CVIndependent

Sun08182019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

On March 10, 1997, Rodney Patrick McNeal went home during his lunch break, around 12:30 p.m., to take his wife, Debra, to a doctor’s appointment.

Instead, the San Bernardino County probation officer found Debra, who was six months pregnant, dead in their bathtub. Submerged in water, she’d been beaten and stabbed before being strangled to death. The words “Nigger Lover” were written on the mirror (Debra McNeal was a Native American), and the house had been ransacked, with several firearms stolen.

Patrick and Debra’s marriage had been rocky at times, and police visited their home following domestic disputes at least twice in the months leading up to Debra’s death. According to a 2009 court document, a San Bernardino County deputy sheriff went to their residence in December 1996 after a domestic-disturbance call. Patrick and Debra appeared upset at each other, but no arrest was made, although two handguns were taken for safekeeping. In January 1997, a deputy responded to another domestic disturbance, after Patrick reportedly took Debra’s purse to prevent her from leaving.

Tension was high on the day of the murder, too. According to Debra’s son, Marcus Frison, the day before, Debra got upset with Patrick regarding some leftover pizza, and she took a knife to the family’s sofa. On March 10, Debra decided it was time to seek some professional help and called Kaiser Permanente to schedule a counseling appointment. On that day, she and Patrick spoke on the phone three times. They discussed the appointment, and apparently had an argument over money, although Patrick’s co-workers never heard him with a loud or hostile tone of voice.

The last known person to see Debra McNeal alive was a friend, Terrylyn Walker, who went to visit Debra around 9:15 a.m. At 10 a.m., while Debra was on the phone with Kaiser, someone she apparently knew entered the home, according to the Kaiser clerk.

Patrick McNeal got to his office somewhere between 7:30 and 8 a.m. that morning, and from 10 a.m. to noon, he met with clients. Patrick’s computer records show him working on a report shortly before noon; records also show he made a phone call to Debra around that time to find out the location of her appointment. The call was not answered.

Two of Patrick’s co-workers rode in an elevator with him at approximately 12:10 to 12:15 p.m. He then made the 2 1/2-minute walk through the parking lot to his car, and the eight-minute drive to their home.

Police arrived on the scene, after Patrick McNeal called 911, at 12:32 p.m.

There was no forced entry into the McNeal residence. There was a blood trail leading from the master living room through an entryway, into the kitchen and then into the master bedroom. The waterbed was punctured and leaking water, and there was an odor of bleach and/or other cleaning products in the master bedroom and bathroom. A bloody footprint on the carpet came from a dress shoe that did not match any of Patrick McNeal’s shoes. Hairs and fibers on Debra’s body also did not match anything from Patrick.

Yet in 2000, Rodney Patrick McNeal was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder. He’s been in prison ever since—and his case has captured the attention of the California Innocence Project.


Since it was founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project, a clinical program at California Western School of Law in San Diego, has helped free 30 wrongfully convicted inmates, and it currently is working on the cases of 13 people who remain behind bars, including that of Patrick McNeal.

“(Debra McNeal) was strangled, beaten, stabbed and thrown in the tub,” said Raquel Cohen (pictured right), an attorney representing McNeal with the California Innocence Project. “For years, all the evidence has shown the timeline doesn’t add up giving Patrick enough time to commit this crime. He still got convicted.”

Cohen said the domestic disputes between the McNeals helped the prosecution make their case against Patrick.

“They had some marital problems and some domestic-disturbance calls, but nothing that was too serious,” Cohen said. “They had arguments resulting in the police saying, ‘Hey, you guys need to calm down.’ Juries are unpredictable; Kim Long’s case was also very similar, where they attack the character of the defendant and say, ‘They are a very violent person, and there’s only one person who could have committed the crime,’ and (prosecutors) don’t have any other suspects.”

Kimberly Long is a California Innocence Project success story. The Independent first covered her case back in 2015; she was convicted of the 2003 murder of her boyfriend, Oswaldo “Ozzy” Conde, in Corona. In 2016, a Riverside County Superior Court judge reversed her conviction—which, like McNeal’s conviction, was largely based on the couple’s history of domestic strife.

“That’s really the evidence they had against him during his trial,” Cohen said about the McNeal case. “There was a bad relationship, and he found the body. But there’s a timeline issue, and it becomes, ‘Where were you at what time?’ Patrick had a lot of hard evidence—the last time he modified a document on a computer, and co-workers riding down (with him) in an elevator. The worst-case scenario has a neighbor placing him at home at 12:15 p.m.—and that is the worst case for him and best case for the prosecution. That’s not enough time for him to commit the crime, clean up—and (Patrick McNeal) had no blood or bleach on him—and then call the police.

“It just doesn’t add up.”

The California Innocence Project has put forward another suspect in the murder of Debra McNeal—Patrick McNeal’s half-brother, Jeffrey Todd West.

“A few people have come forward saying that (West) confessed to the crime,” Cohen said. “He was a very bad person. He had killed other people and served time for it in Nevada; I believe he might be locked up somewhere right now. He has a history of choking people. He poured gas on his ex-wife, and there are chemicals involved in this case. … He told people that he killed Debra after it happened, because he was worried about Patrick’s future. We presented that to the court … and unfortunately, they found the witnesses were unreliable for a number of reasons.”

In 2005, West pleaded guilty to a double-homicide in Nevada. Both West’s ex-wife, Janice Williams, and Charlotte Lazzie, an ex-girlfriend, testified regarding West’s violent nature. Ebony Grant, the half-sister of both Patrick McNeal and West, also talked about violent attacks by West, including an incident during which she was choked. Grant said West told her a week before the murders of Debra McNeal and her unborn child that he believed Debra was destroying all of his stuff, and that he would “kill the bitch”; according to the California Innocence Project’s website, West also confessed to Grant after the murder. Cary McGill, a co-worker of West, said that West confessed the murder to him, stating that Debra was ruining Patrick’s future and that he had to “handle the bitch.”

However, the court denied all of this new evidence—and Patrick McNeal remains behind bars.

“We are kind of at a roadblock, but we’re still investigating whether or not West told other people who might be more credible, or whether or not West will confess—which would be ideal, but I don’t know if that will ever happen,” Cohen said.

“There were a lot of issues at the evidentiary hearing with the witnesses who said West confessed, (whom) the judge found not to be credible. For instance, Cary McGill, who came forward saying that West had confessed to him, failed to appear on the first day; he had some issues with work and didn’t appear. When he showed up to testify, the court threw him in jail. When he got on the stand, he was in custody and was pissed—he tried to help somebody and ended up with a failure to appear (charge). The court found him not credible because his demeanor was just irritated.

“There were a lot of bad things that happened at that hearing that turned the case to deny the petition and keep Patrick in prison.”


The Independent was given about 10 minutes to talk via phone to Patrick McNeal, who is currently serving his sentence of 30 years to life at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. During the phone call, he expressed extreme frustration with his conviction.

“It’s so hard for me to believe at times,” McNeal said. “I told them during the interview that I made phone calls that day that were on the phone record, and I walked out with other probation officers from my job. I can’t make all that stuff up. … My phone-call records make it impossible for me to be at the murder, along with the probation officer I walked out with. They were ignored, or there were excuses made for phone records.”

McNeal said his attorney failed to adequately defend him during his original trial.

“He told me that he was going to question them on the timeline and do all of this and that. He didn’t do anything that he told me that he was going to do and just said, ‘The defense rests,’” McNeal said. “When I asked him about that, he said, ‘Oh, well, that’s just how I like to do my cases, and there’s no need for me to do it. The prosecution didn’t present their case.’ I was completely blown away.

“By that time, it was too late.”

Cohen said that even though McNeal’s case is currently at a standstill, they remain hopeful that he could be freed one day soon.

“He’s very optimistic; he checks in on his case regularly, and he knows that we’re sort of at a dead end,” Cohen said about McNeal. “We have a clemency petition pending with the governor, where we’re hoping (Gov. Gavin Newsom) sees this evidence and commutes his sentence or grants him a pardon. That’s one big hope he has going forward. Obviously, we talk about other ways we can break this case open. But … we all know West is very dangerous, so we’re all very cautious about it, and we’re hoping there are other people who will come forward. All of our (main) hope right now is with our governor’s office, and we’re hoping the new governor will take action on this and see there’s no way for (McNeal) to have committed this crime.”

Patrick McNeal said he wants more than just his release from prison.

“Getting out is, of course, the No. 1 goal, but I wouldn’t be satisfied just by getting out,” he said. “I can’t believe that a reasonable person would look at the case with all of the phone calls and the blood evidence (and think I did it). If you put everything together along with the fact no one ever said that I was the one who did this, along with where I worked as a probation officer—I would have to have had a co-conspirator in the Probation Department for someone to make phone calls from my office to my home and not tell the police about it—it’s like nothing makes any sense. Would I really tell a fellow probation officer, ‘Hey, I’m going to go kill my wife. Just in case the police come after me, can you make these phone calls from my office?’”

For more information, visit californiainnocenceproject.org.

Published in Features

Kimberly Long was the subject of the Independent’s June 2015 cover story, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”; she was in prison after being convicted of murdering her boyfriend.

Long insisted she was innocent—and her case caught the attention of the California Innocence Project.

“I know I’m going home,” Long told the Independent last year. “It’s just a matter of time. … I know I’m coming home, and I have the utmost faith in the California Innocence Project—and faith in God.”

Long’s faith was rewarded: On June 10, Riverside Superior Court Judge Patrick Magers reversed Long’s conviction, ruling that Long’s public defender did not provide adequate representation. She was released on bail, after being in prison since 2009.

“I couldn’t believe it was actually happening,” Long told the Independent in a recent interview. “Being released from the jail, walking out to fresh air and no correctional officers, it was a different kind of feeling. It’s been absolutely fantastic since that day.”

However, Long’s freedom is not assured: Prosecutors may try her again, for what would be the third time.

On Oct. 5, 2003, Long spent the day bar-hopping with her boyfriend, Oswaldo “Ozzy” Conde and their mutual friend, Jeff Dills. Around 11 p.m. that night, they returned to their home in Corona and got into a fight. Long left with Dills to cool off, she says, and when she returned home a few hours later, she found Conde on their sofa—he had been brutally murdered.

Long was tried twice. The first trial ended in a hung jury, with nine of the 12 jurors voting to acquit. Her second ended in a guilty verdict for second-degree murder—even though the judge stated he would have acquitted her.

Alissa Bjerkhoel, Long’s attorney from the California Innocence Project, explained what comes next for Long.

“After we get a conviction reversed, prosecutors have two options, and they can do one or both,” said Bjerkhoel. “The first thing is they’re going to appeal the decision. They’re going to do that, and it’s going to put Kim in this legal limbo for about two years or so, until the appeal is resolved. Then after that, they have the option to put her on trial again for a third time. Right now, they’re telling us they’re going to do both. We’re hopeful that might change in the future, but they seem to be taking this conviction reversal a bit hard.”

Still, for Long and the California Innocence Project, the verdict reversal was a pleasant surprise. Bjerkhoel told me last year she expected Long’s case to be an uphill battle.

“I was worried at first, because we’ve lost this case so many times,” Bjerkhoel said. “And we’ve lost it with really unfortunate decisions. We’d say she didn’t do it, and the evidence showed she didn’t do it, but unfortunately, we’d hear, ‘You don’t meet our standards,’ or, ‘Our hands are tied, and that’s that.’

“The standards to get your conviction reversed in California are crazy. We were really lucky the judge we had was the original trial judge: (Magers) was familiar with the case and all the evidence, and sat through two trials already. … (That) really benefitted us, because he was the most knowledgeable about the case and knew how problematic it was. We tell Kim she’s a lucky one: ‘You’re one who got out, and it’s hard to do.’’’

Despite Bjerkhoel’s concerns, Long said she’s confident about her future.

“I don’t even see myself standing trial again, and I don’t even see a negative outcome in this case from here on out. I don’t see it happening,” Long said. “In my head, I see it as already over with, except for this little part.”

Long said she’s lucky compared to some of the other people the California Innocence Project has helped exonerate.

“I haven’t spent as much time in prison as others have,” she said. … “Technology probably changed a little bit, but I think what’s different is the fact my kids are older now, and I’m trying to find my purpose in life today. Many years ago, I was a mom, and I was helping them do their homework, taking them to baseball practice and whatnot. Now it’s not like that: They’re 18 and 23, and they have their own lives. Now I’m a 40-year-old woman trying to find my place in life.”

Long is facing problems that all ex-inmates go through.

“It’s just trying to get re-established. If you want to work again, you need a vehicle to do so—plus you need to have health insurance,” she said. “There are so many things you need to re-establish in your life. I was very independent before, and now I’m dependent on people, and that’s a very hard place to be.”

Even though she currently has no conviction on her record, Long said she’s still finding it hard to find employment.

“I actually went for a job interview to be a paralegal, and what I ran into is that there is a big gap on my resume,” said Long, a former nurse. “That’s what everyone wants to know about: why I’m not working as a nurse, and why I want to be a paralegal. I’m not a good liar, and I can’t lie about it. I ended up having to tell this guy everything about me. Needless to say, I didn’t get a call back, and that part is rough. I’m looking at ex-felon job sites when I’m not even an ex-felon.”

Meanwhile, Bjerkhoel and her team are working to keep Long free.

“We knew about the hearing since last fall,” Bjerkhoel said about the June 10 court date. “We did the hearing; Kim was released, and now we’re going into the appeal process.”

Published in Local Issues

Our country’s justice system is broken—and a recent Independent story, by Brian Blueskye, illustrates that painful fact.

Meet Kimberly Long. The Corona resident was convicted of murdering her boyfriend after a day of drinking back in 2003—even though all the available evidence seems to exonerate her. Her case is one of the 18 that the San Diego-based California Innocence Project has taken up; here’s hoping the project’s attorneys can achieve justice for Kimberly Long and her family very soon.

Another example: My good friend Brian Burghart continues his work on Fatal Encounters, a crowd-sourced database of people killed during interactions with law enforcement. As we explained in an article last December—and as Brian himself has explained during TV interviews on everything from Al Jazeera to The Daily Show—he is trying to fill a void: There is no national database of people killed by law-enforcement officers, even though there is a semi-epidemic of such killings happening around the country, especially in the West. Therefore, he set out to create a database going back to the start of the year 2000. If you have time and expertise, please consider helping him out.

(As a side note: Brian, who is the editor of the Reno News & Review, and Fatal Encounters were just announced as finalists in the 2015 Association of Alternative Media Awards. Now, a little bragging: So were the Independent and writer Brian Blueskye, for his coverage of the Palm Springs mural ordinance. Congrats!)

Of course, there are also the examples of the unrest-catalyzing police-related deaths in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.

However, I am optimistic that our justice system can be fixed, at least partially. It’s a good sign that the Fatal Encounters site exists and is getting so much attention. It’s great to see that people are taking actions to make their voices heard in Baltimore and Ferguson and fight against police brutality and racism. It’s fantastic that groups like the California Innocence Project exist to help those wrongly imprisoned—and 11 of the project’s clients are now free, as we hope Kimberly Long will be soon.

You’ll learn a lot from Brian’s piece on Kimberly Long, which serves as the cover story of our June print issue. You’ll get a lot out of the rest of our content, both online and print, as well.

As always, thank you for reading the Coachella Valley Independent.

Published in Editor's Note

Kimberly Long spent the day of Oct. 5, 2003, bar-hopping around the Corona area with her boyfriend, Oswaldo “Ozzy” Conde, and their friend, Jeff Dills.

The three ended the day at a bar called Maverick’s and then went to the home she shared with Long, around 11 p.m. There, she and Conde got into a fight, after which Long left with Dills to cool off.

She returned home around 2 a.m. on Oct. 6. During a recent phone interview from the California Institution for Women in Corona, about 65 miles from Palm Springs, Long choked back tears while talking about that night.

“I remember walking through the door, and it was unlocked when I came in. I saw a light on in the back. I kicked off my shoes, and I saw Ozzy on the couch, and I called his name,” said Long, who was an emergency-room nurse at the time. “I walked over to the light to turn it on, and when I did that, I turned around, and I saw a big blood stain on the couch. I saw him and I realized that something went wrong.

“I thought maybe he had gotten into a fight. I don’t remember what I did first, to be honest. I think I ran outside and tried to get Jeff. I ran through the house, and I can’t really remember. I do remember that I got real close and I looked at him, and I realized with what I saw, there was nothing I could do to help him.

“I didn’t know if he was still breathing or not. In my head, he should be breathing, and there’s no reason someone should be dead on my couch. At that point, I got the phone, and I called 911. I forgot what they had asked me. I put down the phone. I ran back outside and waited for the cops, and they couldn’t come quick enough. I came back in, and I called again, and the lady on the phone asked me if I could help him. I said, ‘I’m a nurse, yes, I’m going to help him.’ I went over to him. I grabbed his hand and I tried to pull him off the couch. He didn’t wake up. I knew what that meant, and I ran outside screaming, and then the cops came.”

What caused the argument between Long and Conde?

“I was drinking all day long,” Long said. “I think Ozzy said I was running around at the bar we were at; I wasn’t paying attention to him, and I was talking to everybody else, and I think that’s what the argument started out as. By the time we got home, I was really agitated and just wanted him out of the house. I said a bunch of horrible things and told him to get out. I think the argument was about me being drunk and a flirt.”

Long said she loved Conde dearly. “I had known Ozzy since I was 11 or 12 years old. Ozzy didn’t have an enemy in the whole world. He was a great guy—he was funny, and he had his own sense of humor. He loved his kids so much. He loved his mom, and he loved life. I wouldn’t have thought there was a person in this world who wanted to harm him. I would have spent the rest of my life with him.”

While there was reportedly blood on every wall of the living room, there was no blood on Long or her clothing. The drains inside and outside of the house were dry, indicating there wasn’t an attempted cleanup.

Despite the fact that there were other possible suspects, Long was charged with murder. The prosecutor alleged that Long killed Conde and then changed her clothes before dialing 911. Also, Dills made a statement saying that he dropped Long off at 1:30 a.m., not 2 a.m., as Long had claimed—which gave police a reason to suspect her.

Unfortunately, Dills was not given a chance to clear up that discrepancy: He was killed in a motorcycle accident before the trial took place.

Long’s first trial ended in a hung jury, with nine of the 12 jurors voting to acquit. In 2009, her second trial ended in a guilty verdict for second-degree murder—even though the judge himself stated he would have acquitted her. Two alternate jurors also reportedly said later that something must have gone wrong during deliberations, because the evidence against Long was very thin.

She was given a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.


Alissa Bjerkhoel (right) is part of the California Innocence Project, which is part of the California Western School of Law in San Diego; she has been working on Long’s appeal. The United States has the largest population of incarcerated people in the world, with an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars.

“About 1,500 to 2,000 cases per year come through our office,” Bjerkhoel said during a phone interview. “We’re staffed with a lot of attorneys, and a lot of volunteers read through these cases and find cases where someone is really innocent. It’s a really long process, and we’ve had cases in our office for about 10 years before we finally find that magic bullet that says they didn’t commit this crime.

“A lot of investigation goes into it. We have volunteers such as retired law-enforcement officers, and it’s just years of digging through documents, the case, talking to witnesses, and getting forensic tests if we can.”

Bjerkhoel said Long’s case shares common traits with other California Innocence Project cases.

“It’s a classic case of whoever finds the body did it,” she said. “I think in the beginning of the investigation, the cops really weren’t suspecting Kim, but you do have to think the significant other can be a suspect. That’s typical cop protocol.

“For Kim, the entire case is problematic, because it rests entirely on a single witness. She was gone with Jeff Dills, and Jeff dropped her off at home. Kim says, ‘He dropped me off at 2 a.m.,’ but Jeff says, ‘I dropped her off around 1:30 a.m.’ The 911 call doesn’t come in until around 2:09 a.m. So if you’re a cop, and you believe Jeff, all of a sudden, you have a huge time gap that Kim can’t account for. All of a sudden, you stop believing her story.

“Jeff ran a red light on his motorcycle, and a semi actually T-boned him in Riverside, so he ends up dying before the trial happens. So there’s not a real opportunity to ask whether Jeff was confused on this timeline.”

Bjerkhoel also mentioned another potential reason for the discrepancy.

“He talked to the cops, and he told them that he knew he was a suspect,” she said. “The cops told him he was, and apparently the media back then had played some news clips (saying) that the suspects were motorcycle people, because neighbors heard motorcycles driving away from the crime scene. Guess who owns a motorcycle? It’s Jeff. Now you have a motive to place himself far away from Kim. He’s going to say, ‘I have to distance myself from that, so I’m going to say I dropped her off at 1:30 a.m.’

“Had it not been for that time gap, there’s no possibility this case would have went in front of a jury. The entire case hangs on that time frame.”

Bjerkhoel cited evidence that she says proves Long did not commit this murder.

“I’ve had two doctors look at the medical aspects of this case—looking at the autopsy reports, the crime scene, the reports from the responding firefighters and paramedics,” she said. “We needed a time of death, because the time of death is critical. The statement of the paramedics is, ‘When we got there, the body was cold to the touch.’ Rigor mortis had set in. When you die, your blood stops circulating, and it starts pooling. It usually takes about an hour. … Rigidity had set in. That doesn’t happen until an hour after someone is dead. That proves Kim didn’t commit this crime.”

Bjerkhoel said Long’s original defense attorney also made some major errors.

“I really do think her original defense attorney blew it by not calling a time-of-death expert,” she said. “… The only detail in the case is, ‘What time did this guy die?’ The experts I’ve talked to say that Ozzy died around midnight, not 1:30 in the morning. It’s a complete failure of the original defense.”


Kim’s parents, Roger and Darleen Long (right), said it’s been a nightmare to watch what their daughter has gone through since the death of Conde. However, it’s catalyzed them to take action. They have taken part in California Innocence Project marches and now work to spread awareness about not only their daughter’s case, but others as well.

“We never really had a cause, and we went about our normal routine,” Darleen Long said. “When the California Innocence Project came around, it opened our eyes that things don’t always go right in a courtroom. You’re supposed to punish the guilty, and the innocent should go home. This is not what happened in our case. As we went along through the years, and Kim went to prison, there was a fire inside, and it really opened our eyes. That’s when we said, ‘We have to do something, and we have to help.’ We never thought we could do the things we’re doing today.”

In an effort to make the best of a terrible situation, Kimberly Long said she has found ways to be productive.

“I’ve been here for about six years,” she said. “I am a fire-camp trainer, so I train the girls to become firefighters. I do that about five or six hours a day. After that, I run aerobics two days a week. I’m a mentor and a sponsor to a lot of girls.

“I play a lot of dominoes and drink a lot of coffee,” she said with a laugh. “I try to spend my time as positively as possible. I don’t have any write-ups. I’m very quiet, and I don’t have any problems.”

However, she’s missing a lot of key moments that she should be enjoying with her family.

“I do have two children, and I’m missing graduations, birthdays and holidays,” she said. “That does stress me out.

“How do I deal with it? I just do. … I just get out there, move around and stay busy. My job helps me so much because I go out there and help other girls who have so many issues and so many problems. Dealing with them six hours a day keeps my mind off my stressful moments. By the time I get back, it’s not as bad as it could be.”

There are some encouraging signs regarding Long’s appeal. In May, the California Supreme Court requested more information on the case. There is also additional evidence: A cigarette butt was found in an incense burner at the crime scene. It was tested for DNA, but has not yet been run against the state database.

Long said she’s optimistic.

“I know I’m going home,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time. … I know I’m coming home, and I have the utmost faith in the California Innocence Project—and faith in God.”

For more information on the California Innocence Project, visit californiainnocenceproject.org.

Published in Features