Craig Richard Coley was twenty-three years old when he moved to Simi Valley, California. A Vietnam veteran and the son of a retired Los Angeles police officer, he was newly married with no criminal record.
Coley managed several restaurants over the years. After a divorce, he dated for a time Rhonda Wicht, a twenty-four-year-old waitress who shared an apartment with her four-year-old son, Donald.
On November 11, 1978, Wicht and her son were killed in their beds. Coley, who had broken up with her, was arrested and charged with their murders. After two trials, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Both of his parents died while he was imprisoned.
Talking to an innocent man
Meanwhile, Michael Bender had started a career as a police officer. In 1989, he looked into the Coley case and was shocked by what he found. Coley’s alibi seemed strong; there were viable suspects who were never pursued; and hair and fingerprint evidence was not analyzed properly and then went missing.
Two years later, Bender met Coley in prison and knew he was talking to an innocent man. “In dealing with a lot of bad guys over the years, there are mannerisms and body language you come to know. He didn’t have that,” Bender explained.
In 1991, his superiors ordered him to stop pursuing Coley’s case or face termination, so he quit his job and became a theft investigator. In 2003, he moved his family to Carlsbad, California, where he continued to pursue the case in his spare time.
In 2015, Gov. Brown’s office agreed to conduct an investigation. DNA evidence, previously thought destroyed, was found and tested. It showed another man’s DNA on sheets and clothing in the apartment. Witness testimony against Coley was largely discredited as well.
“Everything I get is a blessing.”
In November 2017, the governor’s office formally pardoned Craig Coley. Gov. Brown said of him, “The grace with…
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