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.
NEXT TIME: Justice delayed?