HoustonChronicle.com

Dec. 17, 2001, 9:49AM

'I didn't do this' 

Facts suggest man convicted of killing priest is innocent 

By JIM HENDERSON 
Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle 

NEW BOSTON -- James Harry Reyos had an alibi: He was 200 miles away that night in 1981 when the priest was bludgeoned to death in a motel room in Odessa -- and he could prove it. 

A paper trail of time-stamped receipts and a traffic ticket, as well as an eyewitness, placed him in the vicinity of Roswell, N.M., during the hours that pathologists believed the crime occurred. 

But the prosecutors had something, too: A drunken confession Reyos made to the Albuquerque, N.M., police nearly a year after the murder. 

Although he immediately recanted the confession and there was no physical evidence that he was at the motel that night, a jury convicted Reyos and sentenced him to 38 years in prison. 

"I had an airtight alibi," says Reyos, sitting in a large, airy visiting room of the Telford prison unit. "I couldn't believe it." 

He has served nearly 20 of those years. Even though nearly everyone who has studied his case -- including a former Ector County prosecutor and the Catholic bishop who officiated at the murdered priest's funeral -- has expressed beliefs in his innocence, the legal and political processes have not been sympathetic. 

"When you look at that case -- and I read all 1,300 pages of the transcript -- it doesn't make any sense," says Adam Fellows, a Texarkana attorney who is working on a pardon petition for Reyos. "I can't grasp how it is possible that he got convicted in the first place." 

Some of those who rallied behind Reyos believe the conviction was possible because of a complex mix of circumstances and attitudes at the time. 
 

Reyos
Chris Dean / Special to the Chronicle 
Even though many believe that James Reyos could not have committed the murder of a priest, he remains incarcerated for the crime 20 years after it happened. 
When he was tried in 1983, Reyos, a 26-year-old Jicarilla Apache, was a closet homosexual with a history of alcohol problems and short history of sexual encounters with the priest. Father Patrick Ryan, a 49-year-old native of Ireland, was a respected priest in the West Texas towns he served. His murder was shocking, as was the courtroom testimony of his homosexuality. 

"In those days, there wasn't a lot of talk about gay priests," Reyos says. "People didn't want to believe it." 

Especially in Odessa, where the paths of the two men crossed. In the early 1980s, it was a raucous town made edgy and often violent by an oil boom and the newcomers it brought. Tolerance was thin, and cries for swift justice were loud. 
 

"They were bent on prosecuting anybody they could pin a crime on," Fellows says, "and juries were likely to convict." 

Early in December 1981, Reyos was hitchhiking from Lubbock to Hobbs, N.M., where his pickup was being held as collateral for bond after his arrest for drunken driving. 

"Alcohol played a big role in all the mistakes I've made," Reyos says quietly. 

At 25, he had been arrested 30 times for public intoxication, and alcohol had recently cost him a job with Mobil Oil in Denver City. 

Although a member of the National Honor Society in high school, Reyos was dogged by alcohol through his two years at the University of New Mexico and Eastern New Mexico State University, where he studied petroleum technology but was eventually banned from his dormitory for excessive drinking and often appeared to be hallucinating. 

Ryan offered him a ride to Hobbs, where they went to a bar and drank beer and vodka until they were nearly drunk, Reyos says. Several days later, back in Denver City, Ryan invited him to the rectory, where they again drank and eventually had sex. 

"I felt a lot of guilt about that," Reyos says. "I was still in the closet and in denial about myself ... and he was a priest." 

On Dec. 21, Reyos received a check for his share of mineral royalties from the Apache reservation. It was enough to get his pickup from the bondsman, so Ryan agreed to take him back to Hobbs. 

Along the way, Reyos later testified, they picked up another hitchhiker, a middle-aged black man carrying a suitcase. Reyos said Ryan dropped him at the bondsman's house and drove away with the other hitchhiker, a fact confirmed by the bondsman's daughter. 

The next morning, a maid at the Sand and Sage Motel found Father Ryan's body, hands bound, lying facedown in a bed splattered with blood. 

The medical examiner said death had occurred between 7 p.m. and midnight. 

Because he had checked in under a false name the night before, it took four days for police to identify the body. 

For 11 months, the case went nowhere. Police were convinced it was a homosexual killing but had no clues as to who might have been with Ryan that night. 

There was strong evidence to suggest it was not Reyos. 
 

After getting his pickup from the bondsman that afternoon, Reyos testified, he drove to Artesia, 70 miles west of Hobbs, and gassed up at a Mobil station. Then he drove to Roswell and hooked up with an old friend from college and, the friend verified, they drank beer until about 8 p.m -- about the time Ryan was checking in to the Odessa motel. 

Reyos then drove to Bottomless Lakes State Park, 25 miles southeast of Roswell, then to Tatum, where he again purchased gas. Then, 15 miles west of Roswell, a state trooper stopped him for speeding and noted the time on the ticket: 12:15 a.m., Dec. 22, Odessa time -- just outside the 7 p.m.-to-midnight window the coroner had fixed as Ryan's time of death. 

 

To have killed Ryan, Reyos would have had to have made a nearly impossible Roswell-to-Odessa round trip that evening. 

For nearly a year after the priest's murder, Reyos drifted around West Texas and New Mexico and lived briefly in Memphis, Tenn., before returning to Albuquerque early in November 1982. 

He was arrested on his first night in town and told police, "I may have killed a priest in West Texas." He was sent to a county mental health facility but was soon released after refusing to answer a therapist's questions about the priest. 

On Nov. 18, he called 911 and said he wanted to speak to someone about "the killing of a Catholic priest in Odessa, Texas." 

"Who are you?" the operator asked. 

"You are talking to the killer." 

When the police arrived, he again confessed, but after meeting with a public defender an hour later, he recanted, telling her repeatedly, "In the name of God, I didn't do this." 

Reyos says now that he doesn't remember making the call but does remember that the week leading up to his arrest was a blur of alcohol and drug binges followed by hangovers that were chased away by other binges. 

"I was pretty disoriented, in and out of knowing what was going on," he says. 

John Cliff, the attorney appointed to represent him at his murder trial, had the receipts and the eyewitnesses placing Reyos 200 miles away at the time of Ryan's murder. He had lab reports that excluded Reyos from latent fingerprints and hairs found at the scene. And he had the statement of a police polygraph operator who concluded that Reyos was not involved in the murder. 

The primary hurdle to acquittal was the confession. 

Dr. Samuel Roll, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico and a consultant to the Albuquerque Police Department, examined Reyos for two days and testified that he believed the confession was false. 

Reyos was a "dystonic homosexual," one who is not pleased with his sexual orientation and has a difficult time accepting it, he said. 

"It produces a great deal of guilt and a great deal of shame," he said. He also described Reyos as "intelligent" and "not very aggressive" and having no history of violence, while Ryan's murder appeared to be a homosexual homicide committed by a "hyperaggressive" killer who "probably felt no guilt." 

Roll, an expert on false confessions, said Reyos' feeling of guilt, fueled by drunkenness, could have driven him to confess to a crime he did not commit. 

"All the characteristics are there that you would expect in a false confession," he said. 

The jury believed the confession, though, and over the next few years, the verdict survived the standard appeals. 

Reyos continued to protest that he was innocent, but few listened. 

Dennis Cadra was an assistant Ector County district attorney, and though he did not participate in Reyos' prosecution, he was assigned to represent the county in the appeal. 

"I just dealt with points of law," he says. "I had never really looked at the evidence." 

Not until 1991. 

That year, Reyos' files were being purged from the office and a secretary asked Cadra if he still needed them. 

He began to read the transcripts closely, and, like many others to follow, came to a conclusion that surprised him. 

He checked the mileage of the two-lane roads between Odessa and the points in New Mexico where Reyos was known to have been on the day of the murder. Then, he drafted a letter to Gov. Ann Richards. 

"Despite my 16 years as a prosecutor, I came to the firm conclusion that it was physically impossible for Mr. Reyos to have committed the crime for which he was convicted," he wrote. "Even assuming it took as little as 30 minutes (a very conservative estimate) to meet up with the priest, get into a fight, strip him, bind his hands behind his back and murder him, Mr. Reyos would have had to have averaged a driving speed of over 111 mph." 

The Texas Civil Rights Project filed an unsuccessful habeas corpus petition, and Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen of Amarillo wrote to prison officials, saying, "I, too, believe he is innocent. I share (the) conviction that there was a miscarriage of justice." 

Richards referred the matter to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which declined to recommend clemency. 

Reyos believes he again was a victim of circumstances. At that time, the parole board was under fire for having released in 1989 a notorious killer, Kenneth McDuff, who in a short time began murdering young women in Central Texas. 

"I don't think they were in a mood to release anybody else convicted of murder," Reyos says. 

He was paroled a few years later -- in 1995 -- and continued to try to clear himself of the murder conviction, but he was arrested again for drunken driving and his parole was revoked after seven months of freedom. 

With financial help from his brother, Reyos hired Fellows and another Texarkana lawyer, Sean Rommel, to help him obtain a pardon. 

"There are two routes for a pardon based on innocence," Fellows says. "You can get the three trial officials -- prosecutor, judge, sheriff -- to say they believe he is innocent and send that to the parole board, or the governor can ask the board to investigate and make a recommendation. 

"I've sent packets to the three officials but haven't heard back from them." 

J. Anthony Foster, one of two assistant district attorneys who prosecuted Reyos, says he has had no second thoughts about the case. 

"He calls up and says he's the guy who killed the priest. What were people supposed to think?" he says. 

Foster, now an attorney in Alpine, once wrote the parole board and urged it not to be swayed by the "Monday morning quarterbacks" questioning the verdict. 

Now, he says, "If they granted him a parole, it wouldn't bother me in the least." 

Although his legal options have been exhausted and the political course is uncertain, Reyos says he still has hope and is not bitter about two decades of what he considers unjust incarceration. 

"I just remember my dad's final advice before he died," he says. "He said, `Always be strong, and don't ever give up hope.' " 
 


 
 
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