Attorney Miguel Debon can confirm plenty of information about his client James Michael Riley.
He knows, for example, that Riley worked as a server and manager at San Francisco’s Bubba Gump Shrimp Company on Pier 39 from 2008 to 2012 – he has his W2s. He also knows Riley lived in the city during those years as well – he’s talked to his five roommates and then-girlfriend (now wife), some who gave affidavits and confirmed he was with them during those years.
And he knows, from talking with Riley’s co-workers, housemates and friends, that during a certain two-month period in 2008 Riley was not in Louisiana. It’s a contention the state of Louisiana disagrees with, and the reason Riley now sits in a Clarke County Jail cell awaiting extradition to the Bayou State.
Riley, who has no previous criminal history, is accused of defrauding thousands of dollars from an elderly New Orleans woman seeking to fix her home damaged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to Orleans Parish court documents.
Debon, who works with Covington attorney Mario Ninfo, doesn’t see how that is possible.
“Neither I or Mr. Ninfo have received any evidence to indicate that James Michael Riley was in Louisiana at the time that this allegation allegedly occurred,” Debon said, adding “I’ve spoken with roommates and I’ve spoken with co-workers and some friends who have stayed in touch with him during that time period and they’ve all said absolutely not – ‘I saw Michael on a daily basis for that two-month stretch and it would be impossible that he would travel at all to Louisiana.’ ”
“They 100 percent have the wrong guy, he is one of the sweetest guys in the world,” said Joseph Devine, who worked with Riley at the Bubba Gump restaurant from 2007 to 2010.
Riley, who moved to Athens in September from San Francisco to be closer to family, was arrested at his home by the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office on Dec. 15. On Dec. 31, he filed a writ of habeas corpus in Athens-Clarke County Superior Court, petitioning Clarke County Sheriff Ira Edwards to get out of jail for a crime he says he didn’t commit.
According to court documents in Orleans Parish, on July 20, 2008, an 81-year-old woman was approached by a contractor named James Riley who worked for Praise God Contractors and said he could repair her damaged house. She claims to give the man payments over the years of $10,000, $15,000 and $30,000, Debon said, but Praise God Contractors wasn’t a legitimate entity.
“This all started with a James Riley, they did not have a middle initial, the victim never mentioned a middle initial, we’ve never seen any alleged contract that supposedly the victim had with the contractor, we’ve never seen any receipts,” Debon said.
“He doesn’t even go by James Riley, he goes by Michael Riley,” Devine said. “He was the nicest guy in the world and he was super responsible. [Bubba Gump] made him a trainer and a manager incredibly quickly and he was definitely working at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company at the time. I know that 100 percent.”
And, it turns out, there’s plenty of James Rileys in the world. The writ filed on New Year’s Eve notes ” ‘Riley’ is a common name as evidenced of a simple word search which produced in excess of 1000 exact matches and in excess of 39,000 possible matches.”
Nothing was done about this case until years later, when Orleans Parish filed a direct bill of information against James Michael Riley, eventually sending a letter in August 2015 to his address in Oakland, California, ordering him to appear for a hearing in New Orleans.
Riley had no idea what it was about.
“The other thing that’s weird about this case is the length of time it took to prosecute him,” Debon said. “He was never arrested, he’s never been to any proceedings, he’s never been to any lineups and there has never been any identification.”
Riley retained an attorney in New Orleans to fight the charge, but instead of pursuing an alibi defense, his counsel chose to challenge Louisiana’s failure to timely bring the case to trial. That it was a case of mistaken identity was never brought up in those filings, and the Louisiana court ruled against Riley’s motion to quash the bill of information.
Repeated calls to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office were not returned as of Friday afternoon.
A Jan. 29 rule nisi hearing is set in Athens-Clarke County Superior Court for Riley to appear and show cause on his petition. Debon said he has a former housemate/co-worker of Riley, who now lives in Massachusetts, ready to come down to testify on Riley’s behalf.
“Reading about it I immediately felt terrible,” Devine said about Riley’s situation. “That’s how good he is. He’s a guy I think of fondly.”