Cleared of Murder After 26 Years in Prison — Now What?

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A man who spent 26 years in prison for a murder that someone else confessed to on a 911 call has sued Lompoc, Santa Barbara County, the district attorney and a police investigator.

Joel Alcox, now 52, acknowledges in his federal lawsuit that he too confessed to the murder, but he says it was coerced from him when he was high on LSD.

Alcox was convicted of the 1986 murder of Thakorbhai Patel, owner of the Lompoc Motel, during a botched robbery. He spent 26 years in prison and four years on parole before his conviction was vacated for lack of effective counsel. In his March 17 lawsuit, he claims prosecutors also suppressed exonerating evidence.

According to the 48-page complaint, at around 6 p.m. on Feb. 16, 1986, Thakorbhai Patel, owner of the Lompoc Motel, knocked on a guest’s door just after shots were heard. One guest saw him collapse outside the door, yelling something like, “Sanjo, Sanjo, Sanjo.”

Police were called and he was found lying on the floor in his room with a phone in his hand and a gunshot wound in the chest. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. The motel’s cash drawer was open and a $5 bill was found on the floor.

Alcox says in the complaint that Patel was killed by one of his own friends. Two EMTs from the ambulance that tended to him “have stated that it was clear from the victim’s responses to their questions that the victim knew the person who had shot him, and that he consistently told them that it was ‘Sanjay’ or ‘Sanjo’ who shot him,” according to the complaint.

Eight weeks later, on April 11, 1987, Sanjay Patel called 911 from his father’s home, Alcox says. A tape of the call was played at Alcox’s trial. According to the complaint, it began like this:

Police: 911 Emergency.

Caller: Jay Patel

Police: Pardon me.

Caller: Jay Patel. I’m ready to go in for the murder.

Police: You what?

Caller: I’m ready to go in for the murder.

Police: I can’t understand what you’re saying.

Caller: I’m ready to confess to murder, Lompoc Motel.

Police: I understand Lompoc Motel, what is it you’re telling me?

Caller: I’m ready to admit to the murder.

Police: You’re ready to admit to a murder?

Caller: Yeah.

Police: What’s your name?

Caller: Patel.

Police went to his house and took him to the station for questioning, but decided he was just drunk, according to the complaint. Alcox says they did that because they already had arrested him and an alleged accomplice, Richard Lothery. He says prosecutors never gave a 911 tape or the police interview of Sanjay to his defense attorneys. They were discovered years later, after Alcox had been convicted.

Lothery’s name came up in an anonymous tip provided through the local newspaper on March 25, calling Lothery and a man named John Wilcox suspects. That’s how Alcox became involved. While looking over booking sheets for information on Wilcox, Lompoc police Officer Harry Heidt saw that Alcox had been arrested on March 24 for public drunkenness. Heidt then went out, found him hanging out in a parking lot in the small town of about 30,000 people and arrested him that same day. It would be 28 years before he would be free again.

A Hard Life Gets Harder

Alcox’s life was difficult from childhood. His attorneys, Robert Sanger and Frank Ochoa with Sanger Swysen & Dunkle in Santa Barbara, told Courthouse News that they want to make their case in court, not in the media, but they were willing to confirm facts reported previously by the Santa Barbara Independent and the Santa Maria Times, many of which also appear in the lengthy lawsuit.

Alcox was the youngest of nine children. His father died in a car accident and his mother was schizophrenic. When he was 8, authorities found him in the woods with his mother, eating insects to survive. She was institutionalized and he was sent to a series of foster homes before finally being adopted at age 14 by the Alcox family.

He played football in high school and graduated in 1982. He joined the Army but left after two years, due to smoking pot and drinking, though he was honorably discharged. When he returned home, his addictions took over. He was singing in a rock band, sleeping on couches, and every once in a while getting arrested — once for DUI and for other minor offenses.

Then on Feb. 16, 1986, Thakorbhai Patel was shot to death during a robbery at his motel, and told witnesses that Sanjo did it.

An acquaintance of Sanjay’s, Junia Fritz, told police that he’d brought a gun to her house on the night of the murder and asked her to clean off the fingerprints and hold it for him. Two days later, he returned and took it back. Her sister’s boyfriend, Michael Coleman, told Kenneth Ast, an investigator with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, that Sanjay had confessed to killing Patel, and that Lothery had done it with him.

Unfortunately, Alcox says, his attorneys did not employ an investigator or develop facts through discovery. He attributes that to a recent change in county policy that deducted the costs of investigative expenses from court-appointed defense attorneys’ final check. So, Alcox says, his attorney failed to even talk to Alcox’s friends, who were at a house party with him during the murder.

Arrest, Interrogation and Trial

Alcox had been released from custody for public drunkenness at 3 or 4 a.m. on March 24 and spent the next day “partying,” getting very drunk and taking LSD. When Heidt found him at around 9:30 a.m. on March 25, he was exhausted and still tripping on acid.

Defendants Heidt and Ast then interrogated Alcox for 6½ hours. After a few hours they asked him to take a lie detector test and he did. In the afternoon, they told him his story was not consistent, and told him, falsely, that his friends did not support his alibi. They also told him, falsely, that his fingerprints had been found in the motel office, that he’d failed the polygraph test and that witnesses had implicated him, according to the complaint.

Alcox’s memory of the weekend was hazy, but a transcript of his “confession” shows he was adamant for a long time that he knew nothing and had nothing to do with a robbery and murder. But in his state at the time, memory and critical thinking were hard, and the badgering by Heidt and Ast was relentless. Finally, Ast threatened him with a first-degree murder charge if he didn’t confess and Alcox began to crack. He said he’d been drinking in the park with Lothery, but then everything went “blank.”

By following up with leading questions, Ast and Heidt patched together a confession, with Alcox making things up just to get the ordeal over, he says. His story, that he fled the scene just before Lothery confronted and shot Patel, didn’t match where the victim was shot, what the victim looked like, what Lothery was wearing, how many shots were fired, and more — but he did pin Lothery as the shooter. When police arrested Lothery, they confronted him with Alcox’s confession. “How would Joel know? He wasn’t even around,” Lothery told police, according to the lawsuit.

The case against Alcox had three main prongs. First, his confession, and second, the testimony of a 14-year-old girl, Carolina Gonzalez. She claimed she’d heard Alcox confess to the killing while talking to a friend in an alley. Years later, she acknowledged that her testimony was probably a figment of her imagination due to the amount of LSD she was taking at the time. She said she identified Alcox because police told her to do it, and she was afraid. The third key piece of evidence was the testimony of sheriff’s department employee Carol Seilhamer, who said she overheard Alcox and Lothery discussing the murder charges while they were housed together in jail.

The jailhouse “confession” Seilhamer described in court did not match the actual conversation, which was recorded, but the tapes were not given to the defense, nor did the defense ask for them. When they were discovered, many years later, they showed that Lothery told Alcox that Sanjay had committed the murder, and asked why Alcox confessed to it. But according to the complaint, Seilhamer told the jury that she’d overhead Alcox confess and assure Lothery they would get away with it.

Lothery and Alcox were tried separately and convicted. Lothery is serving a life term. Alcox’s first trial ended in a mistrial due to prosecutorial misconduct during the opening statement; the second trial started in 1987.

According to Alcox’s lawsuit, his new attorney, Kenneth Biely, performed no investigation; never questioned Alcox’s friends about his alibi; took the words of Heidt and Ast that his friends were unreliable; and that prosecutors had other witnesses who would testify that Alcox was not at the party.

So, according to the lawsuit, Biely decided not to use Alcox’s alibi or his witnesses, and instead used the false confession as his defense: that he ran away during the robbery before the fatal shots were fired. By law, this still left him guilty and he was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery and first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

The Long Road to Freedom

According to attorney Sanger, Juliana Drous took on the case pro bono in 2000 because she saw the lack of a defense. Her contribution was about the only thing Sanger was willing to be quoted on, on the record.

“Juliana was really a hero in this. She represented Alcox for 25 years and prevailed,” Sanger said. “She’s remarkable. She’s argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court three times in her career.”

More than 13 years after the conviction, Drous found the witnesses she needed. According to the complaint, Gonzalez recanted her previous testimony in later hearings and Coleman reiterated what he had previously told Ast and Heidt in 1986. Lothery, who had invoked his Fifth Amendment right during trial, signed a declaration in 2003 that he and Sanjay committed the robbery, with Sanjay being the shooter.

In 2005, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Arthur Garcia reversed Alcox’s conviction for lack of effective legal counsel. But the county appealed and won.

Finally, in 2008, after exhausting his courses of appeal, Alcox filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, which was recommended in 2015 by U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich and honored on Feb. 2, 2016 by U.S. District Judge James Selna, both of the Central District of California.

By then, Alcox had been paroled — in 2012. Today he is married and working in a warehouse, delivering tires. Sanger said Alcox, a devout Christian, is very happy just to be able to get outside and deliver tires.

“He’s a really nice guy,” Sanger said. “It’s amazing what he went through in prison without a single write-up. He’s adjusted very well.”

Alcox seeks compensatory and punitive damages violations of the Fourth, Sixth and 14th Amendments, deprivation of liberty without due process, malicious prosecution, failure to train and supervise and deprivation of adequate counsel. Aside from failing to disclose the jailhouse tape recordings, misrepresenting them, and failing to disclose interviews with witnesses, Alcox says, the defendants never investigated Sanjay Patel for the murder, even though he confessed to it.

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office and the Santa Barbara County Counsel’s Office did not respond to emails seeking comment.

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