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James Reyos

Other Homicide exonerations in Texas
At 4 p.m. on December 21, 1981, 49-year-old Patrick Ryan, pastor of St. William Catholic church in Denver City, Texas, checked into room 126 in the Sand and Sage Motel in Odessa, Texas. He registered under a false name—John Killery—and provided a fake license plate number for his car.

At 11:30 a.m. the following morning, a hotel housekeeper found his body. Ryan was nude and face down on the floor. His hands were bound behind his back with one of his socks. He had been badly beaten. Numerous bruises and lacerations were found on multiple locations, and he had suffered cranial bleeding, indicating head trauma. His blood alcohol level was .148, nearly twice the legal limit. The physician who performed the autopsy said the cause of death was a blow to the throat.

The motel room was in shambles. Blood was on both walls of the entry hallway and on the door near the bottom. Portions of the walls were caved in. The bed had been partially destroyed and pulled away from the wall. The telephone had been broken, an end table had been overturned, and the cover of the air conditioner had been ripped off.

Police collected hair samples from the room and the body, as well as pieces of carpet, clothing, bedding, soap, cigarette butts and a portion of the wall with bloodstains. Police also collected several fingerprints.

Police did not know who the victim was. Four days later, after Fr. Ryan had failed to say Mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a concerned parishioner broke into the priest’s residence. A fully cooked steak and boiled potatoes were on the stove. Denver City police were called, and Fr. Ryan was reported missing. His accordion and silver chalice were missing, as was his wallet. In the church rectory, where Fr. Ryan lived, police found a backpack belonging to 25-year-old James Reyos, a recently unemployed oil field worker who had been raised on an Apache reservation in New Mexico.

On December 26, police in Odessa contacted Denver City police and Fr. Ryan was identified. A native of Doon, Ireland, Fr. Ryan was a member of the Pallottine Fathers, officially known as the Society of the Catholic Apostolate. He had arrived at St. William church in 1980.

The following day, December 27, Fr. Ryan’s 1979 Chrysler was found 90 miles northwest of Odessa, parked in front of the Moose Lodge in Hobbs, New Mexico, just over the Texas border and about 35 miles southwest of Denver City. Police collected fingerprints from the car. The key to room 126 at the Sand and Sage, where Fr. Ryan’s body was found, was on the front passenger floorboard. In a trash can at a nearby gas station, police found one of Fr. Ryan’s credit cards. Witnesses said the car was first seen in the lodge parking lot on Friday, December 25, or on Saturday, December 26.

Reyos was questioned because of the presence of his backpack. Reyos said he knew Fr. Ryan and had met him a few weeks earlier. Reyos said he visited Fr. Ryan the day before the priest’s death and brought his backpack containing pictures of Reyos’s family. Reyos said that on the morning of the murder, Ryan had driven him to Hobbs so Reyos could get his truck. Reyos explained that he had been arrested for driving without a license and had given his truck to a bail bondsman to secure a loan to pay his bail. Reyos took a polygraph examination, and the examiner said he showed no deception when he denied involvement in the crime.

Police eliminated Reyos as a suspect when he provided receipts for purchases and a speeding ticket that placed him in New Mexico at the time of the crime.

Meanwhile, police got two other leads. A man called the Governor’s Mansion in Texas on December 26, before Fr. Ryan was identified publicly, and claimed he had killed the priest. Another man confessed to the murder while in the Lea County Jail, about 20 miles from Hobbs. The man offered details, including that Fr. Ryan had been beaten and cut. However, neither lead was pursued.

Police checked pawn shops in Hobbs and the surrounding area, but the priest’s silver chalice and accordion were never found.

A week after the murder, Olivia Gonzalez, one of the parishioners, told police that she had seen someone driving Fr. Ryan’s car on December 22, the day after the murder. She said the car was pulling out of the church driveway right before dark. She said the driver was wearing a green cap and green shirt. She worked with a police sketch artist to create a composite drawing. She told the officer the driver was wearing a U.S. Marine Corps cap.

On November 18, 1982, nearly a year after the murder, Reyos called 911 from a public phone at a motel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He said he wanted to talk about the murder of a Catholic priest in Odessa. When the 911 operator asked, “Who are you?” Reyos replied, “You are talking to the possible, well, ah, the killer.”

“The killer?” the operator asked.

“Yes,” Reyos said.

“Do you remember the priest’s name?” the operator asked.

“Yes,” Reyos replied. “Patrick Ryan.”

He then reported his location and waited for police.

Police found him to be “very calm,” though smelling of alcohol. At the Albuquerque police department, Reyos immediately recanted, denying any involvement in the crime. He was arrested, returned to Odessa, and indicted on a charge of first-degree murder.

On June 6, 1983, he went to trial in Ector County Criminal District Court. The prosecution produced no physical or forensic evidence connecting Reyos to the crime. The FBI had analyzed five latent fingerprints and two latent palm prints and found that Reyos was not the source of any of them. The testimony portrayed Reyos and Fr. Ryan as gay men.

Officer Ray Gutierrez testified that he and his partner responded to Reyos’s 911 call and found him in one of the motel’s rooms. He said Reyos said he killed Ryan in December 1981 in a room at the Sand and Sage Motel in Odessa.

“I asked him how he killed him,” Gutierrez testified. “He said, ‘With a razor, but mostly I beat him.’” Gutierrez said Reyos was calm until the officers attempted to place him under arrest. “He refused to let us handcuff him,” Gutierrez said. “We had to forcibly restrain him.”

Olivia Gonzalez, the woman who had helped make the composite drawing, testified, and for the first time, she identified Reyos as the man she saw driving Fr. Ryan’s car.

Albuquerque Police Detective Sergeant Jerry Smith testified that Reyos gave him a statement which was recorded. In the statement, which was played for the jury, Reyos said that he and Fr. Ryan and a third man, a Black hitchhiker that Fr. Ryan had picked up, drove to Odessa from Hobbs on December 21, 1981. Reyos said all three were drinking heavily, and, after driving around for a few hours, the priest suggested they check into the Sand and Sage.

At the motel, according to the statement, Fr. Ryan asked the third man if he wanted to have sex, and Reyos said he watched as the two engaged in sex. However, a fight between the two broke out. “I think father Ryan started the fight because he didn’t like the sex act,” Reyos said. “They fought for a couple of minutes.”

Reyos said in the statement that he left the room, and the Black man came out five minutes later. Reyos said he and the Black man drove Fr. Ryan’s car to Hobbs and parked near where Reyos’s truck was parked. Reyos said he then drove the hitchhiker to the bus station in Roswell, New Mexico.

A police officer testified that fingerprints were obtained from the motel room where Fr. Ryan was killed. Asked by the prosecutor if he found any prints in the room “that matched” Reyos’s prints, the officer said, “There was none that we could positively say were his.”

Asked why, the officer said, “We were unable to obtain a count of eight or more identifying marks on the latent fingerprints.”

The prosecutor asked, “Is it often the case that you will have only a part of a print, so you can’t find the eight points because the whole print isn’t there?”

“Yes, sir,” the officer said.

“Sometimes prints are smudged and so forth; is that correct?” the prosecutor asked.

“Yes, sir,” the officer replied.

The testimony about the time of death from the physician who had performed the autopsy would later be described as less than clear. He said rigor mortis was fully developed by the time he examined the body, but was not clear about whether that timing was based on his initial viewing of the body at the motel at 1:40 p.m. or on the autopsy which took place at 4 p.m. The doctor gave varying time frames for the time of death—either eight to 10 hours or eight to 12 hours prior to his first viewing or 12 to 18 hours prior to the autopsy. Ultimately, the earliest possible time of death was 7:40 p.m. on December 21, the day Fr. Ryan checked in, and the latest was 8 a.m. on December 22, the day the body was discovered.

George Cooper testified that he and Linda Watson checked into the motel on the evening of December 21. He said that there was a problem with their room, so at 9 p.m. they were moved to room 125, which was next to Fr. Ryan’s room. He said he and Watson were up “practically all night,” and did not leave until 6:30 or 7 a.m. on December 22. He said he never heard any sounds from Fr. Ryan’s room. Although Cooper did not testify about Fr. Ryan’s car, the police report of his interview said he did not see Fr. Ryan’s car at the time he and Watson moved into the room adjacent to Fr. Ryan’s room.

Reyos testified and denied killing Ryan. He said that he first met Fr. Ryan three weeks before the priest was killed, when Fr. Ryan picked up Reyos when he was hitchhiking to Hobbs in an attempt to find a new job. Reyos said Fr. Ryan was “kind and considerate, a generous person” who had loaned Reyos money. He said that on December 20, 1981, Fr. Ryan had invited him to the rectory because the priest wanted to learn more about Reyos’s family.

Reyos said that after several drinks, the priest, who was five inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Reyos, forced Reyos to perform oral sex on him. “He came up to me, grabbed me by the shirt collar, pulled me forward, and had me perform oral sex on him,” Reyos testified. “I struggled to get away.”

The following day, December 21, 1981, despite this assault, Reyos asked Fr. Ryan to give him a ride to Hobbs. Reyos had received his regular stipend as an Apache Native American, and he wanted to pay the bail bondsman and get his truck back. Reyos said Fr. Ryan drove him to the bail bondsman and dropped him off about 11 a.m. He said he never saw Fr. Ryan again.

Reyos said that after he got his truck back, he drove to Roswell, where he was drinking with a friend. He left the friend at about 8:30 p.m.

The defense presented numerous receipts for purchases of gasoline and other items as well as a speeding ticket that Reyos got at 12:15 a.m. (Texas time) on December 22, about 11 hours before Fr. Ryan’s body was found. The ticket was issued 15 miles west of Roswell—about 215 miles from Odessa. The defense pointed out that if Reyos was coming back from Odessa, he would have overshot Roswell by at least 15 miles, turned back toward Roswell and then got stopped for speeding.

Reyos could not provide any documentary evidence as to his whereabouts during the approximately four hours between the time he left his friend’s home and when he was stopped for speeding. However, not long after he was ticketed, Reyos had a flat tire and wound up in a drainage ditch. Some people came along and drove Reyos into Roswell. One of them testified for the defense and said Reyos “was not in a condition to drive.” The defense presented a receipt showing that a towing service had towed Reyos’s truck to Woody’s Truck Stop at 3 a.m. on December 22.

After getting his tire repaired, Reyos drove back to his friend’s house, where he had been drinking earlier. He parked his truck and slept in it until 7:00 a.m. on Tuesday, December 22. He went to a convenience store on the way out of town and bought more beer. As he was driving out of Roswell, Reyos had another flat tire. He said he hitchhiked back into town and got his truck towed to the repair shop.

The owner of that shop testified for the defense that the shop did not have the right tire in stock, so he went to another supply store, got the tire, and got Reyos’s truck back in operation.

The defense also presented the receipt for the tire from the supply store and the receipt from the repairman. The repairman testified that Reyos finally left his shop in Roswell “right around dark" on Tuesday, December 22.

Shortly after Reyos left the tire repair shop, he was arrested and put in jail on a charge of public intoxication. He remained in jail until he was released the morning of Wednesday, December 23.

Reyos testified that he did not remember saying that he was the killer. He said he drank heavily and took drugs at the time and had no memory of the call. “I knew he had been murdered, but I did not know the facts,” Reyos testified.

During cross-examination, Reyos admitted that he had engaged in sex with men in the past. He also admitted that he had been arrested 30 times for public intoxication and five times for drunken driving.

Dr. Samuel Roll, a professor of psychology and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, testified that Reyos’s personality did not fit that of a homosexual killer. He said that Reyos’s statements to police were “false confessions.”

Dr. Roll said that gay killers were usually either “simply crazy,” had panicked during a sexual act, or were generally over-aggressive. Dr. Roll, who examined Reyos, testified that Reyos exhibited none of these tendencies. “It is extremely unlikely Mr. Reyos could have committed a crime of this nature,” Dr. Roll said.

He opined that Reyos’s telephone confession was prompted by Reyos’s mental anguish over the forced sexual encounter with Fr. Ryan the day before the priest’s death. “He was guilty about his sexual encounter with the priest,” Dr. Roll testified. “To him, that was a horrible, heinous sin. It’s my opinion that the confession he gave police concerning his killing of Fr. Ryan is a false confession. That’s my opinion based on a high degree of scientific certainty.

Dr. Roll testified that Reyos was a “classic homosexual who knew very early on that his inclination was to be attracted sexually to males.”

During closing arguments, defense lawyer John Smith declared, “Father Ryan is dead. His death deserves to be avenged. But his killer is still at large.”

Smith told the jury, “[Y]ou can’t send James Harry Reyos to prison for being a homosexual.” Smith argued that Reyos was more than 200 miles away at the time of the crime.

Ector County Assistant District Attorney Anthony Foster dismissed Reyos’s alibi claim as “handy,” and said Reyos confessed because the murder had begun to “weigh on his mind.”

“Suddenly, he can’t take it anymore,” Foster declared. “The guilt consumes him. He gets it out and feels cleansed.”

On June 10, 1983, the jury convicted Reyos of first-degree murder. The jury sentenced him to 38 years in prison and imposed a $5,000 fine. The conviction was affirmed on appeal in 1984.

In 1990, Fr. Ryan’s supervisor, Bishop Leroy Matthiesen, wrote a letter to the chaplain at the prison where Reyos was confined saying that he believed Reyos was innocent. In 1992, Dennis Cadra, Andrews County District Attorney, wrote a letter to Texas Governor Ann Richards seeking clemency because Cadra was convinced Reyos was innocent. Cadra was an assistant district attorney in Ector County when Reyos was convicted and had been assigned to defend the conviction on appeal. At that time, he supported the conviction, but felt there were flaws in the prosecution’s case.

In December 1991, Cadra learned that the trial transcript was about to be destroyed. He read it in one sitting and concluded Reyos did not commit the crime. “Despite my 16 years as a prosecutor, I came to the conclusion that it was physically impossible for Mr. Reyos to have committed the crime for which he was convicted and for which he has been in the Texas penitentiary for almost eight years,” Cadra wrote Richards.

However, Reyos remained in prison. Over the next few years, the news media, including the Dallas Morning News and Newsweek magazine, championed his innocence to no avail.

On July 21, 1995, Reyos was released on parole. He was sent back to prison on July 3, 1996, for violating parole when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. He was released on December 3, 2003. By then, his case had been the subject of an episode of American Justice, an Arts & Entertainment channel television series.

On August 29, 2008, Reyos went back to prison again for another parole violation. Although the charges had been dismissed, he went back anyway. He remained in prison until he was released on July 17, 2012. All told, Reyos spent nearly 24 years in prison.

In 2021, a podcast called “Crime Junkie” featured the case and outlined the evidence that suggested Reyos was innocent. Among the listeners were Harlee and Michael Gerke. The couple were driving to Odessa, their hometown, to visit family—in particular, Gerke’s father, also named Michael, who just happened to be Odessa’s chief of police. Along with Gerke’s daughter, they told Chief Gerke what they had heard.

Intrigued, Chief Gerke requested that the case file be retrieved, and he read through it. He later told the Los Angeles Times, “When I got to the end, it felt like I should be like halfway through, because there just wasn’t enough there to support a conviction.”

Although the court had ordered all of the case files destroyed in 1991, photocopies of the latent fingerprint cards were located. Stacy Cannady, a crime scene technician, found the actual cards and submitted the prints to an automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) which went online in 1999.

One of the prints had been found in blood on the front door of the motel room where Fr. Ryan’s body was discovered. With the aid of the AFIS search, Cannady concluded that the source of this print was Charles Burkart, who had lived in Odessa at the time of the crime. Burkart was dead.

A fingerprint from a plastic cup found behind the broken motel room bed returned no results when submitted to AFIS.

The police file showed that an hour after Fr. Ryan checked into the motel, a group of four people checked into room 137. The person who signed the registry was Gary Ehrman. Witnesses at the time said Ehrman had a party in the room, but he was gone by the time Fr. Ryan’s body was found and had not been interviewed.

Odessa police Sergeant Scottie Smith located Ehrman’s fingerprint cards. Cannady compared his prints to the prints on the plastic cup and concluded that Erhman’s left middle fingerprint was the source of the print on the cup.

In addition, a bloody fingerprint on the shower head in the bathroom was submitted to AFIS. The search indicated the strongest candidate was a man named Bobby Gene Collins. Cannady retrieved Collins’s prints and concluded that Collins’s right thumb was the source of the print on the shower head.

Police determined that Collins was a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War who had been living in Odessa at the time of the crime. Collins also was dead. Collins’s sister told police that upon his return from the war, Collins “was a very violent person.”

A fingerprint from the cruise control in Fr. Ryan’s car was not of sufficient quality to submit to AFIS. However, Cannady said she could not eliminate Collins as the source of that print. Cannady also reported that she could not eliminate Collins as the source of a print developed on Fr. Ryan’s credit card, which had been found in the gas station trash can near where Fr. Ryan’s car was recovered.

Odessa police took their findings to the Ector County District Attorney’s Office. Greg Barber, the first assistant prosecutor, reached out to Allison Clayton, a law school classmate, who was deputy director of the Innocence Project of Texas. Clayton and three law students tackled the case.

In February 2023, Clayton, along with Mike Ware, executive director of the project, filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus. At the same time, Texas Monthly writer Michael Hall published a lengthy article that chronicled Reyos’s saga. The article featured an emotional interview with Reyos. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wake up and think about it,” Reyos said of Fr. Ryan’s death.

A hearing was held in March in Seventieth District Court in Odessa. The fingerprint evidence was presented, as was evidence that showed that for Reyos to have driven to Odessa from Roswell, killed Fr. Ryan, and returned to Roswell during the only window of time he could not account for, Reyos would have had to have driven an average speed of about 110 miles per hour—an impossibility.

Evidence at the hearing included testimony by police who had interviewed Collins’s daughter. She had said that she believed after returning home from Vietnam, Collins had “killed more people than he did in Vietnam.”

The defense presented deposition testimony of Dr. Gary Wells, a psychologist and expert on eyewitness identification, who said that the identification of Reyos as the driver of Fr. Ryan’s car was highly unreliable. Dr. Wells noted that the witness, Olivia Gonzalez, had said the driver was a white man and that Reyos was a dark-skinned Apache Indian. “So there’s no evidence of a strong…memory to rely on here. And that’s really important because weak memories…are highly susceptible to suggestion,” Dr. Wells said.

Gonzalez’s identification of Reyos at trial—her first identification—was a “supercharged” showup identification, Dr. Wells said. “The level of suggestiveness is, sort of, through the roof.”

The defense noted that Gonzalez first reported that the driver was wearing a U.S. Marine Corps cap and that Collins was a former Marine.

Dr. Richard Leo, an expert on false confessions, said he had begun researching Reyos’s case in the late 1990’s and concluded it was a voluntary false confession. He noted that Reyos was very intoxicated at the time of the confession and that his public defender believed Reyos was under the influence of drugs. Reyos, in his interview with Texas Monthly, said he had taken Quaaludes before making the phone call.

Further, Leo said Reyos was “very ashamed based on cultural and religious reasons to be homosexual and that was the source of his internalized guilt because he had a sexual encounter, which sounds like a sexual molestation, with Father Ryan shortly before the homicide…and feelings of internalized guilt make a person more susceptible to falsely confessing.”

On August 4, 2023, Judge Denn Whalen signed a 57-page order summarizing his findings and recommendation that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals find Reyos “actually innocent” of Fr. Ryan’s murder. “[T]he court finds that justice cannot permit his conviction to stand,” Judge Whalen wrote. “The evidence of Mr. Reyos’s innocence—and the evidence of the others’ guilt—is overwhelming.”

Judge Whalen pointed to the fingerprint evidence. “Not only were prints from all three men found in highly inculpatory positions throughout the motel room, but modern-day investigation has placed all three men in the area,” the judge said. “They were physically capable of overpowering Fr. Ryan by virtue of their number and size. Mr. Collins certainly had the knowledge, experience, and disposition to beat a man to death.”

The judge also focused on the physical impossibility that Reyos could have made the trip from Roswell to Odessa, committed the murder, and returned to Roswell. “It is highly unlikely that someone could have physically gone well over 100 miles per hour down two-lane roads for 206 miles on a Saturday night, going through several small towns, in a 1981 pickup truck and that person could have avoided being noticed by a single police officer,” the judge said.

The judge also noted that Reyos’s sexuality and his race were likely held against him. “It is likely the jury held biases against Mr. Reyos that may have impacted their determination of guilt.”

On October 4, 2023, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ and vacated Reyos’s conviction. The court agreed that Reyos was "actually innocent."

On November 7, 2023, the prosecution dismissed the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/29/2023
Last Updated: 11/29/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1981
Sentence:38 years
Race/Ethnicity:Native American
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No