Frank O'Connell, wrongfully convicted of murder, reunites with son after 27 years in prison

10:51 AM, Apr 26, 2013   |    comments
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Frank O'Connell, 55, left, is pictured Tuesday with his son, Nick, at their north Fort Collins home. Frank was recently reunited with his son after serving 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. (Rich Abrahamson/The Coloradoan)

By Patrick Malone, Fort Collins Coloradoan

The walls between fathers and sons take many forms - generational communication barriers, distance, even hair length.

The boundaries that for most of his life separated Nick O'Connell of Fort Collins from his dad, Frank O'Connell, were fortified with armed guards and topped with razor wire. But even they couldn't snap the bond between Nick and the man he calls "Pops."

When Nick was 4 years old, his father was arrested for murder. By the time Nick was 5, Frank had been convicted of the crime. He spent the next 27 years in prison in California, punished for a crime he did not commit.

Nick's earliest memories of his dad were forged on the handlebars of a speeding beach cruiser pedaled by Frank and on his father's shoulders as they forded a trickle of a creek that through a child's eyes seemed like a raging river. Those carefree days gave way to institutional interactions - only about twice a year.

"You sit across from each other in hard plastic chairs with these really low coffee tables and guards kind of meandering through, eyeballing you, looking over your shoulder," Nick, 32, recalled. "You're in a room with a couple hundred inmates and their visitors."

Father and son knew each other only through those visits and the phone calls Frank was allowed about every two weeks. But Frank vowed to his child and himself that it wouldn't always be that way.

"I promised (Nick) and told everybody I ever talked to every single day of my life sentence, 'I don't care where you are, what's going on - I will be where you're at,' " Frank, now 55, said.

Last July, he made good on that promise and moved in with Nick in Fort Collins, where Nick has lived since age 13 when his mother and stepfather moved here.

Wrongfully convicted
Frank's road to prison and back began Jan. 5, 1984, when 27-year-old Jay French was gunned down in the parking garage of a Pasadena, Calif., apartment complex. French's neighbor caught glimpses of the shooter, who stepped out of a yellow Ford Pinto driven by a woman. French's wife, Gina French, told detectives her husband used his dying breath to tell her his killer looked like someone who associated with his ex-wife, Jeanne Lyon.

Lyon and French were embroiled in a bitter custody dispute over their 6-year-old son at the time of the murder. When detectives interviewed Lyon, she mentioned Frank O'Connell as someone investigators should focus on.

Frank and Lyon - at the time married to her third husband - had a month-long tryst almost 6 months before the shooting.

Based on his past relationship with Lyon, the eyewitness picking him out of a photo lineup and two other witnesses who said they had previously seen him in a yellow Pinto, prosecutors charged Frank with murder.

Three alibi witnesses testified Frank was with them 30 miles away from Pasadena at the time of the crime. Nonetheless, a judge returned a guilty verdict in less than an hour, giving weight to French's dying declaration and citing Frank's "ongoing relationship" with Lyon as credible motive, according to court records.

In April 1985, Frank was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, but remained steadfast in his claims of innocence.

"In the very beginning I was very frustrated, because when you seek help and want people to listen, it turned to a deaf ear," Frank said. "They don't listen. They don't understand. I really am innocent."

He said a man he met recently who had been exonerated and freed from prison put it best.

"It was like I was in a soundproof room," Frank said. "I was screaming and hollering and nobody could hear me."

Even Frank's mother and sisters doubted his claims of innocence. They told him so.

"The day that I asked my mom if she believed me," Frank said, choking back tears, "that's one of the things I have a tough time with."

He terminated contact with the doubters in his family for years. But Nick was not among them. He believed in his father's innocence from the start. That never changed.

"It kept me going every day that he believed in me, never wavered," Frank said.

A son's quest
In his mid-teens, Nick began researching his father's case. He scoured every police report, every court document. He viewed it in the most negative light possible to understand how his father could be convicted of the crime.

"I honestly could not come up with a thread," Nick said.

None of the witness' physical descriptions of the suspect matched Frank, and the motive rang hollow to Nick.

"The motive is that for a girl he was friends with benefits with for just six weeks six months before this happened, he's going to go out of his way to murder her ex-husband so she can prevail in a custody case?" Nick said. "It's ludicrous."

He wondered, too, why Lyon was never charged if authorities believed Frank committed the crime at her behest.

After inspecting the files, Nick fixated on proving Frank innocent, something Frank already had undertaken. In 1989 Frank had written to Centurion Ministries, a small organization devoted to proving the innocence the wrongfully convicted.

Nine years of correspondence followed before Frank got word that Centurion Ministries had agreed to investigate his case.

"They said, 'We're committed to your case. We believe you,' " Frank said. "From that day forward, it was like, 'All right! Somebody finally heard me. Somebody finally believes in me.'"

The same year, Nick turned 18. No longer burdened by the requirement of a guardian accompanying him to visit his father, he found a place to stay in California the summer after his freshman year in college, and made the four-hour round-trip drive to San Quentin State Prison four days a week to visit Frank.

"For the first time, we weren't limited to just one or two days of visiting a year," Nick said. "Now it was, 'I'll see you tomorrow.' Sure it was depressing in those visiting rooms and, yeah, I would have rather been out playing sports with him. But there is something to be said for the amount of undivided attention that you have for one another."

Confident that Centurion Ministries' work would someday free his father, Nick put his life on hold. He postponed finishing college and was reluctant to consider marriage or having children until he could share those joys with his father.

"His release, in my opinion, was imminent and just around the corner," Nick said. "So I lived in that space between about 2002 and 2010."

Cracks in the case
The key breakthrough in Centurion Ministries' investigation came in 2008, more than two years after its investigators first spoke with French's neighbor who had picked Frank out of the lineup. He said he'd made a mistake, that detectives had badgered him until he told them what they wanted to hear. He recanted his testimony in a sworn statement.

That opened the door for a court order giving Centurion Ministries' investigative team access to the original evidence against Frank. They unearthed three books of detectives' notes that had not been shared with Frank's lawyer before his trial.

Those notes told a very different story than those detectives originally presented in reports and testimony that led to Frank's conviction. According to the notes, witnesses were far less certain that Frank was the man they'd seen in a Pinto than detectives had portrayed, and the original investigators hid that they were aware Lyon and another man had previously tried to kill French by running him off the road in traffic.

Subsequent interviews by Centurion Ministries and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detectives continued to help Frank's cause. One of Lyon's former husbands told detectives during a videotaped interview that she told him she had hired a hitman to kill French, and that Frank was "sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit."

Lyon, now living in the Pacific Northwest and going by the last name Lahodny, told detectives last year that she believed Frank was innocent. Attempts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful.

Mounting proof that authorities failed to share favorable evidence with Frank and the lack of attention paid to other possible suspects in the original investigation was presented to a judge in March 2012.

Frank's conviction was overturned. One month later, he was freed.

"I dropped into Nick's arms when I first got out of that jailhouse," Frank said. "Those were my first steps."

The next steps
Los Angeles County detectives stand by the original investigation, although they persist to investigate the crime. Prosecutors dismissed the case against Frank, but reserved the right to file charges against him if new evidence implicating him is found.

"Bring it on," Frank said. "Take me to court, and they're going to find me not guilty. I haven't been proven innocent. You can only do that in a court of law. Better yet, go find the real killer."

Frank forfeited $1 million in compensation from the state of California for wrongful incarceration, opting instead to file a civil rights lawsuit against the detectives in his case that could yield a greater payout. He said more than the money, the motive for the suit is to hold investigators accountable so they will be careful not to repeat the mistake.

Frank has pledged to give more than half of any monetary award from the lawsuit to organizations that fight for people who are wrongfully convicted.

Today, Frank and Nick harbor no worries that the charges will be resurrected. They pass their days taking drives up Poudre Canyon, biking around Fort Collins and playing on a competitive basketball team together. Nick rented a house large enough to give his father a floor to himself and near enough to the hustle and bustle of Old Town to enable Frank easy access to entertainment.

Frank says Fort Collins' vibe reminds him of the atmosphere in Southern California, where he spent his youth.

"I love the laid-back atmosphere," he said. "This is a beach community without the ocean. It's young, vibrant, artistic."

As much as they feel at home, another calling beckons. In the weeks ahead, Nick and Frank will leave Fort Collins to begin work raising awareness about wrongful conviction throughout the nation. Annually, organizations such as Centurion Ministries receive thousands of requests like Frank's, and only a handful are accepted, Nick pointed out.

"Right now, there are just more than 1,100 registered exonerations nationwide (since 1989), and it's growing rapidly," Nick said. "They're cherry-picking, and even then they're taking 14 years and half a million dollars to rectify the damage done by one haphazard investigation. It's the tip of a huge iceberg. We're just beginning to get a glimpse over the walls of what's going on right now."

Fort Collins Coloradoan

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