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Friends Wrongfully Imprisoned for Nearly Two Decades — Until the Innocence Project Won Their Freedom 

Imprisoned nearly two decades for murder, it took another brutal slaying to free them

Thursday, Oct 18 2012
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Obie Anthony and Reggie Cole grew up around the corner from one another in South Central. The Nine Deuce Hoover Crips, a huge black gang, recruited them when they were 11 or 12 — they're not sure because, as Cole admits, "We were always 'claiming.' We grew up right there."

In their teens, life was about hanging out with friends and getting into fights at school. "We were just young punk kids out on the street trying to do what we was doing, hustling fast cash with drugs — weed and stuff like that," Cole says. "That was it."

But when the two hell-raisers were 17 and 18, in March 1994, Mexican immigrant Felipe Gonzales Angeles, a young father of four, was gunned down during a botched robbery outside a brothel at 49th and Figueroa* streets. Angeles' friends, waiting for him in a nearby car, were shot at. Eyewitness John Jones — a pimp who managed the building — reported seeing three young black male robbers, two with guns, open fire.

click to flip through (5) Obie Anthony and Denise Merchant just got married."She proposed to me in front of the whole visiting room," he says.
  • Obie Anthony and Denise Merchant just got married."She proposed to me in front of the whole visiting room," he says.
 

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In newspaper coverage, Miles Corwin of the Los Angeles Times reported the chilling audio caught by security cameras: "Give me your money ... all your money ... too slow ... kill him! Kill him!"

Jones told LAPD that one suspect limped away, possibly hit by a compatriot's stray bullet. Sure enough, that night two unidentified, young black men showed up at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital's emergency room, one with a heavily wrapped leg; they fled when the receiving nurse started asking questions.

When LAPD got an anonymous phone tip that "Baby Day Day," a 5 Deuce Hoover Crip, had "made the move at 49th and Fig" — an apparent reference to the murder at 49th and Figueroa — homicide detectives prepared "six-pack" photo lineups to show witnesses, including an MLK hospital guard and the pimp, Jones.

Jones chose both Cole and Anthony from the lineups, the only eyewitness to do so. Neither teen was a member of 5 Deuce, but they were members of another branch of Hoover Crips.

Jones' credibility should have made LAPD and the Los Angeles County district attorney far more wary, it later turned out. He'd killed a girlfriend and done time for it, and now he was facing 12 years in prison for pimping, so he needed a leniency deal.

"Jones said whatever they wanted him to say," Anthony says today. "He told three different stories by trial time. It was clear he was making it up as he went along."

Several weeks after the murder of Felipe Angeles, as Cole and Anthony nervously sat in jail facing an unrelated carjacking charge, LAPD detectives arrested them for the Angeles murder. Police found an old gunshot wound on Cole's leg, but the two teens insisted they had been home the night of the murder, nursing hangovers from a birthday party.

Curiously, LAPD never tied any physical evidence to Cole or Anthony despite the numerous fingerprints and footprints found at the crime scene. "You would think they would reconsider, but they didn't," Anthony says.

His attorney, Paige Kaneb, alleges that LAPD was "blinded by tunnel vision." But in 1995, a jury* gave them life. Lead LAPD detective Marcella Winn did not return calls seeking comment.

Years later, after the two friends had spent nearly half their lives in state prison, the pimp, Jones, would testify that his earlier claims were false. He had not seen the killer's faces. He'd merely heard about the incident from his daughters.

When the jury sent Cole and Anthony to prison for life, they did not know that District Attorney Gil Garcetti's office was going to decrease Jones' pending 12-year felony sentence for pimping, granting him three years' probation for helping ID Anthony and Cole.

The two scared young friends, now murder convicts, were sent to a place even more violent than South Central, circa 1994 — Calipatria State Prison near the Salton Sea, where such monsters as Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono were housed. The two men would still be there today, averting their eyes from rapes and fending off big, violent bodybuilders with nicknames like El Diablo, if not for the fact that the thinly built Cole knifed a prisoner to death in 2000 — a big, violent bodybuilder named El Diablo, in fact.

Cole contended that his shank attack against El Diablo was self-defense, but pled no contest to voluntary manslaughter. For nearly a decade, as the California Innocence Project team fought to get his first homicide vacated, the only human touch he received was from guards slapping handcuffs on his wrists when he exited his cell.

Ironically, had Cole not killed El Diablo, an act that elevated Cole's case to the death-penalty level, "Nobody would have represented him," explains Christopher Plourd, Cole's attorney, who volunteered with the California Innocence Project in San Diego. Plourd, who represented Phil Spector during his murder trial, led the team that took up Cole's case, convincing a judge that Cole had been wronged in his initial murder conviction as a teen.

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