Craig Coley spent 39 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. Now that he’s free, police are looking for the real criminal…and it may be the Golden State Killer. This is Craig Coley’s story, plus a look at how it may tie in with California’s most notorious serial killer.
Who Is Craig Coley?
Craig Richard Coley was born in 1947 to Marjourie and Wilson Coley, a retired Los Angeles police officer. He was an only child.
Wilson died in 1988 and Marjourie died in 2011, while their son was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.
In 1978, Coley had his whole life ahead of him. He had already survived two tours of Vietnam with the Navy. He’d begun carving out a career for himself as a restaurant manager.
Having moved back to Simi Valley, California, where he’d spent his teenage years, Coley worked as a manager with Rustler’s Steakhouse. He then moved on to a night manager position with Howard Johnson’s.
In short, life was pretty good, with the possible exception of his dating life.
In November 1978, Coley was single for a little while, just coming off of a two-year relationship with Rhonda Wicht. It was then that police came to him with the shocking news that Wicht and her four-year-old son had been murdered.
Rhonda and Donald Wicht’s Murders
Rhonda Wicht was 24 years old and studying cosmetology in 1978. She lived in an apartment at 1851 Buyers Street along with her four-year-old son, Donald.
While she and Coley had broken up, they still had keys to each other’s homes. They would even trade off doing laundry for one another.
At around 5:30 a.m. on November 11, a neighbor heard strange banging noises coming from Wicht’s apartment.
When she looked out the window, she recognized what she thought was Coley’s truck. However, the neighbor never saw who left the apartment, nor could she make out the person driving the truck.
A friend discovered the mother and son’s bodies later that day, after Rhonda had failed to show up to style hair for a bridal party.
Donald had been suffocated in his bed. Rhonda had been raped, beaten, and strangled. The apartment had been noticeably ransacked.
The news quickly filtered down to Coley. He called Simi Valley police to find out what exactly had happened to his ex-girlfriend.
It didn’t take long after that for the police to finger Coley as their suspect.
He had a key to the apartment and professed that he loved Rhonda and Donald Wicht. Rhonda’s murder could appear to be a crime of passion.
While Coley had an alibi, there was a hole in it. He was working the late shift as a night manager at Howard Johnson’s. After his shift, he drove a busboy home and then headed to his own apartment. But between 5:00 a.m. and 5:20 a.m., there was no way to corroborate Coley’s story.
The cops theorized that it was at that point that Coley committed the murders.
Hours after the bodies were discovered, Coley was arrested for the murders of Rhonda and Donald Wicht.
Craig Coley’s Trials
Despite his alibi, Coley was arrested and put on trial for the murders of his ex-girlfriend and her son.
The prosecution described Coley as an ex-boyfriend who wasn’t happy with the breakup and had taken his feelings too far. Coley had a theoretical motive, he had the opportunity to get to Wicht’s home and back quickly, and he had a key to the apartment.
The first trial ended with a hung jury; 10 out of 12 jurors had voted in favor of conviction.
The second trial in 1980 did not go Coley’s way. This time he was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances.
After he was imprisoned, Coley’s parents immediately went to work trying to help with his appeal. They mortgaged their home and withdrew all the money from their savings to finance a new attorney and investigator.
Coley’s neighbors and family members rallied behind him. A number of local media outlets openly pronounced Coley innocent. Even the judge in the first trial felt that Coley was innocent.
Despite the new attorney and the overwhelming support, Coley’s appeals failed.
The biological evidence in the case was ordered to be destroyed by the judge. With the destruction of that evidence, Coley’s chances of freedom seemed to disappear.
A Police Officer Believes Coley
Shortly after Michael Bender achieved the rank of detective at the Simi Valley Police Department, an associate suggested that he look at the case files of Rhonda and Donald Wicht’s murders.
It became obvious to him that the police work on the case hadn’t been up to snuff.
Bender began to look deeper into the case, going so far as to visit with Coley in 1991. He spoke to Coley’s mother as well. He also gained access to the 16 boxes of evidence her team had put together.
This inquest ruffled a number of feathers in Bender’s department.
In 1991, Bender was given a choice by Simi Valley police. He could stop looking into the case or he could lose his job.
Bender decided to quit. He continued to work on the case in the time between his day jobs.
New Investigation Begins
Between 1991 and 2015, things moved at a snail’s pace. No one wanted to touch the case and Coley was still behind bars.
He was a model prisoner, beginning to regularly practice Christianity in 2005. In 2011, he started a Bible study group in his prison. A few years after that, he earned degrees in biblical studies, biblical counseling, and theology.
But in 2015, the tide began to shift in Coley’s favor.
That year, the office of California Governor Jerry Brown agreed to begin an investigation in Coley’s case. There was also a shift in staff and thinking at the Simi Valley Police Department.
Bender met with new Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone.
After the meeting, Livingstone began his own investigation into Coley’s case, along with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.
And the biggest break was yet to come.
Science Finds a Way
The biggest stroke of luck in the effort to prove Coley’s innocence came in the form of DNA evidence.
As it turned out, a large amount of biological evidence that had been ordered destroyed was safe and sound.
Testing on the DNA evidence was ordered to begin immediately.
The science that did not exist during Coley’s two trials dropped a bomb on the entire case.
Sperm, blood, and skin cells that were found in the apartment and on the sheets of Rhonda Wicht’s bed were tested. They were found not to be a match to Coley.
With the DNA evidence in hand, the district attorney and Livingstone presented Governor Brown with a petition for clemency on November 20, 2017.
Two days later, Brown signed it. Coley was officially going to be a free man after 38 years in prison—just in time for Thanksgiving.
Life after Prison
While Coley was in prison, Bender and his family became very close with Coley’s mother.
The Benders moved Marjourie in with them when she became ill in 2004. She stayed with them until her death in 2011.
So when Coley was released, the Benders’ home seemed like a natural place for him to go.
Now in his 70s, Coley’s faith that things will eventually turn out for him is being repaid.
A GoFundMe page was set up in Coley’s name to help him get by until official restitution can be made. Currently, over $78,000 has been raised.
In February 2018, Coley was awarded $140.00 for each day that he was locked away unjustly, for a total of $1.9 million. That money should come to Coley by this coming August.
In the meantime, he is adapting to life outside of prison and enjoying the freedom that comes with it.
Coley told the Los Angeles Times:
“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.”
But there is still one major question to be answered: if Craig Coley is innocent, who was behind the murders of Rhonda and Donald Wicht?
Enter the Golden State Killer
One of the nagging problems with Coley’s case was that if he hadn’t killed Rhonda and Donald, who did?
Police didn’t have much in the way of suspects, choosing to focus solely on Coley.
But as luck would have it, because DNA set Coley free, it may also find the true killer in the case.
One of the people investigators are now looking at is the alleged Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo.
While the Wicht murders are not exactly the same as the crimes the Golden State Killer committed in 1978 (when he was known as the East Area Rapist), there are some similarities in the cases.
The brutal rape of Wicht, followed by the ransacking of the apartment, was not too far a stretch from the Golden State Killer’s M.O. at the time.
It is presumed by the FBI that he murdered Brian and Katie Maggiore on February 2, 1978—only a few months before the Wicht murders.
DeAngelo is also thought to have committed a murder in Ventura County, which means he may have been working the area.
Simi Valley Deputy Chief Joseph May told CBS Los Angeles that the connection between the two cases is now being explored through DNA.
“We’ve made a request for a DNA comparison to find out if the DNA they recovered from Mr. DeAngelo is consistent with the DNA that we have in our case.”
If a link is proven, it would add two more murders to the 12 currently connected with the Golden State Killer.
And, as Coley told the San Francisco Times, it may finally end the story that began in 1978.
“I feel really horrible for Rhonda’s family—her sisters and her brother—having to go through all of this again. I never got to grieve for Rhonda or Donnie because of this.”