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The Man Who Returned: Trying to Build a Life After 20 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment 

Wednesday, Oct 16 2013
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Caldwell was free to roam the neighborhood as a young boy. It was safer then. As young as 9 or 10 he carried bags at Safeway and cleaned lanes at a local bowling alley. He put the money toward a pair of Bruce Lee-styled yellow-and-black shoes.

The prison visits opened up Caldwell's eyes early to certain realities of Alemany. "I was able to start putting puzzles together, you know. Like, ooh, that's a nice car. I want a car like that. ... How did he have that car? What did he work? No, he sold [drugs]," he says.

Caldwell knew he didn't want to end up like his father in prison, but it was hard to walk the right path.

At 14, Caldwell broke into an empty house with some friends and ransacked it. One of them got caught and named names. It was Caldwell's first run-in with the California Youth Authority. He was out at the end of 1983, now 16, but was soon back in trouble. He was sent to the reform school Preston Castle in Amador County for burglary and violating his juvenile parole, where due to behavioral issues he was kept until the day before his 21st birthday, the maximum allowable time.

Caldwell had a habit of getting the maximum, even as a young man. His family was convinced that it was because he was carrying his father's last name, he says.

While Caldwell was away, Alemany took a harsh turn. Anthony Reed, a friend of his from childhood, says the arrival of crack cocaine put dollar signs in people's eyes, people who weren't used to making a lot of money. The open-air drug trade that developed made San Francisco territorial, with strict lines drawn between Western Addition, Hunter's Point, Potrero Hill, and Bayview.

It was like a poison to Alemany. Once a small, tight-knit community, it began falling apart: Buildings crumbled, graffiti appeared, and worse.

"People started losing their lives," Reed says.

At 21, back in Alemany, Caldwell moved into a unit with Betty Jean Tyler at 949 Ellsworth St. Tyler was like an older sister to Caldwell, but had battled addiction while he had been away. Caldwell split his time between her apartment and his grandmother's house on the other side of the freeway.

Caldwell had been back in Alemany for a little less than two years when early on a Saturday morning, the last day of June in 1990, a few violent minutes changed the course of his life.

According to court testimony, four friends — Judy Acosta, Domingo Bobila, Eric Aguirre, and Dominador Virray — made a trip to the Alemany Projects, after a night's drinking, to purchase crack.

The four of them pulled up in Bobila's black Toyota Supra outside a block of houses on Ellsworth Street in Alemany around 2:40 a.m. A handful of people converged on them and Bobila and Acosta tried to purchase two rocks of crack cocaine, while the other two friends held back.

Bobila and Acosta were told they didn't have enough money and the situation quickly went bad. Someone struck Bobila, knocking him down. A shot was fired. Acosta was wounded. Aguirre and Virray ran. Amid the chaos, Bobila dragged Acosta into the backseat of his car, which was sprayed with shotgun fire as it drove away.

Acosta was declared dead soon after.

As Caldwell told police and anyone else who would listen for the next 20 years, he was smoking pot with a girl, Tina McCullum, in an upstairs room at his uncle's girlfriend's house near the scene of the crime. After the shooting stopped, he went out the back door, which looked toward Ellsworth Street, and ran to see what had happened. He was shirtless, dressed in only sweatpants. Deborah Rodriguez, his uncle's girlfriend, saw him and followed him out.

Out on the street that evening, Caldwell says, the word was that a deal had gone bad and a man named Marritte Funches had shot a man with a handgun, while an associate had opened fire with a shotgun as the car drove away. Funches and Caldwell had once been friends, but Funches' increasingly violent behavior had started to make a lot of people uncomfortable.

Police made slow headway into investigating the crime. Detectives were on the scene that evening for several hours, but according to the inspectors' log it was not until July 13, almost two weeks later, when the area was again canvassed, when veteran homicide inspector Art Gerrans reported to Alemany with narcotics officer Kitt Crenshaw.

Caldwell had appeared suddenly and mysteriously on the police radar the day before, after an anonymous tip had been phoned into the Ingleside police station, received by the station captain himself, announcing that investigators should "check out a Maurice Caldwell" and that he had been "shooting off guns in the projects at Alemany and Ellsworth for years."

Gerrans knocked on the door of Mary Cobbs, a reserved 28-year-old woman with two young sons, whose house sat next to the crime scene. She'd recently been moved down the hill into Alemany — next-door to where Caldwell was living with Tyler — while her old house was being renovated. She never spoke to anybody, Caldwell remembers.

According to a transcript of their interview, Cobbs told Gerrans that she had been woken up by the noise that night and saw two shooters, side by side, standing under a streetlight, firing away. She had seen the shooters before. She didn't know their names, but they were not from Alemany.

As Cobbs was giving this taped statement, Caldwell was driving back into the neighborhood. He parked and was cuffed without explanation by Crenshaw, he says. Crenshaw knocked on Cobbs' door with Caldwell in tow. Caldwell says that he thought he was being led to his own house next door. Gerrans answered Cobbs' door. Caldwell says he and Cobbs saw each other and that Crenshaw announced him by name. Crenshaw asked for Gerrans' keys to his squad car, where he interrogated Caldwell about the murder and let him go shortly after.

About The Author

James Robinson

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