Man Wrongfully Imprisoned for Decades Free on Thanksgiving - NBC 6 South Florida
National & International News
The day’s top national and international news

Man Wrongfully Imprisoned for Decades Free on Thanksgiving

Craig Coley, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran, hopes authorities can still find the man who killed his then-girlfriend and her 4-year-old son in 1978

    processing...

    NEWSLETTERS

    Man Wrongfully Imprisoned for 38 Years is Free on Thanksgiving

    Craig Coley, a man convicted of a heinous 1978 double-murder, was freed thanks to new DNA evidence. Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him and, today, Coley is free. On Thanksgiving, he had some unfinished business to tend to -- tracking down the detective who helped free him. NBC 7's Wendy Fry reports. (Published Friday, Nov. 24, 2017)

    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...”

    Video: Dramatic Rescue From Fiery Alabama Home

    [NATL-MI] Video: Dramatic Rescue From Fiery Alabama Home

    The Oneonta Police Department in Alabama this week released body camera footage of a rescue from a burning building on July 3. Two officers saved two people from the structure fire, according to police.

    (Published Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018)

    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. 

    November 1978

    Honda Odyssey Tops Minivan Crash Test List

    [NATL] Honda Odyssey Tops Minivan Crash Test List

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has released new crash ratings for minivans.

    (Published Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018)

    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.

    WH: Cannot Guarantee Trump Didn't Use N-Word

    [NATL] WH Defends Trump's 'Dog' Comment, Says They Cannot Guarantee Trump Didn't Use N-Word

    The White House defended President Donald Trump calling former protégée Omarosa Manigault-Newman a "dog" in a Tuesday press conference. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also could not guarantee that Trump has never used the N-word on record, but doubled down in his defense. 

    (Published Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018)

    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.

    Bridge Collapses Over Italian City, Killing More Than 20

    [NATL] Bridge Collapses Over Italian City, Killing More Than 20

    A bridge over the Italian city of Genoa collapsed during a sudden, violent storm, opening up a huge gulf in the Morandi Bridge and killing at least 20 people.

    (Published Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018)

    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.

    Driver Arrested After Crashing Into Pedestrians Outside of Parliament

    [NATL] Driver Arrested After Crashing Into Pedestrians Outside of Parliament

    Police believe the crash outside the Houses of Parliament in London was deliberate and a “terrorist incident.”

    (Published Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018)

    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.

    How A New Chinese Policy is Causing a Recycling Nightmare in the US

    [NATL] How A New Chinese Policy is Causing a Recycling Nightmare in the US

    China has implemented a new recycling policy called National Sword, halting all imports of recycled materials. The U.S. was sending about 40 percent of its recycled goods to china before the policy's implementation which means there is a lot of recycled material with nowhere to go. See how the policy is affecting local recycling centers.

    (Published Monday, Aug. 13, 2018)

    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).

    Freedom

    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.”