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Wrongly convicted man spends holiday with detective who sought his release

Craig Coley spent 38 years in prison for murders he didn’t commit. This year he shared Thanksgiving with the retired detective who fought for his freedom.
Image: Craig Coley
Craig Coley helps carve the turkey.

Craig Coley has missed a lot of Thanksgiving meals, but he won't forget carving the turkey this year.

Coley, 70, spent the past 38 years in prison for a double murder he didn't commit, but this year he was able to eat Thanksgiving dinner with the retired detective who spent nearly three decades attempting to prove his innocence.

"This is the most thankful Thanksgiving that I've ever spent, you know?" Coley said. "And I'm truly thankful for it. I'm not just saying that."

California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Coley on Wednesday for the 1978 murders of Coley's then-girlfriend, Rhonda Wicht, 24, and her 4-year-old son, Donald.

The governor cited newly discovered DNA evidence that cleared Coley of the crime and appears to have been mishandled by investigators who first worked on the case.

"The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary," Brown wrote in Coley's pardon. "I grant this pardon because Mr. Coley did not commit these crimes. I direct the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to immediately release Mr. Coley from prison."

The Ventura County District Attorney's office said in a statement the "recent investigation has determined that [Coley] is factually innocent of the crimes."

The murderer, who remains at large, strangled Wicht with a macramé rope and suffocated her young son, and Coley became the prime suspect in the case.

Coley maintained his innocence from the beginning and urged authorities to continue to find the killer.

Mike Bender and Craig Coley.

"When they arrested me, I told them, 'You know what, you can do whatever you want to me. But don't stop looking for the person who did this because you have the wrong man,'" Coley said.

Coley's first trial in 1979 ended in a hung jury, with 10 of 12 jurors voting to convict him, but Coley was retried and convicted in January of 1980, according to the Simi Valley Police Department. A month later, he was sentenced to life without parole.

Nearly a decade after Coley was convicted, Mike Bender, then a Simi Valley police detective, began looking into Coley's case.

He started his investigation in 1989, and it took 28 years until he was able to help get Coley out of prison.

"People don't want to admit to making mistakes, and usually they want to defend that position that they took whether it was wrong or indifferent," Bender said Friday. "So it was difficult. It was falling on deaf ears, and I just had to keep beating the drum and moving forward on the case."

Bender said he went to nearly every government agency he could think of to plead Coley's case and have them look at the evidence.

"You can get tunnel vision, start ignoring things," Bender said of police investigations. "In Craig's case it appeared to me that things were intentionally ignored and manipulated, destroyed, distorted."

The trial court ordered the evidence from Coley's case to be destroyed once he had used up all of his appeals, the Associated Press reported.

But a private lab maintained biological samples once thought destroyed, according to the Simi Valley Police Department. Police said investigators then used using new DNA sequencing techniques which found that Coley's DNA was not attached to a key piece of evidence used to convict him — though it did carry the DNA of individuals who were not identified by police.

Craig Coley at the Thanksgiving table with the Bender family.Mike Bender

After Coley petitioned the governor for clemency, Brown requested the state parole board conduct an investigation in September of 2015, according to the pardon. During the investigation, a police detective, captain and officer said they believed Coley had been wrongfully convicted — an opinion supported by Simi Valley Police Department and the Ventura County District Attorney's Office.

Though Coley was robbed of nearly four decades of freedom, he said he was thankful for his newfound liberty. That first morning was particularly jarring.

"When I laid down, next thing I knew it was morning and I was just, everything just caught up with me, you know?" Coley said. "I woke up in a real bed, in a real home and my family around me and I was just so happy."

And he’s also thankful for the man who never quit in his work to get him out of prison.

"He means everything to me. He, his wife: they're my family," Coley said of Bender. "It's not often you find a person with integrity — much less their whole family."