How I Became an Informant for the Newport Beach PD

Photo courtesy of Diane HolmeslyCops like to say that, in prison, everybody's innocent. It's a joke, of course, because most people believe the opposite—that once someone is convicted of a crime, guilt is certain. The cause of justice has been served.

I don't believe that anymore. Two years ago, I began covering cases in which innocent people were convicted of crimes they didn't commit. Bad police work, faulty legal defenses and overzealous prosecutors all conspired to put these people behind bars.

First, there was Dwayne McKinney, who spent 20 years in prison for a Buena Park murder. After then-Orange County Register reporter Stuart Pfeifer began covering the case, the prosecutor who helped put McKinney away, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, finally acknowledged police had the wrong man. He ordered McKinney released in 2000.

Then there was Arthur Carmona, the 17-year-old Costa Mesa resident sentenced to 12 years in prison for two 1998 robberies. After LA Times columnist Dana Parsons reported that police misled eyewitnesses about Carmona's connection to the crimes, Rackauckas abandoned the charges against Carmona in August 2000. But by then, Arthur had spent two years at Ironwood State Prison.

That same year, my colleague R. Scott Moxley covered the case of Shantae Molina, a Laguna Niguel woman prosecutors insisted had murdered her child. Despite an appalling lack of evidence—and, indeed, evidence of official wrongdoing—the case went to trial. There, jurors broke with the DA to find Molina innocent. She is free, but had the jury gone against her, she might have been sentenced to death.

Joshua "Big J-Mo" Moore was convicted in late 1999 for the robbery a year earlier of a Fullerton video store. At first, he seemed to fit the broad profile of the Fullerton bandit—a white man working with a black man. An eyewitness even tagged Moore as the gunman in the video-store robbery. The only problem: when the Fullerton robbery occurred, Moore was 45 minutes away, working at a Huntington Beach golf store.

After I wrote five articles detailing Moore's case last year, the Orange County DA's office finally examined work receipts from the golf store. One was stamped exactly at the time of the robbery; included Moore's employee ID number, indicating that he was the clerk who rang up the transaction; and, when tested, revealed one of Moore's fingerprints. Moore had spent two years at Wasco State Prison when a judge ordered him released on July 6, 2001.

Earlier this week, George Arnulfo Lopez became a free man. He had been arrested on May 21, 1999, and charged with the robbery of an Anaheim commercial lender four days earlier. Lopez was an odd choice: victims described the bandit as a dark-skinned Latino weighing 190 pounds; Lopez is light-skinned and slightly built. Nevertheless, he ended up in prison for two years, largely because of reckless prosecutors leveraging uncertain eyewitness testimony. I investigated the eyewitness. He candidly acknowledged he hadn't gotten a good look at the gunman. "When somebody has a shotgun pointed at you, he wants the money," the witness told me. "When he asks you to stay on the floor, and you know he's pointing a shotgun at you, you aren't thinking, 'How tall is he?' or, 'How can I recognize him later on?'" Then Pfeifer, now at the Times, struck again, landing a jailhouse interview with a man claiming he, not Lopez, was the robber. When a judge ordered Lopez released on Sept. 7, all that remained was for the DA to drop the charges. On Jan. 8, he announced he would.

From these cases and others—the kid who asked a judge to protect him by locking him up in the county youth authority and then couldn't get out, the guy whom police lost in prison—I knew one thing: no matter how guilty someone seems, no matter how apparently outlandish their claims of innocence, they might be telling the truth. In prison, I learned, everybody's not innocent, but everybody's not guilty either.

When you write stories that help get people out of jail—not over the fence or down a rope of knotted bedsheets, but through the front door of the local penal institution—your name gets around. Your voice mail fills daily with digitized tales of anguish and rage at injustice. Your e-mail inbox reads like a conspiracy nut's website. The letter carrier drops off fat envelopes containing legal briefs and notes handwritten by men with bottomless bitterness and time.

About the time I wrapped up the story of Big J-Mo, I got a three-minute voice-mail message from Diane Holmesly. Her 37-year-old son, Randy Cole, was about to be sentenced at the Orange County Superior Courthouse in Santa Ana for selling drugs. A jury had convicted him of possession of methamphetamine with the intent to sell.

None of that was as interesting as Holmesly's strange explanation for the arrest and all-but-inevitable conviction. That explanation involved Newport Beach police and the fight for Cole's son—a seven-year-old who, coincidentally, is the grandchild of a Newport Beach fire official.

Holmesly's story began with Cole and his ex-girlfriend, Kimberly Knapp. They never married, but they had a son, around whom they circled in drug-fueled battle. Theirs was a match made in hell, and when their fighting intensified, Knapp's mother and stepfather, Newport Beach Fire Chief Craig Chastain, stepped in to rescue their grandson. A court awarded them twice—with custody of the boy and a restraining order against his parents.

Next Page »