Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.
Tonight’s feature is NIGHTFALL starring Aldo Ray, Brian Keith and Anne Bancroft.
As James Vanning furtively roams the street of Los Angeles, a man stops him and asks for a light. Afterward, Jim wanders into a bar and meets Marie Gardner when she asks him to lend her five dollars because she misplaced her wallet. After she shows him her driver’s license and promises to send the money to him the next morning, he hands her a five dollar bill and invites her to dinner. Meanwhile, the man in the street, an insurance investigator named Ben Fraser who has been trailing Jim for three months in hopes of retrieving $350,000 Jim allegedly stole from a bank, returns home and confides to his wife Laura that he thinks Jim may be innocent.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
DNA cleared Craig of the murders, and it also cleared DeAngelo.
Unless the killer is dead or incarcerated, Rhonda and Donnie’s killer is still out there.
Craig Coley, who managed a Carl’s restaurant in Van Nuys, was taken into custody within hours of the murders. He was the logical suspect. Rhonda ended their two-year relationship and Craig was said to have taken it hard. Did his broken-heart morph into a murderous rage? Could he have raped and murdered the woman he said he loved and then strangled to death the boy he treated like a son?
His friends and family didn’t believe the Vietnam vet was capable of such brutality. He’d never been in trouble with the law – in fact, his father was retired from the Los Angeles Police Department. Craig grew up with respect for the law, and his subsequent military career set those early values in concrete.
No matter what accusations the detectives made during their interrogation, they could not shift Craig – he was adamant that he was innocent. The law disagreed.
Craig was bound over for trial. The crime was Simi’s first double homicide, and Deputy D.A. William Maxwell announced that he would seek the death penalty.
The trial began on February 9, 1979.
The most compelling evidence against Craig were the statements of two of Rhonda’s neighbors. The man downstairs from Rhonda, Glen Watkins, a bus driver, told investigators that he heard noises in her apartment at 4:30 a.m. He later amended his statement and said that he heard the noises at 5:30 a.m. A woman who lived in the building reported seeing Craig’s truck drive away from the scene.
Compounding the case against Craig were a bloody towel and t-shirt detectives found in his apartment. He also had minor cuts and abrasions on his body. Criminalists found semen on Rhonda’s sheets, but this was several years before the discovery of DNA, so there was no way to rule Craig out as the donor.
The defense challenged the prosecution’s case at every turn. They summoned their own experts and called many of Craig’s family members and friends to testify to his character. They even put Craig on the stand – a risky move – but the defense team believed in their client.
The defense called the Simi Valley Police Department incompetent for not pursuing other suspects in the case: Jim Ireton, a friend of Rhonda’s; Robert Bower, a cousin, and Watkins, a bus driver, who lived in the apartment below Rhonda’s. Why, the defense demanded, weren’t other suspects subjected to the same intense questioning Craig had endured?
The trial lasted four weeks. The defense planted enough reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds to cause a mistrial. The final tally was 10 to 2 in favor of conviction.
The district attorney vowed to refile.
The second trial revealed a surprising advocate for Craig, the Simi Valley Mirror. Not everyone in Simi was thrilled by the Mirror’s support. A city council member said, “It’s embarrassing and upsetting to me and many people, but the local papers seem to have lost some of their cool in this case. As a result, plenty of people are upset.”
The Mirror’s publisher, James A. Whitehead, published an editorial with the headline, “Coley Truly Appears to be Wrong Man.” In the editorial, Whitehead compared Craig’s trial to the infamous trial of Sam Sheppard in Cleveland two decades earlier. Sam Sheppard, a surgeon, was convicted of killing his wife in their home in 1954.
Whitehead said, “The Mirror is firmly convinced that Glen Watkins (the bus driver) should be arrested as he is definitely a suspect of committing murder in the first degree.”
Watkins testified for the prosecution, and the Mirror went after him; “Frustration prevailed as Glen Watkins left the Superior Court Room after he practically confessed to killing Rhonda and Donnie Wicht in their Buyers Street apartment last November 11, 1978.
The Simi Enterprise interpreted Watkins’ testimony in a different way: “During cross-examination, (Public Defender Don) Griffin asked Watkins if he committed the crimes and Watkins denied any involvement.”
Hardly surprising that he would the murders if he was guilty. But then the same thing could be said of Craig Coley.
In the end it is only the opinion of the jury that matters, and they found Craig guilty of the murders. Whitehead said he was in “total shock” over the verdict.
Prosecutor Maxwell didn’t get the death penalty he sought. Craig was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Craig’s conviction should have ended the case. But it didn’t.
Ohio native, Edgar Hamilton, a machinist, moved his young family to Pasadena, California in the late 1950s. The Hamilton’s were among the many thousands of new SoCal residents who chose to leave the harsh Midwestern winters behind them – and who could blame them?
The Southern California landscape was a patchwork of bean fields and orange groves. Summer nights smelled of jasmine. The post-war housing boom made it possible for working-class families to achieve the dream of a ranch style home with a backyard swimming pool.
If you visited Knott’s Berry Farm it was for a chicken dinner, homemade biscuits and boysenberry pie. Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain was the park’s main attraction.
Until the late 1960s, the vibe stayed the same in SoCal. It changed everywhere in the late 1960s. Assassinations, protests and Vietnam dominated the news cycle.
Around 1970, the Hamilton family moved out to Simi, in Ventura County. Many working-class people migrated to Simi then. They came largely from East and Central Los Angeles. The population of the Simi Valley swelled – in fact the Route 101 corridor became a full-fledged freeway, but life was still lived at a slower pace than in L.A.
Edgar’s family thrived. His oldest daughter, Rhonda, married young and for a while she lived in Texas. Her marriage to Donald Wicht failed – but not completely – they had a beautiful son, Donnie. He was the light of Rhonda’s life.
Following her divorce in 1977, Rhonda and Donnie returned to Simi. Rhonda waitressed to provide for herself and her son, and to pay for cosmetology school. She fixed her gaze on the future.
Rhonda’s younger sister, Rachelle (Shelley), planned to attend a wedding on November 11, 1978. Rhonda promised to do her hair.
On the morning of the wedding, Shelly telephoned Rhonda to let her know she would soon be on her way over. Rhonda didn’t answer. Shelley tried again. Still no answer.
Now Shelley was starting to worry and her uneasiness turned into action. She got into her car and sped over to the Tierra Apartments at 1861 Byers Street, where Rhonda and Donnie lived.
Shelley found the front door of the apartment locked. She stood outside. She had an overwhelming sense of dread. She phoned her husband, and it was he who entered the apartment through a window. Shelley said, “. . . when I got inside, I just stood in the living room. I couldn’t go any farther. I went downstairs, called my parents, and the rest was a blur.”
Rhonda was beaten, raped, and a macramé rope was pulled tight around her neck. Four-year-old Donnie was suffocated to death with a pillow. One of his arms dangled over the side of his bed.
Someone phoned the police. Shelley phoned her parent’s home and got her younger brother, Rick. She may have been incoherent, but he got the message. He said later, “I knew something was wrong, so I jumped into my car, and when I got there, no one stopped me; I just walked right into a crime scene.”
Rick sleepwalked through the rest of his senior year at Royal High School. He said he was just trying to get to his graduation.
Rhonda’s family was devastated. She didn’t have any enemies. She was a kind and caring twenty-four-year-old with a toddler. Who would want them dead?
Police found only one person who may have had it in for Rhonda. Craig Coley.
The 31-year-old restaurant night manager was Rhonda’s steady boyfriend until recently. Rhonda wanted to end their relationship.
Simi police had questions for Coley, so they went out to find him and bring him in.