Craig Richard Coley has spent more than 38 years behind bars for a double homicide he did not commit. On Thanksgiving Day, he tasted freedom.
On Thursday morning, Coley woke up in Carlsbad, California, just blocks from the beach, a free man for the first time since Nov. 11, 1978.
During an hour-long exclusive interview with NBC 7, the 70-year-old Vietnam veteran broke down and cried while reading details of the horrific crime that put him away.
“In the early morning hours, of November 11, 1978, Rhonda Wicht was beaten and strangled to death in her apartment. Her 4-year-old son...”
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Coley paused as he read from Governor Jerry Brown’s pardon, issued late Wednesday night. He choked back tears for the young boy he raised as a son.
“Donald….was smothered and died of asphyxia in his bed,” Coley continued.
It was the most heinous crime Simi Valley, California, had ever seen.
A young, single mother found strangled with a macramé rope and her only son smothered in his bed. Homicide detectives quickly turned their attention to Rhonda’s boyfriend, Coley.
“When they arrested me, I told them: ‘You can do whatever you want to me, but don’t stop looking for the person that did this. Because you have the wrong man. You have the wrong man,’” he told NBC 7 on Thanksgiving.
Coley has maintained his innocence from behind bars for more than 38 years.
He was arrested on Veteran’s Day 1978 after serving his country in the U.S. Navy. His service included several deployments to Vietnam aboard USS Enterprise and USS Bainbridge.
On Wednesday, Gov. Brown pardoned Coley, citing DNA evidence proving he wasn’t the killer.
Coley would soon be freed.
“It’s difficult to put into words. Obviously, I was joyful. I was happy. I was looking forward to spending Thanksgiving at home,” he described of the moments his warden told him he would be walking out the prison doors that evening.
Immediately, Coley knew he had some unfinished business -- thanking the detective who helped secure his freedom.
Coley called retired detective Mike Bender, who has worked tirelessly for his release since first examining the case in 1989.
The warden offered to have two guards drive Coley home to Bender’s house in Carlsbad. They stopped for Starbucks and In-and-Out on the way down.
Coley described his first taste of freedom in nearly four decades with one word: “Sweet.”
“It was wonderful,” he said. “In prison, you realize what you took for granted. By that, I mean, you can’t get up and go get a cup of cold water. You can’t go to the refrigerator and get a glass of milk, if you chose to do so, or just step out on the porch and take a couple breaths of air.”
“You don’t realize important those things are until it’s gone,” Coley said.
In his letter pardoning Coley, Gov. Brown writes:
“In September 2015, I requested the Board of Parole Hearings to conduct an investigation. During that investigation, a former police detective, police captain, and police officer reported that they believed Mr. Coley was wrongfully convicted and opined that the detective who originally investigated the matter mishandled the investigation or framed Mr. Coley.”
Coley takes a deep breath when he reads those words.
“How can you feel when someone just reaches in and takes four decades out of your life?” he said when asked to describe his emotions during his exclusive interview with NBC 7.
It was in prison, Coley said, that he found God.
“I’m not saying I was a bad guy, but I wasn’t a pleasant person to be around for the first three years I was in prison," Coley said. "I was mad at the world, I was angry. I couldn’t believe I was put in prison for something I didn’t do.”
When Coley began what he describes as walking with God, he says he was fortunate.
“From that point on, I grew, if you can understand that, in prison,” Coley said. “I grew in faith. I grew in knowledge. I grew in a lot of ways. I am who I am today. I am thankful to God for all of that. He kept me safe throughout my journey.”
Coley still worries for the victims’ families. He worries that his release might open up fresh wounds for them. Coley said he prays that detectives find the true killer(s).
Now that he is free, his plans going forward included having Thanksgiving dinner with Bender, who he calls his brother.
He also plans to relax, take a walk on the beach, and “smell that fresh air, smell that freedom.”
He said what he regrets most is being behind bars when his mother and father, a retired Los Angeles police officer, passed away.
“Even though I’ve been through a lot, that’s behind me. I have to look forward,” Coley said. “I have to be thankful for what I have and enjoy what I have.”
He said he forgives, for the most part, the people that put him behind bars.
“I do forgive them and other times I think about some of the things I’ve gone through and I have a little bit of animosity and a little bit of a not good feeling,” he said.
But to the person or persons who committed the horrific murder of his then-girlfriend and her innocent son, he said forgiveness is something he’s still working on.
“Shame on you,” he said. “Shame on you. If I wasn’t a Christian, I could curse them out, but what good is that going to do? They’ll get theirs in the end when God judges them. I just hope and pray they haven’t hurt anyone else.”
Coley said his faith is what he’s most grateful for this Thanksgiving.
“The most obvious thing to say would be my freedom, but there’s more things than that to be grateful for. It’s just the fact that I have a testimony to share with people that there is hope,” Coley said. “That you can have forgiveness for other people when they’ve done horrible things to you.”