Is California's Original Three-Striker Innocent of the Car Theft That Sent Him Away for Life?

Dude, I Stole That Car!
Is California's original three-striker innocent of the car theft that sent him away for life? One man says yes–and confesses to the crime himself

The man in the mustard-yellow jump suit stands patiently behind the black wire cage. Handcuffs attached to each wrist are chained to his waist. Another chain binds his ankles. When a deputy unlocks the cage and leads him to a nearby chair, he's forced to take tiny steps; he seems apologetic for the inconvenience to his escort. When he sits down, the guard unlocks the prisoner's left handcuff from the chain around his waist and fastens the other end of the cuff to an armrest.

Thomas George Cargill, a graying but thick-haired 49-year-old man of average height and build, nods gratefully. Despite the restraints that provide a glaring reminder of the past decade and a half he's spent behind bars, he's in a good mood. After being convicted of a crime and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison as the first California resident to be convicted under the state's so-called Three Strikes mandatory sentencing law, Cargill has finally won a court hearing, in which he can tell a judge he's innocent.

Paul J. Coppola
Paul J. Coppola

He's been behind bars since May 29, 1994, when police arrested him for stealing a BMW convertible from a Huntington Beach car dealership. Cargill has always maintained his innocence, insisting that his then-girlfriend and her family set him up. Now, he has a letter from a man claiming he lent Cargill a Mercedes-Benz that witnesses who testified against Cargill may have mistaken for the stolen BMW. Even more important, he has a witness who is waiting on a bench outside the courtroom. And that witness is about to testify that he, not Cargill, stole that BMW.

The Orange County district attorney's office has done everything it can to prevent Cargill from getting his wish. Elizabeth Molfetta, a veteran attorney who has handled countless such writs of habeas corpus, has already filed detailed legal paperwork opposing the request. Although nobody says it, everybody in the courtroom knows that whether Cargill wins a new trial or goes straight back to state prison rests almost entirely on the credibility of the tanned man with thinning hair and brawny forearms who is outside waiting.

A few minutes before 2 p.m. on June 5, Judge Thomas M. Goethals strolls into the courtroom.

"I've read the entire case file," Goethals says. "Frankly, now that I have some idea what the case is about, I've read some portions more carefully than others. The nature of this proceeding is a little unclear to me . . . [but] where I think we are going in this hearing is . . . Cargill is claiming we should have a new trial based on new evidence."

If Goethals believes that the man on the bench, not Cargill, stole the car, then the first Californian to be sentenced to life in prison thanks to Three Strikes could become a free man. Over the next three hours, Cargill's future—a life behind bars or the hope of a new trial—will hang in the balance.

*   *   *

Back in the 1980s, Thomas Cargill had a bad habit. If he saw a car he liked, he took it. He favored high-end European luxury models that were so brand-new they were actually still sitting in a car dealership's parking lot. Problem was, Cargill wasn't too good at stealing them.

Between 1983 and 1992, Cargill went to prison four times, twice for auto theft and once each for burglary and receiving stolen property. The first time police arrested him for stealing a car was in 1983, when Huntington Beach cops pulled him over while he was driving a Porsche that a month earlier had been liberated from a local dealership. He'd already made a second set of keys for the car. Cargill was convicted of stealing the vehicle and sent to prison.

Two years later, he stole a Volkswagen from another Huntington Beach dealership, and later that year, a Porsche from a dealership in Newport Beach. Cargill pleaded guilty and went back to prison, but in 1992, he got caught again. Twice that year, cops caught him driving stolen cars: a BMW and a Volkswagen Cabriolet. Again, he pleaded guilty and received a three-year prison term. But on Dec. 29, 1993, Cargill got lucky, and after serving roughly half his sentence, he was released on parole.

By all accounts, just five months later, on May 29, 1994, Cargill got into a heated argument with his girlfriend, Holly Fawcette, at the Huntington Beach apartment she shared with her 2-year-old daughter and her nephew, Joshua Drenk. That night, Drenk wasn't home but at his other aunt's nearby apartment, hanging out with his father, John Drenk, and two uncles. According to Amber O'Rourke, a neighbor who later spoke with police, Cargill and a bathrobe-clad Fawcette walked out of the apartment, yelling at each other. After a few minutes, Cargill went into the garage and pulled out in what O'Rourke says was a BMW convertible Cargill had been driving for the past month or so. In the process, he scraped the side of the garage and tore off a yellow side reflector before he sped down Elm Street toward nearby Beach Boulevard.

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