Free Riley: Falsely accused, man fights to regain his good name

Michael Riley

When he wasn’t reading books about string theory or telling anyone who would listen that he didn’t do the crime he’s accused of, Michael Riley passed his time in jail keeping his head down, trying not to scream.

“The last week or two I was there, there was a ‘Free Riley’ chant that would happen,” he said. “Inmates would walk by and fist bump me and say ‘Free Riley, man.’ I’d say ‘thank you, I appreciate your support.’ Near the end they would say ‘you know it’s funny, I’d been in jail several times and never met someone who was actually innocent … I can’t believe that you’re here and you didn’t do anything.’

“It actually bothered them a little bit that somebody hadn’t done something and was still in jail.”

James Michael Riley, as he is known in the fugitive warrant accusing him of fraud in Louisiana, is by all accounts one of those exceptions prosecutors don’t talk about and Hollywood makes movies about – he’s an innocent man. But proving that innocence, despite an overwhelming batch of evidence in his favor, has become a costly and contentious matter filled with suspect contracts, a missing police detective, professional football players and a Christmas day that came a month too late.

“It can never be made whole,” Riley said last week from his Athens home. “I can never get back Christmas, I can’t get back the 40 days of being away from my family and the literal financial burden of proving myself innocent. That’s what I had to do.”

* * *

Riley’s case is, as court documents reveal, a sea of confusion and mismatched dates.

He was released from the Clarke County Jail on Jan. 25, and on Feb. 3 the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office chose not to pursue the felony charges of “theft over $40,000 and theft of assets of an aged person” brought against him. Booked into jail on Dec. 15, Riley was accused of bilking $55,000 from Mary Rush, a 67-year-old New Orleans woman who sought to fix her home damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

It wasn’t until August that Riley learned there were charges pending against him in New Orleans, a city he hasn’t visited since 2005. But those charges, first brought in July 2013, were based on hand-written contracts supplied to Orleans Parish officials by Rush. In them, it states in 2008 Rush gave the contractor “James Riley” $10,000 on July 7, $15,000 on July 30 and $30,000 on Aug. 20 to renovate her house, but that in September 2008, the contractor left, never to be seen again.

“There was absolutely no evidence to show she had $10,000 to pay him on July 20,” said attorney Miguel Debon, who is representing Riley in Georgia. “Is there a bank record showing a withdrawal? Is there $15,000 for the other time period? Is there $30,000? If you look at the dates that are on those alleged receipts, it doesn’t match up with the warrant.”

The contract does read Rush gave over $10,000 on July 20, 2008, but the warrant, signed by New Orleans Police Detective Frank Denton, shows that amount given on July 7, 2008. The initial warrant also had the wrong Social Security number for James Michael Riley – the number was that of his father, who is also named James Riley.

Rush does nothing about the loss of her $55,000 until nearly two years later, when on May 12, 2010, she files a contractor fraud complaint with the Orleans Parish DA.

Throughout the process, Riley’s attorneys sought to discover how Rush’s complaint – which detailed how a 45- to 50-year-old “causion meal” from Mobile, Ala. named “Jases Riley” from “Prise God Contractor” – became a warrant of arrest in July 2013 for the 30-something James M. Riley who lived in San Francisco at the time of the alleged fraud. Denton, who swore in an application for arrest warrant that Riley was the perpetrator, is the best person to answer that question.

Except no one can seem to find Denton, who has since retired. Not Michael Riley, not his attorneys, and not the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

“The DA’s office doesn’t know where he is,” Debon said. “We’d like to talk to him but they can’t find him. They somehow found Michael Riley, but they can’t find Frank Denton.”

• • •

When Riley moved to Athens he wasn’t looking for trouble – he was looking for a job.

He worked a couple of days doing fundraising for the Firefighter’s Association, all the while applying for other employment, some which required background checks.

“As I was actually not trying to hide from anybody, I put down my address,” Riley said.

When one of the background checks hit with the felony warrant, the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office was informed, and in short time deputies showed up at the house Riley shares with his wife Brandy Poston.

“There was nothing Clarke County can do, all they can do is believe what they’ve been told,” Riley said. “They were told that this guy was a wanted fugitive for the last eight years, had eluded police and he rips off little old ladies. Given that information, I would not expect very good treatment.”

Officials in New Orleans weren’t making it any easier. Despite having knowledge the man they were looking for had an eagle tattoo, the Orleans Parish only asked for Riley’s booking slip – which revealed if he had any distinguishing characteristics such as scars or tattoos (he does not, for the record) – until after he was released.

“They could have had this figured out in the first three days, I could have never made it out of the orientation cell into the back cells,” Riley said. “I could have been home for Christmas.”

And New Orleans never started the extradition process to bring Riley back to face the fraud charge. “They never filed extradition, they never started the process,” Riley added, “at no point were they ever trying to get me back to New Orleans.”

So Riley waited. He filed his writ of habeas corpus on Dec. 31, petitioning the Clarke County Sheriff to free him for unlawful imprisonment, and as the wheels of justice turned he remained in a large room with five dozen inmates, 64 beds, 18 tables with four chairs each, two sitting areas with plastic couches, and two TVs showing sports, movies, and in one odd instance, Mixed Martial Arts.

“The inside is different than you expect. I’ve never seen anything like it on TV or anything, so there’s no way to be ready for it,” Riley said. ” You only talk about so many things in jail, one of the main things you talk about is why you are there. On the outside you ask what do you do for a living, while inside they ask ‘what’d you do?’ People would ask me ‘What’d you do?’ and I said ‘Nothing, I did NOTHING.’ They would just look at me. I said I wasn’t even in the state that they’re saying I did something in when the thing was done. In the first week I was still so irate about the whole thing that I would rant about it to anybody who wanted to listen.”

While Riley was learning to deal with the travails of jail, his wife was finding the difficulties of trying to help someone accused of being a fugitive.

“I was treated like I was an accomplice to a criminal the entire time,” Poston said. “People just don’t trust you. Going in trying to get a bail bondsman – ‘Oh my goodness gracious, what’s going to keep you here. He’s a fugitive he’s going to run there’s nothing tying you here’ . . . They were like ‘you guys are fugitives, we’re not going to help you.’ ”

To pass the time Riley would read what he could find. With the jail moving to newer quarters, most of the books were taken to the new space (“people were having a hard time getting Bibles,” he said), leaving a small assortment of books about philosophy, religion and, yes, string theory.

When he would talk to his wife, he would tell her all about string theory. They would talk about what was happening with the case, and the added media attention.

They would not, however, talk about the Christmas presents, which sat under the tree waiting for him to open when he finally came home.

“My parents and I both bought Michael tools for Christmas because this is something where we have an interest in building things,” Poston said, laughing. “And not only that, I also bought Michael a lock pick set to learn how to pick locks. But I can’t even tell him any of the things I got him while he’s in jail because I didn’t want any of this recorded that we got him a saw and a lock pick set.”

• • •

In the New Orleans Advocate article last month, Rush told to the reporter Riley was the man who stole from her after she was shown a picture of him. “That’s what he looked like,” she told the Advocate, “he had a little, small mustache.”

It might be compelling evidence, except in every instance where Rush was asked to identify her alleged contractor, she was always shown a picture of James Michael Riley. There was never a lineup, never a time when investigators showed Rush a picture that was not Riley. “The victim was shown a picture of the driver’s license of my client,” Debon said. “She said it was the contractor. She had nothing to compare it to.”

There’s also one other wrinkle. According to the City of New Orleans Permits and Licenses Department, Rush has accumulated several violations for minimum property maintenance on her damaged home. She was found guilty of the initial four violations, and was fined $500. The date she was found guilty? April 26, 2010.

Two weeks later she walks into the Orleans Parish DA and files her complaint against James Riley.

“It’s an older lady, she’s had some health problems, I’d like to believe that something unfortunate did happen and someone did take her money and maybe even used the name James Riley,” Riley said. “Now so many years later – even when she went in for the initial police report was many years later – she might not remember things. There’s always a chance that it was all a scam to begin with.”

There was some work done to Rush’s house at the start, according to the Louisiana warrant, as new roof underlayment and some interior framing was done, work valued at no more than $10,000. If Riley were the culprit of this crime, he would have had to spend more than a single day in New Orleans in 2008 performing work he doesn’t know how to do. There are also the seven affidavits from family and friends which state, under oath, that he was nowhere near the Bayou State at the time.

“Is really [Riley’s] grand scheme that he was specific enough not to give her anything with a bit of information on it, but he told her his real name?” Debon asked. “Seriously? That’s the plan? He goes out of his way not give her a contract, out of the way not to give her a card – she has nothing with his name on it. He could have told her he was Abraham Lincoln, he could have told her any name in the world, and his plan was to give her his real name? And he’s never worked any job related to construction. Never, ever.”

It would work out for Rush, though. In 2011, the nonprofit group Phoenix of New Orleans, through the help of the United Way of Southeast Louisiana’s Hope for the Holidays program, would connect with New Orleans Saints player Jahri Evans, who donated the money necessary to make the fixes to her home. An online photo gallery shows Rush hugging several Saints players while construction is performed on her house in the background. By June 2012, Rush was back in her house.

In the PNOLA news release about the Rush’s situation, it reads: “Upon returning to New Orleans after the flood Mary applied for and received enough money to renovate her home through the Road Home Program. Unfortunately, a fraudulent contractor saw her as easy prey and stole the entirety of her award, leaving her with nothing but the hope that her meager income would be enough to save up to rehabilitate her home. Mary has said that she is so disappointed that someone would take that money that was meant to bring her family home, but that she prays that God will find a way.”

“We actually looked at moving [to New Orleans] a couple of years ago, we considered it in 2011,” Riley said. “We look at moving places all the time and we looked at our options and one of the places we looked at was New Orleans. Oh my God, could you imagine what would have happened if we had actually done that, living there when all of this happened?”

• • •

Now what?

“The next big step for us right now is getting this all expunged so we can get this off his record,” Poston said. “And then trying to figure out what our recourse is, what options we have.”

One main recourse, both Debon and John Radziewicz (Riley’s attorney in New Orleans) agree on, is for Riley to file a violation of article 42 U.S. Code Section 1983 – Civil action for deprivation of rights, which defends any U.S. citizen from “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” The mountain of evidence of his innocence gives Riley some backing, and as more information arises about what the Orleans Parish DA did, and didn’t do, a civil lawsuit is more and more on the table.

Radziewicz believes this lawsuit threat is one reason why Orleans Parish closed the case last week instead of waiting to hear the findings from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Riley’s effort to quash the initial bill of information.

“The Fourth Circuit never ruled,” he said. “I suspect the DA’s office was nervous the Fourth Circuit was going to rule against them and the case was going to get dismissed and then they were going to have a judgment saying they were wrong. And that makes a case for the federal violations law.”

For Riley the choice to move forward with more legal action is clear.

“If nothing else, there’s been a cost. There has been a significant financial penalty to this whole thing and at the very least I feel like something needs to be done to make that right. This should never have cost me or my family nearly as much,” he said.

“And then on top of that, something went horribly wrong here, something’s broken inside the judicial system that they managed to get somebody into jail for a crime that he was not 2,000 miles from committing,” he continued. “That somehow it all got approved through all these chains to get me into jail is wrong. Some of the things that have come out just recently here at the end really feels like ‘Oh my God, this should have never have happened’ and it starts to feel malicious. It starts to feel like they wanted me to sit in jail – if they can never actually get the person, let’s punish somebody.”

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