On February 13, 1974, a hiker in the Tijeras Canyon near Albuquerque, New Mexico, found the mutilated body of 26-year-old college student Richard Velten. Several days later, Ronald Keine and four other members of The Vagos motorcycle club – Clarence Smith Jr. (also known as Sandy Morrison), Thomas Gladish, Arthur Smith, and Richard W. Greer (also known as Orland P. Dilda) – who had been arrested on robbery charges in Tucumcari, New Mexico, were charged with Richard Velten’s murder. These five men, all of whom were in their twenties, were traveling on motorcycles through the southwest United States at the time of their arrest. In May, the charges against Arthur Smith were dropped due to lack of evidence that he had been involved in the killing.
The primary incriminating evidence against Keine, Gladish, Smith, and Greer was the testimony of Judith Weyer, a maid at a local motel. Weyer claimed that Keine, Gladish, Smith, and Greer had approached her and demanded that she provide them with a hotel room. She testified that they had later raped her and that she had seen them torture and kill Velten in the motel room. She testified to these facts at the men’s trial in June 1974. Known jailhouse snitch Charles “Charlie the Rat” Duran also testified that the men had confessed their guilt to him. Despite a variety of witnesses who testified as to the defendants’ presence in the Los Angeles area on the day of the crime, all four were convicted on June 5, 1974 and sentenced to death.
Journalists Douglas Glazier and Stephen Cain of The Detroit News began investigating the case, with the newspaper ultimately spending $75,000 on the investigation. The reporters spoke to Judith Weyer, who eventually admitted to them that her testimony had been wholly untrue and she had not witnessed Velten’s murder. In April 1975, Weyer formally recanted her testimony at a court hearing, testifying that she actually had no firsthand knowledge whatsoever of the crime. She stated that her court testimony had been fabricated based on information provided to her by the sheriff’s officers. Weyer claimed she had been interviewed for eight or nine hours at a time, with the officers pressuring her – both promising to help her regain custody of her children if she cooperated and threatening to book her as an accessory to the murder if she did not. However, she claimed that she could no longer handle the fact that four men were on death row “for something they probably never done, because of me.” Keine, Gladish, Smith, and Greer requested a new trial based on Weyer’s recantation of her incriminating testimony, but U.S. District Court Judge William Riordan refused to grant a new trial. Judge Riordan stated that he had concluded that Judith Weyer had perjured herself at the hearing when she claimed she had not witnessed the crime, and he believed that her original trial testimony had actually been the truth.
In September 1975, drifter Kerry Rodney Lee confessed to the murder of Richard Velten, and the ballistics evidence from the crime scene conclusively matched the gun stolen from Lee’s ex-girlfriend’s father. Based on this new evidence, the four men were granted new trials. The prosecutor dropped the indictments on December 15, 1975, and the men were released. In 1978, Lee was tried and convicted of the murder of Richard Velten.
Keine, Gladish, Smith, and Greer sued several members of Bernalillo County law enforcement, but they eventually settled for $5,000 each plus attorney’s fees.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.