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Man wrongfully convicted of Simi double-murder plans to work with veterans
Ventura County Star - 12/23/2017
Dec. 22--Now that a Vietnam War veteran who was wrongfully convicted of a 1978 Simi Valley double-murder has been exonerated and released from prison, he plans to spend some of his newfound freedom helping fellow veterans.
Navy veteran Craig Coley was involved in this work during his more than 38 years in custody after the slaying of his ex-girlfriend Rhonda Wicht, 24, and her son, Donald Wicht, 4.
Coley even created his own veterans organization while incarcerated. He said that's simply what veterans do. They help each other.
"They say in the military 'never leave another man behind,' " Coley said.
Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Coley on Nov. 22 after being presented with DNA evidence pointing to someone else as the killer. Coley was released from prison that same day at 70 years old. He was 31 when he was arrested in connection with the murders on Veterans Day in November 1978.
The evidence was found after Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone reopened the investigation in October 2016. Livingstone and Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten announced the findings in November. They also sent a letter to Brown supporting Coley's clemency petition and recommending his immediate release from prison.
Coley said if not for Livingstone allowing cold-case Detective Dan Swanson to look into the case, he never would have been freed.
Swanson tracked down the evidence in Coley's case that was originally thought to be destroyed. He continues to work on it full-time.
Coley said the police department that was around when he was convicted no longer exists and he holds no hard feelings toward the current agency.
Brown directed an investigation into Coley's case as part of his clemency petition.
"During that investigation, a former police detective, police captain and police officer reported that they believed Mr. Coley was wrongfully convicted ..." the pardon letter states.
Coley said he has his suspicions about what happened but refused to give names or point fingers because he doesn't want what happened to him to happen to someone else.
Simi Valley police and the Ventura County District Attorney's Office said they are looking into allegations of misconduct. Livingstone said no evidence has yet to turn up in support of those claims. The District Attorney's Office declined to comment on the investigation.
Coley, the son of a Los Angeles Police Department officer, had maintained his innocence since his arrest. It was his first brush with the law in his life. He said the ordeal left him lost and confused while at the same time he was grieving the loss of two people he loved.
"I was angry with the court system, the legal system," Coley said. "All my younger years until junior high school age, I was under the impression that law enforcement is your friend. But all this occurred and I was kind of beside myself."
Eventually, it was the work of law enforcement that would free him.
In 1989, a Simi Valley police detective came across Coley's case and immediately saw red flags. Mike Bender, the former detective, retired from the force a few years later but spent the next nearly 30 years fighting for Coley's release.
"His whole case was a series of mistakes," Bender said. "Deadlines were missed. ... It's just a tragedy."
When Coley was released the day before Thanksgiving, it was Bender's house in Carlsbad that he was taken to. He spent his first holiday outside prison with Bender and his family. And in the weeks since then, Bender has helped him get clothes, a birth certificate and an ID.
Coley said he's glad and appreciative that Bender is guiding him through this process of getting back on his feet.
"What if someone didn't have help like Mike and they have a bad situation?" Coley said.
Bender has created a GoFundMe page for Coley that has raised almost $20,000. Coley is also eligible to receive about $140 for each day he was in custody. That could mean a $1.9 million payout from the California Victim Compensation Board.
Coley is also enjoying some lighter moments like the delight of fresh fruit, a walk on the beach or the simple freedom of being able to get a glass of water in the middle of the night.
Making a trip to visit his parents' grave was also something he wanted to do.
Coley said that when authorities told him of the new exonerating evidence, he didn't sleep very well that night. It was a bittersweet feeling because he knew he was going to be released but then he also thought of his struggle and all the lives affected by the crime.
"All of these things that run around in my head like mice. Every once in a while, these things catch up to you," Coley said.
He's taking it one step at a time. And with the help of a fellow veteran, he's got a doctor's appointment.
Army Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta, the president of a nonprofit organization called Thank-A-Vet, has helped Coley get enrolled with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Coley was impacted by Acosta's story when he came to share as a guest speaker for a veterans group in prison.
Acosta was wounded in a 2006 mortar attack on an Iraqi base. He lost his eyesight and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He spent four more years on active duty before his retirement.
Coley remained in contact with Acosta and hopes to get involved in that kind of advocacy.
"Nobody understands a veteran like another veteran," Coley said.
(c)2017 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
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