At the time, police said it was the most heinous crime Simi Valley had ever seen.
A young mother, Rhonda Wicht, was beaten, raped and strangled with a macrame rope in her apartment. Her 4-year-old son, Donald, was smothered in his bed, presumably because he might have identified his mother’s killer.
On that early November morning in 1978, the suburban town of 75,000 people saw its first double murder.
Investigators quickly zeroed in on Craig Coley, the son of a retired Los Angeles policeman who had dated the 24-year-old victim for nearly two years.
Coley, who worked as a night manager at a restaurant, was convicted after a second trial. The first trial resulted in a hung jury after four weeks of deliberations, with 10-2 in favor of guilt. A second jury convicted him in 1980 of two counts of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
During his 39 years behind bars, Coley maintained his innocence. Now, authorities say they agree with him.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday pardoned Coley, now 70, citing investigations in recent years that concluded he was wrongfully convicted. Brown ordered Coley’s immediate release.
Simi Valley police believe Coley is the longest-serving prisoner in California to have been granted clemency.
According to the pardon, police officials believe that the detective who originally investigated the case “mishandled the investigation or framed” Coley.
“The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary,” Brown wrote in the pardon. “It is my hope that any and all individuals responsible for the murder of Rhonda and Donald Wicht are brought to justice.”
Coley had no criminal history and has been a “model inmate” during his incarceration, avoiding gangs and dedicating himself to religion, Brown wrote.
Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone reopened Coley’s case in October 2016 after a retired detective raised concerns about whether Coley was guilty. Investigators later found that a key piece of evidence used to convict him contained others’ DNA but not his.
At trial, prosecutors presented evidence that a vehicle similar to Coley’s was seen at Wicht’s apartment the night of the killing, that a bloody towel and T-shirt were found at Coley’s home, and that he was depressed because Wicht wanted to break up.
But witnesses described Coley as a “second father” to Donald, and Rhonda Wicht’s mother told reporters that her family thought of Coley as their son.
Defense attorneys criticized Simi Valley police for failing to investigate three other possible suspects, according to news accounts at the time. And the Simi Valley Mirror, a weekly tabloid, published reports asserting that investigators had the wrong guy.
“Coley Truly Appears to be Wrong Man,” one front-page headline read during the trial. In an editorial, they named another man they believed was a suspect in the case.
Ventura County Dist. Atty. Gregory D. Totten and Livingstone released a joint statement Wednesday saying authorities have reopened the case in hopes of finding the real killer or killers.
“This case is tragic,” the statement said. “An innocent woman and a small child were murdered. Craig Coley has spent 39 years in custody for a crime he likely did not commit. The real murderer or murderers have not been brought to justice.”0