“I told them, ‘You have the wrong guy. Don’t stop looking.”
Thirty-nine years ago, Craig Richard Coley was 31. He was the son of a Los Angeles police officer and was a decorated Navy veteran who served in several deployments to Vietnam.
But on Veterans Day in 1978, Craig was arrested, accused of a double murder, and sentenced to life without parole. He was innocent.
Craig spent 39 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Nine years into his sentence, one man finally believed him: a detective named Mike Bender. He spent the next 30 years fighting for Craig’s life.
In 1989, Mike Bender was a detective for the Simi Valley Police Department. He was working on a case when he came across information concerning Craig’s conviction. He noticed that the investigation didn’t look quite right. The pieces just didn’t add up.
“I don’t know how much background or training you’d need to just look at it and go, ‘This just doesn’t seem right,’” says Mike.
Soon after, Mike went to Craig’s maximum security prison to meet him face-to-face. After they talked, Mike believed that Craig was innocent. And that day, Mike began a 30-year-long effort to clear Craig’s name.
Mike contacted countless agencies and people in power on the city, state, and national level. Time passed, but Craig remained in prison.
Finally, in 2012, the state of California agreed to reopen Craig’s case.
“This time, the right person read it, stepped back, and decided to look at the facts as they were presented,” says Mike. “They assigned it to an investigator.”
In November 2017, the Governor’s Office of California granted Craig a full pardon based on new DNA evidence. After 39 years in prison, he was free.
But a lot had changed since 1978. Technology had transformed the world. Cities had grown and morphed. Inflation had sent prices skyrocketing.
But most importantly, both of Craig’s parents had passed away while he was in prison. Without them, Craig had nowhere to return to or land upon his release—or so he thought.
When they heard about his release, his tireless advocate Mike and his wife Cynthia welcomed Craig into their home with open arms. But Mike knew that after almost 40 years in prison, Craig would want his independence. So Mike started a GoFundMe to get Craig back on his feet.
The night before Thanksgiving, Craig arrived at the Bender home—finally a free man.
“Mike and Cynthia have been a rock to me,” says Craig. “It was my first Thanksgiving as a free person in almost four decades.”
Now, Mike and his family are helping Craig get back on his feet and make up for lost time. They taught him to drive again so that he can get his learner’s permit, took him to the local Veterans Affairs office to enroll in healthcare, and are doing what they can to help Craig come to terms with his loss.
In order to move forward, Craig is taking steps to let go of the pain of his past. Upon his release, he finally had the opportunity to visit his parents’ graves and say his belated goodbyes. And recently, Craig visited the police officer who arrested him so they could shake hands, make amends, and move on.
Despite the injustices against him, Craig has always tried to embrace kindness, forgiveness, and faith. While in prison, Craig served as a mentor in his Bible study group and earned an associate’s degree in Theology, a certificate as a Biblical Counselor, and a B.A. in Biblical Studies.
Once Craig gets his life back on track, he hopes to use his faith and unique experience to provide counseling to veterans returning from combat.
Eventually, he will also receive a settlement from the state for his wrongful imprisonment. But those payouts move slowly, so in the meantime, Mike started the GoFundMe to help Craig gain financial independence.
To date, the GoFundMe has raised over $20K to help Craig get back on his feet while he awaits his settlement. He is incredibly grateful not just to Mike and his family, but also to the donors who have helped him on his new journey.
“People have just been so terrific,” says Craig. “The money they’ve given me has given me a chance for a little bit of independence.”