He won $21 million after 39 years wrongly locked up. He has one cop to thank for freeing him.
Mike Bender had spent a dozen years working his way up the ladder at the Simi Valley Police Department when he decided to break ranks.
The case that turned him against his superiors began on November 11, 1978, a month after he started working as a patrol officer in the quiet Los Angeles suburb. That day, Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son, Donald, were found murdered in their beds. Wicht, a 24-year-old waitress and cosmetology student, had been raped, beaten and strangled with macramé rope. Her son had been smothered to death. Within a matter of hours, police arrested Craig Coley, an ex-boyfriend of Wicht's who still had a key to the apartment. It took two trials to get a jury to agree to convict him, but in 1980, Coley was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Bender hadn't been assigned to the case, so he was shocked when, roughly a decade later, he decided to look through the file and found what struck him as serious flaws in the investigation. "Going over how the case was handled, there were way too many red flags for me to believe that Coley was a suspect," he told The Washington Post. Coley had never stopped insisting he was innocent, and Bender became convinced that the man was telling the truth.
When higher-ups ignored him, the detective decided to take matters into his own hands. For almost three decades, he petitioned everyone else he could think of: state legislators, the district attorney, the city manager and city council, members of Congress, multiple governors, California's attorney general, the FBI, a grand jury, the ACLU and the Innocence Project.
"What motivated me was that there was no one else to do it," he said. "I felt strongly that an innocent man was in jail and the murderer was free."
It cost Bender his career in Simi Valley, but his persistence eventually paid off. In November 2017, Coley was pardoned by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and released from prison. On Saturday, the Ventura County Star reported that he would receive a $21 million settlement from the city as compensation for the nearly 39 years that he spent in prison.
"While no amount of money can make up for what happened to Mr. Coley, settling this case is the right thing to do for Mr. Coley and our community," City Manager Eric Levitt said in a statement.
Bender, now 63 and living in San Diego, agrees. He began looking into Coley's case in 1989, while he was working as a detective. At the time, he had tangled with a lieutenant over what he now describes as "minor politics stuff." When he refused to back down, other colleagues warned him to watch out for the man, telling him, "Look what he did to Coley."
When Bender began looking through the case file, alarm bells immediately started ringing in his head. On the night of the murder, Coley had been at a restaurant, and had given a friend a ride home before showering and heading to bed. There was only about a 20- to 30-minute window when he didn't have an airtight alibi. There was no way that Coley could have driven to Wicht's apartment, raped and strangled her, suffocated her son, ransacked the apartment and driven back home in that time frame, Bender realized. While evidence had pointed to other possible suspects besides Coley, police had let them all go.
Looking back, Bender thinks the rush to judgment may have been the result of tunnel vision. "If you make your mind up that someone did something, then you stop looking at the stuff that points away from that," he said.
Within the department, Bender's persistent questions about the Coley case weren't exactly welcome. "It met with great resistance, as you can imagine, because I was looking into my superiors," he said. But he kept trying to prove the man's innocence, eventually taking his findings to a grand jury, which declined to investigate. In 1991, he said, he had just been to maximum-security prison to meet Coley for the first time when he got an ultimatum: Stop investigating if you want to keep your job.
Up until that point, Bender had planned his life around being a police officer in his hometown. He had gone to high school in Simi Valley, then gotten into police work because he wanted to give back to his community. But he chose to walk away from what had once been his dream job and to keep fighting for Coley's exoneration, believing that he would regret it on his deathbed if he didn't. His experience in Simi Valley had soured him to the point that he chose not to seek a job in another police department, instead he moved to Northern California and found work with a company that investigated insurance claims.
"I got discouraged," he told The Post. "I went into the private sector, I sold all my guns. I wanted nothing to do with it whatsoever."
By then, Coley's father had passed away, and his mother was all on her own. Bender drove her to the prison for visits, and over the years she became like another member of his family, joining them for Christmas and other holidays. It scared him to think that the aging woman wouldn't have her son there to take care of her in her final years, or that Coley could die in jail. He repeatedly filed clemency petitions on Coley's behalf, and urged every law enforcement agency that he could think of to reopen the case.
"It didn't seem to go anywhere," he said. "Too much power, too much politics, too many people trying to defend what they did, instead of trying to look into the truth of the matter."
Finally, in 2016, Simi Valley got a new chief of police, Dave Livingstone, who took a look through the evidence that Bender had gathered. He asked his cold-case detective to revisit the file.
A judge had previously ordered that the evidence from the trial be destroyed after Coley exhausted all of his appeals, but it turned out that it was still being stored at a private lab . Using advanced forensic analysis that hadn't been available in 1978, technicians discovered that a key piece of evidence that had been used to convict Coley didn't actually contain his DNA.
On November 20, 2017, the Simi Valley Police Department and Ventura County District Attorney announced that they believed Coley was innocent and that they would be backing his petition for clemency. "Reviewing the case in light of the new evidence, we no longer have confidence in the weight of the evidence used to convict Mr. Coley," the two agencies wrote in a letter that was sent to the governor's office. "We also believe that the evidence, as we now know it, would not meet the legal standard for a finding of factual innocence."
Brown granted Coley's pardon just two days later, and he was released from prison in time to spend Thanksgiving at Bender's house. After almost four decades behind bars, Coley was home free. But his mother had passed away by then, and he had virtually no family and friends left. He spent seven months at the former detective's San Diego home, slowly reintegrating with the world and starting to rebuild his life again.
"If it weren't for Mike," he told the Simi Valley Acorn, "I would still be in prison."
Police are now investigating who actually killed Rhonda and Donald Wicht, after DNA testing ruled out the possibility that the murder might have been carried out by the Golden State Killer.
While officials all seem to agree that Coley was unjustly convicted of murder, there remains some dispute over whether the officer who arrested him acted maliciously or simply made a mistake. In his pardon, Brown noted that multiple former police officials who testified before the Board of Parole Hearings had "opined that the detective who originally investigated the matter mishandled the investigation or framed Mr. Coley." Livingstone, the current police chief, denied that Coley had been framed, and told the Acorn that there was no evidence of deliberate misconduct.
Coley previously was awarded nearly $2 million in compensation from the state of California. Now 71, he wants to travel and work with veterans charities, Bender said, and the settlement from Simi Valley will allow him to live comfortably for the rest of his life.
"As sad as it's been, it's a decent ending," Bender said. "It's definitely a wonderful gift under horrible circumstances."
This article was written by Antonia Noori Farzan, a reporter for The Washington Post.