightlife events tapered off in recent years, though his latest effort – pairing up with Inserection to refashion itself into a nightclub with playrooms for sex – attempted to rekindle those.
UPDATE | In an email to Project Q, Thompson-Sarmiento said he did not provide the statement to Coleman as a character reference.
“I never submitted a letter of character reference to any attorney, judge, or courtroom regarding this case. I was completely unaware of what was going on. The fact that my name was used in this manner is shocking. The only reference I've made was as a business reference to a request regarding a kick starter program. My experience with his work had been positive as he had been very generous to the community regarding charities. The fact the reference was used in a court case an positioned in the article as tho I sent that regarding this court case is untrue.”
Thompson-Sarmiento expanded on his comments to the GA Voice.