Thirty-two years after the death of his 5-year-old brother, a man's suspicions about their mother's involvement sparked a re-examination of the Baltimore County case that led to her arrest in Florida this week on a murder charge, police said yesterday.
Richard A. Coffman, now 35, sent an e-mail to Baltimore County police through the department's Web site July 9, saying he believed that his mother, Diane B. Coffman, was responsible for his brother's death in 1972, said Bill Toohey, a department spokesman.
Coffman, 57, of DeLand, Fla., was arrested Tuesday at her job in nearby Orange City, authorities said.
Toohey declined to release a copy of the e-mail or elaborate on its contents, saying only: "There was information that made the detectives think this was worth following up on."
Richard Coffman, who records indicate lived in Baltimore in recent years, could not be reached for comment. Police declined to say where he lives now.
After receiving the e-mail, investigators and the chief medical examiner's office took a second look at the records for Edward R. Coffman, who died Aug. 4, 1972, at his family's home in the Woodlawn area, police said. The medical records showed that the boy's injuries did not match the mother's account - that he slipped in the bathtub, she put him to bed and found him dead the next morning, police said.
The autopsy noted 17 injuries, some of which had occurred before the bathtub scenario described by the mother, according to yesterday's announcement by police.
Diane Coffman told authorities in 1972 that Edward slipped while playing with his younger brother, hitting the right side of his face on the tub, Toohey said. Coffman, screaming and with the boy in her arms, woke her husband about 4:30 a.m., Toohey said.
The original finding of the cause of death was blunt force trauma, and the manner was listed as "undetermined," police said. On Oct. 10, the medical examiner's office reclassified the manner of death as homicide.
Yesterday, Dr. David Fowler, the state's chief medical examiner, said he could not comment on the case except to say that "a greater understanding of the mechanics of injuries played a part in the revision."
The Baltimore County Police Department has two detectives assigned to re-examine old, unsolved cases, but the investigation into Edward Coffman's death was dormant when Richard Coffman's e-mail arrived, Toohey said.
A warrant for Diane Coffman's arrest was issued Oct. 27 in Baltimore County, according to a Florida arrest report. Baltimore County detectives arrested her in Florida, police said.
Coffman waived extradition and was being brought back to the Baltimore area last night, Toohey said.
News of the arrest came as a "complete shock," said Ruth Burnham, who for 18 months knew the suspect and her husband, Darryl R. Coffman, when she rented them an apartment in the Upperco area of northwest Baltimore County.
"They were such sweet people," Burnham said. "We had cookouts with them, ate crabs with them, now this."
Diane Coffman worked part time at the Jos. A. Bank plant in Hampstead, Burnham said. She said the couple moved to Florida in March 1999.
"The only time we ever heard mention of a son was when she said she had lost a son," said George Burnham. "No other details."
At the couple's home in DeLand, about 20 miles southwest of Daytona Beach, an Orioles towel blocked a window at their front door.
Neighbors said the Coffmans were known for staging bi-weekly garage sales at their home. Diane Coffman, who worked at a dental office, was often seen wearing pastel-colored scrub suits on her way to work.
In a Volusia County Sheriff's Department report on her arrest, Coffman told officers she was a dental assistant. Others on the Coffmans' block said Darryl Coffman worked at a nearby Wal-Mart.
Yesterday, a black Chevy S-10 pickup sat in the driveway of the Coffman home, but telephone calls and knocks on the front door went unanswered.
Neighbors said Coffman, her husband and their daughter moved into the dove-gray ranch house about four years ago and decorated the house elaborately for most holidays.
Christine Shouse, who lives nearby, said the Coffmans often looked after their young grandson.
"I hope everything works out for her," she said, "because they take such good care of that grandbaby."
Jeff Libby of the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, reporting from DeLand, contributed to this article.