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.
Excellent Story well written, as usual!
Makes you stop and think how many people spend their lives in prison for things they didn’t do and how many murders is walking the streets.
Jeffrey, it’s the thought of an innocent life spent in prison, or worse yet executed, that keeps me from being a death penalty supporter. I fervently
believe that there are some people who should forefeit their right to be on the planet with the rest of us, but to execute an innocent person isn’t
a risk worth taking in my opinion. I agree, it makes you wonder how many killers are free and walking among us. It is sobering to say the least. And it
is definitely a bit scary.
I’m glad he got a substantial settlement, but they took the best years of his life…with no evidence. Fortunately, he was too late to face Judge Fricke, so he lived long enough to be exonerated. Great story Joan!
Gary, it’s heartreaking to realize that most of what he wanted out of life as a young man is now impossible. I am
so impressed with his willingness to forgive. I don’t know that I am capable of that much grace. I’m glad to know that
he made some good friends, which became family for him, during his ordeal. It’s fortunate that Mike Bender pursued
his case. Bender is a pitbull, in the best possible way.
You’re so right about Judge Fricke! Fricke is one of several early Angelenos with whom I am obsessed. Definitely
a hanging judge.
Dear Joan, this is a such a heartening story. The dedication and determination of Mike Bender, to indefatigably pursue any evidence he could find to establish the innocence of Craig Coley. That he persevered up the chain of authority and agencies, never faltering, until he succeeded in regaining Craig\\\’s freedom is beyond inspirational. That Coley himself wasn\\\’t embittered, but used his long period of incarceration to help fellow veterans, managed to be entrepreneurial, generating funds that his mother could use to find an investigator, being a mentor, becoming spiritual, all that he accomplished, while living under such adverse conditions is a testimony to the resilience and inner strength of a fine man, unjustly sentenced to life. Undeniably, his freedom was \\\’suspended\\\’ but this is not a life that wasn\\\’t lived to the fullest, given the circumstances. It is gratifying to know that he ended-up having the means to resume his life and was compensated materially for his hideous ordeal. I hope that he is yet alive and thriving.
I too have never approved of capital punishment, believing better a guilty man go free, than an innocent one executed. I read this excellently written account on a day that has come to be known and celebrated as \\\’ Juneteenth\\\’ aka \\\”Freedom Day\\\”, I find that highly apropos. We are all beneficiaries of your own dedication and talent, so on behalf of your devotees. I wish to express our gratitude.
Excellent investigative reporting, Joan!
I am just stumbling upon this blog and of course I’m interested since Rhonda was my sister, and Donnie my nephew. My name is Shelley Hamilton. I understand how the majority of people who have read about Craig Coley’s (supposed) innocence, but I still believe in his guilt. Many people were questioned back in 1978 but they were all cleared, except Coley of course. The only reason Coley was pardoned is because the governor of California was at the end of his last term and chose to pardon him.
The DNA they claim cleared him may have actually had no ties to the crime itself. There were only two items discovered in a lab from the original crime scene. One item was the sheet you mention in your story but the police knew who it belonged to (Rhonda started seeing someone else after her and Coley broke up and he told the police the semen on the sheet was probably his; DNA decades later proved that to be true). The other item was a t-shirt belonging to Donnie which was found in Coley’s hamper in his apartment. The police believed at that time the t-shirt was put over Donnie’s face to suffocate him. DNA done a few years ago found semen from three different men, one being the same man Rhonda was seeing after her and Coley broke up; the same one whose semen was on the bed sheet. If the DNA on this shirt had anything to do with the crime, why was it in Coley’s apartment? (He claimed back then it was planted in his apartment by the so-called crooked cop that supposedly framed him, but it wasn’t the police department that went through Coley’s apartment in 1978, it was the Ventura County Sheriff’s Dept.) If the DNA on the shirt had nothing to do with the crime then how could it clear Coley of the murder in 1978?
I still believe Coley murdered them. Most of us who were around back in 1978 when Rhonda and Donnie were murdered still do believe that as well but the new generation of bleeding hearts for Craig Coley do not.
The cold case is still open and I know who they believe killed Rhonda and Donnie, but I disagree. But on the other hand, there are also many things they can’t share with me so I’m only basing my belief on what I know from back then and what little I know now. I knew all the people involved, including Coley. I’m also in touch with the original investigating officer from 1978. I also knew Mike Bender, Coley’s “hero” in this story. He was reprimanded for bothering me back in the early 1990’s and later quit his job with the police department. He had a vendetta against his superior in the police department, who just happened to be the original investigator in Rhonda and Donnie’s murder. His original goal was to go after his superior after he quit the department, but later dropped it and just focused on trying to get Coley out of prison. Not so much of a hero!
Remember folks, there is always another side to a story. I may never see justice for Rhonda and Donnie in my lifetime but until proven otherwise I will stand by what I know.
Sorry for such a long reply but I try to get the other side of the story out as much as I can.
I truly appreciate your comments and I welcome and value your point of view. I’m covering this after the fact and don’t have first hand knowledge. You are giving me a lot to think about. Thank you again for filling in some blanks for me, and I am beginning to believe I got it wrong.
I just launched my blog and would love to share it with you. Anything to let Rhonda and Donnie’s voices be heard. https://rdjustice.home.blog/
I’m glad you’re doing this. I am one of the people who felt that the person convicted for the murders got a raw deal, but you have given me a lot to think about
and I thank you for that. I’ve been on the wrong side of things before. I am interested in the truth whether it supports my original conclusion or not. As you say, you may be right, you may be wrong, but you won’t be quiet. You are speaking for your loved ones, and that is all that matters.