Saturday, July 18, 2020

Police investigate rival in developer's death

Bruno Coleman and Philip FontaineOfficials are investigating whether realtor Bruno Coleman was involved in the July 11 death of Philip Fontaine, a developer commonly known to be Coleman's business rival, sources close to the case say.

The Fontaine residence on North Lamar was in disarray, and Fontaine was stabbed after struggling with his assailant, leading Yoknapatawpha County Sheriff's Department investigators initially to pursue the case as a botched robbery.

But witness interviews and new evidence suggest Fontaine's killer may have ransacked the house in an effort to lead police astray, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

Sheriff's Department public information officer Elizabeth Jones would not confirm whether Coleman is an official suspect, saying only that deputies are questioning all Fontaine's known associates. However, the Eagle has learned that search warrants for Coleman's home and for "biological samples," such as hair and DNA from Coleman, have been issued. Similar search warrants were also issued for two other persons of interest, both current or former Fontaine employees.

Jones confirmed, however, that although a robbery did take place, it may not have been the primary motive for the break-in. Jewelry and other valuables were not stolen, Jones said.

"We're continuing our investigation and intend to act when and only when the evidence dictates," she said.

Coleman refused to comment, referring all inquiries to his attorney.

A long-time Oxford realtor, Coleman waged several high-profile battles with Fontaine over the 1998acquisition of land for development projects. In 2002, both businessmen submitted bids to develop what is now the Eastgate Shopping Centre, publishing warring attack ads in the Eagle, and Coleman's office was vandalized by unknown miscreants. Neither received the bid.

In 2006, Coleman outbid Fontaine to obtain the former Draylor ranch, now the 200-acre Arden Park Senior Estates.

In late 2018, Coleman and Fontaine were involved in a physical altercation in the Oxford Branch of BancorpSouth that resulted in both men being removed to the Yoknapatawpha Sheriff's Office.

When Fontaine died, he was competing with Coleman for a state redevelopment grant to help the region's economic recovery. Fontaine had proposed razing three struggling farms along Highway 7 to build a retail shopping center, while Coleman planned renovation and expansion of the Oxford Centre to five stories.

John Franklin, owner of one of the three farms that Fontaine proposed razing, declared that "Mr. Coleman would never do such a thing. I've always been a big supporter of his, and I never liked Fontaine a bit. "

Sources at the Yoknapatawpha Sheriff's Office say the investigation is ongoing.

By Kemper Jones at 12:00 PM