Because Coppola didn't know Cargill too well, he didn't feel comfortable giving him his real name. He told Cargill his name was Paul West. A few days later, Coppola gave Cargill another ride. Cargill, who always seemed to have cash on hand, would buy him drinks and offer to pay for gas. "I was trying to do something around Huntington Beach to make money," he says. "He would call me when he was at his girlfriend's house. . . . Two or three times a week, I saw him."

After a few weeks, Cargill even gave Coppola a pager, which would ring whenever Cargill needed a ride. On May 13, 1994, Coppola says, he was hanging out at Jack's Sugar Shack on Huntington Beach's Main Street with an acquaintance named Smiley; Coppola is not sure about his last name. "Ochoa, maybe," Coppola says. "I asked him if he could get me some weed, and he said he could hook me up if we drive to Santa Ana."

The pair drove north along Beach Boulevard, and as they reached Heil Avenue, Coppola says, he noticed some movement inside a parking lot at Huntington Beach Dodge. "I see a man come up to a car, a BMW, blue, it was a convertible . . . a 318i," he says. "He was putting a key in a lock box on the window. But as he done it, he walked away, and it fell back open."

Paul J. Coppola
Paul J. Coppola

Coppola told Smiley to pull a U-turn. "I got out, went over to it, opened [the lock box] and took it [the key]," he says. "I got back in the car and went to Santa Ana and picked up some weed." Figuring that he'd return to the dealership on the weekend, when it would be less busy, he waited a few days. At 2 or 3 a.m. on the morning of May 16, he says he returned to actually steal the car. He says he got a ride to the dealership from a "lady" he met at a bar.

"I asked if she could give me a ride to get dropped off around the corner," he says. "I walked over to the car, I got the key, took the lock box out, shoved it under the car behind us, took off, drove around the corner and took off some stickers."

"Was Thomas Cargill with you when this happened?" Crawford asks. "Was he aware you stole this vehicle?"

"No, Thomas Cargill had no idea this happened," Coppola responds emphatically. "He had no idea it was stolen." Coppola adds that Cargill never even set foot in the car, but saw it once or twice. "I said I borrowed it from my brother," Coppola adds. "He never got in the car."

On May 29, 1994, the night Cargill was arrested for stealing the BMW, Coppola says that Cargill paged him and asked him to pick him up at his girlfriend's apartment. "He asked if I would come over and pick up some bags," Coppola says. When he arrived at the apartment complex, he saw the pair arguing outside. "He put the bags in the back of my car. They kept yelling and going at it. I felt uncomfortable. I had a stolen car."

Without warning, Coppola says, he sped away with Cargill's bags in the back seat of the convertible. The wind began to blow some of Cargill's paperwork around, so Coppola pulled into the nearby Howard Johnson's parking lot and put the roof down. He then glanced over the fence and could see Cargill standing in front of the garage arguing with several men. "I thought they were going to beat him up," he says. "I thought I'd go back and pick him up."

But by the time Coppola drove back to the apartment, he saw Cargill being followed down the street by the same men. As he watched, a police car arrived. So Coppola drove back to the Howard Johnson's and put all of Cargill's belongings in the trunk. He then walked back toward the apartment. "I saw they had him handcuffed," he says. "I thought, I'm not going over there and get involved."

As he walked back to the car, he saw a police cruiser pull into the Howard Johnson's parking lot. He kept walking. "I decided to make a phone call to get a ride," he says. He never saw Cargill again at the bar and figured maybe he'd been arrested for something, but Coppola never expected it would be for stealing the BMW.

"I stole the BMW," Coppola says, concluding his testimony. "Mr. Cargill had nothing to do with it. I couldn't even care, but I feel bad all these years. . . . I want to do the right thing."

*   *   *

As Coppola winds up his story, he's clearly gotten the attention of Judge Goethals. He has just provided an incredibly detailed story that completely exonerates Cargill. His testimony also fills in certain gaps in the case—including why police were never able to find any keys in Cargill's possession. One inconsistency: Coppola says he put Cargill's bags in the trunk of the BMW; police didn't find them in the car at all.

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