By Debbie Gregory.
Navy veteran Craig Coley was wrongfully convicted of a double murder on Veterans Day in 1978. The son of a Los Angeles police officer, Coley, now 70-years-old, has been exonerated and released from prison, and will continue to serve his fellow veterans.
Coley, who created a veterans organization while incarcerated, said that’s what veterans do: they help each other.
CA Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Coley after DNA evidence proved that Coley was innocent of the slaying of his ex-girlfriend Rhonda Wicht, 24, and her son, Donald Wicht, 4.
Coley, the son of a Los Angeles Police Department officer, had maintained his innocence since his arrest. It was his first brush with the law in his life. Coley had served several deployments to Vietnam aboard the USS Enterprise, and had also served on the USS Bainbridge and the USS Bon Homme Richard.
During his incarceration, Coley volunteered, served as an officer with the Veterans Affairs organization in the prison, and belonged to Veterans Embracing Troops, raising money for Blue Star/Gold Star Mothers to send care packages to fellow veterans.
He is a participant and mentor for the bible study group with the college program; he earned his Associates degree in Theology, his certificate as a Biblical Counselor, and in 2017 received his Bachelors of Arts in Biblical Studies while starting on his Master’s degree.
In 1989, Detective Mike Bender came across Coley’s case and immediately saw red flags.
“His whole case was a series of mistakes,” said Bender, a now-retired Simi Valley police detective who worked for almost 30 years to right the wrong.
Bender has taken Coley under his wing to help him navigate a very changed world from the one Coley left behind. Bender has created a GoFundMe page for Coley that has raised over $20,000.
Coley is also receiving assistance from Army Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta, the president of a nonprofit organization called Thank-A-Vet. Acosta, who was wounded in a 2006 mortar attack on an Iraqi base, lost his eyesight and suffered a traumatic brain injury, visited the prison to share his story and speak about service dogs. He has been helping Coley navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs. Acosta’s advocacy has inspired Coley to serve his fellow veterans.
“Nobody understands a veteran like another veteran,” Coley said.