Last winter, Matthew Taylor Coleman was talking to friends about the normal challenges of being a dad to two young children.
“The conversations were pretty typical,” says a friend who would regularly work out with Coleman. “Feedings, diapers, the basic stuff you’d expect of a guy with a newborn and a toddler. But he was so happy, so excited about his family.”
But as 2021 progressed, the conversations changed. “He’d tell me about stuff he read online,” says the friend. “Conspiracies. But he’d present it like, ‘I read something really crazy. Isn’t that ridiculous?'”
“But then,” the friend continues, “he’d start adding things like, ‘yeah, but when you think about it, it all makes a lot of sense.’ It was like he was starting to believe them. And he spent a lot of time looking at these conspiracies. He devoted a lot of brain power to them. It became clear to me that he believed some weird stuff.”
But the friend tells PEOPLE that he never dreamed that Coleman’s beliefs would lead to violence.
“I need to be clear about something,” says the friend. “He never said anything that led me to believe that he was a danger to himself or anyone else. We’re all pretty conservative, and this was not just conservative political talk. This was just out there. Stuff that made zero sense to me.”
Police say that Coleman, 40, drove his 2-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter into Mexico on Saturday, August 7. The children’s mother reported her husband and the kids missing the following day.
Investigators allege that Coleman then took the children to a ranch in Mexico early Monday morning, killed them with a spearfishing gun, and returned to his hotel a few hours later. A farmer found the children’s bodies just hours after they were killed.
After making the grisly discovery, agents with Baja California’s State Security and Investigation Guard contacted U.S. authorities, saying that the suspect would likely be heading back to the United States. American border officers stopped Coleman as he approached the San Ysidro Port of Entry. He was arrested at the scene and has been charged with foreign murder of U.S. nationals.
According to charging documents, he allegedly told police he was motivated by the conspiracy theories of QAnon — believing that his kids had “serpent DNA” and needed to be killed to save the world.
Coleman is being held without bond. He has not yet entered a plea, and a public defender who represented him in his first court hearing has not returned PEOPLE’s calls for comment.
The friend says that people in Coleman’s circle are “devastated” at the sudden violence.
“Plenty of people believe plenty of things that aren’t mainstream and they never get violent,” says the friend. “So why did this happen? It’s just really sad.”