By Sarah Moore Hall
June 16, 1980 12:00 PM

She was, as one police officer put it, “simply the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Martha Anderson Coleman, 36, had met Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League, in his motel cocktail lounge just after midnight May 29. Earlier that evening he had spoken to the organization’s Fort Wayne, Ind. chapter, on whose board Coleman serves. They had drinks for a half hour, then drove across town to her home and stayed for some 45 minutes. Then she drove Jordan back to his motel where at 2:05 a.m. he was shot once in the back as he left her red-and-white Pontiac Grand Prix. Miraculously, the wound was not fatal. As Jordan recovered in a Fort Wayne hospital and Martha Coleman went into seclusion, local police and the FBI searched for the weapon, the motive and the gunman. Coleman was not a suspect, they said, but the announcement simply increased, rather than dampened, public curiosity about the stunning blond mystery woman.

The puzzle began almost immediately after the shooting. Coleman rushed to the front desk of the Marriott Inn, told desk clerk Lee Pense that a man had been wounded—without mentioning Jordan’s name—and told Pense to summon help. She then asked to use the telephone herself. “She was really cool,” Pense recalls, “like she hadn’t just seen someone shot.” While Pense’s co-worker rushed to Jordan’s side in the parking lot, Coleman called her attorney, Charles Leonard; she stayed in the lobby and did not see the civil rights leader again before he was taken to the hospital. Police who questioned her that night called some of her answers “evasive.” When they asked whether she had a boyfriend, she replied, “I don’t want to get anybody else involved.”

Police suspected that the shooting was a domestic incident. Later, when they tried to question Coleman further, they discovered she had gone into hiding—on the advice of her lawyer. “I take full responsibility for her seclusion,” Leonard said. “I have felt all along that it is in her best interests.” Leonard finally agreed to produce his client last Monday for an interview with the FBI. Agents had little choice but to accept the terms; since no grand jury had been called, they lacked subpoena power.

The Jordan shooting and its aftermath thrust into the national spotlight a woman who has been the subject of gossip in her Midwestern hometowns for years. Until 10 years ago Coleman lived in Huntington, Ind. (pop. 15,000), where she was married and divorced three times. “When you have more than one husband in a town like this, eyebrows go up,” says a Huntington neighbor. “When you have three, they stay up.” Martha’s first husband was an auto worker, her second a mechanic, her third a lawyer. After that marriage ended, Coleman moved 22 miles into Fort Wayne and in 1974 took her fourth husband, Robert Coleman, a black factory worker. A year later she divorced him, against his wishes. Her genuine interest in civil rights became clear after that, and she joined the Urban League in 1977. The affiliation inevitably led to backbiting. “There were a lot of men going in and out of her house,” cats a woman who lives nearby. “She had more black friends than white.”

In fact, Coleman seems to have had a variety of friends. Says one neighbor, Lee Krauskopf: “Martha is a very nice person, very friendly, but very private. When I asked her to help out with some neighborhood business, she was very supportive, but we didn’t chat over coffee. She wasn’t the type.” Other neighbors recall that she was fond of Robert Coleman’s three children by a previous marriage; she has none of her own. Still, her image was that of a self-possessed, reserved woman who lived in an elegantly furnished house. “She had everything done for her. She wasn’t the type you’d see out in the yard,” says a homeowner. “She had money, did as she pleased, and led the kind of independent life most women around here wish they could,” adds another.

Marty Coleman was born in Huntington, the daughter of a well-to-do inventor of industrial parts. Her mother died when she was 14. Her father drank heavily. As a girl, Martha was “so pretty people always wanted to take photographs of her,” says a friend. “She drew attention to herself. She was flamboyant.” Another friend recalls that “although she was pretty and smart, she never seemed to feel totally confident. She always seemed to be reaching out for some kind of emotional fulfillment.” After graduating from high school, Martha got a job as a secretary for International Harvester in Fort Wayne and worked her way up to supervisory level, a position she still holds.

Her adult life has always seemed troubled. Says one old friend: “Something happens to her when she is secure in a relationship. She immediately starts looking for someone else.” Her ex-husband, lawyer Mark McIntosh, recalls: “She was very attractive and full of life. My major feeling now is I feel sorry for her, but I don’t know anything to do to help her.” She will need all the sympathy she can get. As Fort Wayne Mayor Winfield Moses Jr. told reporters: ‘I’d be surprised if Mrs. Coleman ever returned to a normal life after this.” Martha is in sad agreement. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she told a friend, “and now my life is ruined.”