Robert “Rider” Dewey spent 17 long years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. During that time, he endured constant legal setbacks and personal tragedies. This is how he made it to the other side.
There are no colors in prison. Almost everything is gray and grim, metal or concrete. Rough edges are left unsmoothed. A cement cell at the Limon Correctional Facility is less than seven feet wide by 12 feet long. If you reach your arms out, you can almost touch both sides of the narrow rectangle at once. You can’t pace in it. A steely toilet sits on one side of the room. A cot rests against the back wall beneath a narrow sliver of bulletproof glass. At night, far away, you can see the lights of civilization casting off an illuminated haze, a constant reminder that somewhere out there, just out of reach, life is happening. On the right side of the cell is a small metal platform that serves as a desk. It’s a place to write letters to your son, a teenager who’ll be a grown man long before you’re out; to your mother, who has never once doubted and never will doubt your innocence; to your wife, who’ll leave you long before this is all over. With a life sentence, time stops. Minutes feel like an eternity. Everything operates on the same rigid schedule: roll call. Breakfast. Work. Lockdown. Roll call. Lunch. Recreation. Cell time. Dinner. Roll call. It’s always the same—unless a fight breaks out. You walk into the chow hall and the violence just erupts. Prisoners scrap in fiery and glorious ways, using whatever weapons they can smuggle in or fashion. A shank can be made out of anything. Aluminum bars bracing a speaker? Rip them off, smash the ends, file ’em sharp: Voilà, a shank. Rapists are often the most targeted and tormented of all inmates, other than child molesters, and have to constantly watch for people who might want to attack them. Your name is Robert Dewey, and on October 16, 1996, you were found guilty of rape and murder. Natural life is your sentence. How will you survive?
•Kansas, 1964 Shortly before his fourth birthday, with the sun blazing down on the endless plains, Robert Dewey watched a family friend ride a Harley down the highway like a surfboard, one foot on the handlebars and one on the seat. The young Dewey could barely contain himself. Motorcycles! He had to have one. It would be an anxious nine years before he received his first, a Benelli 125. From then on, he always thought of himself as “Rider.” His mother, Donna Weston, sweet and God-fearing, remembers her young son as polite and considerate but hyperactive. “Rebellious” may be more accurate. Rider’s idol growing up was Evel Knievel. He’d heard the renowned daredevil ran away from home some 50 times as a kid. Rider tried to best Knievel’s record and nearly succeeded. He would hit the road for increasingly lengthy jaunts on his motorcycle. During these outlaw forays, he discovered expansive highways, the vast American landscape, and the strongest feelings of peace he’d ever known. He eventually dropped out of high school, left home for good, and fully immersed himself in a biker culture that led to drugs—and occasional run-ins with the law.
His first marriage, to Cindy Flenker, was brief. They had a son in June 1979: Shawn Michael Dewey. But the marriage withered. Cindy had ideas of how to raise their child that didn’t include Rider. When she left, he sought refuge on his Harley and in the places it could take him. Although he developed an on-and-off drug habit, he also remarried. He and his new wife, Barbara Barnes, toured 27 states during a year of uninhibited meandering that culminated in Mesa County, Colorado, a few months before the death of a 19-year-old woman named Jacie Taylor.
June 3, 1994 According to police and court transcripts and official testimony, Jacie Taylor was attacked in her living room, somewhere by the couch, likely with fists. A man entered her two-story apartment at 855 Inness Court in Palisade and beat her over and over. His manic pounding sent droplets of her blood spattering across the wall and onto the blue and white blanket rumpled on the sofa. Taylor chipped her fingernails, apparently trying to claw herself away as the man tore off her pants. He eventually wrapped a pink dog leash around her neck and pulled it taut, not for seconds, but for minutes. Once her fight had dissolved, the killer carried Taylor upstairs. Blood dotted the steps leading to the bathroom where he laid her in the tub. He turned on the faucet and, presumably trying to erase evidence, inserted several pieces of soap inside her vagina. He left two mementos resting just below her navel: a small brown pebble and a silver ring adorned with two hearts. Taylor was found the next day, nude from the waist down, face up in a tub of red-hued water.
By midmorning, Inness Court—a block of ragged apartments the meth crowd had claimed as its own—was swarming with neighbors gawking from behind yellow police tape. Palisade police officers arrived first and were soon joined by a Mesa County Sheriff’s Office investigator; Gil Stone, the chief investigator at the county district attorney’s office; and a lab tech named Joe Snyder. Snyder, an expert in blood analysis who was once employed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI), aided law enforcement officials with investigations and crime scene analysis. In Taylor’s apartment he found medium velocity blood spatter—the result of an already bloody surface being struck with a hard object—on pizza boxes in her living room, on the blanket, and on the sofa and the wall behind it. Snyder noticed blood leading up the stairs. In the bathroom, a bloody palm print darkened a wall near the shower. In Grand Junction, Dr. Robert Kurtzman performed the autopsy. Skin matter from Taylor’s attacker was lodged beneath her fingernails. One of the soap pieces inside her bore a surprise: a clear thumbprint. Kurtzman sent his findings to CBI for analysis. Inconsistent testimony hindered the investigation from the start. A snuff film was rumored to be circulating, but even after digging underneath a trailer where it was supposedly hidden and questioning people who’d heard of it, the video never surfaced. Nearly everyone in this fringe group had a rap sheet thick with drug- and assault-related charges, and many were quick to join a smear campaign so long as it pointed away from their own crimes.
There was but one consistency: a guy a lot of people were talking about. New in town. Biker type. Shifty. With few leads and no witnesses, Palisade police chief Greg Kuhn kept his eye out for the man they called Rider. He had a medium build; long, brown hair woven into a ponytail; and a universe of prison ink, mostly of the skull-and-chaos variety, winding around his arms and upper body.
June 6, 1994 Rider was at the C & F convenience store in Palisade when Kuhn first spotted him. “You resemble a guy named Rider,” Kuhn said. “Do you go by that name?” Rider had resumed using speed, and the drug magnified his paranoia over a recent incident. When a Grand Junction couple refused to pay him for engine work he’d done, he stole their Colt .45 handgun as collateral and split to Palisade to hide out. He couldn’t have picked a worse place to stay: on the couch of an Inness Court apartment with his friend Don “Mad Dog” Mallow and Mad Dog’s girlfriend, Dulcie Newland, just a few doors down from Jacie Taylor. Rider had arrived about a week before her death, looking for a place to crash after a series of fights with his wife. Rider knew Kuhn had questions about Taylor. That was fine. What bothered him was the warrant for stealing the Colt .45. If Kuhn discovered his identity, Rider was sure he’d be charged as a previous drug offender in possession of a firearm, a crime that could carry at least a one-year sentence. “No,” he lied. “Don’t know no Rider.” “What is your name?” “Mike Powl.” “How about you come down to the station later so we can talk about what’s going on?” Kuhn said. “Sure.” That afternoon, Rider met Kuhn at the Palisade Police Department. He provided the same bogus name, this time with a fake birth date and social security number, and claimed his identification had been stolen. “How do you know Jacie?” Kuhn asked. “What were you doing on Friday?” That, Rider could explain. It hadn’t yet crossed his mind that he was a suspect in her murder. He had been at Taylor’s earlier in the day looking for Sam Mallow, Mad Dog’s sister, who had a prison record and had been staying with Taylor. Rider thought Sam might have had speed, but she was tapped. He spent the afternoon at Mad Dog’s and returned to Taylor’s at 8 that night. Sam still didn’t have the drugs, so he retreated to Mad Dog’s place and didn’t leave again until the next morning. Kuhn asked about a homemade bandage on Rider’s arm. Rider had been scratching himself raw because of the speed, but he claimed the bandage was covering up battery acid burns. Kuhn didn't think the circular scabs looked like burns but didn’t say so. Instead he said, “We’ll just need to get your fingerprints. They might be needed for elimination.”
The print room jacked Rider’s paranoia even higher. On a disarrayed desk was a “wanted” flier that referenced the Colt .45 with a picture of him. He flipped it over when the police weren’t looking. They took Rider’s prints, snapped a Polaroid, and cut him loose. He walked out of town before the sun set. After he fled, Mad Dog and Dulcie Newland called the police so they could hand over Rider’s things: T-shirts, pants, the handgun, and a long-sleeved Texaco work shirt. Police picked Rider up in Pueblo within a few weeks. He still didn’t realize that a gun charge was the least of his worries. Rider’s last act as a free man was giving police another false name. It didn’t work. He spent the next 10 months in jail on the gun charge as the Jacie Taylor investigation continued. Detectives theorized that bloodstains on Rider’s Texaco shirt were Taylor’s, which would put Rider at the crime scene. Snyder determined the stains were medium-velocity blood spatter, consistent with the attack. The CBI sent its evidence to a DNA testing lab called GeneScreen in Dallas, which reported that semen found on the blue and white blanket was not Rider’s, nor was the matter beneath Taylor’s fingernails. Yet the DNA from both samples matched each other, indicating an unknown third party would have been present. GeneScreen ran two tests on the Texaco shirt. One was consistent with only Rider’s blood and excluded Taylor. But the other suggested a “mixed typing”—Rider’s DNA plus someone else’s. If the test was accurate, the second DNA sample was the same type as 45 percent of the Caucasian population, which meant Taylor was one of tens of thousands of possible matches in Mesa County alone. Regardless, it was enough for probable cause. On April 13, 1995, just a week before his scheduled release on the gun charge, Rider was arrested for the sexual assault and murder of Jacie Taylor. Rider was stunned. He’d admitted to stealing the gun and to having lied. But rape? Murder?
Even though the investigation had lasted more than a year, the evidence the prosecution brought to trial wasn’t really evidence. It was circumstantial, hearsay. Prosecutors cited Rider’s suspicious behavior. People with long histories of drug abuse testified. At least one of them had been drunk when the police interviewed her, and now, in September 1996, many of the witnesses didn’t always seem to remember things exactly as they’d happened. Back in 1994, Dulcie Newland claimed that on the night of the murder she awoke twice to find Rider and Mad Dog gone, and she said Rider had scratches on his face the next morning—scratches that hadn’t been there before. During the trial, though, Dulcie admitted that she’d made her statements to police while on the heels of a four-day meth bender.
Moreover, when Kuhn interviewed Rider just three days after the murder, Kuhn observed no scratches on Rider’s face or hands, only the “acid burns” on his forearms. Seemingly, had Taylor scratched Dewey, his DNA would have been beneath her fingernails. It wasn’t. Then there was the Mallow clan: Mad Dog and his brother, Jon, or “Monster,” and their sister, Sam, who was the last known person to see Taylor alive. On the night of the murder, three of Taylor’s friends visited her apartment: Jerome Bustos, Teri Erickson, and Lonnie Williams. When they arrived at about 9, Sam refused to let them inside. Bustos and Erickson testified that they looked through the window and saw Taylor lying on the couch. Only her leg was visible, and it wasn’t just sitting there—it was moving. For about an hour, Sam kept everyone outside. Bustos and Erickson left around 10, and Sam claimed she left with Williams around 10:30. But a neighbor across the street testified that he went outside at midnight to smoke a cigarette and saw Sam and Monster through the window of Taylor’s apartment.
He didn’t see the 19-year-old, but he did notice what looked like blood smeared on the wall. He knew Rider, and he said Rider wasn’t there. What happened between midnight and when Taylor was found is unknown, but the next day Sam phoned Mad Dog, asking, “Will you tell the police I was with you?” Later that day, Monster allegedly broke down to friends and said, “I can’t believe what my family has done.” He told them Sam fought with Taylor over a ring, and Sam returned it by “putting it on her body.” (During the trial, Monster denied saying any of this.) Sam admitted in court to arguing with
Taylor but claimed she’d never “possessed” the ring in question. She confessed to having a rock collection, too, but records show the pebble on Taylor’s abdomen was nothing special, just a nondescript piece of gravel. During a break in the trial, Gil Stone, the investigator from the district attorney’s office, approached prosecutor Martha Kent and Rider’s defense attorney, Randy Brown. Stone had just interviewed two girls who knew Sam, who was gay. Stone said according to the girls, “Sam liked to put dog leashes around girls’ necks, some sexual ecstasy, some dominance S&M thing.” “Well, where are they?” They were gone. The girls called Stone the next day saying they’d received death threats about this incident and another murder case and were leaving the county. They wouldn’t be testifying. Around the same time, Sam also disappeared. The next time Rider called his mother, he was elated: “Mom, don’t worry. All of this is pointing to my innocence. We have to go through it, but it’ll be fine.” And being a staunch believer, both in her son and in the righteous hand of her Lord, she replied simply, encouragingly, “OK. Good.” The lone physical evidence linking Rider to the crime scene was the Texaco shirt. It was all but eliminated when Brown called John Thornton to the witness stand. The lab director of Forensic Analytical Specialties in California was a leading expert on blood analysis, having written a chapter about it in a crime investigation textbook. He refuted Snyder’s claim that blood spatter caused the Texaco shirt’s stains. “I saw no indication of a pattern of medium impact or medium velocity blood,” Thornton told the court. He said it was impossible to say whether the blood was coming from inside or outside the shirt, and he also denied that the shirt contained any blood other than Rider’s. Other genetic testing experts weighed in, saying GeneScreen’s procedures were problematic and sloppy and that the sample the company used for the mixed DNA typing was potentially contaminated. One expert told jurors there was “certainly no evidence” that Jacie Taylor’s blood was on that shirt. In another setback for the prosecution, the thumb-printed soap crumbled before the print could be pulled. And the bloody palm print on the shower wall? CBI finally identified its origin: Joe Snyder, the lab tech. (Snyder says finding prints from law enforcement after they’ve analyzed a crime scene is nothing unusual.) Once it became clear Rider didn’t kill Taylor, the prosecutors switched gears, arguing that he may not have murdered her, but he must have been there and helped whoever did. It all made Rider think, There’s nothing to this. The evidence proves I’m innocent. But the jurors were mostly from Mesa County, a conservative part of Colorado. A young girl had been brutalized and Robert Dewey was a tough-looking biker with a checkered past. That the evidence was circumstantial didn’t matter. It came down to which group of experts the jury believed most. The complicity theory satisfied their suspicions, and on October 16, 1996, they read their verdict: guilty. After the judge handed Dewey a life sentence with no chance for parole, he asked, “Mr. Dewey, did you want to say anything?” Rider gazed heavily at the ceiling, stood up, looked at the judge, and said, “There’s still a killer out there.”
If Rider’s life in prison were song lyrics, the chorus would echo “appeal denied.” His defense team’s motion for a new trial was rejected. His appeal attorney, Karen Ashby of Denver, who has since become a judge, combed through the case. Stunned he’d been convicted, she filed an argument citing insufficient evidence. That was denied in February 1999. Rider then went to Colorado’s Supreme Court, which upheld the previous rejection. By 2001 Rider was appointed another lawyer from Denver, Douglas Joffe. They met in the visitor’s room of the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. Rider was fed up. “Look, if you’re just going to song-and-dance me to get a paycheck and blow me off, this is it, our last meeting. No disrespect, but I’ll find someone who will listen and believe me,” he said.
He took Joffe’s silence as a shrug-off. What Rider didn’t know then was that although Joffe might have been dubious—because he did post-conviction and appeals cases, his clients routinely proclaimed their innocence—he would doggedly pursue Rider’s freedom for the next 11 years for a fraction of his usual pay, eventually becoming Rider’s sole crusader. Their interactions started with letters discussing legal issues. Eventually, the attorney/client relationship developed into friendship. Rider told Joffe about his son, Shawn, and about the ways he tried to preserve his sanity through the relentless boredom, guards who made a sport of tormenting inmates, and the nighttime sobs of men who had dwindled into puddles of their former selves. Joffe visited Rider in prison more than anyone. Joffe knew exactly what it was like to exist in a world where no one understood. He had never absorbed the ferocity of other inmates’ fists, but Joffe had experienced and internalized the brutality of a society that largely believed him to be sick. From an early age, Joffe secretly identified as female. By his early 20s he became so terrified of public ridicule he buried his true identity—so deep that for the next 20 years, he forgot about it. Like Rider, Joffe suffered the loss of a partner. When Joffe was in his early 40s, his wife split after his gender memories came flooding back in a tidal wave of confusion and despair. Just as friends were dropping out of Rider’s life, Joffe suffered the abandonment of nearly everyone he cared for—once he decided it was finally time to become she. Rider and Joffe (who now goes by the first name Danyel) simply got each other. They deeply understood each other’s grief, and they fortified each other’s resolve. During Joffe’s transition, Rider signed off his letters with, “You stay strong pretty lady. I’m very proud of you.”
Maybe it’s that bond of misunderstanding and persecution that kept Joffe working for Rider’s release despite constant setbacks. Why she began to place her faith not solely in the justice system, but also in the possibility of miracles. And then, finally, one happened. In 2003, the FBI announced a revamped DNA database called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). It contains genetic records for all inmates who have been tested. Joffe immediately filed a motion to preserve the physical evidence in Rider’s case. If the real killer had been incarcerated for another crime, his DNA should be in CODIS. If they could retest the evidence and then upload the DNA to CODIS, they might get a hit. The district court granted Joffe’s motion in spring 2003, the first positive news Rider had received since his imprisonment. But there was a problem. DNA testing is expensive, and neither Rider nor Joffe had the money. With no other choice, Joffe launched the weary slog of searching for grants and petitioning organizations to cover the cost. It would take seven years.
Rider has Cherokee blood. He’d always been curious about his ancestry, and with no access to the open highway, after a short time behind bars he began to explore his past. By law, inmates can worship whatever god or gods they choose. For some incarcerated American Indians, their cathedral is the sweat lodge. In the glow of smoldering lava rocks, a dozen “brothers” would sway to the high-pitched, melodic wail of their songs, awash in scalding, purifying steam as they doused the rocks with water and passed around a pipe tamped with sacred herbs: sage, cedar, and tobacco. Guards were always looming near the “inipi” but couldn’t see under the oval structure of 16 bent willow branches pressed into the earth, connected at the top and covered in blankets. Nothing—not the searing heat of summer nor the brittle snowfalls freezing their hair stiff as they exited—stopped the sweat lodge brothers from packing the inipi. Rider wasn’t very religious, but in prison, he became devoutly spiritual. The sweat lodge was his new obsession. At only once a week, however, the cleansing sessions weren’t enough. To cope, to keep from losing his mind, Rider had to keep riding.
Every waking moment, in his head, he envisioned himself on a motorcycle. In the mess hall, inmates seated at gray tables in drab prison greens morphed into rows of motorcycles in different colors and styles, and he could pick any one of them. Sometimes he’d grab a cruiser, sometimes a low rider; it just depended on his mood. But they were all end-of-the-universe loud. He’d feel the wind whipping at his face, reminding and reassuring him that he was nothing like what he’d been branded as, nothing like what the courts and those on the outside said he was. He watched the seasons change from behind his bulletproof glass. It reminded him of holidays, family, his son’s birthday that he couldn’t attend, again. Shawn was changing—had changed—from the boy his dad remembered into a full-grown man. Shawn even had his own kids—grandkids Rider had never met but heard so much about.
April 2005 Rider had spent a decade in prison. He had started to wonder about trivial things. How long has it been since I petted a dog? What would it be like to actually touch a tree? What does the wilderness smell like? After a prison work accident he had a back surgery that did not go well. The rods and screws they implanted later impinged on the nerves in his spine. He also had a supposedly minor shoulder surgery that resulted in a month of complications and a nearly gangrenous limb. After finally being transported to Denver for proper medical care, he says the doctor told him, “You’re lucky. Real lucky. You could’ve lost your arm.” Occasionally, and only occasionally, Rider’s mother and her husband, Jim, would drive almost 1,100 miles from their Ridgecrest, California, home to the prison in Limon for a visit. They were allowed one hug. They were not allowed to hold hands. And the instant they’d stand to leave, Rider would start missing them all over again. He always worried before they arrived that something would ruin the reunion, because it didn’t always work out. Sometimes they’d set an appointment, but between leaving California and arriving in Colorado, the prison would go into lockdown, and they wouldn’t be allowed in. Eleven hundred miles, for nothing. It might be two more years before they could return. In March 2006, Rider requested post-conviction DNA testing. That same month, Shawn called with good news. He’d begun making arrangements to see his dad, hopefully in the next few months; their first visit since Rider went away. The district court denied Rider’s request for DNA testing on May 5, 2006. Two days later, Shawn, about a month away from his 27th birthday, was driving in Kansas City. He turned to address a friend in the back seat, swerved off the road, collided with either a metal structure or another car, and rolled his vehicle across a grass field. He died instantly. Limon Correctional was on a modified lockdown when the news trickled down to Rider three days later. He was told not by a loved one, but by a prison chaplain. Rider wasn’t permitted to attend his son’s funeral. He mourned the only way he knew: First, alone in his cell, and later with his sweat lodge brothers, swaying to the native songs with steam and tears rolling over him. He tapped into his Harley daydreams for escape. The following week, he sat at his desk intending to write his former wife but could find no words.
He just stared at the paper. What do you say? The court rejections continued. It took Joffe years—and several legal setbacks—to finally catch a break. Through an acquaintance, she reached the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, which is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners and has helped free more than 300 such inmates since its founding in 1992. Joffe submitted an application. It would take a year for the group to respond, but it finally accepted Rider’s application and agreed to pay for new DNA testing on the Texaco shirt, this time using modern protocols. It was a huge victory. Then, something even bigger: In 2010, armed with a $1.4 million federal grant, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, and others formed the Colorado Justice Review Project (CJRP), a prosecution-based exoneration program. Its goal: Review the cases of incarcerated inmates serving time for violent crimes, find examples of potential wrongful conviction, and begin the exhaustive process of getting the inmates released through DNA testing. Groups like the Innocence Project often have to litigate for every shred of information; the CJRP has the cooperation of every district attorney in Colorado. Julie Selsberg, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, runs the CJRP. She and her colleagues had about 5,000 cases to screen, some dating as far back as the 1960s. After a year, they’d whittled the list down to 1,400. Rider’s case file was buried in the “Mesa County” folder.
In January 2011, Selsberg received a call from Danyel Joffe. The DNA results from the Texaco shirt were finally back, and Jacie Taylor’s blood wasn’t on it. In fact, the lab ruled out any female DNA. The lone piece of physical evidence tying Rider to the crime had finally been refuted. Selsberg pulled Rider’s case out of order. In late March 2011, Selsberg and her investigator drove to Limon. They entered the large, gray visiting room and watched Rider walk slowly to greet them. The first thing Selsberg noticed was how oddly calm he seemed. She was used to inmates who vehemently proclaimed their innocence, whether it was true or not. She expected Rider to be pounding on the table, yelling,
“You don’t understand! Get me out of here!” Instead, he was so serene it was distracting. After 16 years in prison, Rider had only known letdowns. You can’t be anxious in a shoebox for that long; it’s no way to live. His composure stuck with Selsberg. She left knowing only that they had to keep investigating. As she continued searching for the truth, she found herself repeatedly asking a question many before her had pondered: What links him to this crime? The Texaco shirt mystery had been solved, but other questions remained: the dog leash, the skin beneath Taylor’s fingernails, the semen on the blanket, and the soap found inside her. Even though none of this had matched Rider, it had never matched anyone else, either. Selsberg wanted it all tested, and the person to do that was Yvonne “Missy” Woods—as Selsberg puts it, a “talented, no-nonsense” forensic scientist at the CBI. Woods received one batch of evidence in spring 2011 and a second that fall. Selsberg was on her winter break when, on December 19, Woods called: “You are not going to believe what I am going to tell you,” she said. She’d been able to retrieve DNA profiles from every piece of evidence, first confirming what was already known: Neither the semen nor the matter under Taylor’s nails was Rider’s. But also, DNA found on the dog leash, which had never been tested before, wasn’t his. They all matched each other. And most importantly, they matched someone in the CODIS database.
In 1995, four months after Rider was booked on the murder charge, a man he’d never heard of was arrested for the 1989 slaying of 39-year-old Fort Collins businesswoman Susan Doll. Doll had been beaten, raped, and found lifeless with a telephone cord wrapped around her neck. The killer, who was 16 when he murdered Doll, was Douglas Thames. Like Rider, he was staying on Inness Court in Palisade when Taylor was murdered, but he was on the periphery, younger than most of the residents and part of a different social circle. His fiancée, Becky Golden, attended high school with Taylor. Yet somehow Thames’ name never came up. During the investigators’ sweep of the neighborhood, he either wasn’t home or was simply overlooked. Even when he was arrested in Grand Junction—13 miles from Palisade—for killing Doll in nearly the same way as Taylor was killed, no investigator ever made the connection that might have exonerated Rider. The DNA implicated Thames in the murder of Jacie Taylor. But why would he leave the rock and the ring? Was Sam Mallow involved, or did Thames place those items on Jacie’s stomach as a setup? These questions remain unanswered but will be raised again when Thames is tried in 2014.
Spring 2012 Rider had heard nothing new about his case since the Texaco shirt was cleared more than a year earlier. Joffe was on a gag order while law enforcement officials* searched for any connection between Rider and Thames. They finally determined there was none. In late April, Rider was transferred from Limon to a jail in Arapahoe County, where he’d spend the night before transferring again to Grand Junction. Still handcuffed, with none of his possessions, he had no idea what was happening—until Danyel Joffe walked in. Rider opened with his usual line. “Am I going home yet?” Joffe smiled, nodded. “You’re getting out next Monday. Exonerated. Fully.” Rider said nothing for a beat, and then: “Is this a dream?” “No.” “Will you pinch me?” She pinched him. It hurt. Exonerated. Fully. At the courthouse in Grand Junction the following Monday, Judge Brian Flynn counted the days Rider had spent in jail: 6,219. The people who had always believed in Rider were all around: His mother and her husband sat behind him. Joffe was at his side. Selsberg was there. A pen pal flew out from North Carolina. When Rich Tuttle, one of the original prosecutors, stood, he looked Rider in the eye and said, “I deeply regret what the system did. I wish you the best, and I mean that sincerely.” Rider simply nodded and mouthed, “Thank you.” Rider was 35 when he was jailed. On the day he walked out into a bright Grand Junction afternoon, he was 51. The instant he exited the courthouse, he heard a Harley tear up the street, end-of-the-universe loud. He burst into a wide grin. On the steps outside, he burned a bundle of sage. Smoke clouded the air as he purified himself and his longtime defender. He waved the smoldering sage around Joffe, who, dressed in a gray suit, held her arms out, closed her eyes, and let the smoke waft over her.
(*This sentence originally stated that "Joffe was on a gag order while the CJRP attorneys searched for any connection between Rider and Thames." It should read "Joffe was on a gag order while law enforcement officials searched for any connection between Rider and Thames." We regret the error.)
As of last year, Colorado was still one of 22 states offering no compensation to the unjustly imprisoned. Rider had no permanent place to stay and little support. After having nearly two decades stolen from his life, his old skills were worthless. He’d never turned on a computer. Job training and education were never available to a man who was expected to die in prison. He qualified for $87 per month in food stamps and, thanks to his ruined back, about $700 per month in social security. Rider’s new world was unlike anything he remembered. Sometimes he’d find himself sitting in a dark room at the edge of his bed with the door closed, waiting for a guard to come around for roll call. Even though Rider was free of manacles and dead-bolted prison doors, he often forgot he was no longer caged. For 16 years, waiting had been his custom, and sometimes he’d linger for hours wondering why the guards were taking so long—before realizing they weren’t coming. Adjusting to the outside was no easier. Soon after his release Rider entered a Wal-Mart, a behemoth of such violent hues he had to run right back outside. He understood gray. White made sense. But not these screaming, electric colors. He smoked a cigarette on the sidewalk, collected himself, and walked back in. People now carried phones the size of those Zippo lighters he used to tuck away in his pockets. They no longer interacted face to face; they’d punch letters on a screen, and the letters got transported through thin fucking air to, well, somewhere, and through all this nothingness a message would come back. He wondered, Why don’t people just talk to each other? All this Facebook stuff. What’s that about? But his grandkids were all on Facebook. There was Michael, 16, who’d been going by “Little Shawn” ever since his father died in the car accident. And there was Tela, 18, who has a tattoo. Rider thought, There we go. Something in common. He had yet to hold them in his arms or see their faces without screens and hundreds of miles of separation. And so he figured out this Facebook thing and got to know his grandkids as best he could, fixing up a bike and biding his time until he could save enough money to visit them in Missouri, in person, to be there with them. “I don’t want to be that guy who sends them stuff all the time but is never there,” he told me. “It’s killing me I can’t go see them. I want them to be like, ‘Man! The dude’s cool!’ ” Nearly a year after his release, Rider found himself in Room 0112 at the Capitol. He was listening to Dan Schoen, the executive director of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, testify before a U-shaped audience of legislators that would decide his future.
They were debating a proposed bill sponsored by state Representatives Angela Williams and Dan Pabon and state Senator Lucía Guzmán: HB-1230, Compensation for the Wrongly Incarcerated. If it passed, it would determine what kind of resources and how much money per lost year Rider—and all the innocents who come after him—would receive. “Fifty thousand? Fifty-five? Seventy?” Schoen asked the legislators rhetorically. “How much to miss your kid’s birthday…sit in a cell…have people think you killed somebody? There is no price to make that up…we’re putting a price on a man’s life right now. I want everybody to think about that.” Then Schoen invoked his own daughter, who was six, and talked about what it would be like to never get to see her again. Rider couldn’t take it anymore. He left the room in silence, tears streaming down his face, and sobbed quietly in the hall until a gentle hand steered him back. The bill passed the Judiciary Committee unanimously. The House voted in favor, 60-2. The Senate approved the bill. Once Governor Hickenlooper signed it into law and after Joffe filed a formal request for compensation on Rider’s behalf—all of which still would take months to process—Rider would get education, financial counseling, and $70,000 for every year of wrongful incarceration, a total of $1.2 million doled out in 12 annual increments.
May 21, 2013 A few weeks before Governor Hickenlooper is scheduled to sign the bill, Rider is still staying at other people’s homes, still mostly broke, still occasionally waiting in dark rooms for prison guards who will never arrive. But he’s optimistic now. He finally worked out a way to visit his grandkids. The first time they told him how much they loved him, he melted. On this morning in the Grand Junction home of his friend Ginger Becker, all is quiet. We’re looking into a pond she built in the front yard. Three toads perch at its edge. Every night Rider hears them barking some mating call—he likes to think maybe they’re just having a party—and it makes him smile. What kind of toads are they? Becker responds in her croaking, raspy voice: “Just some old toads.” Rider aims for more precision: “Big-ass toads.” Becker’s large black Lab, named Lovey for obvious reasons, wanders over to Rider’s side. He idly strokes her head. He’s finally petting a dog. There’s a pile of tools in Becker's garage and a Harley that needs fixing. It’s hers, but he loves working on it just the same. Inside, Rider shows off some pictures, one of his son, and then some of his grandkids: That’s Little Shawn. That’s Tela. Their home in Missouri is the first place Rider will visit when the compensation comes. He’ll take a Harley, hit the open road, and escape to the family he still has. This time it won’t be a dream. “Come on,” he says to no one in particular, flipping through the images of his grandkids. “You tellin’ me you wouldn’t just give them the world?” m Bryan Schatz profiled Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino in the March 2013 issue of the magazine. Email him at [email protected].