Did ‘Golden State Killer’ commit homicides that sent innocent man to prison?

California authorities who believe that the Golden State Killer killed more than the 12 victims attributed to him are putting fresh eyes on a 40-year-old cold case for which another man served more than 38 years in prison before being exonerated last year.

Investigators in Simi Valley are looking into whether Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., now 72, was responsible for the deaths of Rhonda Lynn Hamilton Wicht and her 4-year-old son, Donald Alan Wicht, who were found slain in their apartment in 1978. DeAngelo, a former police officer, was arrested last week and charged with six of the 12 homicides attributed to the Golden State Killer, alternately known as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker.

The serial killer and rapist, one of the most prolific criminals in California history, was also responsible for about 50 rapes over a span of about 12 years, law enforcement officials said. The DNA evidence that linked crimes committed in at least four jurisdictions also led to DeAngelo after cold case investigators matched his genetic material to that of the alleged killer.

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Credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

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Law enforcement officials have suggested that DeAngelo could be responsible for other crimes, both during the time frame attributed to the Golden State Killer and after those killings appeared to stop in 1986.

Simi Valley investigators, who reopened the unsolved Wicht case last fall, are hoping that DNA will tie DeAngelo to the homicides. A request has been made to compare DeAngelo’s genetic profile to the one found in the unsolved double homicide.

"It's within the realm of possibility that he could be a suspect in our case," Simi Valley Deputy Police Chief Joseph May told CBS Los Angeles. "You had the same time period that he was committing crime throughout the state, (and) you had our homicide here. Also, he is suspected of committing a homicide in Ventura County; we are a part of Ventura County."

It was the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 1978, when Wicht, 24, was beaten and strangled with a macramé rope in her apartment. Her young son, known by family as “Donnie,” was smothered to death in his bed. The pillow was still over his face when he was found.

If the Golden State Killer was responsible for the Wicht homicides, it would not have been the first case in which he attacked a woman while her small child was present. When nursing student Jane Carson-Sandler woke to find a masked man with a knife in her home near Sacramento in 1976, her 3-year-old son was asleep beside her in her bed.

Carson-Sandler was then raped, NBC News reported. Though both she and her son were blindfolded, gagged and bound with shoelaces and pieces of cloth, the boy was not physically harmed.

Wicht's sister, Rachelle "Shelley" Hamilton, recalled for the Simi Valley Acorn finding her sister and nephew dead later that morning. Hamilton, then 21, was supposed to meet her older sister for a hair appointment.

When Wicht didn’t answer the phone, Hamilton became worried and she and her then-husband went to her sister’s apartment.

"My ex had entered through a window because the door was locked, and when I got inside, I just stood in the living room," Hamilton told the Acorn in December. "I couldn't go any farther. I went downstairs, called my parents and the rest was a blur."

Within hours, the investigation turned to Craig Richard Coley, a former boyfriend of Wicht’s. Coley was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances.

Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP

Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via AP

Coley, then 30, went through two trials, the first of which resulted in a hung jury, according to The Washington Post. He was convicted in a second trial in 1980 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Coley remained adamant about his innocence through the years, repeatedly seeking clemency, the Post reported. A detective with Simi Valley also pleaded for a new look at the case, convinced that there were problems with the initial investigation, but was refused.

Coley's relief came last November, when new DNA evidence showed that Coley was not at the crime scene the morning of the murders. California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him on the eve of Thanksgiving, the Post reported.

Brown said in Coley’s pardon that his office requested a new investigation in 2015 by the Board of Parole Hearings.

"During that investigation, a former police detective, police captain and police officer reported that they believed Mr. Coley was wrongfully convicted and opined that the detective who originally investigated the matter mishandled the investigation or framed Mr. Coley," Brown's pardon of Coley stated.

Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone opened his own independent investigation in October 2016, the Acorn reported. That investigation involved Detective Dan Swanson and former Simi Valley Detective Mike Bender, who for 30 years believed in Coley's innocence.

Following the investigation -- which found unknown DNA on the evidence from the crime scene, but not Coley’s -- the Simi Valley chief and the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office supported Coley’s bid for clemency.

"Mr. Coley had no criminal history before being arrested for these crimes, and he has been a model inmate for nearly four decades," Brown wrote in the pardon. "In prison, he has avoided gangs and violence. Instead, he has dedicated himself to religion.

“The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary.”

Credit: Simi Valley Police Department

Credit: Simi Valley Police Department

Coley, now 70, is hopeful that investigators can link the DNA evidence in the Wicht case to the right person.

"I don't care how they find out, as long as they find out and it's a true conviction," Coley told CBS Los Angeles.

He said he wants the right person held accountable, whether or not it is the Golden State Killer.

"First of all, I'd feel elated for the family, for Rhonda's family, because I'm not just a victim," Coley said. "I believe that some point in time, they will find who did this and justice will finally be served."

Hamilton told the Acorn she never doubted Coley's guilt because of what investigators told the family 40 years ago.

"But once he was released, it was harder than I thought it would be," Hamilton told the newspaper. "And not because he got out (but) because if he was innocent, then he should've never been there."

Now in her 60s, Hamilton said the closure the family once had is gone now that the investigation went back to the start.

“We have no idea who might have done this or why, and it’s scary,” she said.

Wicht’s brother, Rick Hamilton told the Acorn that the family has to relive its biggest tragedy all over again. Seventeen at the time of his sister’s and nephew’s deaths, he later went on to become a police officer.

“I feel bad now, and there’s no argument (that Coley is innocent), but I’m glad my parents aren’t around to deal with this,” Rick Hamilton said.

The siblings called their older sister a “sweetheart of a girl” who was selfless and caring, always looking to help people in need.

Shelley Hamilton said her sister was an “old soul” who loved all her family, but lived for her young son.

"We were just starting our adult lives and looking forward to being moms together," Shelley Hamilton said. "I always wonder what it would've been like if she were still alive, and I still have pictures of them up in my house, because I want my kids to know about them.

“Not a day goes by I don’t think of Rhonda and Donnie.”