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.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.