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.
Cole and Knapp went their separate ways, but they continued to fight the Chastains for control of their son; once a hairstylist, Knapp says she funded her legal effort by becoming an exotic dancer and launching a website, www.kaliforniakittens.com.
Holmesly says the Chastains fought back with the most powerful tool at their disposal: their official contacts in law enforcement. (The Chastains refused to comment for this story.) Putting Cole in prison on drug charges, Holmesly claimed, was part of the Chastains' plan to keep their grandson away from Randy and Kim.
To bolster her claim, Holmesly pointed out that Cole had been arrested at a motel in Orange—by a Newport Beach narcotics detective. And not just any Newport cop, but Detective Tom Weizoerick, the very same man who had repeatedly busted Cole. Each time, Holmesly asserted, Weizoerick was acting on the tip of a confidential informant who just happened to know Cole's location. That informant, Holmesly assured me, was Chief Chastain.
During her son's May 2001 trial, Holmesly said, the DA had offered him a plea bargain: just 16 months in jail if he would cop to the crime of selling speed. Cole refused, insisting he was innocent of all charges. Tactically, that proved a mistake. After a two-day trial, a jury found Cole guilty.
By the time Holmesly called me, I had just a week before Cole's Aug. 7, 2001, sentencing hearing. He faced a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. Holmesly begged me to work fast to clear his name.
Illustration by Mark Dancey
"Please help us," she begged. "We're good people."
Police records showed Randy Cole had been busted several times for possession of speed, but not once for selling or possessing drugs with intent to sell. At one point, Cole had apparently cleaned up his act. On Nov. 25, 1997, he successfully completed a county drug-treatment program.
When I talked to Cole on the telephone from his holding cell in the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana, he told me he used to work as a high-altitude construction worker, a job that attracts type-A personalities like his. He admitted that he became addicted to speed but said he had kicked his habit after his son was born. But in April 1998, he said, he got hurt. While working on Knott's Berry Farm's Ghostrider attraction, Cole says, he was struck by a falling 18-foot plank. He was lucky to survive, but the injury led him to painkillers and, from there, back to speed. That led to yet more trouble with the law. Police reports show that Weizoerick arrested Cole at least twice—once in Orange and once in Fullerton—after his workplace injury. Once again, Cole tried to get clean: on June 29, 1998, he completed yet another county drug-treatment program.
Like Holmesly, Cole told me that Weizoerick kept arresting him because Chastain, the Newport Beach fire chief, was trying to win custody of his son.
Cole's run-ins with Weizoerick peaked in October 2000, when Cole's lawsuit against Knott's Berry Farm reached the critical courtroom phase. Cole thought he was about to cash in big-time: he had videotape that showed the falling debris landing on his back while he was working. All he had to do, he figured, was show up in the Orange courthouse, roll the videotape for a judge, and collect his money. So Cole pitched camp at the nearby Residence Inn Hotel in Orange.
"I wanted to isolate myself from bad influences," he told me.
Police records show his new girlfriend, Tina Carpinella, stayed with him at the hotel in Room 1321. There, Cole admits, they "partied on speed" with several of their friends. He says the drugs were Carpinella's, but that's not what Carpinella told police.
On Oct. 11, Cole says, tired of the relentless partying, he reserved another room, 1313. He says he spent the night in 1313 alone, preparing for his courtroom appearance the next day. Late on the morning of Oct. 12, he walked over to 1321 to pick up some clothes.
Cole admits he shot speed earlier in the morning and was just coming off his high. He never made it to court. As he rolled out of the motel parking lot, a man in a police uniform blocked his car. Cole recognized him instantly: Detective Tom Weizoerick of the Newport Beach Police Department.
"I said, 'What the fuck are you following me for?'" Cole recalled.
Weizoerick's report says, "Cole seemed very agitated and nervous. He was sweating, and his hands were shaking. His pupils appeared dilated well above normal, and he was speaking rapidly. Cole had a white film on his tongue and outer lips. I told Cole that I was conducting a narcotics investigation and that I had received information that he was possibly dealing drugs. Cole said he was not, and he wanted to know 'what asshole said that?'"
In his report, Weizoerick claimed he received Cole's "verbal consent" to search his motel room for drugs and that he took a motel-room key from Cole's wallet. But the key didn't fit the door to the room Weizoerick wanted to search—1321, the room of endless partying. It did fit Room 1313, which Cole had rented the night before.
Weizoerick approached a motel employee and told him he needed to get into Cole's room. Jeff Hirsch, the motel manager named in Weizoerick's report, gave him the key to Room 1321, and, after knocking, Weizoerick opened the door.
Inside, Carpinella had just finished taking a shower. Inside her backpack, Weizoerick found four baggies of speed, a plastic balance scale, and a glass pipe containing marijuana. Carpinella reportedly told Weizoerick she was recently charged with drug sales in Huntington Beach but claimed the drugs in her backpack weren't hers. According to the police report, Carpinella told Weizoerick that she placed the drugs "in the pack just prior to us entering the room. She stated that Cole left it laying on a countertop, and she did not want to leave it out. . . I [Weizoerick] again asked Carpinella who the drugs belonged to, and she said they were Cole's."
My investigation into Randy Cole's arrest—already weird—was about to get weirder. After reading through the police report, I called Hirsch, the hotel manager who had let Weizoerick into Cole's room without a search warrant. Holmesly had faxed me an official-looking hotel memo written by Hirsch.
The letter was remarkable. In it, Hirsch claimed that Weizoerick had threatened him and that Cole had checked out of Room 1321, where the drugs were found.
Holmesly had urged me to call Hirsch, promising me that he could prove her son was innocent. When I finally spoke with him, Hirsch told me that he was working the motel desk when Cole was arrested and confirmed that the arresting officer, Weizoerick, didn't have a search warrant for Cole's room. Everything checked out—until I recited a sentence toward the end of the letter in which Hirsch stated that Cole had checked out of Room 1321 the night before he was arrested.
"I never wrote that," Hirsch said. "He hadn't checked out of that room; he had rented another one. But both rooms were still under his name."
I faxed Hirsch the letter Holmesly had sent me. Five minutes later, he called me back.
"I didn't write the letter you have in your possession," Hirsch told me. He was clearly upset. He faxed me a copy of the letter he had sent to Holmesly; it made no mention of being threatened by Weizoerick or Cole checking out of Room 1321. I told Hirsch he was being scammed and called Holmesly to report my discovery.
"He's lying!" she screeched. "We're going to sue his ass for letting that cop into Randy's motel room without a search warrant. That bastard!"
An hour later, Hirsch called me back. Cole and Holmesly had just called him, threatening to sue him unless he told me he wrote both versions of the same letter. I told Hirsch he should consider telling the police about the letter.
Later that night, I got a call from Cole. He sounded surprised when I told him that his mother had apparently rewritten Hirsch's letter. Since Hirsch had already told me he had just spoken to Cole, I knew Cole's surprise was an act. Now he was trying to guilt-trip me into forgetting the whole thing.
"She's just a desperate mother trying to help her son," Randy told me.
That's when Holmesly started sobbing into the receiver. Until then, I hadn't even known she was on the line.
"Mom, please put down the telephone," Cole said, sighing in defeat. "Please, I have to ask you to hang up now, okay, Mom?"
Holmesly let out a wail of sheer anguish.
"Please forgive me," she said. "Do you forgive me?"
"I wasn't talking to you, Randy!" Holmesly screeched. "I was talking to Nick!"
Randy Cole's Aug. 7, 2001, sentencing hearing at the Orange County Superior Courthouse was so fast I almost missed it. I had never seen Cole face to face. On the telephone, he sounded like a nice guy. In the old photograph of him that his mother sent me, he looked almost baby-faced. In person, he was wiry, muscular, intense. His short, spiky hair was dyed jet-black. His forearms were covered in spiderweb tattoos. He looked like an extra from the HBO series Oz.
I had tried to help Cole. But when I heard his defense attorney getting grilled by the judge about "certain evidence introduced at trial that was false," I knew I hadn't been very helpful. A few minutes later, his defense attorney asked for a new trial and for the chance to introduce a new plea on behalf of his client: guilty in exchange for 16 months in prison. The judge refused and hit Cole with the maximum sentence possible: seven years in state prison.
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A few days before the hearing, I received a voice-mail message from Weizoerick, who seemed remarkably friendly. "Sorry it took me so long to get back to you, but we've been swamped," he said. "If you have any more questions about Randy Cole, let me know. . . . And let me know when that story's coming out—just for my own curiosity."
I didn't bother returning Weizoerick's call because I wasn't sure I had a story anymore. But a few days later, Steve Schulman, a Newport Beach police spokesman, called to say police had become aware that a letter that had been introduced as evidence in the Cole case was forged.
"We find it ironic that a journalist seeking to uncover allegations of wrongdoing by Newport Beach police officers instead uncovers an actual crime committed by someone else," Schulman told me. "You're the sleuth who uncovered this. Have you ever considered working for us?"
I already did.