By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
A big part of the original case against Cargill was courtroom testimony by John and Joshua Drenk alleging that Cargill borrowed tools to bust open a lock box a few weeks before his arrest. But as Cargill has already argued in pro se declarations leading up to this hearing, employees of the car dealership apparently never mentioned the lock box being missing—just the keys. In fact, transcripts of Cargill's original trial show that those employees testified that they originally thought the car's owner had simply kept his keys with him when he dropped the car off for service and later had come back and retrieved the vehicle.
They didn't realize the car had been stolen until they called the owner and he insisted he'd left it there with the keys. Coppola's testimony that the lock box was unlocked and that he left it under a nearby vehicle would not only solve that mystery, but also indicate that the Drenks' testimony against Cargill was untrue, just as Cargill had always said it was.
After Coppola finishes talking, DA Molfetta begins to cross-examine him. First, she questions why Coppola would feel comfortable enough to give rides to Cargill but not give his real name. "I didn't know him that well," Coppola replies. "I wasn't going to give him my real name." Coppola insists that he told Cargill his name was Paul West because that was the surname of his brother by a different mother, who owned a business where he briefly worked, and he had that name printed on his work uniform as a joke.
Then Molfetta asks Coppola to explain how he expected anybody to believe he stole the BMW when he had never stolen a car in his life, despite a long criminal record for driving drunk and passing bad checks. "I don't know," he responds, defensively. "A key fell out. It was my lucky day. I wanted to look cool in a nice car."
Molfetta continues to prod Coppola with questions. While Coppola has an amazing ability to recall the details of his theft of the BMW, he repeatedly fails to remember other events she asks him to describe. Suddenly, Coppola seems to crack under the pressure. "You know, all this is, lady?" he seethes. "I stole this car, and if you want to make something of it . . ."
Molfetta raises her eyebrows as the two deputies in the courtroom begin marching toward Coppola, who remains seated. Goethals waves them off, but they stand ready to arrest him. "That's not the way this works," Goethals tells Coppola, instructing him not to address anybody unless answering a question. He instructs Molfetta to continue her interrogation, but she's finished.
And then something happens that nobody, least of all Cargill or Coppola, could have possibly expected: Goethals begins his own, grueling examination of Coppola, something that is very rare and perhaps motivated by the brevity of Molfetta's cross-examination. Generally, judges sit back and let the lawyers do the fact-finding, but Coppola's incredible tale has stirred Goethals' curiosity. Among other things, he repeatedly asks Coppola to recite his own criminal record as well as what drugs he was taking at various times in his life.
"I don't usually ask questions, but this is a really unusual case." Goethals explains.
* * *
Coppola states that he was doing coke from 1985 to 1997, heroin from 1993 to 2002, and drinking from 1985 to 2002. "I'm in a program right now," he adds. "I'm working on all my addictions." He also admits that he was snorting coke and drinking on the day he stole the car.
"What were you drinking?" Goethals asks.
"A little bit of everything," Coppola responds. "I have three DUIs. I was doing coke and had started using heroin."
"You're changing your story," Goethals says. "First drugs, then just alcohol, and now drugs."
Things don't get much better for Coppola—or Cargill, for that matter—from there. After an increasingly disdainful barrage of questions, Goethals dismisses Coppola from the room and begins to spell out his reaction to the testimony. "Coppola . . . is a problem," he says. "Any person with a brain . . . Why should I believe him?"
Crawford struggles to sway the judge. "Because the story makes sense," he says. "Like what happened to the key. When you look at the trial testimony, there are gaps. The mystery of the lock box. It also explains how the BMW got to that location that night."
Crawford waves in the air the letter by another witness, who claims he lent Cargill his Mercedes-Benz, which witnesses may have confused for the BMW they testified Cargill was driving in the weeks leading up to his arrest. He reminds Goethals that neighbor O'Rourke testified that Cargill had been driving the supposed BMW for roughly "two months," which would be impossible given that the car had only been stolen two weeks before he was arrested. "Mr. Cargill is spending 25 years to life for this verdict. I think this verdict should be right. All he is asking for is the chance to put it before another jury."
Molfetta shakes her head. "There is no confusion between a BMW and a Mercedes-Benz," she says. "The defendant has a history of stealing expensive cars from Huntington Beach dealerships. And Coppola has never done this before. But on this one day, Coppola steals the car. And lo and behold, it ends up in [Cargill's] back yard!"