Fallen Angel

Angela Coffel, the first woman in Missouri deemed a sexually violent predator, is locked up despite overwhelming evidence that she isn't one.

Having already served jail time on the sodomy charge before entering her plea, Angel was scheduled for release on July 31, 2000. As is standard for all state inmates on their way out, an "End of Confinement" report on Angel was completed. Rebecca Woody, whose title with the Department of Corrections is "associate psychologist," even though she's actually just a professional counselor, did the report on Angela. According to Woody, Angel is a sexual sadist who is "willing to risk infecting others with a deadly disease by having unprotected sexual contact with them."

She then included language that would dramatically alter Angel's fate:

Angela Coffel, wrote professional counselor Rebecca Woody, "may meet the criteria of a sexually violent predator."

Public defenders Lyn Ruess and Eric Selig represent Angela Coffel. Ruess says Coffel's case weighs heavily on her: "It is hard to see something really wrong happening and not be able to fix it."
Jennifer Silverberg
Public defenders Lyn Ruess and Eric Selig represent Angela Coffel. Ruess says Coffel's case weighs heavily on her: "It is hard to see something really wrong happening and not be able to fix it."

Whether Angel was, at that point, a sexual predator was an open question; whether she had been preyed upon most of her life was not.

Her parents, Harvey and Debbie Coffel, and Angel's younger brother, Raymond, all refused to comment for this story, but according to Angel and the psychological reports prepared in the case, her childhood was marked by physical abuse and violence. Her parents hit each other when they argued; they hit their children. According to Angel and her lawyers, Debbie Coffel once threw a lamp at Raymond because he wouldn't listen to her and, in the process, cut his head. It was only after he was taken to the hospital that the family learned Raymond suffered from hearing loss in both ears.

Alcohol and drug abuse also marred the Coffel home. Angel says she lived in a household in which her father and mother frequently smoked marijuana in front of their kids and didn't object when Angel began smoking. Angel told psychologists and claimed in deposition and trial testimony that when she and Raymond were children, her mother turned tricks while her father was at work; she also alleged being raped by a friend of her uncle's, as well as by a male teenage relative. When she was 9, Angel says, a 15-year-old girl sexually abused her.

Much of Angel's upbringing was left to her grandmother, a woman Angel nicknamed "Big Mama." But even her grandmother couldn't control Angel. Around the age of 13, Angel was placed in foster care after hitting her mother in the head with a board.

When Angel was 14, Big Mama took her to St. Anthony's Medical Center to seek help for her granddaughter's depression, alcohol and drug use. Angel was admitted for 24 days during July and August 1991. Hospital records note her history of self-mutilation -- burning and cutting her clitoris -- substance use and hypersexuality. The staff observed her mood swings, crying and anger. A full psychological evaluation concluded that her behavior stemmed from the sexual abuse she sustained. Although not psychotic, Angela had an unrealistic and grandiose manner, the psychologists found, and they rendered a diagnosis of "depression covered by hyperactivity," "post-traumatic stress disorder related to sexual trauma," "chemical abuse and/or dependency" and "conduct disorder, developing mixed personality stabilized." Seven months later, Angel was readmitted to St. Anthony's after cutting her wrists. Her diagnosis was changed to "bipolar disorder, depressed" and "depression, recurrent." After 16 days, the hospital turned her over to the care of the Missouri Division of Family Services.

School was another problem in Angel's life. She was found to have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder at an early age but only took Ritalin for a short time. Angel says it had bad side effects. While enrolled in St. Louis grammar schools, she was found to have a learning disability. IQ tests taken periodically throughout her childhood placed Angel at the "high end of the borderline range of intellectual functioning or the low end of the low average range." At age 11, Angel was identified by the school district as "severely emotionally disturbed," and she was moved to the Edgewood Children's Center, where she seemed to thrive. Her peer relationships, boundaries and self-control improved. But she still needed to be reminded about sexually provocative behavior, Edgewood records indicate. After being discharged from Edgewood because she "improved," Angel sporadically attended Webster Middle School in St. Louis, Hickman High School in Columbia (while living in a group foster home) and St. Louis' Roosevelt High.

At 16, Angel ran away from her parents' home and into a relationship with a Bloods gang member in his mid- to late 20s. Angel says her parents didn't try to stop her. "My mom and dad did not give a fuck what I did," she says. "Dad was always out working, and my mom was constantly doing something she didn't supposed to be doin'." Angel says she was part of the gang. Her boyfriend, she says, "was like he was the king, and I was the queen." The gang "was like my family -- they showed me love and they were there." During her gang life, she claims, she was a passenger in cars involved in drive-by shootings. It is also during this period that Angel contracted HIV. In her testimony and in subsequent interviews, her accounts of the source of the HIV infection have differed: She's blamed her boyfriend, a tattoo and a gang initiation in which she claims to have had sex with 20 men.

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