On the morning of Nov. 11, 1978, a family member stopped in to check on Simi Valley single mother Rhonda Wicht and her 4-year-old son Donald.
The two had not shown up for a family gathering in a quiet eastern suburb of Los Angeles located in Ventura County.
The relative discovered a horrifying scene: 24-year-old Wicht was beaten, raped and strangled with a macrame rope. Her 4-year-old son had been smothered in his sleep.
Rhonda’s boyfriend Craig Coley, wrongly convicted for the crimes, never saw another free day until this past Thanksgiving, nearly 40 years later, when he was released after DNA evidence cleared him of the brutal double homicide.
Back in 1978, the crime shook the quiet bedroom community nestled west of San Fernando Valley. The town had never seen a violent crime so barbaric, and it demanded swift justice.
Attention quickly turned to Rhonda's estranged boyfriend Coley, who was at the time a 31-year-old restaurant manager. Wicht and Coley had dated for two years, but the relationship was dwindling to an end.
Coley was immediately held for questioning the same day.
In the Fall of 2016, Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone was reviewing old newspaper clippings about the Wicht murders and something caught his eye. He reached out to retired detective Mike Bender, a Carlsbad resident, who Livingstone remembered had always expressed doubt about Coley's guilt. Bender has worked for 29 years to find the real killer or killers in the Wicht case and bring them to justice.
Livingstone, Bender and Detective Dan Swanson began reinvestigating the case. Recently, DNA evidence at the crime scene unequivocally cleared Coley as the killer.
In a letter pardoning Coley, Governor Jerry Brown wrote:
“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.”
Every single time, 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 an exclusive interview with NBC 7 in November.
It’s that same DNA evidence that detectives now hope may answer the 40-year mystery and bring justice to Wichts’ family. And maybe give Coley an answer, however partial and unsatisfactory it will likely be, as to why he lost 40 years of freedom.
Wednesday, while news broke the infamous Golden State Killer had been arrested in Sacramento, Simi Valley police detectives quickly got to work requesting the DNA profile of 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo Junior.
“We want to solve this case,” said Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone. “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. “
Livingstone noted the similarities between the crimes of the East Area Rapist or Golden State Killer and the Wichts’ murders.
The Golden State Killer often attacked young single women alone in their homes or with children alone. He used specific types of ligatures during his rapes as a type of sexual gratification, and in the later crimes in Southern California, he bludgeoned his victims. He also notably ransacked the rooms of his victims, Livingstone said.
“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 timeframe it’s close enough to where we want to take a look at it and see if we can include or eliminate [DeAngelo] as a possible suspect in that case."
Livingstone said if the DNA does not come back a match to DeAngelo they've eliminated one suspect and are that much closer to solving their case.
"Even if the DNA is not a match, the Golden State Killer case is one that gives us hope that if we keep working it, we will one day solve our case," he said.
If DNA links Deangelo to the Wicht murders, it will add new cases previously unlinked to the man police say committed 45 suspected rapes and 12 suspected murders in a sadistic crime spree starting in the summer of 1976.
And Rhonda and Donald will not be the only new names on the Golden State Killer victims’ list.
Craig Coley, then a 31-year-old restaurant manager, was arrested on suspicion of their murders on Veteran’s Day 1978 after serving his country honorably in the U.S. Navy. His service included several deployments to Vietnam aboard USS Enterprise and USS Bainbridge.
During his 38 years of wrongful incarceration, he was a model inmate, according to Gov. Brown, dedicating his time not to feeling sorry for himself, but volunteering as an officer with Veteran Affairs, mentoring for a bible study group and earning his Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies before starting on a master's degree.
Looking back, he says his biggest regret is being behind bars when his mother and father, a retired Los Angeles police officer, passed away.
Coley said he doesn’t recall his path ever crossing with DeAngelo who also served in the Navy and deployed to Vietnam aboard the USS Canberra. DeAngelo spent time docked in San Diego in early 1970's after his deployment to Vietnam, and was a police officer for Auburn in Northern California until 1979. He was fired for shoplifting a can of dog repellent and a hammer.
During Coley's nearly four decades behind bars, he always maintained his innocence.
“I told them, 'Do what you want with me, but keep looking for the killer because you’ve got the wrong man,'” Coley said. “You’ve got the wrong man.”
Speaking exclusively with NBC 7 on Thanksgiving Day in 2017, the first day he woke up a free man in 38 years, he described finding religion, and thus peace, in prison. He said forgiveness to the people who wrongly put him behind bars was something he counted as his personal blessing.
But to the person who committed the horrific murder of his then-girlfriend and her innocent son, he said forgiveness was something he was 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.”
He said he never stopped thinking about Rhonda and her son, praying that Bender and Livingstone find her real killer and that when they do, it doesn't open up too many painful, dark memories for her family.