Black Dahlia: The Investigation Begins

Local housewife, Betty Bersinger, found the body of Jane Doe #1, in a weedy vacant lot in Leimert Park on the morning of January 15, 1947. The Los Angeles Times, reluctant to tarnish the city’s image, relegated the shocking sex murder to page two.

Just because they balked at splashing the disgusting details of the murder across the front page, doesn’t mean that the Times didn’t indulge in lurid hyperbole worthy of a Hearst newspaper–note the headline below.

Los Angeles police detectives intended to send the victim’s fingerprints via airplane to the FBI in Washington, D.C. as they always did, but a massive storm in the east made it impossible. What could they do?

The Blizzard of 1947

The Examiner owned a Soundphoto machine, an early fax, and while it had never been used to transmit fingerprints, everyone agreed it was worth a try. They successfully transmitted the fingerprints and subsequently identified Jane Doe #1 as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. The Examiner expected something in return for their largesse. Because of the crucial role they played in getting the identification, the Examiner leveraged a deal with the police—their continued cooperation with the police in exchange for exclusives. LAPD Captain Jack Donohoe balked. He didn’t relish the paper’s constant meddling, but he knew reporters would pursue the case with or without police approval. The deal was the lesser evil.

During the initial phase of the investigation, many of the stories that Beth told her family and acquaintances surfaced in newspaper articles. On January 17, 1947, under the headline: “Mrs. Phoebe Short Can’t Believe Slain Girl Hers,” her mother repeated the most persistent of Beth’s lies. Phoebe told reporters, “She was working in Hollywood, doing bit parts for the movies until two weeks ago. She said she left Hollywood (for San Diego) because of the movie strike, which made it difficult to get work as an extra.”

Beth was pretty enough to work as a film extra, but there was no credible evidence that she ever did.

In another letter, Beth told Phoebe she was working in an Army hospital in San Diego, or in some connection with the armed services. It was a lie.

To learn more about Beth, and maybe uncover a suspect, detectives questioned dozens of people. No one seemed to know her well.

By January 18, Phoebe Short and her daughters were on their way to Los Angeles from their hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, and the police were no closer to a solution to the crime.

NEXT TIME: The search for a killer continues

The Myth of Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short

I find it intriguing that a 75-year-old Los Angeles murder mystery continues to draw interest. What is it about the case that resonates with people today?

It must be the Hollywood connection.

Hollywood & Vine c. 1945 /The Brown Derby restaurant is in the background. Photo courtesy: Water & Power Collection

Contemporary articles about the case describe Elizabeth Short as an aspiring actress or starlet. Her murder is the ultimate Hollywood heartbreak story with a violent twist.

But there are two stories here. One is the myth of the Black Dahlia, a fictional character based on the life of Elizabeth “Beth” Short.

The second story, and the one I believe to be true, is that of a depressed, confused, and needy young woman looking for love and marriage.

The myth is repeated so often it is accepted as true, but by mythologizing Beth’s story, we ignore the person at its heart. We have lost sight of the troubled young woman who came to California to find her father—not to break into the movies.

The tragedy in Beth’s life is not that she didn’t achieve Hollywood stardom, she never sought it. There is no credible evidence that she went out on cattle calls, spoke to an agent, or asked any of her acquaintances, the ones with Hollywood ambitions, to get her an audition.

Beth was looking for what most people her age in the postwar period longed for—marriage and a home. She vigorously pursued the romantic vision of a husband in a uniform with shiny brass buttons and a bungalow with a white picket fence.

Judging by an undated letter she received from Lieutenant Stephen Wolak, she didn’t hesitate to press for marriage. Wolak’s letter reads in part,

“When you mention marriage in your letter, Beth, I get to wondering. Infatuation is sometimes mistaken for true love. I know whereof I speak, because my ardent love soon cools off.”

Wolak’s response to Beth’s letter is a frank assessment of their relationship—which, in his estimation, was not serious. You can gauge her desperation from his response.   

How many other men in uniform with whom Beth corresponded received letters with suggestions of marriage? 

A depressed and lonely young woman with daddy issues looking for love by sacrificing her pride saddens us and makes us uncomfortable; but the myth of the Black Dahlia is an epic tale worthy of a Greek tragedy.

I imagine in the years to come, we will continue to hold fast to the myth. It is one hell of a story.

Black Dahlia, January 15, 1947: Aggie & the Werewolf

It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947. Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne, bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days, walked south on the west side of Norton in the Los Angeles suburb of Leimert Park.

Weedy patches and vacant lots made up most of their view. Construction of new homes ceased during the war and had not yet resumed. As she and Anne passed by one lot, Betty noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.

Betty Bersinger

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or maybe a live nude woman who had been drinking and had passed out; the lot was a known lover’s lane. It quickly dawned on her she was in a waking nightmare and the bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin nor a drunk. Bersinger said, “I was terribly shocked and scared to death. I grabbed Anne, and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”

In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood, said she was the first reporter to arrive at the scene. Decades later, it is difficult to sort out exactly who arrived first. Many people have made the claim, but there is sufficient evidence to conclude it was a reporter from the Herald-Express, Aggie’s paper.

It doesn’t matter whether a person was the first to arrive, or the last, because everyone at the vacant lot on Norton that day saw the same ghastly sight.

Aggie Underwood, with her recognizable halo of hair, talks with police and takes notes.

Aggie described the scene:

“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face, which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Harry Hansen & Finis Brown

Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, headed the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours, officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning. The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three-year-old transient, Cecil French. Police busted him for molesting women in a downtown bus depot. Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Was a body concealed there? Police Chemist Ray Pinker determined that the floor mats of French’s car were free of blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder.

The initial Herald-Express coverage referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the victim. Aggie’s werewolf tag identified the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered, Black Dahlia.

NEXT TIME: With help from the Feds, and a gadget at the Herald, L.A. police identify the victim.

Black Dahlia–Last Seen


At 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, Elizabeth Short and Robert “Red” Manley left the motel where they spent the night.

Robert Red Manley courtesy LAPL

What did Beth and Red talk about during the couple of hours that it took them to drive back to Los Angeles from San Diego? Red noticed some scratches on Beth’s arms and asked her about them. She spun a tale of an “intensely jealous” boyfriend–an Italian “with black hair who lived in San Diego” and claimed that it was he who scratched her. Beth herself probably made the scratches because of itchy insect bites. Beth lied to Red a few times more before their day together ended.

Red and his wife were having problems, so, in the way that only a spouse on the verge of cheating can do, he sold himself on the notion that if he and Harriette were destined to be together, then nothing would happen with Beth.

Following their platonic night in a motel room, Red’s marriage was certified as made in heaven—the fates clearly decreed it. But he had a problem; he’d been out of touch with Harriette for a couple of days. How would he explain his lack of communication to her? Any guy capable of devising a ridiculous love test could surely come up with an excuse for being incommunicado for a couple of days.

In my mind’s eye, I see Beth and Red seated across from each other on the bench seat in his Studebaker, each lost in thought. Beth may have been wondering what she’d do once she hit L.A. Maybe she’d go to friends in Hollywood. If she was lucky, someone would have an empty bed for her. Her immediate difficulty was Red. How would she get away from the well-meaning guy for whom she felt little or nothing?

Once they arrived in the city, Beth told Red that she needed to check her luggage at the bus depot. He took her there, and Beth was ready to wave goodbye to him and be on her way—but he wouldn’t leave. He told her he couldn’t possibly leave her in that neighborhood on her own. She insisted she would be fine, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Beth had a few minutes while she checked her bags to come up with a plan. When they returned to his car, she told him she needed to go to the Biltmore Hotel to wait for her sister. It was another lie. Virginia, the sister she referred to, was in Oakland, hundreds of miles to the north.

Red drove her several blocks back to the Biltmore Hotel. The main lobby was on Olive Street, directly opposite Pershing Square. Beth thanked Red. He was a gentleman. He’d paid to have taps put on the heels and toes of her pumps, and of course he’d paid for meals and the motel room. She thought he would drive off and leave her, but once again he said that he didn’t feel comfortable just putting her out of the car.

Matchbook cover from author’s collect

He parked, and the two of them waited in the Biltmore’s exquisite lobby for quite a while. Beth out waited Red. He said he had to go. She told him she would be fine, and that she expected her sister to arrive at any moment.

Red left her in the Biltmore at approximately 6:30 p.m. Beth watched him go. She gave him a few minutes, and then she exited the hotel and turned right down Olive Street.

Beth may have been headed for the Crown Grill at Eighth and Olive. She’d been there before and perhaps she hoped to bump into someone she knew; after all, she needed a place to stay. Some patrons of the bar later told cops she’d been there that night, although it could not be verified, and no one saw her leave. 

Beth was never seen alive again.

NEXT TIME: More Black Dahlia coverage.

LET’S CRUISE BETH SHORT’S LOS ANGELES c. 1946

Black Dahlia–January 8, 1947

Seventy-five years ago, on January 8, 1947, Robert ‘Red’ Manley drove to the home of Elvera and Dorothy French in Pacific Beach, in the San Diego area, to pick up a young woman he’d met a month earlier. Her name was Elizabeth Short.

Red was a twenty-five-year-old salesman and occasional saxophone player, with a wife, Harriette, and 4-month-old baby daughter at home. The couple married on November 28, 1945. They lived in a bungalow court in one of L.A.’s many suburbs.

Red enlisted in the Army on June 24, 1942. He was 20 years-old. In January 1945, He entered a hospital for treatment of a non-traumatic injury, and the Army discharged him in April of the same year for “medical reasons—but not for any residual condition.”

Maybe his injury was part of what made it difficult for him to adjust to marriage and parenthood. He said that he and Harriette had “some misunderstandings.” Restless and feeling unsure about his decision to marry, Red decided to “make a little test to see if I were still in love with my wife.” The woman Red used to test his love was twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short.

Red traveled for his job and it was on a trip to San Diego that he met Elizabeth Short. She was standing on a street corner and appeared to need a ride. At first, she seemed reluctant to get into his car. But in an instant, she changed her mind and got in. She introduced herself as Beth Short and they struck up a conversation. When Red returned to Los Angeles, the two corresponded.

Aztec Theater, San Diego

Dorothy French met Beth on the night of December 9, 1946 at the all-night movie theater, the Aztec, on Fifth Avenue. Dorothy worked as a cashier at the ticket window and she noticed Beth seemed at loose ends. When her shift ended at 3 a.m., Dorothy offered to take Beth back to the Bayview Terrace Navy housing unit she shared with her mother and a younger brother. Beth was glad to abandon the theater seat for a more comfortable sofa.

Dorothy French [Photo: theblackdahliain hollywood]

If the French family thought that Beth would stay a night or two and then move on, they were mistaken. She stayed for a month.

Elvera and Dorothy grew tired of Beth’s couch surfing and contributing nothing to the household. She did not even pay for groceries. She received a money order for $100 from a former boyfriend, Gordon Fickling, yet she spent much of her time compulsively writing letters, many of which she never sent.

One of the unsent letters was to Gordon. In the letter dated December 13, 1946, Beth wrote:

“I do hope you find a nice girl to kiss at midnight on new years eve. It would have been wonderful if we belonged to each other now. I’ll never regret coming West to see you. You didn’t take me in your arms and keep me there. However, it was nice as long as it lasted.”

The French family had another complaint about their house guest—despite her claims, there was no evidence that Beth ever looked for work. Beth wrote to her mother, Phoebe, that she was working for the Red Cross, or in a VA Hospital, but it was just one of her many lies. Her letters home never revealed her transient lifestyle—nothing about couch surfing, borrowing money to eat, or accepting rides from strange men.

Robert “Red” Manley [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Beth could have found a job if she wanted one. She worked in a delicatessen in as a teenager and at the post exchange (PX) at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base). Red arranged with a friend of his to get her a job interview—but she didn’t follow-up.

When Red heard from his friend that Beth was a no-show for the job interview, he wrote to her to find out if she was okay. She said she was fine but didn’t like San Diego; she preferred Los Angeles and wanted to return there. Red said he’d help her out.

The drive from San Diego to Los Angeles was Red’s love test. If nothing happened with Beth, then he would know that he Harriette were destined to stay together. But if he and Beth clicked, he’d have a tough decision to make.

Beth and Red weren’t on the road for long before they stopped at a roadside motel for the night. They went out for dinner and drinks before returning to their room to go to bed. Did Red have butterflies in his stomach? How did he want the love test to turn out?

Red must have realized the decision was Beth’s. They never shared more than a kiss. She spent the night in a chair and he took the bed.

The pair left the motel at about 12:20 p.m. on January 9, 1947, for Los Angeles.

Next time: The Black Dahlia–Last Seen

Premature Burial

The following tale is especially terrifying for me. Maybe it was my childhood reading of the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Premature Burial, that has given me an absolute terror of being buried alive. Maybe I had a previous life in Victorian England where their fears of being buried alive reached hysterical levels.

Assuming I predecease him, I’ve instructed my husband to allow me ripen before disposing of my body. Seriously. I know that of the fates likely to befall me, premature burial is way down on the list. This is one of those fears that resists common sense.

I know I’m not alone because clever Victorians devised various methods to avoid premature burial, like the safety coffin. No. I am not making this up.

Some coffins, like the one below, allowed the incarcerated victim to wave a flag, ring a bell, and to speak through a tube that reached to the surface to let passersby know someone alive was inside. In fact, such a coffin may be the origin of the saying, “saved by the bell.”

Enough about my personal fears—and forgive my digression. Let’s get to the story of Marie Billings who faced my biggest terror and lived to talk about it.

Late in the afternoon of May 9, 1928, Marie Billings answered a knock on her front door. A man stood waiting for her. He was tall, about 6’ 4”, and wore a dark suit with a grey pinstripe. He said he was a real estate salesman and interested in purchasing the home she shared with her husband, Howard, a local manufacturer.

Marie and Howard didn’t plan to sell their home at 5911 Allston Street in Montebello. Even so, she figured that there was no harm in listening to the salesman’s pitch. The two began a conversation and he followed her in to the house.

Without warning he slugged her over the head with a club he must have had concealed. Marie struggled in vain. Her attacker ripped her clothing and bound her with an electrical cord. Rendered helpless, she felt a silk stocking wind around her throat as the man choked her into unconsciousness. The stocking was removed from her neck and used to gag her. She was wrapped in a blanket and carried to his car, a Ford coupe.  

1928 Ford coupe

He drove her about eight miles to Turnbull Canyon in Whittier. Marie lay unmoving in the dirt. The man bent down and felt her pulse. She was still alive, so he beat her with an iron bar to finish her off.

Satisfied that she was dead, he covered her with dirt, brush, and leaves. He drove away.

Map of route from Marie’s home to Turnbull Canyon

Marie awoke and realized she was in a grave. HER grave. She resisted the urge to scream. Unable to breathe, she fought her way to the surface. She had just enough strength to free herself.

Badly beaten, Marie crawled two hundred yards to a nearby road. In her arms she carried the bloody blanket in which she was wrapped by her kidnapper. Her restraints trailed behind her.

She reached the road and flagged down a car driven by by W. J. Collins, a taxi driver. Collins drove her to the Murphy Memorial Hospital in Whittier.

Murphy Memorial Hospital

Medical staff phoned the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Under the direction of Captain William Bright, an investigation into Marie’s assault and attempted murder began.

Marie recovered enough to be interviewed by detectives. She gave a chilling account of her battering at the hands of a man she said seemed familiar. He was the same real estate agent who visited her home a year earlier.

Claude Peters of the homicide squad interviewed Mrs. Robert D. Ellis, who lived within a block of the Billings home.  Based on Marie’s description of her attacker, Mrs. Ellis thought she recalled seeing him. She said, “I saw a man leaving the Billings house two or three days before the attack. He was carrying a large package and got into a Ford coupe and drove away.”

Based on the scant evidence they possessed, the sheriff’s department introduced an interesting theory of the crime that included a second suspect. They suggested that two accomplices battled to the death over Marie’s $500 diamond ring.

Alternatively, a second man may have witnessed the crime and attempted a rescue, which ended in his own death and burial.

Howard, Marie’s husband, began his own investigation. He visited the makeshift grave and found a piece of torn clothing with a powder-burned bullet hole. He delivered the potential evidence to Captain Bright.

In a search of the Billings home, deputies found a length of pipe with one clear fingerprint on it. They hoped that it would lead them to a suspect—it did not. Tantalizing bits of evidence that led nowhere.

The case went cold. Detectives never found a second grave, and the identify of Marie’s attacker stayed a mystery.  

This is one of those cases that will remain an itch I can’t scratch. I can only imagine how much it bothered the investigators who worked it at the time.

The man who attacked Marie was a sadistic monster. Did he commit other crimes? We will never know.

The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947

Bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne walked south on the west side of Norton in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles suburb. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds fifty feet north of a fire hydrant and about a foot in from the sidewalk.

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or a live nude woman who had passed out. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 00010445_bersinger.jpg
Betty Bersinger recreates her phone call to police.

It took a moment before Bersinger realized she was in a waking nightmare.  The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk.

Bersinger later recalled, “I was terribly shocked and scared to death. I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”

Over the years several reporters have claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One person who made that claim was Will Fowler.

Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner approached Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio.  It was a police call and Fowler couldn’t believe his ears. A naked woman, possibly drunk, was found in a vacant lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets.  Fowler turned to Pagel and said, “A naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too… Let’s see what it’s all about.”

Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman. “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler hopped out of the car and approached the woman as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk. Fowler called out, “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 00081698_will-fowler.jpg
Will Fowler crouches down near Jane Doe’s body.

That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But was his story true?

There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is AGGIE_DAHLIA-SCENE_1_15_1947_frat_resize.jpg
Aggie Underwood on Norton Avenue, January 15, 1947

After 74-years does it really matter?  All those who saw the murdered girl that day saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression.  Aggie described what she observed:

“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 00010486_dahlia-body.jpg
Air brushed newspaper photo of Jane Doe

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, took charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is finis-brown_harry-hansen_dahlia.jpg

The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three-year-old transient, Cecil French. He was busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car. He was dropped from the list of hot suspects.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 00050723ray_pinker.jpg
Ray Pinker

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying because of the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case until a much better one was discovered—the Black Dahlia.

Unsolved Homicides & Mysterious Disappearances of Women in Los Angeles During the 1940s

This month is the seventy-fourth anniversary of the murder of Elizabeth Short–the Black Dahlia.

I will write about the case in the blog again this year, as I have every year since 2013. In addition to writing about the case, I am offering a webinar (see below) on four unsolved homicides (including Elizabeth Short) of women in Los Angeles during the 1940s.

Elizabeth Short’s funeral

The unsolved murders are tragic; but at least family members and other loved ones had a body to mourn and to lay to rest.

Disappearances haunt the living. Did the person leave by choice, or were they taken against their will? As the years pass, the unanswered questions echo in lonely rooms. Broken hearts never quite mend.

In 1949, two very different women vanished in Los Angeles.

MIMI BOOMHOWER

On August 19, 1949, forty-eight-year-old socialite, Mimi Boomhower, known as the ‘Merry Widow’, disappeared from her Bel-Air home. When police arrived for a welfare check, the lights were on and a salad was left out on the dining table. One of Mimi’s dresses was laid out on her bed. Her car was still in the garage and there was no sign of a robbery.

Jean Spangler, a twenty-six-year-old dancer, model, and actress, left her home at 5pm on October 7, 1949. She was supposed to meet her ex-husband to discuss child support payments and then she was expected to be at a night shoot for a film. Jean didn’t arrive at either of her appointments.

JEAN SPANGLER

At 7pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2021, we’ll discuss the homicides, disappearances, and why Los Angeles was such a dangerous place for women in the 1940s.

One Hundred Forty Dollars a Day, Conclusion

Imagine being 31-years-old and looking at life in prison. Craig Coley didn’t have to imagine it.

There are few decent options for a man in prison, but dozens of opportunities for him to further screw up his life.  Craig faced a choice. He could involve himself in gangs, drugs and violence, or he could preserve his humanity.

Craig chose the latter.

He maintained his innocence from the moment of his arrest, and he never wavered.  But protestations of innocence are not evidence.  The guilty often shout the loudest about how they have been betrayed by the legal system.  

Craig adjusted to prison, as well as anyone can, but a part of him never gave up hope. Another lifer at Folsom taught him how to make jewelry. He placed his items in the gift shop and sent the proceeds to his mom to hire investigators.

Folsom Prison

As Craig faced his tenth year in prison, a Simi Valley detective, Michael Bender, came across Craig’s case file. After reading it over he said, “. . . a real investigation hadn’t occurred.”

Mike Bender

Soon after reading the file, Mike went to visit Craig in prison.  He talked to Craig, and at the end of it he believed in Craig’s innocence.  He said, “In dealing with a lot of bad guys over the years, there are mannerisms and body language you come to know. He [Craig] didn’t have that.”

Craig had gained a tough advocate who understood the system.  Mike didn’t just appear tough. In 1985 he earned the title of Toughest Cop Alive. He competed against cops from the world over.

The competition is based on athletic prowess. When he won the world competition Mike was 450 points ahead of his nearest competitor. Mike earned the title several times.

To have even the slightest chance of winning Craig’s release, Mike needed every bit of physical and mental strength he possessed. He didn’t know it but he had entered a marathon.

Back at Simi Valley PD, Mike talked to his supervising lieutenant, the same man who was in charge of the original murder investigation. He was not interested in having the Coley case second guessed and possibly overturned.

Unwilling to give up, Mike took Craig’s case to the city manager, city attorney, a local congressman, the attorney general of the State of California, the ACLU and the FBI.

In 1991, Mike was ordered to stop pushing the case or face termination. Mike quit the police department and left Simi Valley. He took with him 16 boxes of files that Craig’s mother had amassed.

Every Saturday Mike and Craig talked on the phone. Mike visited the prison when he could. His daughter or Craig’s mother would often accompany him (Craig’s father passed away in 1989).

Rather than dwell on what seemed impossible, Craig put his energy into running a support program for incarcerated veterans. He was a mentor and a model prisoner.

Craig became a practicing Christian in 2005. He said it helped him “cut out all the nonsense.” He earned degrees in theology, Biblical studies and Biblical counseling.

Mike and his family moved to Northern California in 1991. They stayed there until 2003, when they relocated to Carlsbad near San Diego.

During all those years, Mike never stopped trying to get Craig’s case re-examined.

A turning point in the case came in September 2015 when then Gov. Brown agreed to conduct an investigation. In 2016, Mike met with David Livingstone, the new Simi Valley Police Chief, who began his own investigation with the Ventura County District Attorney’s office.

On November 11, 2017—the 39th anniversary of the crime—investigators went back to the apartment building where the crime occurred. They went to the apartment where the neighbor said she saw Coley’s truck and looked out the window at 5:30 a.m.—as she said she did. The investigators determined that the lighting conditions made it difficult to see any details on vehicles below and that it was impossible to see inside any vehicle.

In many cases where someone is wrongly accused it is DNA evidence that is the key that unlocks the cell door. It was no different for Craig.  DNA evidence which was supposed to have been destroyed, was discovered in storage at the original testing lab. The sperm, blood and skin cells on Rhonda’s sheets and clothing belonged to another man.

No DNA evidence was found to connect Craig to Donnie’s murder, either.

Craig Coley in High School c. 1964 ate 16

On November 22, 2017, Governor Brown granted Coley a pardon based on innocence. The pardon said, “Mr. Coley had no criminal history before being arrested for these crimes and he has been a model inmate for nearly four decades. In prison, he has avoided gangs and violence. Instead, he has dedicated himself to religion. The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary.”

Craig was released later that day, in time to spend Thanksgiving dinner with Mike and his family.  About his release, Craig said, “You dream about it, you hope for it, but when it happens, it’s a shock. To experience it was something I never thought would feel as good. It was joy, just pure joy. I got all tingly in my stomach and then I was bawling like a baby for a while.”

On November 29, an attorney for Coley asked that Coley’s conviction be vacated. That motion was granted and the judge issued a finding of actual innocence.

In February 2018, Gov. Brown approved a $1.95 million payment. That is $140 for each day he was wrongfully behind bars.

In June 2018, Coley filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the city of Simi and Ventura County. In February 2019, Simi Valley settled with Coley for $21 million.

That Craig fought to win his release is no surprise; but why did Mike spend 28 years of his life fighting for Craig’s freedom?  Mike summed it up, “I always believed in truth, integrity and honor. “I’m glad this story has a happy ending. If I was on my deathbed knowing he was still in prison, I would have had a hard time with that.”

EPILOGUE

Following Craig Coley’s release from prison there was a new suspect in the murders of Rhonda and Donnie Wicht – Joseph James DeAngelo – the Golden State Killer. 

This headline dated June 16, 2020

DNA cleared Craig of the murders, and it also cleared DeAngelo. 

Joseph James DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer

Unless the killer is dead or incarcerated, Rhonda and Donnie’s killer is still out there.