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This was supposed to be Gary Coleman's refuge.

After years of fighting for the money he earned as a child star, dealing with hangers-on seeking his reflected fame, and struggling against a screen persona formed when he was 10 years old, Coleman moved to this Utah County town in 2005 to get away from Hollywood.

"Part of the reason he moved down there was that he wanted to be left alone," said Provo-based movie producer Dave Hunter. "He wanted to be isolated a little bit."

For the next five years, Coleman -- known to the world for his childhood role as Arnold Jackson on the sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes" -- lived the life of a Utahn.

He joined a bowling league, and worked on his model trains. He enjoyed Dr. Pepper and Twinkies. He fell in love with Shannon Price, a Utah woman he met on a movie set, and they got married. They had loud arguments that sometimes brought the police to their door. They got a divorce, but continued to live in the same Santaquin house.

On May 26, Price called 911 from that house to report that Coleman was bleeding badly. An ambulance took Coleman to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo, where he died on May 28. He was 42.

Living in Utah didn't end the problems Coleman faced his adult life, people who knew him told The Salt Lake Tribune . Health issues, struggles over money and the baggage of fame followed him to the end and beyond; the first of what could be many court hearings over his estate is set for Monday.

"He really liked his life there in Utah," said Ron Carlson, who directed Coleman's last movie in 2008, the direct-to-DVD comedy "Midgets vs. Mascots." "If he had had enough money to never come back to L.A. or deal with the entertainment industry, he would not have."


Gary Coleman's role in "Church Ball" was, the movie's director admits, "somewhat of a gimmick."

In the movie, the church basketball team needs a ringer. When the coach hears there's a black guy in the neighborhood, he thinks he must be a natural basketball talent. Then the coach meets Charles, Coleman's character, and sees he's 4-foot-8. Still, Charles wants to play basketball, and he becomes part of the team's improbable march to victory.

Filmed in Salt Lake City and Orem in 2005, "Church Ball" was director Kurt Hale's first attempt at a mainstream comedy, after gaining fame in Utah making Mormon-centric comedies. Hiring recognizable actors, such as Coleman and comedian Fred Willard, was aimed at broadening "Church Ball's" appeal outside of the state.

"We loved that he was recognizable and we pretty much typecast him in the role," said Dave Hunter, who produced the film. "If you wanted Gary Coleman to play Gary Coleman, he was great at it."

Coleman had been playing Gary Coleman all his life, and it was tiring.

"How many people have said 'What you talking about, Willis?' " said Carlson, the director of "Midgets vs. Mascots." "He's an icon. Everyone knew his name. It wears down on you."

Coleman was tired of fame, said his Provo-based lawyer, Randy S. Kester. "He just didn't like the spotlight, and it got worse as he got older," Kester said.

On the set of "Church Ball," Hale said, Coleman's contract stipulated that no one could say "What you talking about, Willis?" or ask for autographs.

Otherwise, it was another job, and Coleman was a professional. "He would come on and was always prepared," Hale said. "Then he would do his stuff and then he would go back to his trailer."

Coleman's health problems were an issue during shooting. Coleman suffered from congenital kidney problems, which had stunted his growth. He required dialysis regularly, and the movie's shooting schedule was changed to accommodate him, Hale said.

Sometime during shooting, Hunter said, Coleman expressed an interest in living in Utah.

"He said, 'Everybody's so nice here that I just want to look around and see what something goes for,' " Hunter said. Coleman was impressed that "everything was so cheap compared to L.A.," and he found a house in the small farming community of Santaquin, a mostly quiet but growing town of 8,400 residents, located 55 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Resting near the base of the Wasatch Mountains in a newer suburb just east of the town, Coleman's 4,405-square-foot, $315,000 home had a beige fence erected around it, topped with security cameras.


While working on "Church Ball," Gary Coleman also met Shannon Price, an extra in the film who was 18 years younger and 11 inches taller than him.

A member of East High School's class of 2003, Shannon Price wasn't much of a joiner. In four years, Price appeared in the school yearbook only in her class picture -- and there are no pictures of her at all in her senior yearbook.

"We'd just go hang out," said Susan Hernandez, who has been friends with Price since 2001, when they were both sophomores at East and attended the same Mormon ward. "She's really, really sweet, and she's so outgoing. She has this light about her."

When Price told her friend Hernandez that she had met Coleman, "She didn't even know who he was at first," Hernandez said, adding that she had to tell Price about Coleman's TV stardom.

"He's really her type --she's dated so many short guys," Hernandez said. "She loved him very much. People are trying to say she didn't, but she did." (Neither Price nor members of her family responded to multiple interview requests from The Tribune .)

Throughout his adult life, Coleman had built up a distrust of people who wanted to be around him because of his money and his fame.

"He was this tall," said a Coleman acquaintance from Payson, Annette Pierce, holding her hand at Coleman's height of 4-8, "and people still treated him like the child actor, and he wasn't anymore."

In 1989, a 21-year-old Coleman sued his parents and business manager, accusing them of mismanaging his earnings as a child star. In 1993, a California Superior Court judge awarded Coleman nearly $1.3 million. Still, his financial problems persisted, and he declared bankruptcy in 1999.

"He didn't have the money, after his parents had spent it all, to protect himself and live the life he could have lived," said Ron Carlson, the director.

"Gary didn't like what other people called 'star humpers,' " Kester said, adding that Coleman was "to some degree distrustful of people in the beginning. But when you got him warmed up, he was just delightful."

According to court documents filed Thursday, June 10 by Price's attorneys, Coleman and Price started living together soon after he bought the Santaquin house. "I was kind of baffled to hear that a romance had struck up so quickly," Hale said.

The couple went into business together, selling Coleman memorabilia on eBay -- including a pair of pants that famously were bought by comedian Jimmy Kimmel and hoisted into the rafters of his ABC talk show in January 2008.

In a February 2008 interview with the TV show "Inside Edition," Coleman said it was the first "romantic relationship" he had ever had.

"I never got the opportunity to be romantic or feel romantic with anyone," Coleman told the show. "I wasn't saving myself, she just happened to be the one."

Coleman surprised Price on August 28, 2007, by whisking her away by helicopter to a Nevada mountaintop for a marriage ceremony. The gathering was intimate, with just a minister, videographers, a photographer and the pilot as witnesses.

"She didn't tell me until I saw it on the news," Hernandez said. "I was shocked she didn't invite me."


The relationship between Coleman and Price was stormy.

Coleman was cited in Provo on a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct after a "heated discussion" with Price in July 2007. Two years later, Price was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. In January of this year, Coleman was briefly booked into the Utah County Jail on a domestic violence charge. (Kester said all criminal complaints were resolved before Coleman died.)

"They were both very hotheaded," Hernandez said. That combination of fiery tempers may explain, Price's friend believes, why Coleman and Price secretly filed for divorce in August 2008, less than a year after they married, and yet continued to live together.

"I just think they have one of those relationships where they separated awhile and had their issues and would get back together and try to work things out and then separate again," Kester said. "I thought it was a pretty durable relationship. They went through some extremely difficult circumstances and they tried to work them out."

Sometimes, their marital troubles were played out for cameras.

The celebrity gossip website TMZ on Friday, June 11 released footage of an unsold pilot for a reality show, shot in 2008, in which Coleman and Price argue about their relationship -- and money -- in front of a "life coach."

In the video, Coleman tells Price: "All you care about is the money. That's all you want. The love for Gary keeps fading away because you believe Gary doesn't want to support you."

Price responds: "Money's your issue. ... Money isn't everything."

In a May 1, 2008, episode of the syndicated reality program "Divorce Court," Coleman and Price appeared before Judge Lynn Toler attempting to work out their differences. Price accused Coleman of throwing tantrums "like a 5-year-old does" and often disappearing in the middle of the night. Coleman said Price didn't listen to his point of view, and admitted he could be a negative person.

More than a year before "Divorce Court," New York filmmaker Poull Brien witnessed the clash of tempers firsthand.

Brien was taping a pilot for a reality show, "Sundance Celebrity Schwag Hunt," during the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in Park City. The show -- which has never aired -- pitted Coleman against another former child star, "Saved by the Bell's" Dustin Diamond, in a contest to collect the most free goodies from Sundance "hospitality suites."

"Dustin would say something ridiculous and just totally offensive and rude, and Gary would sort of get sucked into that argument," Brien recalled. "Dustin seemed to relish the fact that he would torture Gary during the shoot."

Often Price, who was with Coleman during shooting, would be the impetus for the arguments. "She would get suckered into certain arguments with Dustin, which would then pull Gary into them," Brien said.


The difference between Coleman and Price's personalities -- he the cynical loner, she more of a social butterfly -- played a part in one of the more infamous incidents in Coleman's five years in Utah.

One of Coleman's few hangouts was the South County Lanes, a bowling alley in Payson, about seven miles from Santaquin.

Annette Pierce, the alley's owner, said they created a special Tuesday night bowling league for Coleman because "he just didn't want to be where people were."

"He wanted a place to come in and hang out," said Pierce's brother, Elden, the alley's former owner. "He just wanted his privacy."

Price often accompanied Coleman to the bowling alley, and even had her own ball with a picture of Tweety Bird on it.

On Sept. 5, 2008, Coleman and Price were bowling at South County Lanes on one end. Colt Rushton of Spanish Fork was at the other end of the lanes.

Tom Hodges, who was working at the bowling alley that night, recalled that Rushton "was harassing [Coleman] the whole night. He would take pictures and run over and try to talk to him. He [Gary] was getting irritated."

Out in the parking lot, Rushton persisted. In the altercation that followed, Coleman ultimately threw his pickup truck in reverse and hit Rushton.

Coleman pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge in December 2008, and early this year settled a lawsuit filed by Rushton.

Annette Pierce said Price's attitude may have escalated the incident.

"Shannon elevates everything," Annette Pierce said. "She's just that type of person. She just craves attention."


Since Coleman's death on May 28, Price's actions -- an interview to TMZ, her involvement with deathbed photos that were sold to the tabloid The Globe , and the ongoing legal battle over Coleman's estate -- have fueled speculation in tabloids and on the Internet about her motives and personality.

Those who have met her tell different stories.

"It's clear that Shannon is the one that Gary wants to represent him, as she did in the hospital," said Shielia Erickson, who was Coleman's and Price's Utah agent. "There was a lot of love there. There was nothing but love between them."

Hernandez, Price's friend, defended Price's TMZ interview. "She talks before thinking. She just does that," Hernandez said. "She doesn't realize that until after. She's not a gold digger like people try to say she is. She just wants [custody of] Gary's body so she can cremate him, and do what he wanted."

Poull, who directed the reality show at Sundance, said in reaction to the tabloid photos, "I think that she doesn't operate from a position of wanting to do the wrong thing. I just don't think she thinks enough to know all the time what the right thing is."

Coleman's body still rests in a Salt Lake County mortuary. Meanwhile, various parties -- including Price's family and Coleman's former manager, Dion Mial -- are gearing up for a legal fight over Coleman's estate. At stake are the Santaquin house, a pension, residuals from Coleman's TV and movie work, and the right to license his likeness.

"For such a little guy, he sure left a big imprint," said Kester, Coleman's attorney. "I know he wouldn't want all this controversy surrounding his death."

Coleman estate hearing scheduled

A hearing over the last known will and testament of former child actor Gary Coleman has been set for 3 p.m. Monday at 4th District Court in Provo.