Dude, I Stole That Car!
Is California's original three-striker innocent of the car theft that sent him away for life? One man says yes–and confesses to the crime himself
The man in the mustard-yellow jump suit stands patiently behind the black wire cage. Handcuffs attached to each wrist are chained to his waist. Another chain binds his ankles. When a deputy unlocks the cage and leads him to a nearby chair, he's forced to take tiny steps; he seems apologetic for the inconvenience to his escort. When he sits down, the guard unlocks the prisoner's left handcuff from the chain around his waist and fastens the other end of the cuff to an armrest.
Thomas George Cargill, a graying but thick-haired 49-year-old man of average height and build, nods gratefully. Despite the restraints that provide a glaring reminder of the past decade and a half he's spent behind bars, he's in a good mood. After being convicted of a crime and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison as the first California resident to be convicted under the state's so-called Three Strikes mandatory sentencing law, Cargill has finally won a court hearing, in which he can tell a judge he's innocent.
He's been behind bars since May 29, 1994, when police arrested him for stealing a BMW convertible from a Huntington Beach car dealership. Cargill has always maintained his innocence, insisting that his then-girlfriend and her family set him up. Now, he has a letter from a man claiming he lent Cargill a Mercedes-Benz that witnesses who testified against Cargill may have mistaken for the stolen BMW. Even more important, he has a witness who is waiting on a bench outside the courtroom. And that witness is about to testify that he, not Cargill, stole that BMW.
The Orange County district attorney's office has done everything it can to prevent Cargill from getting his wish. Elizabeth Molfetta, a veteran attorney who has handled countless such writs of habeas corpus, has already filed detailed legal paperwork opposing the request. Although nobody says it, everybody in the courtroom knows that whether Cargill wins a new trial or goes straight back to state prison rests almost entirely on the credibility of the tanned man with thinning hair and brawny forearms who is outside waiting.
A few minutes before 2 p.m. on June 5, Judge Thomas M. Goethals strolls into the courtroom.
“I've read the entire case file,” Goethals says. “Frankly, now that I have some idea what the case is about, I've read some portions more carefully than others. The nature of this proceeding is a little unclear to me . . . [but] where I think we are going in this hearing is . . . Cargill is claiming we should have a new trial based on new evidence.”
If Goethals believes that the man on the bench, not Cargill, stole the car, then the first Californian to be sentenced to life in prison thanks to Three Strikes could become a free man. Over the next three hours, Cargill's future—a life behind bars or the hope of a new trial—will hang in the balance.
* * *
Back in the 1980s, Thomas Cargill had a bad habit. If he saw a car he liked, he took it. He favored high-end European luxury models that were so brand-new they were actually still sitting in a car dealership's parking lot. Problem was, Cargill wasn't too good at stealing them.
Between 1983 and 1992, Cargill went to prison four times, twice for auto theft and once each for burglary and receiving stolen property. The first time police arrested him for stealing a car was in 1983, when Huntington Beach cops pulled him over while he was driving a Porsche that a month earlier had been liberated from a local dealership. He'd already made a second set of keys for the car. Cargill was convicted of stealing the vehicle and sent to prison.
Two years later, he stole a Volkswagen from another Huntington Beach dealership, and later that year, a Porsche from a dealership in Newport Beach. Cargill pleaded guilty and went back to prison, but in 1992, he got caught again. Twice that year, cops caught him driving stolen cars: a BMW and a Volkswagen Cabriolet. Again, he pleaded guilty and received a three-year prison term. But on Dec. 29, 1993, Cargill got lucky, and after serving roughly half his sentence, he was released on parole.
By all accounts, just five months later, on May 29, 1994, Cargill got into a heated argument with his girlfriend, Holly Fawcette, at the Huntington Beach apartment she shared with her 2-year-old daughter and her nephew, Joshua Drenk. That night, Drenk wasn't home but at his other aunt's nearby apartment, hanging out with his father, John Drenk, and two uncles. According to Amber O'Rourke, a neighbor who later spoke with police, Cargill and a bathrobe-clad Fawcette walked out of the apartment, yelling at each other. After a few minutes, Cargill went into the garage and pulled out in what O'Rourke says was a BMW convertible Cargill had been driving for the past month or so. In the process, he scraped the side of the garage and tore off a yellow side reflector before he sped down Elm Street toward nearby Beach Boulevard.
O'Rourke offered to watch Fawcette's daughter while Fawcette called her brother to see if she could stay at his apartment. At 8 p.m. that night, John Drenk returned with his two brothers and his son, Joshua, to help Fawcette move her belongings. While Drenk was packing clothes upstairs, he heard Fawcette yell from the garage. He ran downstairs and saw Cargill standing there with his hands on the wall near the garage door. Drenk and his brothers told Cargill to leave, and they began arguing. Cargill said he had “some stuff, some old clothes” that he wanted to take with him.
According to Drenk, Cargill grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a set of car keys and walked off. A few minutes later, Huntington Beach police officer Sam Lopez pulled up on Elm Street, responding to a 911 call by O'Rourke. He ordered Cargill to stop and, after speaking with Drenk and his relatives, suspected that the BMW they said Cargill was driving had been stolen. Lopez called in the vehicle's description, but it was Joshua Drenk who first discovered the car parked around the corner in a Howard Johnson's parking lot.
Another cop who responded to Lopez's call searched the BMW and, in a driver's-side-door compartment, found a pink small-claims-court summons with Cargill's name. Police promptly arrested him for stealing the car. Besides the slip of paper, they found no physical evidence tying him to the car: no fingerprints and no car keys.
Lopez and another officer checked the route between the apartment and the car without luck. The next day, Detective Robert Westlake examined Cargill's property at the police station and the tow yard where the car had been taken; he did not find any keys. He and his partner returned to the apartment complex and checked the area, but again, they found no keys or other evidence linking Cargill to the car.
Four months later, after a two-day trial during which his defense attorney called no witnesses and presented no alternative theory about the car theft except that Fawcette's family “set him up,” a jury convicted Cargill of stealing the BMW. Cargill had taken a big risk, insisting he was innocent and rejecting a plea deal that would have allowed him to serve just four years behind bars.
After being convicted, while incarcerated at the Orange County Jail, Cargill was arrested again, this time for heroin possession. Once again, he insisted he was innocent, claiming that another inmate had confessed to him that he surreptitiously dropped the drugs into his pocket while standing in the chow line. The heroin case (he was found guilty in March 1996) delayed sentencing in Cargill's auto-theft case, but finally, on May 6, 1997, some three years after being busted for stealing the BMW, Cargill became the first Californian to be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison under the state's brand-new Three Strikes law. In legal forms he wrote from prison, Cargill appealed the car-theft verdict and lost.
One day, after 11 years behind bars, a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of Paul J. Coppola, a self-described alcoholic and drug addict who'd been sent to prison for a few too many DUI arrests. In late 2005—the exact date is unknown—Cargill was hanging out in the outdoor recreational area at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga when an inmate introduced him to Coppola, another convict from Huntington Beach.
A brief conversation ensued, during which time Cargill and Coppola recognized each other as drinking buddies in the months leading up to Cargill's arrest. The exact dialogue that allegedly took place is lost to history and poor recollection for detail (on Coppola's behalf at least), but it ended with a spectacular punch line: Coppola, upon learning that Cargill had been busted for stealing a BMW in May 1994, confessed that he had stolen the car in question.
Coppola also told Cargill he'd be more than happy to sign a declaration and, if necessary, testify in court that he, not Cargill, was the thief. On June 5, this promise brought him to Westminster and the courtroom of Thomas Goethals.
* * *
After several minutes of procedural discussion about the case, Cargill's defense attorney, James Crawford, calls Coppola to the stand. He calmly strides forward, takes his oath and sits down, facing Crawford. For the next hour, he tells the story of how he stole the BMW and inadvertently caused Cargill to fall under suspicion for his crime.
It all started at Club 5902, a nightspot in Huntington Beach. Coppola had just moved to the city from Mammoth, and he was trying to get a fresh start in life after checking out of an alcohol-rehab program. According to Coppola's own testimony, he wasn't off to much of a start: He estimates that he went to the club several nights a week to drink at the bar. In February 1994, he met Cargill at the bar for the first time.
“We were in the club together having drinks,” Coppola testifies. At the time, Cargill had a suspended license and no car. “He asked if I could give him a ride home,” Coppola recalls. “I did. After a while, we exchanged phone numbers.”
Because Coppola didn't know Cargill too well, he didn't feel comfortable giving him his real name. He told Cargill his name was Paul West. A few days later, Coppola gave Cargill another ride. Cargill, who always seemed to have cash on hand, would buy him drinks and offer to pay for gas. “I was trying to do something around Huntington Beach to make money,” he says. “He would call me when he was at his girlfriend's house. . . . Two or three times a week, I saw him.”
After a few weeks, Cargill even gave Coppola a pager, which would ring whenever Cargill needed a ride. On May 13, 1994, Coppola says, he was hanging out at Jack's Sugar Shack on Huntington Beach's Main Street with an acquaintance named Smiley; Coppola is not sure about his last name. “Ochoa, maybe,” Coppola says. “I asked him if he could get me some weed, and he said he could hook me up if we drive to Santa Ana.”
The pair drove north along Beach Boulevard, and as they reached Heil Avenue, Coppola says, he noticed some movement inside a parking lot at Huntington Beach Dodge. “I see a man come up to a car, a BMW, blue, it was a convertible . . . a 318i,” he says. “He was putting a key in a lock box on the window. But as he done it, he walked away, and it fell back open.”
Coppola told Smiley to pull a U-turn. “I got out, went over to it, opened [the lock box] and took it [the key],” he says. “I got back in the car and went to Santa Ana and picked up some weed.” Figuring that he'd return to the dealership on the weekend, when it would be less busy, he waited a few days. At 2 or 3 a.m. on the morning of May 16, he says he returned to actually steal the car. He says he got a ride to the dealership from a “lady” he met at a bar.
“I asked if she could give me a ride to get dropped off around the corner,” he says. “I walked over to the car, I got the key, took the lock box out, shoved it under the car behind us, took off, drove around the corner and took off some stickers.”
“Was Thomas Cargill with you when this happened?” Crawford asks. “Was he aware you stole this vehicle?”
“No, Thomas Cargill had no idea this happened,” Coppola responds emphatically. “He had no idea it was stolen.” Coppola adds that Cargill never even set foot in the car, but saw it once or twice. “I said I borrowed it from my brother,” Coppola adds. “He never got in the car.”
On May 29, 1994, the night Cargill was arrested for stealing the BMW, Coppola says that Cargill paged him and asked him to pick him up at his girlfriend's apartment. “He asked if I would come over and pick up some bags,” Coppola says. When he arrived at the apartment complex, he saw the pair arguing outside. “He put the bags in the back of my car. They kept yelling and going at it. I felt uncomfortable. I had a stolen car.”
Without warning, Coppola says, he sped away with Cargill's bags in the back seat of the convertible. The wind began to blow some of Cargill's paperwork around, so Coppola pulled into the nearby Howard Johnson's parking lot and put the roof down. He then glanced over the fence and could see Cargill standing in front of the garage arguing with several men. “I thought they were going to beat him up,” he says. “I thought I'd go back and pick him up.”
But by the time Coppola drove back to the apartment, he saw Cargill being followed down the street by the same men. As he watched, a police car arrived. So Coppola drove back to the Howard Johnson's and put all of Cargill's belongings in the trunk. He then walked back toward the apartment. “I saw they had him handcuffed,” he says. “I thought, I'm not going over there and get involved.”
As he walked back to the car, he saw a police cruiser pull into the Howard Johnson's parking lot. He kept walking. “I decided to make a phone call to get a ride,” he says. He never saw Cargill again at the bar and figured maybe he'd been arrested for something, but Coppola never expected it would be for stealing the BMW.
“I stole the BMW,” Coppola says, concluding his testimony. “Mr. Cargill had nothing to do with it. I couldn't even care, but I feel bad all these years. . . . I want to do the right thing.”
* * *
As Coppola winds up his story, he's clearly gotten the attention of Judge Goethals. He has just provided an incredibly detailed story that completely exonerates Cargill. His testimony also fills in certain gaps in the case—including why police were never able to find any keys in Cargill's possession. One inconsistency: Coppola says he put Cargill's bags in the trunk of the BMW; police didn't find them in the car at all.
A big part of the original case against Cargill was courtroom testimony by John and Joshua Drenk alleging that Cargill borrowed tools to bust open a lock box a few weeks before his arrest. But as Cargill has already argued in pro se declarations leading up to this hearing, employees of the car dealership apparently never mentioned the lock box being missing—just the keys. In fact, transcripts of Cargill's original trial show that those employees testified that they originally thought the car's owner had simply kept his keys with him when he dropped the car off for service and later had come back and retrieved the vehicle.
They didn't realize the car had been stolen until they called the owner and he insisted he'd left it there with the keys. Coppola's testimony that the lock box was unlocked and that he left it under a nearby vehicle would not only solve that mystery, but also indicate that the Drenks' testimony against Cargill was untrue, just as Cargill had always said it was.
After Coppola finishes talking, DA Molfetta begins to cross-examine him. First, she questions why Coppola would feel comfortable enough to give rides to Cargill but not give his real name. “I didn't know him that well,” Coppola replies. “I wasn't going to give him my real name.” Coppola insists that he told Cargill his name was Paul West because that was the surname of his brother by a different mother, who owned a business where he briefly worked, and he had that name printed on his work uniform as a joke.
Then Molfetta asks Coppola to explain how he expected anybody to believe he stole the BMW when he had never stolen a car in his life, despite a long criminal record for driving drunk and passing bad checks. “I don't know,” he responds, defensively. “A key fell out. It was my lucky day. I wanted to look cool in a nice car.”
Molfetta continues to prod Coppola with questions. While Coppola has an amazing ability to recall the details of his theft of the BMW, he repeatedly fails to remember other events she asks him to describe. Suddenly, Coppola seems to crack under the pressure. “You know, all this is, lady?” he seethes. “I stole this car, and if you want to make something of it . . .”
Molfetta raises her eyebrows as the two deputies in the courtroom begin marching toward Coppola, who remains seated. Goethals waves them off, but they stand ready to arrest him. “That's not the way this works,” Goethals tells Coppola, instructing him not to address anybody unless answering a question. He instructs Molfetta to continue her interrogation, but she's finished.
And then something happens that nobody, least of all Cargill or Coppola, could have possibly expected: Goethals begins his own, grueling examination of Coppola, something that is very rare and perhaps motivated by the brevity of Molfetta's cross-examination. Generally, judges sit back and let the lawyers do the fact-finding, but Coppola's incredible tale has stirred Goethals' curiosity. Among other things, he repeatedly asks Coppola to recite his own criminal record as well as what drugs he was taking at various times in his life.
“I don't usually ask questions, but this is a really unusual case.” Goethals explains.
* * *
Coppola states that he was doing coke from 1985 to 1997, heroin from 1993 to 2002, and drinking from 1985 to 2002. “I'm in a program right now,” he adds. “I'm working on all my addictions.” He also admits that he was snorting coke and drinking on the day he stole the car.
“What were you drinking?” Goethals asks.
“A little bit of everything,” Coppola responds. “I have three DUIs. I was doing coke and had started using heroin.”
“You're changing your story,” Goethals says. “First drugs, then just alcohol, and now drugs.”
Things don't get much better for Coppola—or Cargill, for that matter—from there. After an increasingly disdainful barrage of questions, Goethals dismisses Coppola from the room and begins to spell out his reaction to the testimony. “Coppola . . . is a problem,” he says. “Any person with a brain . . . Why should I believe him?”
Crawford struggles to sway the judge. “Because the story makes sense,” he says. “Like what happened to the key. When you look at the trial testimony, there are gaps. The mystery of the lock box. It also explains how the BMW got to that location that night.”
Crawford waves in the air the letter by another witness, who claims he lent Cargill his Mercedes-Benz, which witnesses may have confused for the BMW they testified Cargill was driving in the weeks leading up to his arrest. He reminds Goethals that neighbor O'Rourke testified that Cargill had been driving the supposed BMW for roughly “two months,” which would be impossible given that the car had only been stolen two weeks before he was arrested. “Mr. Cargill is spending 25 years to life for this verdict. I think this verdict should be right. All he is asking for is the chance to put it before another jury.”
Molfetta shakes her head. “There is no confusion between a BMW and a Mercedes-Benz,” she says. “The defendant has a history of stealing expensive cars from Huntington Beach dealerships. And Coppola has never done this before. But on this one day, Coppola steals the car. And lo and behold, it ends up in [Cargill's] back yard!”
Goethals screws his face up into a portrait of intense concentration. “I don't find [Coppola] particularly credible,” he says. “He says, 'I have a difficult time remembering details, but I remember one time driving up Beach Boulevard and seeing this nice car and stealing it.'”
Equally dubious to Goethals is the prison-yard meeting a decade later. “You don't see Mr. Coppola for 11 years, and you have this fortuitous meeting in this prison yard, and when he can no longer be tried for the crime, he confesses.”
Although Crawford has pointed out that Coppola risks a perjury conviction by confessing to the robbery, Goethals is clearly suspicious of the timing of the confession, given that it arrived just after the statute of limitations for auto theft has expired. It doesn't help matters that Cargill can provide no proof he ever made any effort to find the man who happened to be giving him a ride in a BMW the night of his arrest, but who apparently went unnoticed by all the witnesses who testified against Cargill. (After Coppola confessed to Cargill, both Cargill and his parents signed declarations stating that they had tried to locate Coppola to testify in the original trial, but that they couldn't find him without knowing his true surname.)
But more suspicious than all that, to Goethals at least, is the prison-yard meeting. To Goethals, it has the distinctive whiff of a work of fiction, namely the scene in Shawshank Redemption in which the protagonist learns from a fellow prisoner that another man has bragged in convincing, unimpeachable detail about the murder that put him behind bars. “It's one of my favorite movies,” Goethals says. “That scene is the only one where I was scratching my head.”
Dispassionately, Goethals then announces that he will not grant Cargill's request for a new trial. “When I began looking at your case, I was hoping I could grant you relief,” he says. “Eventually, we are going to have to release three-strikers. I don't know if that will affect you, but maybe you will be one of them. Good luck to you, Mr. Cargill.”
Cargill is dumbstruck, frozen in his seat. Crawford whispers in his ear as Molfetta walks out of the courtroom. Goethals stands up, watching Cargill trying to come up with a last-minute line of argument. But Goethals is having none of it. “We're done here,” he says. “It's time go, Mr. Cargill.”
* * *
At press time, Thomas Cargill was on his way back to Pleasant Valley State Prison, where he has spent the past 14 years for stealing the BMW; he will not be eligible for parole until 2019. For his part, Coppola, who has been out of prison for only a few months, says he can't understand why Goethals didn't find him to be a credible witness.
“I don't know why the judge would think I was bullshitting for somebody I just met,” he says. “I just wish everything had worked out, and Thomas would get out, and it would be headline news, but now they are going to make me look like a liar.”
Coppola says he never considered whether the statute of limitations had expired on the crime, but that he was prepared to go back to jail if necessary. “I discussed it with my family,” he says, “and they said, we don't want you to go back, but if need be, you have to do the right thing.” He thought that testifying on Cargill's behalf would make granting him a new trial a “slam-dunk” case.
Meanwhile, he says, he's busy working as a roof installer and trying to keep clean. “I promised my mom I'd never go back to jail,” he says. “That's why I'm staying with her at the moment because I'm trying not to fall back into my old ways. I don't need no monkey on my back.”
Confessing to the crime that put Cargill away for life is part of the process. He continues to insist he's the real thief. “When I saw him in prison, I told him I was going to straighten this out,” he says. “Why should he be in prison for something that wasn't his doing?”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).