O'Rourke offered to watch Fawcette's daughter while Fawcette called her brother to see if she could stay at his apartment. At 8 p.m. that night, John Drenk returned with his two brothers and his son, Joshua, to help Fawcette move her belongings. While Drenk was packing clothes upstairs, he heard Fawcette yell from the garage. He ran downstairs and saw Cargill standing there with his hands on the wall near the garage door. Drenk and his brothers told Cargill to leave, and they began arguing. Cargill said he had "some stuff, some old clothes" that he wanted to take with him.

According to Drenk, Cargill grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a set of car keys and walked off. A few minutes later, Huntington Beach police officer Sam Lopez pulled up on Elm Street, responding to a 911 call by O'Rourke. He ordered Cargill to stop and, after speaking with Drenk and his relatives, suspected that the BMW they said Cargill was driving had been stolen. Lopez called in the vehicle's description, but it was Joshua Drenk who first discovered the car parked around the corner in a Howard Johnson's parking lot.

Another cop who responded to Lopez's call searched the BMW and, in a driver's-side-door compartment, found a pink small-claims-court summons with Cargill's name. Police promptly arrested him for stealing the car. Besides the slip of paper, they found no physical evidence tying him to the car: no fingerprints and no car keys.

Paul J. Coppola
Paul J. Coppola

Lopez and another officer checked the route between the apartment and the car without luck. The next day, Detective Robert Westlake examined Cargill's property at the police station and the tow yard where the car had been taken; he did not find any keys. He and his partner returned to the apartment complex and checked the area, but again, they found no keys or other evidence linking Cargill to the car.

Four months later, after a two-day trial during which his defense attorney called no witnesses and presented no alternative theory about the car theft except that Fawcette's family "set him up," a jury convicted Cargill of stealing the BMW. Cargill had taken a big risk, insisting he was innocent and rejecting a plea deal that would have allowed him to serve just four years behind bars.

After being convicted, while incarcerated at the Orange County Jail, Cargill was arrested again, this time for heroin possession. Once again, he insisted he was innocent, claiming that another inmate had confessed to him that he surreptitiously dropped the drugs into his pocket while standing in the chow line. The heroin case (he was found guilty in March 1996) delayed sentencing in Cargill's auto-theft case, but finally, on May 6, 1997, some three years after being busted for stealing the BMW, Cargill became the first Californian to be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison under the state's brand-new Three Strikes law. In legal forms he wrote from prison, Cargill appealed the car-theft verdict and lost.

One day, after 11 years behind bars, a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of Paul J. Coppola, a self-described alcoholic and drug addict who'd been sent to prison for a few too many DUI arrests. In late 2005—the exact date is unknown—Cargill was hanging out in the outdoor recreational area at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga when an inmate introduced him to Coppola, another convict from Huntington Beach.

A brief conversation ensued, during which time Cargill and Coppola recognized each other as drinking buddies in the months leading up to Cargill's arrest. The exact dialogue that allegedly took place is lost to history and poor recollection for detail (on Coppola's behalf at least), but it ended with a spectacular punch line: Coppola, upon learning that Cargill had been busted for stealing a BMW in May 1994, confessed that he had stolen the car in question.

Coppola also told Cargill he'd be more than happy to sign a declaration and, if necessary, testify in court that he, not Cargill, was the thief. On June 5, this promise brought him to Westminster and the courtroom of Thomas Goethals.

*   *   *

After several minutes of procedural discussion about the case, Cargill's defense attorney, James Crawford, calls Coppola to the stand. He calmly strides forward, takes his oath and sits down, facing Crawford. For the next hour, he tells the story of how he stole the BMW and inadvertently caused Cargill to fall under suspicion for his crime.

It all started at Club 5902, a nightspot in Huntington Beach. Coppola had just moved to the city from Mammoth, and he was trying to get a fresh start in life after checking out of an alcohol-rehab program. According to Coppola's own testimony, he wasn't off to much of a start: He estimates that he went to the club several nights a week to drink at the bar. In February 1994, he met Cargill at the bar for the first time.

"We were in the club together having drinks," Coppola testifies. At the time, Cargill had a suspended license and no car. "He asked if I could give him a ride home," Coppola recalls. "I did. After a while, we exchanged phone numbers."

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