Craig Richard Coley was condemned to spend his life in a prison cell following the brutal double murder of his ex-girlfriend Rhonda Wicht and her young son, Donald. But throughout Coley’s incarceration, he maintained his innocence and even stayed hopeful that one day he would get out. Then, after the man had spent almost four decades behind bars, alarming new DNA evidence caused the entire case to come crashing down.
Coley came into the world in 1947 as the only child of parents Marjourie and Wilson – the latter of whom was a former Los Angeles cop. And he would go on to serve in the U.S. military, completing three tours in Vietnam during the last half of the 1960s. Little did the veteran know, though, that he would unexpectedly wind up on the wrong side of the law a few years later – and that his life would start to crumble around him.
Firstly, though, in 1971, the then-twentysomething Coley moved out to Simi Valley, California. He had recently married, and he was setting out on a career as a restaurant manager to boot. And as the years passed, Coley held managerial posts at diners including a Rustler’s Steak House and a Howard Johnson’s.
Yet although Coley’s marriage broke down a few years after he had arrived in Simi Valley, his love life nevertheless progressed even after the subsequent divorce. In particular, the young man started seeing an aspiring beautician called Rhonda Wicht, who worked as a server and lived in an apartment with her young son, Donald. Coley and Wicht dated for a couple of years until 1978.
In the late 1970s, meanwhile, Simi Valley was a quiet community and considered a safe place to live. It’s unsurprising, then, that the events that unfolded there on November 11, 1978, sent shockwaves through the city. You see, on that fateful day, Wicht and Donald were discovered dead in their own home.
On the morning of Veterans Day 1978, Wicht had agreed to act as a hairstylist for a friend’s wedding ceremony. However, after she failed to turn up to the job, an acquaintance went to her apartment. And that’s when Wicht and Donald’s bodies were uncovered.
Horrifically, both Wicht and her son Donald had been killed in cold blood in their beds. The child had been suffocated, according to reports, while his mother had allegedly been throttled with a rope as well as battered and raped. Furthermore, Wicht’s home had apparently been trashed.
Meanwhile, news of the appalling crime traveled quickly through the close-knit community, with word eventually reaching Coley. And after hearing about the gruesome incident, Coley decided to call the police to see if he could uncover any more details.
It’s worth noting, too, that although Coley and Wicht had not been a couple at the time of her death, they had reportedly kept in contact. In fact, the pair apparently still kept keys for each other’s properties; in addition, it’s said, each would sometimes help the other out with laundry. However, this picture of an apparently cordial relationship was not one to which police would prescribe.
You see, it’s believed that the cops instead painted Coley out to be an angry ex-boyfriend. They pointed out, too, that the man had the means with which to enter Wicht’s apartment, which itself did not appear to have been broken into prior to the crime. And so, within a matter of hours after the discovery of the terrible scene, Coley was taken into police custody and subsequently charged with slaying his former partner and her child.
Coley’s murder trial was then carried out in April 1979, but the jury of 12 were not able to come to a unanimous decision. A second legal proceeding therefore took place in January 1980, which resulted in guilty verdicts for Coley on dual charges of first-degree murder. Consequently, Wicht’s former boyfriend was handed a life sentence with no chance of parole.
But despite the second jury declaring Coley guilty of Wicht and her son’s slayings, people who knew the man continued to support him. Some of Coley’s Simi Valley neighbors signed petitions calling for the conviction to be reconsidered, for instance, while several newspapers also advocated for Coley’s innocence, too. And even the judge who had presided over Coley’s original trial condemned the guilty verdict.
However, it was Coley’s parents, Marjourie and Wilson, who fought the hardest to prove that their only child is not a murderer. They took out a mortgage against their home in Sherman Oaks, California, in fact, and used their retirement savings to pay for new investigators and lawyers to work on Coley’s case. But all hope vanished when his final appeal proved unsuccessful, leading to the evidence related to his alleged crime apparently being destroyed.
Yet this wasn’t the end of Coley’s story. Almost a decade after the conviction, you see, detective Michael Bender from the Simi Valley Police Department began to re-examine Coley’s case upon a friend’s recommendation. And it was then that Bender discovered a number of alarming flaws.
For one, Coley reportedly had a reliable alibi that was able to account for his whereabouts on the night of the murders – bar 20 minutes. Nevertheless, according to the Los Angeles Times, it’s thought that this would not have been a sufficient amount of time in which to commit the crimes. And if this supposition weren’t unsettling enough, fingerprints and hair samples that had been picked up at the scene hadn’t been correctly examined, either, the publication claimed.
What’s more, there were apparently also potential suspects other than Coley who had never been questioned. All in all, then, as Bender analyzed the shortcomings of the case, he found himself suspecting that there had in fact been a miscarriage of justice. Indeed, as he told the Los Angeles Times in 2018, “It appeared that a real investigation hadn’t occurred.”
Bender continued to look into Coley’s case, too. In around 1991 he visited the suspect in person at the state prison in Tehachapi where he was being held. And it was during this first encounter with Coley that Bender became convinced that the individual with whom he was speaking was in fact innocent.
Bender described his meeting with Coley in his 2018 interview with the Los Angeles Times. There, he said, “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.” And with that in mind, Bender vowed to do everything in his power to get Coley’s case reevaluated.
As part of Bender’s work towards said goal, he retrieved over a dozen boxes of case notes from Coley’s mother, who had become a widow after the death of her husband in 1988. However, despite Bender’s determination, he realized that his colleagues didn’t share his desire to reinvestigate the murders, and in 1991 his superiors instructed him to drop the case – or else he would lose his job.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Bender lost some of his faith in police work. And as a result, he quit as a detective and left Simi Valley altogether. But the ex-cop kept the case files and continued to work on proving that Coley had been wrongfully convicted. Coley himself tried to remain positive, too, as his years in jail continued to pass.
One way in which Coley kept his spirits high was staying in touch with friends and family in the form of letters. He was also in regular contact with Bender, who visited him in jail and was sometimes accompanied by his daughter, Mikali, or by Coley’s mom, Marjourie, on those occasions. But despite Coley’s links to the outside world, he nevertheless found life on the inside hard.
Indeed, Coley’s stint at the notorious Folsom State Prison was apparently particularly tough. But, regardless, he was practically the perfect inmate, helping out others behind bars through mentoring and by taking part in a support project for fellow veterans. Coley developed skills to fashion and sell jewelry, too, and in doing so earned money to pay for more investigators.
Then, it seemed, Coley’s dogged determination to keep going eventually paid off. And Bender finally made headway in his bid to establish the man’s innocence, too. In 2015, for instance, he finally convinced the office of Governor Jerry Brown to look into the case. In 2016 Bender also conducted a meeting with David Livingstone – Simi Valley’s new head of police – who in turn began an investigation alongside the district attorney’s office in Ventura County.
And as a result, DNA evidence relating to Coley’s case – which many believed had been destroyed – was uncovered and re-examined. This is how investigators came to find the blood, skin residue and semen of another man on bedding and clothes that had been taken from Wicht’s home. Yet while this evidence was certainly damning, it wasn’t the only breakthrough to eventually change the course of Coley’s case.
Indeed, a supposed eye-witness account that had helped to lock Coley up was also discredited. When giving evidence in court, a resident in Wicht and Donald’s building had claimed to have noticed sounds coming from the victims’ home at 5.30 a.m. However, in the hours following the homicides, said individual had told police that he had in fact heard the disturbance at 4.30 a.m.
Meanwhile, Coley’s alleged alibi had also been reevaluated. On the night of the murders, Coley had reportedly been hanging out with some former colleagues. He says that he had then given one of these people a lift at 4:45 a.m. And if said account were true, it would mean that Coley could not have been responsible for the noises that had apparently been heard by Wicht’s neighbor. What’s more, police detectives alleged that a nearby resident who had claimed to have seen Coley’s truck pulling away from the crime scene would not have been able to properly identify him from their apartment window.
So, thanks to the DNA evidence and the now-discredited testimony, a clemency petition was filed in November 2017. And 48 hours after that had taken place, Coley received the news that he had been waiting for: Governor Brown had pardoned him. Consequently, Coley was finally freed from jail on the evening before Thanksgiving – after 39 years behind bars.
And Coley spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the moment that he had heard he’d finally go free. He explained, “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.”
Coley also hailed Bender as his “savior,” although the former cop insisted that it was simply his duty to help others. Bender added to the Los Angeles Times, “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.”
But Coley and Bender’s relationship didn’t end there. After Coley was released from jail, in fact, he went to stay with Bender and his family at their home in Carlsbad, California. And it was on his way to Bender’s residence that the exonerated man got to sample his initial tastes of the outside world. The former inmate first visited an In-N-Out joint for a burger, after which he stopped by Starbucks to satisfy his caramel macchiato craving.
What’s more, it had always been Coley’s plan to move to Carlsbad if he ever regained his freedom. The Bender family had actually relocated Coley’s mother to the city in 2004 when her health had begun to decline, you see. And touchingly, Mikali Bender had then cared for the woman until her death seven years later.
But while Coley was blessed to have a family on which to lean, civilian life would not prove easy for the freed prisoner. He had been just 31 when he had been wrongly convicted, after all, and now he faced the prospect of starting his life once more after almost four decades of being locked up. Plus, to top things off, Coley had no driver’s license, identification, savings, credit score nor any belongings to his name.
Coley spent his first month of freedom feeling too scared to leave his neighborhood, then, in case he was approached by cops. As his new documents began to arrive, though, he found a new lease of life by taking his red Jeep out for a spin. The former prisoner also enjoyed chatting to friends on his first ever cell phone, according to the Los Angeles Times.
However, most of all, Coley was thrilled to have the opportunity to hang out with his newfound family – the Benders. And he took particular joy in spending time with their three-year-old granddaughter, Keira. Her grandmother, Cynthia, told the Los Angeles Times, “I call Keira my ‘little,’ and [Coley’s] my ‘big.’ In December, I took them both to see Santa.”
In addition, February 2018 saw the California Victim Compensation Board hand Coley $1.9 million – or $140 for each day that he had been forced to live inside a cell. Said sum was in fact the highest amount that had ever been handed to an exonerated prisoner in the state of California. But while Coley told the Los Angeles Times that the cash would help him – especially given his age – the payout could, of course, never make up for the decades that he had been denied.
Nor could Coley get much closure on the crime of which he’d been accused. That’s because no one else has been arrested in relation to the murders of Wicht and Donald. He told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s not something you can describe other than it’s painful. I went four decades not being able to grieve the woman and child [that] I loved.”
In February 2019, however, Simi Valley agreed to another $21 million payment that Coley would receive on top of the sum that had been awarded by the California Victim Compensation Board. City manager Eric Levitt explained the importance of the payout in a statement obtained by the Los Angeles Times. He said, “While no amount of money can make up for what happened to Mr. Coley, settling this case is the right thing to do for [him] and our community.”
Coley’s attorney Ron Kaye told the newspaper, meanwhile, that the sum had given his client some vindication. He added that the money would help piece together Coley’s life following his near-four-decade incarceration. Kay concluded of the exonerated man, “He now can live the rest of his life – which we hope will be really well into the future – with the security he deserves.”
For his part, Coley used some of the cash to buy a home in Carlsbad near the Bender family. He also made plans to go traveling and booked a trip to Hawaii for his 71st birthday. And aside from that, Coley told the Los Angeles Times that he’d love to have a pet. He was considering getting an Australian shepherd – or perhaps a Sheltie – as a companion to stay by his side.
Yet despite the massive payout that Coley received, it’s the small things that freedom afforded him that he appreciates the most. He explained, “What I love is being able to get up in the middle of the night to get a cold drink of water from the refrigerator or standing out on the porch at night to look up at the stars. These are things I never appreciated so much until now.”