It’s a criminal court case with no police report, has a handwritten contract littered with misspellings, a victim with an unclear story and a guest role by players from the New Orleans Saints.
Yes, those Saints, of the National Football League.
The case against James Michael Riley, a recent Athens resident who sits in a Clarke County Jail accused of felony fraud in Louisiana, spans eight years, thousands of miles and one constant belief among friends and those defending the 38-year-old man: The Parish of Orleans has accused the wrong guy.
As Riley awaits return to New Orleans to face a charge he says he has nothing to do with, his attorneys in Georgia and Louisiana have writs on file with their respective courts trying to get him out of the jail and/or get the charges dropped. How Riley, who goes by Michael, got to this point is a sordid mess that evidence shows is not of his doing.
“It’s bad luck at the very least,” said attorney John Radziewicz, who is representing Riley in New Orleans. “But there’s no police report – I have the discovery and there’s no actual police report . . . They basically just assume whatever this lady told them is 100 percent true, but there is no independent investigation that I know of.”
“There is more and more evidence that this is not the guy,” said attorney Miguel Debon, who is representing Riley in Georgia.
Riley is accused of taking $55,000 from a 67-year-old New Orleans woman whose home, in the Xavier University neighborhood, was heavily damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Documents filed by the Parish of Orleans District Attorney reveal a series of handwritten notes it believes show the victim “entered into a contract with James M. Riley DBA Praise God Contractors to renovate her home” and “required that payments be made in cash; no checks would be accepted,” according to the application of warrant.
But the contract, which is unsigned by the victim, has three distinctly different signatures by a “James Riley,” has no mention of a middle initial for “James Riley” anywhere, and is riddled with spelling errors throughout, including spelling Praise God Contractors as Parise God Contractor.
“I showed the contract to Michael, he’s a bright guy, and he said ‘I’m horrified that they think I wrote this,’ ” Debon said.
It gets more convoluted when looking at the Contractor Fraud Complaint Package the DA asked the victim to fill out in 2010. According to the documents, the victim writes the contractor’s name was “Jases Riley” from “Prise God Contractor” who was between 45 and 50 years of age. The James Riley who has sat in the Clarke County jail since Dec. 15 was 29 years old at the time of the accusation and working for the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in San Francisco, according to several witnesses who filed affidavits on Riley’s behalf.
“NOPD doesn’t do an investigation, they don’t come out and talk to this lady,” Radziewicz said. “What happens is the DA’s office receives a complaint from the person who provides them an information form about whoever this James Riley is who stole from them … The Praise God Contractor’s guy was named James Riley and somehow they find him but I don’t know how they find him. They say it’s from a Social Security Number that is linked to his father but his father was a CPA in Louisiana and I think if they were looking for his father they would have found him. They would have found James Riley Sr. because he’s a CPA who like all professionals have license numbers that they can find easily.”
The Parish of Orleans District Attorney did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
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It takes a several years after the alleged incident before Louisiana files an arrest warrant for James M. Riley, who they write “did commit the crime of theft over $40,000 and theft of assets of an aged person,” which is signed in July 2013. During that time the alleged victim, thanks to the United Way of Southeast Louisiana’s Hope for the Holidays program, is donated the money to fix her home by various players from the New Orleans Saints. She gets the necessary funds in late 2011 and is back in her newly renovated home by summer 2012.
Riley, meanwhile, finally receives a letter from Louisiana in August 2015 at his California address ordering him to appear for a hearing in New Orleans. He makes numerous calls to authorities telling them they made an “identification error,” then hires Radziewicz to defend him during this process.
Radziewicz files a motion to quash the direct bill of information, which is a charge filed in Louisiana against somebody without having a police report or an arrest, because state law requires that once a charge is filed, they have two years to prosecute, and that time had lapsed. The motion was denied because the “judge believed that either Mr. Riley was purposefully avoiding detention for two years, which might be common in a theft case, or that the DA’s office made a diligent effort to locate him by sending one certified letter,” Radziewicz said.
As to why he didn’t mount an alibi defense on Riley’s behalf, Radziewicz said in Louisiana attorneys can’t challenge factual issues before trial.
“The ‘It’s not me defense’ is a factual defense and we have to try that issue,” he said.
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Radziewicz filed an appeal earlier this week in New Orleans maintaining the Parish of Orleans “didn’t make a diligent effort and that their efforts were probably deficient for legal reasons” in trying to contact Riley on the charge against him, Radziewicz said. Debon, while waiting for his hearing Jan. 29 in Clarke County Superior Court to get Riley freed for unlawful imprisonment, is gathering all the information he can and is sharing it with Parish of Orleans Assistant District Attorney Sam Crichton.
“Sam Crichton doesn’t want an innocent man in jail,” Debon said.
Debon is also talking with the sister of the alleged victim in order to get the whole story of what happened in New Orleans eight years ago. “We were told the victim was shown a picture of the driver’s license,” Debon said. “We don’t know how they connected it to the James Michael Riley now in Athens.”
Radziewicz hopes his file in appeals court gets him better results, but he has concerns it won’t turn out in Riley’s favor.
“The DA’s office in New Orleans is pretty vicious – they don’t drop many charges. Even if you bring them evidence that the guy was on the planet Mars they would say, ‘No, sorry, my boss says I can’t drop this case,’ ” he said.
“It goes back to this idea that there is some big, big, big holes in [the victim’s] story and what actually happened,” Radziewicz added. “And then you add this problem that when the victim eventually gets the money to rebuild her house, she gets it from a nonprofit who gets the money from the New Orleans Saints – who now has an axe to grind. The New Orleans Saints and the city of New Orleans want to take it out on all those fly-by night contractors who came down here to ‘save’ the poor New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina. They’re making it a big deal because the Saints are involved. They’re targeted your James Riley, the one who is in jail, because it’s a publicity case.”