By Mark Gutglueck
William Richards, whose 1997 conviction in the 1993 death of his wife has grown infamous as a demonstration of the degree to which the law enforcement structure in San Bernardino County will go in stretching facts and utilizing questionable and even manufactured evidence to obtain a conviction, walked out of confinement a free man this week, after San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Lisa Rogan officially dismissed murder charges against him.
It took four trials to convict Richards, with the first three ending in mistrials or deadlocks in which the jury was unable to reach a verdict. In the fourth trial, the eight-man and four-woman jury again deadlocked. It was only after the judge requested that they deliberate further that on July 8, 1997, Richards was convicted.
From the outgo, Richards’ story has never changed.
He claimed he had returned the evening of August 10, 1993 from his machinist’s job in Corona at about 11:50 p.m. to find the motorhome in which he and his wife lived on the five-acre Summit Valley property they owned dark and empty. The couple was living in the motorhome while efforts to construct a house on the property were ongoing. He went to look for his wife and found her dead in a pool of blood on another part of their property between the motor home and the Santa Fe railroad line.
He claimed he turned his wife’s body over and cradled her before summoning assistance.
Then-deputy district attorney Mike Risley prosecuted Richards each time.
In each of his prosecutions of William Richards, Risley suggested there was strife in the Richards’ 22-year long marriage. He put on an expert witness who testified splatters of Pamela Richards’ blood that were found on William Richards’ shoes and clothes were tell-tale evidence indicating William Richards had wielded the cinder block used to crush his wife’s head.
Risley marshaled further evidence, accumulated by sheriff’s deputies and detectives, showing no car tracks or footprints other than those of Richards, his wife or the detectives and deputies or their vehicles were present on the property.
Risley displayed for jurors a “bite mark” on Pamela Richards’ hand and then followed that up with testimony from a forensic expert who claimed that by his analysis the bite could have only come from two percent of the population, including Richards, who had a certain peculiarity to their teeth.
The coup-de-grace was a tuft of 15 light-blue fibers found in a tear in the victim’s fingernail. According to Risley, the fibers matched those of the shirt Richards was wearing the night of the murder.
But there were some major discrepancies with the case, despite Risley’s ostentatious show of confidence in front of the jury. The first of the four times Richards was to be tried, the judge declared a mistrial before the matter was presented to a jury. In 1994, the first time the case went the distance, a jury deadlocked 6-6. A second full trial netted what has been variously recorded as a 10-2 or 11-1 verdict for conviction. On the last complete go-round, Richards was convicted.
As in the first two complete trials, the third jury to hear the entire case reported that it too was deadlocked after seven full days of deliberation. The jurors, encouraged to return to deliberations, delivered a unanimous guilty verdict on the eighth day.
Richards, who had had been in custody since his arrest shortly after his wife’s death, was remanded to prison upon sentencing and there he remained until he was provisionally released last week.
There has been little about the Richards case that is clearly cut, other than that Pamela Richards was murdered and the entire circumstance lacks clarity. With the prosecution’s introduction of what has since been demonstrated as discredited evidence, the case is now widely recognized as a textbook example of prosecutorial overreach bordering on, or outright crossing the line into, prosecutorial misconduct. Nevertheless, the district attorney’s office on an official level refuses to acknowledge that anything improper occurred and Risley is stoically carrying on, having in one public forum suggested that Richards is on the verge of being prosecuted again.
The Richards case was beset with a myriad of difficulties from the outset, which in and of themselves resulted in the three mistrials. While Richards was serving his 25-years-to-life sentence, further information emerged which cast, according to San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville and subsequently the California Supreme Court, grave doubt upon his guilt, his conviction and the validity of much of the evidence used to obtain that conviction, exacerbated by evidence that indicated the presence of a person or persons unknown at the murder scene.
An obvious complicating factor was that for more than eight hours after Richards discovered his wife dead, investigators with the sheriff’s department failed to secure the scene of the crime, such that Pamela Richards’ body was disturbed by coyotes before a team of detectives accompanied by deputies arrived there the next morning. After their arrival, they left footprints and tire tracks around the scene that made ascertaining whether there was anyone else there around the time that Richards was murdered a virtual impossibility. They then made misrepresentations about that very fact when the matter went to trial.
At the 1997 trial as at the previous ones, Risley built upon the foundation of the strife in the Richards’ marriage. He brought in forensic experts to tell the jury that a “bite mark” on Pamela Richards’ hand could only have come from two percent of the population that included William Richards.
And at that fourth trial, Risley presented to the jurors the coup de grâce, the most crucial piece of evidence needed to convince jurors to convict Richards, a tuft of fibers lodged into one of Pamela Richard’s fingernails.
Risley used the tuft, consisting of 15 light-blue fibers said to match the shirt Richards was wearing that fateful night and found in a crack in Pamela Richards’ fingernail, to place William Richards at the scene.
Upon the reading of the verdict, Richards was whisked away pending sentencing, which was subsequently set as 25 years to life.
Despite the verdict and the sentence, there was a core of individuals who knew Richards and his wife who insisted the verdict had been a terrible miscarriage of justice.
Among those passionately inveighing against the verdict was Pamela Richards’ sister, Kathy Olejnik. Olejnik went to her grave in 2003 swearing her brother-in-law did not murder her sister, leaving behind multiple notarized affidavits asserting her conviction “that William Richards did not kill or murder my sister.”
In 1999, the California Innocence Project was founded at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, and was dedicated to reviewing in depth convictions, in particular those in murder cases, where it appeared there had been a miscarriage of justice. As one of its first projects, it took up Richards’ case in 1999. It would take lawyers and staff members 17 years to unwind what Risley and his support network had done. Risley’s team included sheriff’s deputies, lab technicians, and a set of expert witnesses who made a convincing show at the final trial. Some of those now acknowledge they were mistaken or overly accommodating of Risley, or both.
Five years after he obtained the Richards conviction, Risley acceded to the position of assistant district attorney in San Bernardino County, the second highest ranking official in the office. The Richards conviction was a stellar feather in his cap and he had particular and personal reason to not want it overturned. When the Innocence Project began pressing for a reexamination of the case and asked for forensic tests such as the analysis of DNA present on the murder weapon, the district attorney’s office resisted those requests, asserting such verifications were unnecessary and improper, a curious position to take given the prosecution’s expressed confidence in the accuracy of the jury’s verdict.
Slowly, the Innocence Project, in the continuing face of strident opposition from the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, was able to get court authorization to have some forensic tests undertaken, such as the analysis of DNA on the cinderblock used to crush Pamela Richards’ skull. That DNA did not match the victim nor that of her husband. In 2009, the Innocence Project was able to obtain a hearing before San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville to reexamine the evidence used at Richards’ trial and the validity thereof.
Innocence Project lawyers demonstrated that Risley had provided prosecution and defense experts with incomplete information and poor photos of the injuries to Pamela Richards and withheld from them other exculpatory evidence. The more comprehensive evidence demonstrated the “bite mark” was similar to other injuries on Pamela Richards’ body and the shape of the injury matched tools found at the crime scene.
In January 2009 two of the dental forensic experts that had testified for the prosecution during Richards’ 1997 trial were subpoenaed to testify in the hearing before Judge McCarville and acknowledged the testimony they gave at trial was “scientifically inaccurate.” Both testified that Richards could not have made the alleged bite mark on the victim. A third dental expert testified that Richards was not a match and that the mark found on the body might not have been a bite mark. A fourth forensic expert asserted that if the wound on the victim’s hand was a bite mark, it could not have been made by Richards. He also questioned whether the wound was even a bite mark.
Innocence Project attorneys then turned to the fiber evidence Risley had relied upon.
Photos of Pamela’s body taken just after the autopsy clearly show no fibers present in the crack in her fingernail. Days later, when several of her fingers were severed and delivered to criminalist Daniel Gregonis for tests, Gregonis made a video which shows him removing a rather large light-blue fiber from Pamela’s nail. “That fiber evidence was critical to Richards’ conviction and it was not present on Pamela’s fingernail when it was initially examined,” California Innocence Co-founder Jan Stiglitz told McCarville.
After the Innocence Project’s presentation, which included the questioning of witnesses by Stiglitz and lawyers Mario Conte and Alex Simmons,. a request to throw out Richards’ 1997 conviction was made. McCarville on August 10, 2009, sixteen years to the day after the murder of Pamela Richards, found that the new evidence pointed “unerringly to innocence” and he granted the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the vacation of the conviction and a new trial.
The district attorney’s office, however, appealed McCarville’s decision. The appellate court reversed McCarville, and California Innocence Project appealed the matter to the California Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court found the case every bit as difficult as had the jurists who previously considered the evidence. Three of the State Supreme Court’s members found the Innocence Project’s arguments compelling and persuasive, determining that Richards’ conviction was based on faulty or erroneous information, testimony, evidence or presentation of that evidence. The other four members of the court, however, signed an opinion that “the petitioner has failed to establish that any of the evidence offered at his 1997 trial was false” and further that “his newly discovered evidence does not ‘point unerringly to innocence or reduced culpability.’” Since the defense did not reach the threshold of proving to a majority of the California Supreme Court that the evidence used to convict Richards was “false,” the court majority reasoned, the new evidence did not reach the point of indicating innocence, and the habeas corpus relief therefore was not be granted.
The Innocence Project went back to the drawing boards, this time taking its battle on behalf of Richards out of the Halls Of Justice and directly to the California Legislature, where its representatives lobbied for the passage of a new California law that would allow expert witnesses to recant their testimony and such a recantation to be deemed indicative of “false evidence.” Such a law was sponsored and signed into law.
The Innocence Project then utilized the new tools at its command to reapply for the vacation of the conviction, based upon having established that the bite mark testimony was false evidence and that the fibers were planted into Pamela Richard’s fingernail during the process of the criminal investigation or otherwise ended up there by some form of gross mishandling of the evidence.
Under the parameters of the new law, the California Supreme Court took up the case again and reversed the conviction in a 7-0 decision handed down on May 26. Richards, who had been removed from the California State Prison in Tehachapi to the West Valley Detention Center, was released from that jail on June 21, walking free for the first time in nearly two decades.
On June 28, Richards was present in Judge Rogan’s courtroom, at which point the murder charges were formally dismissed against him.
Technically, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office had the option, as a consequence of the California Supreme Court’s determination, of refiling murder charges against Richards but was under a 60-day deadline to do so. By use of a procedural protocol to dismiss the case, the district attorney’s office extended the window indefinitely on refiling. That move is widely seen within the legal community as a face-saving venture by the district attorney’s office. Risley, who stepped down as assistant district attorney in 2007 and left the district attorney’s office to practice out of state, is now back as a deputy prosecutor in the office at a reduced level of authority. He told the Victorville Daily Press this week that the dismissal of charges this week was merely a tactical move and that his office is reevaluating the case and will make a determination as to whether to try Richards on a murder charge once more.
Risley declined to speak with the Sentinel about the case, deferring questions to the office’s headquarters. Some of Risley’s colleagues in the office, ones who had formerly been answerable to him as the assistant district attorney and who this week spoke with the Sentinel under the cloak of anonymity, said it is highly unlikely the case against Richards would be refiled, given the flirtation with prosecutorial misconduct the case entailed and the likelihood revisiting the issues surrounding it might draw scrutiny under circumstances which would have no conceivable positive outcome for Risley, the district attorney’s office or their reputations.
Justin Brooks, the director and co-founder of the California Innocence Project, said on Tuesday, “Today a 23 year nightmare ended for Bill Richards. He’s gone through something that no one can imagine: First, having to be the person who discovered his wife brutally murdered and go through all the pain of losing his wife and then go through these horrible trials and ultimately spending 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s really unimaginable and we’re grateful today that the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office has decided to dismiss this case. He never should have been charged to start with. He shouldn’t have served 23 years in prison and we’re glad this day has finally come.”
A footnote to the Richards case, albeit riveting one, is the still open question of just who Pamela Richard’s actual murderer was. At this point, a leading suspect is a man who made a confession, of sorts, to it: Angel Maturino Reséndiz, who was also known as Rafael Reséndiz-Ramirez, Angel Reyes Reséndiz and Angel Leoncio Reyes Recéndis, as well as the Railway Killer.
In the early stages of his murderous career, Reséndiz, a native of Mexico who continuously made undocumented trips between Mexico, the United States and Canada by riding the rails while using over twenty aliases and at least fifteen social security numbers, was not remarked upon by authorities or identified as the culprit in a surfeit of homicides. It was only in the final two years of his thirteen-year-long murder spree that suspicion coalesced around the entity dubbed the Railway Killer. Even after he was identified by Texas and federal authorities and placed on the FBI’s ten most wanted list in early 1999, his itinerant lifestyle and his use of aliases allowed him to elude capture.
In July 1999, Reséndiz was lured into capture by Texas Rangers and FBI agents who negotiated his surrender through the intercession of his sister.
With a few exceptions, the murders Reséndiz committed fit within the same pattern. The victims lived or were found within a short distance of a railroad line and were killed by being beaten over the head with a rock or heavy object available at the scene. His primary motive appears to have been to steal money he used to purchase alcohol, drugs or gasoline to fuel vehicles he stole. He raped some, but not all of his female victims.
His known victims included:
* Christopher Maier, a 21-year-old University of Kentucky student who was walking along nearby railroad tracks with his girlfriend, Holly K. Dunn, on August 29, 1997 when they were set upon by Reséndiz, who bludgeoned Maier to death and then raped and severely beat Dunn, who survived the attack.
* Leafie Mason, an 81-year-old resident of Hughes Springs, Texas who resided 150 feet from the Kansas City-Southern Line. On October 4, 1998, Reséndiz let himself into her home through a window and used a tire iron to beat Mason to death.
* Dr. Claudia Benton, a 39-year-old pediatric neurologist at the Baylor College of Medicine who on December 17, 1998 was raped, stabbed and bludgeoned in her West University Palace, Texas home, which is proximate to the train tracks. Reséndiz then used Benton’s Jeep Cherokee to drive to San Antonio. Police recovered his fingerprints from the Jeep’s steering column.
* The Reverend Norman Sirnic, 46, and his wife, Karen Sirnic, 47, were bludgeoned to death by a sledgehammer-wielding Reséndiz in the parsonage of the United Church of Christ in Weimer, Texas on May 2, 1999. The parsonage was located near the Weimer railroad tracks. Reséndiz then used the couple’s Mazda to drive to San Antonio, where it was eventually found by authorities, who recovered Reséndiz’s fingerprints in it.
* Noemi Dominguez, a 26-year-old school teacher, bludgeoned inside her Houston, Texas apartment, located within short walking distance of the rail tracks, on June 4, 1999. On June 11, Dominguez’s Honda Civic was discovered by state troopers in a parking lot next to the International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
* Josephine Konvicka, a 73-year-old woman living in Fayette County, Texas was killed on the same day that Noemi Dominguez was killed, June 4, 1999. Konvicka’s farmhouse was located near the railroad tracks by Weimar, Texas. Konvicka was killed while she was asleep by means of a blow to the head from a pointed garden tool. Reséndiz’s attempt to steal Konvicka’s car failed, apparently because he was unable to locate the keys.
* George Morber, 80, and Carolyn Frederick, 52, were killed on June 15, 1999 by Reséndiz, who shot Morber in the head with a shotgun and then clubbed Frederick to death. Their home in Gorham, Illinois was located only 300 feet from a railroad line. Reséndiz took Frederick’s pickup truck and was seen driving it in Cairo, Illinois a short time later.
* Jesse Howell, 19, whom Reséndiz bludgeoned to death with an air hose coupling and left beside the railroad tracks in Ocala, Florida on March 23, 1997.
* Wendy Von Huben, Howell’s 16-year-old girlfriend, whom Reséndiz then raped, strangled and suffocated, also on March 23, 1997. Her body was not found until July 2000 when Reséndiz led investigators to a shallow grave in Sumter County, roughly 30 miles away from the spot where Howell had been killed.
* Michael White was found shot to death in July 1991 in the yard of a vacant home in San Antonio, Texas. When San Antonio police interviewed Reséndiz in 2006, he provided investigators with details about the murder.
By the middle of 2002, Reséndiz had recounted to investigators details of about 20 killings since 1986, though the investigations of only 12 of those have been officially closed out with his identification as the perpetrator. According to Texas authorities, Reséndiz provided details about eight murders he had not previously been associated with, including three in Texas and two in California.
Two of the Texas murders remain unverified but a third is considered to be the shooting death of an unidentified woman in Bexar County in 1986.
Reséndiz indicated he had killed two people in Southern California in the early and mid-1990s: a man near San Bernardino and a woman up in the desert.
Detectives with the Colton Police Department believe Reséndiz is the “likely” perpetrator of the 1997 death of a man beaten to death in the Southern Pacific rail yard in Colton, which is the city lying immediately to the west of San Bernardino.
One of Reséndiz’s arrests came on August 19, 1995 by Santa Fe Railroad police in San Bernardino on trespassing and possession of a firearm charges.
The murder Reséndiz claimed to have perpetrated in the California desert matches in all respects the circumstances of Pamela Richards’ murder. The Richards’ Summit Valley property upon which their motorhome was parked was immediately adjacent to the Santa Fe railroad line.
At the time of William Richards’ trials however, Reséndiz was not a consideration to Richards, his attorneys, the prosecutors, or the judge hearing Richards’ case. Jurors never heard a word about the Railway Killer, and were instead faced with Richards’ explanation of arriving home near midnight to find his wife dead, with no plausible explanation as to an alternate suspect or motive on the part of anyone else.
It was William Richards’ particular misfortune that the investigation of his wife’s death would be marred by the sloppy investigative standards of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and that his prosecution would be handled by a politically and professionally ambitious prosecutor who did not scruple at using questionable and perhaps even manufactured evidence to fortify what was a marginal circumstantial case against a defendant without the financial wherewithal to pay for dedicated legal representation over the course of four grueling trials.
For Risley and all others who were involved in consigning William Richards to prison for 23 years, there are the chilling words of Angel Maturino Reséndiz, who was executed by the State of Texas in 2006, to consider. In seemingly deprecating remarks about the fallibility of the legal system, Reséndiz in a letter to Texas State District Judge William Harmon in July 2001 appears to be stoking the fire of doubt, conscience and guilt from the grave.
In that letter, Reséndiz stated to Harmon “So now you . . . will think as you go to sleep, `Have I sentence[d] to death an innocent person for one of Reséndiz Angel Maturino’s killings?’”
By Mark Gutglueck