Some people tell Roxann Wansley that she's naïve to stay with her husband Eddie. For three of the four years they've been married, Eddie's been in prison, leaving Roxann to care for the couple's two small kids, work a full-time job and inch her way toward a college degree. She makes a 117-mile roundtrip each day from her Escondido apartment to her daughter's daycare, her son's elementary school and her job at Miramar College. Two weekends each month, she takes the kids north to Blythe to see their dad. Rarely a week goes by when she's not on the phone with, or writing a letter to, someone whom she thinks might help Eddie get a new trial. It's only at night in bed, after the kids are asleep, that she'll sometimes allow herself to let go and cry.
Eddie's in prison for at least another 35 years—the shortest duration permitted under California's “three strikes” sentencing guidelines. Essentially, he's considered a lifer.
Earlier this year, Roxann tried out for the police academy. Her major at Miramar College is administration of justice with a minor in psychology. She passed the written test and the physical test, but when the academy found out her husband was in prison, they disqualified her, citing a conflict of interest. She was disappointed, “but things happen for a reason,” she said.
Eddie's story, told through court files, begins Feb. 20, 1999, when, one week past his 18th birthday, he was arrested for armed robbery. According to court records, Eddie and Eugene Strong, 36, held up the Four Seasons restaurant in Chula Vista twice, armed with a BB gun, and took a few thousand dollars from the restaurant's safe. Strong had been convicted 12 years prior for armed robbery. He was also a documented gang member and lived in the same Encanto neighborhood where Eddie grew up. Strong didn't have a car and Eddie did-somehow he talked Eddie into being his driver. Police caught up with the pair a couple blocks from the restaurant.
On the advice of his attorney, Eddie pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree robbery and served roughly half of his four-year prison sentence. As part of the plea agreement, he was also given two strikes-one for each robbery count.
Roxann says Eddie never denied what he did, and never denied that it was stupid. “The reason I did it was because I felt like I had to prove something to my so-called ‘homeboys,'” he wrote to Superior Court Judge Kenneth So in August 1999, shortly before he was sentenced to Jamestown state prison. “I know now that I don't have to be anybody but myself and that was not me.”
Now, almost six years later, Eddie's back in prison, having so far served less than two years of a 40-year-to-life sentence, again for armed robbery. It was his third strike. He won't be eligible for parole until 2040. Unlike the other crime, there's nothing to explain or take blame for—he says he's innocent.
Eddie was convicted on March 18, 2003, for holding two guys in their early 20s at gunpoint in their San Carlos apartment while he and an accomplice stole several thousand dollars worth of music equipment, CDs and electronics. The victims told police there was a third accomplice who stood guard outside. The two co-conspirators, however, were never found.
The only thing linking Eddie to the crime was eyewitness testimony from the victims, one of whom had met Eddie before. Police found no physical evidence at the crime scene. Neither did they find a weapon nor any trace of the stolen property when they searched Eddie's car, workplace and apartment.
Roxann says she knows her husband better than anyone and she knows he didn't do it. She believes her husband was an easy target because he had been to prison before and that the victims lied to the police. Eddie was home with her the evening of Sept. 9, 2002, putting together a miniature motorbike for their son's third birthday.
“Is that too normal,” she said, “for him to come home from work, have dinner and put a bike together for his son?” She says this with a mix of defiance and sadness.
When Eddie was arrested in 2002, the couple, though young-Roxann was 20, Eddie 22-were close to living a comfortable, middle-class life. They had two healthy kids, a nice apartment and good jobs. Roxann made close to $40,000 working as an accountant for the San Diego Community College District, and Eddie brought home between $600 and $800 a week doing auto-body work.
“If I had a slim doubt [he was guilty],” Roxann said, “I'd be the first person to admit it and be gone. I wouldn't stand by someone who's done something like this to me and put me in the situation I am now. But I know for a fact he did not do it. He did not do this crime.”
In her effort to clear her husband's name, Roxann's met with people in the district attorney's office and high-ranking police officials—her persistence has impressed some and annoyed others.
“It's rare that [law enforcement] gets people who fight as much as I do,” she said. “I don't want them to bullshit me-just tell me what's going on. Don't give me terms and policies as if I'm not going to understand them because as soon as I walk away, I'm going to look them up and figure out what you're talking about.”
Since his 2003 conviction, Roxann has become, as she puts it, Eddie's “eyes, his ears, his mouth and his feet.”
From prison, Eddie sends her handwritten letters full of case-law citations and issues from his trial that he thinks might help get his conviction overturned, and he asks Roxann to get that information to the right people.
“You are my better half,” he tells her in a letter sent Sept. 11, 2003. “I will continue to do my research and share all that I learn with you. This is our fight.... don't let nobody or nothing discourage you.”
At times his letters read like a legal brief, with case references crammed between the kind of imperfect grammar and phonetic spelling that come from earning your GED behind bars. Eddie's letters begin with the usual formalities, asking Roxann how the kids are doing and telling her he's received packages she's sent. Then midway through each letter is a section he sets off with the heading “Legal news,” such as one letter from Oct. 27, 2003:
“Legal news: I'm enclosing this memorandum to all Deputy District Attorneys,” he writes to Roxann. “It's from the head District Attorney of Los Angeles County, Steve Cooley. I'm sending you this because all the case law in this packet... [is from] landmark cases.”
In spite of their effort, Eddie and Roxann are learning the hard way how the legal system works. The appeal Eddie filed in state court earlier this year came back with the appellate judges agreeing that jurors convicted the right man. And the public-defense attorney who represented Eddie on that appeal says he can't do anything more to help him. That same attorney told Roxann that a habeas corpus appeal—one that allows an appellant to introduce new and potentially exculpatory evidence—is Eddie's best bet. Roxann just needs to find someone to write that appeal.
Though she's won the respect of San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne, whom she's met with several times to discuss Eddie's case, the chief says his hands are tied-as far as the police are concerned, the case is closed. “I absolutely admire her,” Lansdowne said of Roxann. “I appreciate what she's doing [for Eddie], but to reverse a jury's decision, we need new information.
“Give me a new piece of information,” he said, “and we'll go after it with a vengeance.”
Roxann thinks she found that information, and even though it might get Eddie a new trial, she's afraid of what might happen in the interim-word travels fast and snitches aren't well-regarded in prison, she said.
Roxann and Eddie met growing up in Encanto. She was 10 and he was 11. They both attended Patrick Henry High School in San Carlos and began dating when she was 15. She said she was attracted to his self-confidence and maturity. While his peers opted for gangster-style clothes, Eddie wore khakis and collared shirts. He worked after school and weekends at Pacific Coast Auto Body in Mira Mesa and saved money in a mayonnaise jar so that he and Roxann could move into a studio apartment in Linda Vista, closer to high school and away from their rough neighborhood.
But there were two sides to him at that age, Roxann said-“there's the sweet Eddie that I knew and the hardcore person he tried to be around certain people.” In December 1998, police found a gun in a car to which Eddie had the keys, and a month later, according to court records, he and Eugene Strong held up the Four Seasons for the first time.
When he was arrested that February, Roxann was seven weeks pregnant with their first child. When police came to search the couple's apartment, they pulled her sonogram off the refrigerator where she had taped it. One officer told Roxann she was too young to be having a kid, she said.
Eddie's parents thought it would be best to hire a defense attorney for their son rather than go with a court-appointed public defender, but they didn't think to check that attorney's background with the state bar. According to disciplinary records maintained by the California Bar Association, when the Wansley family hired attorney John Covey in February 1999, Covey already had one felony conviction and six misdemeanor arrests for charges ranging from drug possession to spousal abuse. In 1998, a jury found him guilty of battery and being under the influence of methamphetamine. Less than a year after Eddie was first sentenced to prison, Covey pleaded guilty to felony drug possession.
Covey advised Eddie to plead guilty to two counts of second-degree robbery in exchange for four years and two strikes. Strong was also offered a deal—even though a guilty plea would mean his third strike, he'd be eligible for parole in 2006. It was a package deal—they both had to agree to plead-and Strong wanted Eddie to take it. Two days before Eddie was scheduled to change his plea from not guilty to guilty, Covey's license was suspended for failing to pass a professional responsibility exam and a friend of his had to take over Eddie's case.
When interviewed by Citybeat for this story, Covey, who, according to the District Attorney's office, is currently being prosecuted for drug charges, child endangerment and assault on a police officer—all to which he's pleaded not guilty—insisted he gave Eddie the best defense possible and that the plea deal he encouraged Eddie to take was better than what a jury might have handed the 18-year-old first-time offender. Covey also said he was off drugs when he took on Eddie's case.
As Eddie would later write to the judge who presided over his 2003 trial, “I feel in many ways my mistake... in 1999 is now haunting me for life. If it weren't for [the] two strikes... I feel this case would never have made it this far.”
“It was something they should have gone to trial for,” Roxann said of Eddie's 1999 case. “Yes, Eddie would have been convicted, but he wouldn't have had the two strikes; he would have had one and some [prison] time. People were behind him 100 percent; he was a good person, a good kid. Things happen, you make mistakes. He paid for it and he's still paying for it.”
Eddie did well his first time in prison, staying to himself and away from the constant fighting going on around him. He earned his GED, took classes in childcare, earned a license from the state wastewater control board and got a job at a nearby water-treatment plant through a prison work program. “He didn't just sit back and kick it; he wasn't that type of prisoner,” Roxann said.
Roxann and the couple's son moved to Modesto to be closer to Eddie. She rented an apartment and got a job at the local community college. She and Eddie agreed it would be best if they didn't return to San Diego upon his release. One of the terms of his parole was that he couldn't associate with any known gang members and, given that most of the kids they'd grown up with had gang ties, they felt that moving back to Southeast San Diego would be like moving into a mine field.
Eddie was released on May 24, 2001, and returned to San Diego to check in with his probation officer, who agreed he'd be better off living outside San Diego. The probation officer put in a request with the Modesto parole unit and gave Eddie a 30-day pass to return to Modesto with Roxann. Thirty days passed and they still hadn't heard whether or not his transfer was approved. Eddie returned to San Diego and got another 30-day pass to leave the county. His San Diego parole officer submitted another transfer request. This time they got an answer—request denied; Modesto had reached its quota of parolees. Eddie got one last 30-day pass and moved his family back to San Diego.
The couple decided to move in with Eddie's parents until they could find a place of their own. On Aug. 11, 2001, three days after they'd returned from Modesto, Roxann gave Eddie the keys to her car and asked him to run to the store for some food. He didn't return. Within a couple of hours, Roxann and Eddie's mom, Brenda, were pretty certain he'd been picked up by police.
At the store, Eddie ran into an old friend, the son of his mom's best friend. The friend also happened to be a documented gang member. Police spotted the two talking, asked for their names and arrested Eddie. He was sent back to prison for another six months for violating his parole.
Roxann knew Eddie's chances of getting a transfer to another county were slim, so she found an apartment in Escondido-it was the edge of the county as far as probation was concerned.
Eddie was released from prison on Jan. 8, 2002. Roxann helped him put together his résumé and within two weeks he had a job working at Midas. Two months after that he was offered his old job back at Pacific Coast Auto Body. Roxann became pregnant with their second child—something the couple didn't plan, she said. Medication she was prescribed for an ulcer rendered her birth-control pills ineffective.
Roxann said the unplanned pregnancy caused some marital tension. Compounding matters was the stress of having been apart for so long; even the traffic they each had to deal with every evening traveling back up to Escondido from work put them on edge.
Eddie, who always had an interest in cars, started hanging out at illegal street races with a crowd Roxann didn't know much about. He got two tickets-one for speeding and another for being at the races. He also started spending time with a girl named Natasha, who'd been dating Eddie's brother-in-law Raymond. When Raymond went to prison, Eddie and Natasha started spending more time together—Eddie would later tell Roxann that he felt sorry for Natasha and so he'd give her rides to friends' houses and to the street races. Roxann didn't know about the relationship until it became an issue in his 2003 trial. She says she and Eddie have dealt with it and moved on.
According to the testimony of victim Eric Charkins, Eddie and Natasha came over to Charkins' San Carlos apartment the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2002, ostensibly to look at the small recording studio Charkins had set up in his bedroom. Two days later, at around 9:30 p.m. Eddie came back, this time with a black man described by Charkins as wearing blue pants, a blue shirt, a black beanie and with his hair braided in cornrows. Charkins told police that Eddie knocked on the door and re-introduced himself as “Natasha's friend Eddie.” Charkins said he let the two men in and engaged them in small talk. Minutes later, when Charkins and his roommate, Jeremy Espeleta, went to the kitchen to get pizza, Eddie pulled a gun and ordered them to the floor while he and his accomplice ransacked the place. Then, according to Charkins and Espeleta, the two men made off with roughly 100 CDs, 28 DVDs, a surround-sound system, a laptop computer, an electronic keyboard, a camcorder, Play Station, CD burner, microphone, headphones, an 8-track recording device, a digital music-recording unit, some jewelry, $350 cash, binoculars and a palm pilot, all of which they gathered up in 10 minutes and—as Charkins and Espeleta both testified in court—left with in one trip. A third accomplice, whom Charkins identified as “Marcos”—a guy he'd seen before at street races-stood guard outside.
According to police reports, Charkins and Espeleta immediately left their apartment and spent the night with some friends in Pacific Beach. Charkins called police the following day around noon and told officer Jose Arguelles that he and his roommate had been out all night and had returned home to find their place burglarized. Arguelles came out to the apartment that afternoon, took a report and checked the place for fingerprints. In his report, Arguelles said he lifted two fingerprints, but was unable to find any additional physical evidence.
The following day, Charkins placed another call to police. This time he changed his story-he and Espeleta hadn't been burglarized; they'd been robbed at gunpoint. Charkins went to the police station and spoke with Arguelles and another detective. He told the officers that Espeleta had refused to come with him and didn't want to have anything to do with filing a new report.
Charkins told the two officers that Natasha and Eddie had come to his house that past Saturday and that he'd seen Eddie before at street races. He said his friend Tiffany knew Eddie and that, until recently, Natasha had been both Tiffany's best friend and Charkins' girlfriend. Natasha, Charkins said, had stopped coming around and had had a falling-out with Tiffany after Tiffany broke up with Natasha's brother. Charkins had also seen Natasha with Eddie at the street races.
Charkins told police he was pretty sure Natasha had set him up. He told police he didn't get the name of Eddie's accomplice, but that his friend Tiffany knew Marcos and had frequently spent time at his house. Charkins said Tiffany had given him additional information about Eddie: he was on parole and had a wife and kids.
Charkins told police that he was moving back to the Bay Area that day—he didn't want to be in San Diego any longer and that Espeleta, who'd grown up near Charkins in Northern California, had already left as well. He gave them Tiffany's number and a number where they could reach him up north.
On Sept. 16, 2002, Detective Mel Allen was assigned the case. According to investigation reports, he searched a database for local parolees with the name Eddie and came up with Eddie Wansley. Allen's report doesn't mention that he'd also been the arresting officer in Eddie's 1999 case.
On Oct. 7, Allen had Charkins' friend Tiffany come to the police station to look at what's known as a six-pack photo line-up-two rows of three photos each. He put Eddie's picture in the No. 3 spot. In a copy of that photo line-up obtained by CityBeat, Eddie's face fills the entire frame of the photo, unlike the other five faces that sit further back from the camera. Allen asked Tiffany if Eddie Wansley was among the six faces in the line-up; she picked No. 3.
After Eddie's trial, Roxann got a copy of the same photo line-up Tiffany saw and took it to the downtown courthouse where she spent an afternoon stopping people who she thought were attorneys and asking them whether they saw a problem with the line-up. Of the 50 people she stopped to talk to, nearly all said they had a problem with the way Eddie's face wasn't uniform with the others.
Three weeks after Tiffany picked Eddie out of the photo line-up, Allen sent another photo line-up to the Half Moon Bay Police Department up north and asked one of the officers there to have Charkins-who was at that time living in Half Moon Bay-come in and take a look. Again, Allen put Eddie in the No. 3 spot. When asked by the officer administering the line-up whether Eddie's was one of the six photos, Charkins pointed to No. 3. Charkins would later admit in court that he'd talked to Tiffany several times between when she saw the photo line-up and when he saw it.
Espeleta who, unlike Tiffany and Charkins, never attended street races and had never seen Eddie before, was never shown a photo line-up. Roxann said she asked Allen about this after Eddie's trial and he told her it was because he couldn't find Espeleta. However, Allen's report says he interviewed Espeleta by phone on Oct. 30, two days after Charkins was shown the photo line-up.
On Nov. 7, 2002, based on the photos IDs made by Tiffany and Charkins, Allen and a team of police detectives arrested Eddie at work. They searched his work area and car and came up with nothing. They then drove Eddie to his Escondido apartment where Roxann was home with their 6-week-old daughter. While Eddie sat in the police car, officers searched the apartment, looking for the gun and stolen goods. They found nothing. Roxann said they even upended her daughter's bassinet and searched boxes of diapers. A meticulous record keeper, Roxann produced a receipt for any item police asked her about, including an old portable radio she'd bought for her and Eddie's first apartment. She wasn't allowed near the police car to talk to her husband and she said police wouldn't tell her what he was being charged with. Eddie sat in jail for six days before he was charged with robbing Charkins and Espeleta at gunpoint.
After his arrest, Roxann told police Eddie had an alibi—he was home with her the night of Sept. 9 putting together the bike for their son. As she would later testify in court, she remembers that day perfectly-her boss had to fly to Connecticut to take care of her ailing mother, leaving Roxann in charge of the office. Sept. 9 was supposed to be the first day of Roxann's maternity leave, but she agreed to stay on another week to help out her boss.
Roxann said she remembers Eddie calling her on his way home from work around 6:30 or 7 p.m., complaining that his car was acting up. She remembers how anxious he was to put the bike together-they had bought it the day before-as soon as the toddler went to bed. He wanted to make sure it worked and that all the parts were in the box. Roxann said Eddie left the house once that night to run to the Toys R Us across the street and get a new battery for the bike because the battery it came with didn't work properly. He was gone for no more than 10 minutes, she said. Roxann would later beg Toys R Us to find some sort of record that Eddie had been there that night but since the defective battery had been an even exchange, there wasn't even a receipt.
Eddie's dad, Eddie Wansley Sr., provided a backup alibi—his son called him at midnight that night and asked if he could come by the next day and follow Eddie to the auto repair shop. Wansley worked a late shift and had his days free. That phone call appears on phone records that weren't admitted as evidence in Eddie's trial but which Roxann has filed away in the oversize binder containing all the documents relating to Eddie's case. Eddie's cell phone records are also in that binder and show him placing and receiving calls during the time the robbery allegedly occurred. At 9 p.m., which would have been 20 minutes to a half-hour before Charkins said he let the men into his apartment, Eddie's cell phone records show him placing a call to a custom shoe store to ask about a pair of shoes he was having made-he's always had problems with his feet, Roxann said, and has to wear special shoes.
Police were never able to find Marcos, although Tiffany told Detective Allen that she knew where he lived. They also never figured out who the third guy was who'd entered the apartment with Eddie. Charkins and Espeleta said in court that the guy introduced himself by name, but whatever he said was inaudible. The two fingerprints Officer Arguelles lifted from the apartment didn't match Eddie or anyone else in the law-enforcement database.
Absent from Eddie's trial was Natasha—the woman who'd allegedly taken Eddie over to Charkins' apartment two days before the robbery. At one point during the trial, in a sidebar conversation with the judge, the prosecuting attorney referred to Natasha as a “co-conspirator,” but neither the defense nor the prosecution called her to testify, and police declined to arrest her.
When contacted by Detective Allen, Natasha referred to Charkins as a “fucking punk” and denied having a relationship with him. She also refused to meet with police.
Roxann said she talked to Natasha before the trial and Natasha told her that she hadn't taken Eddie over to the apartment. Eddie, like Charkins, told police he felt like Natasha had set him up. Blond Natasha appeared in court simply as a large photo on a piece of poster board; neither attorney subpoenaed her to testify, either. Eddie's attorney, Kerry Armstrong, feared that Natasha's testimony might suggest marital infidelity and reflect poorly on Eddie, Roxann said. Armstrong declined to answer most of CityBeat's questions for this story, citing attorney-client privilege. A waiver from Eddie, giving Armstrong the OK to talk to a reporter, arrived too late.
Eddie's trial cost Roxann $20,000 in attorney fees and lasted two and a half days. The jury took another two and a half days to reach a guilty verdict. Several jurors would later tell Armstrong that they held out for a not-guilty verdict because they didn't believe Charkins and Espeleta's story, Armstrong told CityBeat.