A popular surfing instructor, QAnon, and an unspeakable horror

·11 min read

Matt Coleman lived with his wife and two small kids on a quiet street not far from the Santa Barbara beaches where he surfed.

It was where Coleman, 40, was teaching his toddler son how to skateboard, and neighbors often saw his wife walking with their baby girl cradled in a carrier on her chest. Coleman's office was Leadbetter Beach, Campus Point and other spots along the coast, where he operated a surf school and, for years, led a Bible study and surf group. Wetsuits often lay drying on the family’s lawn.

From the outside, it looked to be an idyllic life grounded in Coleman's abiding Christian faith and deep love for his family. But the seemingly serene existence belied something horrific that took root in Coleman's mind.

Badly shaken neighbors and friends have been struggling to make sense of the unimaginable: In early August, Coleman fled with 10-month-old Roxy and 2-year-old Kaleo to a Mexican beach town. Shortly afterward, he confessed to having killed his children with a spearfishing gun, U.S. authorities say.

“We are dealing with all the emotions around knowing someone, trusting someone, and if they claim to be this in their faith, how could this happen?” said Tommy Schneider, the pastor of Santa Barbara’s Calvary Chapel, whose congregants include kids Coleman taught at his Lovewater surf school.

Those closest to Coleman have said nothing publicly about what may have led to such a tragedy. His wife, Abby, and relatives did not respond to interview requests, and several of Coleman's close friends, as well as his attorney, declined to comment. Some who agreed to speak asked to remain anonymous, not wanting to be associated with the incident.

Coleman himself has offered up the only glimpse into his troubled thinking. During questioning, Coleman told FBI agents he had been influenced by QAnon, a sprawling conspiracy-fueled movement that has attracted primarily right-wing adherents with its claims that Satan-worshipping pedophiles control the country and have plotted against former President Trump, court records show.

He also told agents he was "receiving visions and signs" and that he needed to kill the kids to save the world from monsters, according to court records. Coleman later told an agent that his wife "had serpent DNA and may have been passing it on to his children."

Experts cautioned against speculating on how much of an influence, if any, QAnon had on Coleman's decision to kill his own children.

“It’s not unusual for people who have mental illness to become distressed by whatever is the shiny object in sociopolitical discourse,” said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. QAnon "is a flexible a la carte menu," he said, such that "angry people, dyed-in-the-wool extremists and those with emotional difficulties can all drink from the same well."

The result, Levin added, is that QAnon can free followers to “build their own hybrid type of motivation for violence."

Coleman was born in Santa Barbara and grew up surfing, spearfishing and sailing to the Channel Islands with his family, according to Lovewater’s website. As a teenager, he participated in a youth group at Montecito Covenant Church, said Jon Ireland, who was a youth pastor at the church then and is currently the lead pastor at Santa Barbara's Oceanhills Covenant Church.

He attended Point Loma Nazarene University, a Christian school in San Diego, and at one point moved to the town of San Sebastian in Spain, where he taught English, according to his Facebook page and Lovewater's website. Later, he received a master’s degree in Spanish from UC Santa Barbara.

Luismi Arribas, who became friends with Coleman in Spain and later visited his family in California, said he had thought of Coleman as a good person who was "really strict with his religion and his beliefs."

"The only thing he wanted to do in life," Arribas said, "was to get married, get a family and surf, and that’s what he did."

Coleman remained in his hometown, working as a Spanish teacher and leading a local chapter of an organization called Christian Surfers, which met for Bible study, food and waves. It was a group, said one of Coleman’s friends from that time, that aimed “to get the kids in the water and teach them about Jesus.”

“He was really the cool older brother of the group," the friend said. “He took especially the boys under his wing.”

In emails Coleman sent to the group in 2006, copies of which were provided to The Times, he wrote effusively about mentoring and Christianity. “God is doing something really BIG with these kids!!!” he said in one. He ended another, “Jesus is rad.”

Several friends who said they had lost touch with Coleman in the last few years described him as someone who made friends easily and for whom religious faith was a pillar.

The friends said Coleman didn't seem to be overly interested in politics, although he cared enough to switch his party affiliation several times, according to voter registration records. He was an American Independent in 2000 and 2002 and a Democrat in 2004 and 2007. By 2010, he had switched allegiances again to become a Republican and remained one for many elections, including last year's presidential contest, the records show.

“You felt immediately he had integrity,” said a woman who attended church with Coleman in Goleta more than a decade ago. She recalled how, when she was battling cancer, Coleman had stepped up to take her son surfing.

“He was just a good, solid guy,” she said.

A friend who met Coleman in church as a young adult said they immediately bonded over their shared love of the outdoors and went on road trips together. Coleman, he said, would travel to Rosarito, Mexico, to surf — the same place where, according to his confession, he killed his children.

He called Coleman “a golden child Christian surfer kid” who was “very well loved amongst everyone.”

Pam van der Poel, who has taken surfing lessons at Lovewater with her husband and teenage daughters over the last five years, said she last saw Coleman in the spring, when he rushed the family's instructor to the hospital after he stepped on a stingray.

“He was just really patient," she said, "and he never acted like he wanted to be anywhere else — like he loved his job.”

He didn't shy away from exuberance or grandiose declarations. After Kaleo was born, Coleman wrote on Instagram in October 2018 that his name meant “sound” or “voice” in Hawaiian and that his son was “appointed to bring the sound of heaven’s dove.” In an October 2020 post, Coleman wrote that he felt his daughter, Roxy, “would represent a dawn, or even awakening, to years of great blessing for our family and nation.”

The following month, after Trump lost his reelection bid, Coleman took to social media to express the hopefulness he felt for the future but hinted at a disquiet in his worldview.

“What if there is a type of Great American Renaissance following the years of Covid, censorship, and political divisiveness… that will empower each person’s heart to come alive and explode with innovative ideas, new business models, new music sounds and never seen ways to build an amazing community?” he wrote on Facebook.

On Saturday, Aug. 7, Coleman’s wife contacted Santa Barbara police to report that her family had planned to go on a camping trip but instead her husband had driven away in their Mercedes Sprinter van with the children and without telling her where he was going, according to an affidavit filed in court by an FBI agent.

Her husband wasn’t responding to text messages, but she didn’t think he would harm the kids, Abby Coleman told police. Although she said she believed he would eventually return home, she was worried that he hadn't taken a car seat for the baby. Coleman would later tell authorities he put his daughter in a box while he drove.

The next day, she asked to report the family missing, according to the FBI affidavit. Using an iPhone tracking app, officials saw that Coleman had gone to Rosarito, a popular tourist destination about an hour south of the border.

Coleman had showed up around 8 p.m. Saturday at the City Express hotel in Rosarito with the two children, Mexican prosecutor Hiram Sánchez Zamora told reporters during a news conference. Coleman didn’t have a reservation.

At about 3 a.m. on Monday, Coleman left the hotel with the kids and suitcases and returned alone around 6:30 that morning. An hour later, local police received an emergency call that a worker on a ranch about 18 miles from the hotel had discovered bodies in some brush. Coleman left the hotel a few hours later.

On the phone tracking app, Abby Coleman saw her husband moving north and decided to drive toward the border, the affidavit says. When a Santa Barbara police detective and a district attorney investigator arrived at the family's home on Monday, they were met by friends of hers who told them that she had just left for San Diego. Court records do not say whether Coleman and his wife spoke or exchanged messages.

U.S. authorities were tracking Coleman’s phone as well and saw he was nearing the border crossing at San Ysidro, according to the affidavit. When he tried to reenter the country without his son and daughter, they contacted Mexican officials about the missing children and learned about the horrific discovery of the bodies that morning, the affidavit said.

Coleman was detained and put in an interview room at the border crossing. Under questioning from FBI agents, he made the fantastical claims about QAnon, and confessed he had killed his children by piercing them repeatedly with a spearfishing gun, according to the affidavit and the Mexican prosecutor.

Coleman is being held in federal custody without bond. His next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 9 in Los Angeles.

Prior to his arrest in the killings, Coleman had never been charged with a crime in Santa Barbara County, according to its district attorney's office. The Santa Barbara Police Department denied a public records request from The Times for information about any arrests or other interactions the department might have had with the Coleman family. And a deputy director in Santa Barbara County’s Department of Social Services would not confirm whether the agency had had previous contact with the family, saying it did not publicly disclose information on individual cases.

The killings upended the middle-class neighborhood where the Colemans rented a home.

Police canvassed its streets after Coleman went missing. One neighbor said she told an officer she had never heard anything troubling coming from the Coleman’s home — only the occasional giggling of children. She recalled seeing him load surfboards into his car a few weeks ago and said he “seemed down to earth and friendly and engaged with his son.”

“You just feel for the kids and that mom, and I do feel for the guy in ways. If he really loved his children, something must have made him snap," she said.

Coleman’s old friends have reacted similarly. The woman who knew Coleman from the Christian Surfers group said she threw up when she heard the news. The friend who had traveled with Coleman said he had been unable to sleep.

“It’s so hard to fathom,” he said. “I can’t believe what happened, and I can’t believe it was him that did this. It’s not the Matt that I know.”

Many families in Santa Barbara's tight-knit surfing world have avoided telling their children.

“We’re totally traumatized, and it’s the unthinkable,” said Jenny Keet, who co-owns the Surf Happens school, which often shared beaches with Coleman. “We definitely feel as leaders in our community that we need to be involved in the healing process and something around de-stigmatizing mental health, but right now it’s so awful.”

Schneider, the pastor at Calvary Chapel, decided to discuss the tragedy during an evening service the Wednesday after the killings. He called Coleman's actions a "betrayal of God's goodness."

The pastor said he'd been asked over and over how it could have happened.

“Everyone feels like they knew him because they’re a beautiful family,” he said, referring to photos Coleman posted of his wife and kids on social media.

Jono Shaffer, a pastor at Oceanhills Covenant Church, which has congregants who grew up with Coleman, said he’d been at a loss for words and had simply sat with people in their grief.

“There’s not an answer that’s going to take that away at this moment,” he said.

Times researchers Scott Wilson and Julia Franco contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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