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Did man serve 39 years for slayings actually committed by ‘Golden State Killer’ suspect?

Rhonda Wicht, left, and her son, Donald, were killed in Simi Valley, Calif., in 1978. (Simi Valley Police Department)

In the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 1978, Rhonda Wicht, a 24-year-old waitress and cosmetology student, was beaten, raped and strangled with a macramé rope in her apartment in a quiet suburb near Los Angeles. Down the hallway, her 4-year-old son, Donald was smothered and suffocated to death in his bed, according to prosecutors.

Hours after a relative discovered their lifeless bodies, a suspect was arrested in the case: Craig Coley, Wicht’s former boyfriend with whom she had recently broken up. Coley was charged with their killings. After a first trial resulted in a hung jury, Coley was convicted in a second trial of murder in 1980. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Coley remained behind bars for more than 38 years, always adamant that he was innocent. He petitioned for clemency, with no luck. A police detective with the city of Simi Valley begged his agency to reopen the case, noticing possible failures in the investigation. But authorities refused to give it a second look.

That all changed on the eve of Thanksgiving last November, when Gov. Jerry Brown (D) pardoned Coley after police found new DNA evidence that no longer placed him at the crime scene. A Ventura County Superior Court judge erased his conviction. At the age of 70, Coley was released from prison, an innocent man.

After nearly four decades, authorities reopened the investigation into the deaths of Wicht and her son. Now, Simi Valley police are looking into whether their murders might be tied to the man charged in one of the most notorious unsolved serial killings in U.S. history — the “Golden State Killer.”

Authorities announced last week they had arrested 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, charging him with capital murder, after a DNA match allegedly linked him to killings and rapes across California, spanning several years. Officials suggested he could be linked to even more cases, with dozens of victims who were attacked in the 1970s and 1980s.

Simi Valley police want to examine DeAngelo’s genetic profile to find out whether his DNA is consistent with the evidence in the Wicht case, the Associated Press reported.

Deputy Chief Joseph May, of the Simi Valley Police Department, told CBS Los Angeles it is “within the realm of possibility that he could be a suspect in our case.” The time periods for the crimes match up, and so do the general locations. “He is suspected of committing a homicide in Ventura County,” May said. “We’re part of Ventura County.”

Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone told a San Diego NBC affiliate that he noticed similarities between the crimes of the Golden State Killer and the Wichts’ murders.

The suspect who terrorized Californians in the 1970s and 1980s often attacked young single women living alone or with only their children. He used ligatures in his rapes, and at times ransacked the rooms of his victims, Livingstone told NBC 7.

“There was some ransacking in the Wicht case,” Livingstone said. “Not that a lot of murders don’t have some similarities, in terms of violence, but this one is close enough and with the time frame it’s close enough.”

Simi Valley authorities hope to at least be able to include or eliminate DeAngelo as a possible suspect.

“I don’t care how they find out as long as they find out and it’s a true conviction,” Coley, the man wrongfully convicted of the mother and son’s murders, told CBS Los Angeles. “I feel elated for the family, for Rhonda’s family. I believe that at some point in time that they will find who did this and justice will finally be served.”

After more than 40 years, Sacramento police arrested the man they believe to be the so-called Golden State Killer on April 24. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Coley’s journey to his own semblance of justice began in the early 1990s, after a Simi Valley police detective spotted “red flags” in the Wicht case file. The detective, Mike Bender began noticing that certain evidence in the investigation wasn’t analyzed properly, and several solid suspects were never pursued. “It appeared that a real investigation hadn’t occurred,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The detective met Coley at a state prison in 1991 and became convinced of his innocence. But none of Bender’s superiors would let him reopen the case, he told the Union-Tribune. In 1991, they ordered him to stop pursuing the case or else he’d be fired. So Bender quit his job, leaving Simi Valley but pledging to continue working toward cracking the case.

Bender took the 16 boxes from the case with him to his new home in Northern California. Every Saturday, he talked by phone with Coley.

In September 2015, after Bender pleaded with numerous government agencies to look into Coley’s case, Brown requested that the Board of Parole Hearings conduct an investigation.

Livingstone, who was 11 when the killings happened, also took an interest in Coley’s case, he said at a news conference last year. While organizing his agency’s newspaper clippings archive, he learned that biological evidence used to convict Coley could be re-examined using DNA technology that wasn’t available in 1978.

Hearing of Bender’s involvement in Coley’s case, Livingstone reached out to the former detective in October 2016. Livingstone learned that biological evidence in the Wicht case was ordered destroyed by a judge. But he knew that sometimes, such evidence often ends up being simply misfiled. He decided to reopen Coley’s case to find out what happened to the missing evidence.

Some of this key evidence was found in a private lab in Northern California. The lab had inherited the evidence after two other labs went out of business, the Ventura County Star reported. None of that DNA ended up matching Coley.

Simi Valley police and the Ventura County District Attorney’s office chose to support Coley’s petition for clemency, writing they “no longer have confidence in the weight of the evidence used to convict” Coley and that the current evidence met “the legal standard for finding of factual innocence.”

Brown signed the pardon, writing that the detective who originally investigated the case “mishandled the investigation or framed” Coley.

Coley “has been a model inmate for nearly four decades. In prison he has avoided gangs and violence,” Brown wrote. “Instead he has dedicated himself to religion. The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary.”

Coley may be the longest-serving prisoner in California to be granted clemency, Simi Valley police told the Los Angeles Times. In February, the California Victim Compensation Board voted unanimously to award Coley $1.9 million — the highest award ever paid to an exonerated California prisoner, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“It’s not something you can describe other than it’s painful,” Coley said to the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I went four decades not being able to grieve the woman and child I loved.”

Since he was freed, Coley has been living near San Diego with his friend and “savior” — the retired detective, Bender and his wife.

Even if the DNA does not come back as a match with the suspected Golden State Killer, Simi Valley police say it will at least be one potential suspect they can cross off their list.

“We want to solve this case,” Livingstone told NBC 7. “The Golden State case gives us a lot of hope that even after many years, there’s always the chance. It still shows you that you can solve cases even though it has been that many years.”

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