cold case

Exonerated Carlsbad Man Offers $50,000 Reward to Catch Real Killer in 1978 Murders

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For nearly four decades, Craig Coley sat inside a cell inside Folsom State Prison convicted of a heinous crime he did not commit. 

“I never lost hope,” Coley said. “I was always wishful and hopeful. I knew someday I would get out. I just didn't know it would be that long.”

It took 38 years and 10 months to be exact. He was exonerated and freed from prison in 2017.

Craig Coley, a man convicted of a heinous 1978 double-murder, was freed thanks to new DNA evidence. Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him and, today, Coley is free. On Thanksgiving, he had some unfinished business to tend to -- tracking down the detective who helped free him. NBC 7's Wendy Fry reports.

Since his release, Coley has created a quiet life for himself in Carlsbad. It includes his dog Sabrina, his fiance, and his best friend Mike Bender. Bender is a former police detective who dedicated nearly three decades of his life trying to get Coley’s conviction overturned. 

"Nobody was fighting for him,” said Bender, former Simi Valley Police Detective. “If I walked away, he would've died in prison for sure, guaranteed.”

But there’s still one thing keeping Coley from moving on.

“I don't feel whole because it's not resolved," he said

The deaths of Coley’s ex-girlfriend, 24-year-old Rhonda Wicht, and her 4-year-old son Donnie remain unsolved. 

“Their family deserves relief for this,” said Coley.

To help Wicht’s family find that relief, Coley announced he is offering a $50,000 reward for any evidence that leads to the conviction of the killer or killers who raped and strangled Wicht and smothered her son on Nov. 11, 1978.

“The biggest thing that I am concerned about is for them to find who did this,” said Coley. 

The money comes in part from a financial settlement Coley received from the California Victims Compensation Board and a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Simi Valley. 

When asked how they would feel to finally see the real killer behind bars, both Coley and Bender shared similar sentiments. 

“I want to know the truth,” said Bender. “I would like a real confession. I think everybody needs that closure to find out what really happened to them.”

After nearly 43 years since the murders, the two best friends are ready to close the chapter and leave it all behind them.

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