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Gov. Jerry Brown approves $1.95-million payment to man wrongly imprisoned for Simi Valley murders

Gov. Jerry Brown approves $1.95-million payment to man wrongly imprisoned for Simi Valley murders
Craig Coley, left, spent 39 years behind bars. He calls retired detective Michael Bender, who helped free him, his savior. (Bill Wechter / San Diego Union-T / CNG)

During the 13,991 days he was incarcerated, Craig Coley denied any involvement in the brutal murders of his ex-girlfriend and her young son in 1978.

On the eve of Thanksgiving last year, Gov. Jerry Brown exonerated the 70-year-old man, declaring that Coley "did not commit these crimes," and ordered his immediate release.

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Now, Brown has signed off on a second move to correct the injustice. The governor on Thursday approved a $1.95-million payment for Coley — $140 for each day he was wrongfully behind bars — that marks the largest payout by the state's Victim Compensation Board for an erroneous conviction.

Brown did not comment Thursday in approving the settlement, but in his pardon of Coley in November, the governor said investigations ordered by his office, police and prosecutors cleared the man in the killings.

"The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary," Brown wrote. Soon after the pardon, a judge found Coley factually innocent.

Coley was arrested in November 1978 after Rhonda Wicht, 24, was found beaten, raped and strangled, and her 4-year-old son, Donald, was smothered in his bed.

Coley, a Vietnam War veteran with no previous criminal record, was convicted by a jury and sent to prison after Wicht's former boyfriend and a neighbor reported seeing a truck belonging to Coley drive away from the scene around the time of the slayings.

Craig Coley is shown when he was booked on suspicion of murder, left, and recently.
Craig Coley is shown when he was booked on suspicion of murder, left, and recently. (Simi Valley Police Department)

Coley maintained his innocence, but his conviction was affirmed on appeal. After Coley filed a petition for clemency and with the help of a retired Simi Valley detective named Mike Bender, the governor ordered an investigation by the state Board of Parole Hearings.

The Simi Valley Police Department and the Ventura County district attorney supported the clemency claim after their own follow-up probe found "significant exculpatory evidence," including new DNA testing of Wicht's bedsheets that identified DNA from another man, according to a report by legislative analysts. No DNA belonging to Coley was found at the crime scene, the report said.

Since then, Simi Valley detectives have been searching for the true killer. After hearing last month that Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was arrested on suspicion of carrying out 12 slayings as the Golden State Killer, they decided to look for a possible link to the Wicht murders.

A comparison is in the works to see whether DNA from the double homicide matches that of DeAngelo, though the process can take weeks or months depending on the crime lab's workload. As of this week, the results had not come back.

"Once we do a side-by-side comparison, we'll be able to tell fairly quickly whether or not he's involved," Simi Valley Deputy Police Chief Joseph May said recently regarding DeAngelo.

Brown said in his pardon of Coley that the investigation into the Wicht slayings should be pursued.

"It is my hope that any and all individuals responsible for the murder of Rhonda and Donald Wicht are brought to justice," the governor said.

In February, after the Victim Compensation Board voted that he should receive the payment, Coley said he looked forward to traveling and seeing friends who he hadn't seen for many years.

"I don't have that many years left," he told The Times. "There's a lot of things that I want to do."

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Coley could not be reached for comment Thursday. A friend said he was traveling in New York.

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