James Harry Reyos spends a lot of time by himself, waiting to go home. He wakes up about 4 a.m. in his room at the ragged South Austin housing complex where he lives. He goes to the dayroom and gets a cup of coffee and a doughnut or a pastry. He might watch the news on the TV there. Many of the other residents are ex-cons like him, accustomed to rising early, and they drift in and out.
He’ll spend most of the rest of his day alone in his small room, listening to country music (he loves George Jones and Dolly Parton), reading, writing, and remembering. For Reyos, the past is never far away. On the wall above his bed is a large American flag and a New Mexico license plate. When I visited him in January, he pulled out a map of his home state and showed me where he had grown up, in Dulce, on the Jicarilla Apache Nation reservation in the mountainous northern part of New Mexico—a place to which, because of restrictions from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, he’s currently unable to return. All around him are reminders of why. On his desk sits a framed cover of a 2005 issue of the Austin Chronicle, with a close-up of his face and the words “Murder Mystery.” Above the desk are a couple of pages from a 1993 story about him. One of the headlines succinctly summarizes the last forty years of his life: “Texas vs. Reyos.”
In 1983, Reyos was convicted of the brutal murder of Patrick Ryan, a Catholic priest, in Odessa, and sentenced to 38 years in prison. Reyos was freed on supervised release for being a model prisoner in 1995 but was sent back two more times for parole violations, even as he did everything he could do to show he was innocent. He convinced a lot of people who heard his story. Sitting in his room, he pulled out a black binder that was full of sympathetic articles written about him over the years—in the Dallas Morning News, the El Paso Times, Newsweek, and Out magazine. For Reyos, the binder is a bible of sorts. Inside are letters to three Texas governors and other officials, in which advocates proclaimed his innocence. Also inside is a letter from the murdered priest’s boss who said Reyos was innocent. And there’s a missive from a man who had once prosecuted Reyos but now wrote that it was objectively impossible for him to have killed the priest. “That is the most important letter right there,” Reyos said.
Reyos, who is five and a half feet tall, has a reserved, almost timid demeanor and speaks so softly that you sometimes have to lean in to hear him. At 66, his hair and goatee have grayed; black glasses frame his impassive face. He had a stroke in September and occasionally has a hard time finding the right words. He moves slowly, often using a walker.
When Reyos dreams of home, he thinks of the mountains, the snow, and his three brothers, whom he hasn’t seen in decades. Reyos’s mom died when he was a teen and his dad when he was in prison; a couple of his siblings have died too. Reyos would like to visit their graves and walk in the fields where he played as a boy. He’d like to be with his tribe.
Reyos had a normal childhood, riding bikes and hitting baseballs. He was the youngest of six children growing up on the reservation. His father was a petroleum engineer and his mom took care of the kids. The family also owned a couple of small cattle ranches, and the small boy would tag along with his older brothers as they rode their horses. “I used to love the cattle drives,” he told me. “Come wintertime we’d move them down south to the winter ranch where it was warmer, and in the springtime move them back up to the summer ranch.” He told me about a photo he used to have—now long gone—that his mom had taken of him during branding season. “I was six or seven years old and I was holding a calf in a headlock. It had a little white face. My mom loved the Herefords.”
When he was a teenager, Reyos figured out that he was gay. He was terrified to tell anyone, especially his parents or his friends. As he would say to a reporter years later, “Apaches were brought up to be brave and strong—and not gay. I knew that I was.” Afraid of being rejected and ashamed of his sexuality, he was a quiet teen, a loner. He got good grades in high school, but he began drinking when he went to college in Albuquerque. He later transferred to a school in Roswell to study petroleum technology, where his drinking got so bad that he was eventually banned from his dorm. By the time he was jailed in 1982 for the murder of Father Ryan, he had been arrested five times for driving while intoxicated and thirty more for public intoxication.
When Reyos looks back, he knows that alcohol had a lot to do with why he was arrested for killing Ryan—and also why he was convicted. He thinks that his homosexuality and his identity as an Apache likely contributed to the jury verdict, too, as did the identity of the victim: a Catholic priest, in a state where priests are venerated. As a lonely twentysomething living far from home, Reyos made a couple of big mistakes, ones that haunt him to this day. To push back against the painful memories of his past—and everyone in the present who think he’s a murderer—he has written twelve words on a sheet of paper that hangs above his desk. It’s something of a mantra that he sees every morning when he wakes up: “I KNOW in my heart—I DID NOT KILL Father Patrick Ryan.”
Late last year, after four decades of fighting to clear his name, Reyos received some earthshaking news. In late November, he was visited by his lawyer and an Odessa police detective, who had come all the way from West Texas to Austin to tell him that newly discovered fingerprint evidence solidly points to three other men as suspects in the murder of Ryan.
Reyos was stunned. For forty years he had been saying he was innocent, but no matter how many lawyers or journalists he got on his side, it didn’t mean anything because the State of Texas still considered him guilty. All of a sudden, that seemed as if it might change. Thursday, Reyos’s lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus in an Odessa court, alleging that this new evidence proves he is, legally speaking, “actually innocent.”
Very few men have ever waited longer to be exonerated than James Reyos has. But he knows that the long fight to clear his name will be worth it as soon as he sees the mountains of his homeland again.
Four days before Christmas of 1981, Odessa police were called to Room 126 of the Sand and Sage Motel, where they found a naked man lying facedown, hands tied behind his back, dead. He was a large man, about two hundred pounds. His face and body were battered and bloody and a long slashing wound ran across his buttocks. The room was a shambles: blood on the floor and walls, holes punched in the Sheetrock. The bed was broken, the TV smashed, the phone line cut. Cigarette butts lay on the floor, beer cans stood on a bureau, and clothes were strewn everywhere. It looked as if a party had gone terribly wrong.
Officers collected hairs, bloody fingerprints, semen-stained sheets. The pathologist who performed the autopsy reckoned the man’s heart had stopped sometime between 7 p.m. and midnight the day before. He had been beaten to death.
The man had checked into the seedy motel—a place where, at that time, sex workers conducted a thriving business—under a phony name and address, so it took a few days to figure out his identity. When the cops finally did, the day after Christmas, they were shocked: he was a Catholic priest named Father Patrick Ryan, 49, who was serving in the small Texas town of Denver City, eighty miles northwest of Odessa, near the New Mexico border. Ryan was originally from County Limerick, in Ireland, and had been at St. William Catholic Church in Denver City for the previous two years. He was passionate about helping the poor and was beloved by his working-class Hispanic flock. “He reminded you of Saint Francis of Assisi,” said one of his parishioners. The next day police found Ryan’s car and his wallet outside the Moose Lodge in Hobbs, New Mexico, thirty miles to the southwest, and dusted them for prints.
Police also found a green backpack in Ryan’s Denver City apartment; in it was a photo album belonging to Reyos, who lived three blocks away. Officers brought in the long-haired 25-year-old for questioning. Reyos, who had been working as a roustabout in Denver City but had been fired because of his drinking, told the cops that he had met Ryan in December when the priest picked him up as he was hitchhiking from Denver City to Hobbs to look for a job. The two talked the whole way there (the priest called himself John), then stopped at a biker bar and drank a pitcher of beer. Reyos didn’t have any friends and enjoyed telling the curious stranger about his life growing up on the reservation. After a few hours, Ryan drove the two back to his church, and Reyos walked home.
Reyos admitted seeing Ryan a few other times too. He said he had been to the priest’s apartment the day before he was killed, and he said that on the morning of the murder, Ryan had driven him to Hobbs so the young man could retrieve his truck, which he had left with a bail bondsman as collateral after being arrested for driving without a license. Nine hours later, the priest was dead in Odessa.
While all this was suspicious, Reyos had solid proof that in the hours during which Ryan was killed, he was 215 miles away, in and near Roswell, New Mexico. Reyos had spent that whole day and night and the next morning driving drunkenly around the Roswell area, eventually crashing his truck into a bar ditch. He had eleven different receipts to prove it—buying gas, buying a gas cap, getting a speeding ticket, getting towed. Police checked his body for any evidence that he had been involved in a violent struggle, but he was clean. None of the hairs or fingerprints found at the scene or in Ryan’s car belonged to Reyos. He passed a lie detector test. Finally, after four hours of questioning, with nothing tying him to the murder, police let Reyos go.
The case went cold. But Reyos couldn’t walk away so easily. He hadn’t told the police everything about his relationship with Ryan. In fact, he harbored a secret that was tearing him apart: on his visit to Ryan’s apartment the day before the murder, after the priest had invited him there to look through the photo album, Ryan had forced him to engage in oral sex. Nearly eleven months after Ryan’s murder, Reyos, then living in a motel room in Albuquerque, was drinking heavily at a bar and took some quaaludes. He passed out, woke up, drank some more, and staggered to a pay phone and called 911. He wanted to talk about the murdered priest in Odessa, he said. When asked who he was, he replied, “You are talking to the killer.”
Reyos was arrested and taken to the Albuquerque jail. Later that day, he changed his tune. “In the name of God, I didn’t do this,” he told his public defender several times. He told a detective, “I am not the killer. I just like to cause trouble for law enforcement.”
Reyos doesn’t have a simple answer for why he confessed to something he didn’t do. He told me how hard it was being gay back then, constantly fearing rejection, terrified of being exposed. He said his shame exploded after that night in Ryan’s apartment in 1981. “I remember walking down the street afterward, thinking to myself, ‘That didn’t happen. That didn’t happen.’ I was scared because somebody was going to find out.” Eleven months later, drunk and drugged and miserable, he felt responsible for Ryan’s murder: if he hadn’t gone to the priest for a ride to Hobbs to pick up his truck, he thought, Ryan would still be alive. “It just kept eating at me, eating at me, eating at me. I should have just hitchhiked to Hobbs. I’d done it before.”
At Reyos’s June 1983 trial, he and his lawyers were certain his solid alibi would save him—especially because he wasn’t the only one leading a hidden life. Two young men testified for the defense that the priest, in civilian garb, had approached them in a parking lot in Hobbs, saying he was “looking for a young stud to f— him.” But Reyos was doomed by his 911 confession—and his story about what really happened the night before Ryan was murdered. Reyos testified about drinking with Ryan—first beer, then vodka—and then the priest grabbing him by the shirt collar and forcing himself upon him. “I was scared,” he testified, and also drunk. Afterward, Reyos fled, so ashamed and confused that he left his backpack behind. The next day, he needed a ride to Hobbs to pick up his truck, and, friendless, asked Ryan. Reyos said Ryan apologized for the incident of the night before and dropped him off in Hobbs around 11:30 a.m. Reyos, flush with cash from a quarterly royalty check from his tribe, spent the next day and a half drinking, driving, and sleeping it off.
His lawyer, calling upon a psychology professor for expert testimony, insisted Reyos had confessed because of excruciating shame he felt about his homosexuality and the incident with Ryan—and the fact that the priest had died the same day he had last seen him. But the prosecutor accused Reyos of fabricating the story about the alleged assault and slandering a Catholic priest (it would be another decade before the church’s sex scandals rocked the country). He made Reyos go into gritty details about the incident, and Reyos had a hard time explaining why he would go back to the priest the next day if he had been so traumatized.
After more than three days of testimony, the jury ignored the receipts and the lack of physical evidence and found Reyos guilty, and he was sentenced to 38 years. Upon hearing the verdict, Reyos went into what he told me was a state of shock. One of his defense attorneys, surprised by the verdict, talked to jurors afterward. As he said later, “They said no one admits to committing a murder if they didn’t do it. That’s what convicted him.” But the jurors weren’t blind to Reyos’s sexuality. One of them told a reporter that the verdict was “based on his confession and characteristics.”
Reyos’s father, who was eighty and using a cane, was allowed to visit his son one last time in a courthouse conference room before he was sent away. He told him, “Always be strong, son. Don’t ever give up.” When Reyos got to prison, he wrote the words on a piece of paper and hung it on his cell wall.
At the Coffield Unit in East Texas, Reyos began gathering documents on his case, helped by family members who made copies. He spent hours in the library, studying the law and writing to lawyers and journalists. Though his first appeal, in 1984, was turned down, it didn’t take long to get advocates on his side.
One of the first was Bishop Leroy T. Matthiesen, Ryan’s supervisor, who in 1990 wrote a chaplain at the prison that he was convinced Reyos was innocent. A year later, Ector County prosecutor Dennis Cadra, who had fought against Reyos’s appeal while working for the DA’s office, wrote an eight-page letter to Governor Ann Richards saying that after a careful reading of the trial transcript, he was now convinced Reyos was innocent and had confessed because of shame about the hookup. “I came to the firm conclusion that it was physically impossible for Mr. Reyos to have committed the crime,” Cadra wrote, adding that Reyos had several strikes against him in front of that jury, including being gay and Native American. Reyos told me he was stunned when he got a copy of the letter. “I remember sitting in my cell reading that letter over and over. I couldn’t believe that the prosecutor had made a one-eighty-degree turn.”
Reyos thought he would get out soon and set his mind on returning to New Mexico. When that didn’t happen, he sent a letter with documents to Howard Swindle, the award-winning investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News, asking him to look into his case. Swindle did, and in 1993, his paper published a front-page Sunday story questioning Reyos’s guilt. Two months later, Newsweek wrote about the case too.
Finally, in 1995, twelve and a half years after being arrested, Reyos was set free under the state’s mandatory supervision law, which required the early release of certain well-behaved inmates—and he returned to New Mexico because his brother agreed to sponsor him. But he began drinking again, and he was arrested for drunk driving and sent back to prison in Texas. Behind bars, he spent time as a teacher’s aide and continued to write letters to lawyers and governors—first George W. Bush, then Rick Perry.
Eight years later, he was released again. It was 2003, and Reyos felt confident that things might finally turn around for him. His case had been featured sympathetically in an A&E documentary series called American Justice. It had also caught the attention of state representative Paul Moreno, a Democrat from El Paso, who told Reyos he could help him more if he lived in Austin. So Reyos moved there and got a room at a transitional living facility called the South Austin Market Place, on Ben White Boulevard. Soon after, journalist Jordan Smith wrote an in-depth story on his case that the Austin Chronicle featured on its cover.
Reyos worked various jobs, including cleaning rooms at a fancy boutique hotel near the University of Texas. His bosses liked him so much they offered him a supervisory position, but he turned it down. One of them later wrote in a letter, “James respectfully declined the promotion only because he soon hopes to see the fruition of his labors to clear his name, and to return to his home in New Mexico.” He also worked as a janitor at his housing facility, cleaning up trash in the parking lot, and at Dance Across Texas, the massive country nightclub that stood next door.
But Texas authorities weren’t through with him yet. Early on the morning of April 25, 2008, Reyos was stopped by Austin Park Police on his way to work. Officers said a man who fit his description had flashed a woman, so they made Reyos, who denied the charge, stand in front of her car. The woman, Alison Sterken, says today she told the cops that, although the flasher was dressed like Reyos and carried a flashlight like he did, Reyos was too short by half a foot. “I’m five seven and this person was taller than me,” she told me. “But the cops wouldn’t listen to me. One of them said we were probably standing on uneven ground.”
Reyos was arrested. Although the charges were later dropped, the incident led to a parole-revocation hearing. Sterken was subpoenaed to testify, and she told the board what she had told the cops: the flasher was taller than Reyos.
It didn’t matter. Reyos’s parole was revoked and he was sent back to prison—for four more years. He got out again in 2012 but was restricted from leaving the state, so he moved back into South Austin Market Place, into the same room he occupies today. The whole experience made him even warier. “I became a little more bitter about the system,” he told me.
For the past ten years, Reyos has made his way through the world at his own pace. He credits his family, his father’s forty-year-old advice to him, and his religious faith for keeping him sane and not letting his anger overcome him. “Some people have lukewarm faith,” he said. “I have hot faith. Genuine faith. That’s what’s kept me going all over this time.” His walls are covered with biblical quotes written on pieces of paper. “Rise up, O Lord my God, vindicate me ‘not guilty,’ for you are just,” reads one. Another says: “Demand justice for me, Lord!”
Reyos has maintained faith in himself too—even as others have moved on. Several times he repeated to me the twelve words of his mantra: “I know in my heart I did not kill Father Patrick Ryan.” In the face of the world’s indifference, he has had to constantly remind himself.
The code he lives by is a lonely one, but it’s also a sheltering one. Reyos doesn’t have a cellphone or a working computer; he doesn’t want the distractions. He doesn’t have a car or a job; a monthly royalty check from his tribe supports his $700 monthly rent. He is a loner by choice but also by circumstance: he doesn’t get to know his fellow residents at the complex (now called Common Ground ATX) too well, because they usually move on soon enough. His closest friends are Carlos Patino, the office manager, and Francisco Jimenez, the complex’s handyman. “Those are the only two people I really know here,” he told me. “I stay in my room a lot. I’m happy being alone.”
Sometimes he walks to the office to visit Patino, or goes out front and sits on the wall and watches the cars zip by on their way to the Austin airport. Other times he wanders over to the courtyard and talks to fellow residents. “I’m not a recluse or anything like that,” he told me. “I like to stay here. It’s safe. There’s good people here. You know, you just gotta watch out who you associate with.” One of the times I visited Reyos, we sat in one of the community rooms, and during the interview, a fellow resident—a twitchy, fast-talking guy who knew about Reyos’s stroke—approached him and gave him a walker with tennis balls on the front legs so it wouldn’t slip.
While alcohol almost ruined his life, Reyos told me he doesn’t need to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “That’s the farthest from my mind. I don’t have any craving for alcohol. I concentrate on my case and getting this wrongful conviction overturned.” He doesn’t have a boyfriend and says he isn’t trying to get one. “I don’t even think about that now, you know? I’m happy alone. All I have to think about is myself, my fight for justice. That’s my main goal. I feel that I’m capable to fight this on my own, because when I do it, I am accomplishing something on my own, versus somebody helping me out.”
Still, last fall he was joined in his fight by an unlikely ally: the same office that put him behind bars in the first place. A young woman in Odessa had heard a recent episode of the Crime Junkie podcast about the Reyos case, which, as with every other story about it, referred to Reyos’s airtight alibi and the lack of any evidence tying him to the crime scene. She happened to be the daughter of Michael Gerke, the chief of the Odessa Police Department, and told her father about it. Curiosity piqued (his son, who lives in Bryan, had also let him know about the case), the chief asked for a copy of the case file. “I got to the end of it,” he told me, “and I went, ‘Well, where’s the rest of it?’ ” Gerke asked a couple of his men to investigate further. One of them was Sergeant Scotty Smith, who read the file and also obtained a copy of a recent book on Reyos by the English writer Scott Lomax, who had been following the case since 2004. “It just didn’t match up,” Smith told me. “There was nothing to put Reyos at the scene. How did they get a conviction?”
Most of the evidence from the case had been destroyed back in 1993, according to department policy, but Smith looked through an old case file and was surprised to find photocopies of latent fingerprint cards, which he showed to a crime-scene tech, Stacy Cannady, who found the actual cards. She ran the prints through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, a national database that didn’t exist in 1983. The result stunned her and Smith: the names of three men showed up, none of whom were James Reyos. The prints of one of the men, who had a long and violent criminal record, were found on both Ryan’s cruise-control knob and his stolen credit card.
All three were dead. But all of a sudden, Room 126 of the Sand and Sage Motel in 2022 looked like what it should have looked like back in 1981—a party that went terribly wrong.
Smith took everything to the Ector County district attorney’s office, where Greg Barber, the first assistant, was also surprised at how Reyos had been convicted. Barber, an ex-cop and a longtime prosecutor, says he had never come across a case like this—an obvious wrongful conviction. “This was new ground for us,” Barber told me. “We didn’t know how to go about correcting it. We wanted to know the best route to make things right.”
Barber had gone to law school with Allison Clayton, the deputy director of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit that has helped exonerate 27 wrongly convicted men and women, so he reached out to her. Clayton, forty, jumped at the chance to represent Reyos, and she brought her law students to Odessa, where the police put on a PowerPoint presentation of the evidence they had come up with.
By that point, the defense lawyer and the prosecutor were essentially working together to exonerate Reyos and declare him “actually innocent,” an almost impossible task that requires strong new evidence that would have changed the jury’s verdict if members had seen it. To Clayton, this kind of cooperation was unheard-of: she has freed or exonerated six men, but she almost always finds herself fighting against the police and the DA, who usually want to keep the conviction on the books. “I’ve had prosecutors in counties the size of Ector County tell me, off the record, ‘Yeah, he’s innocent,’ but on the record, ‘We’re going to support every conviction that comes out of this town.’ That’s what I normally see.”
In November, Clayton reckoned that Reyos had recovered enough from his stroke to hear what was happening with his case. Smith and Barber wanted to be part of the conversation, so a week after Thanksgiving, Clayton arranged an extraordinary meeting in one of the community rooms at Common Ground ATX. The lawyer and one of her assistants were there, Smith and Cannady came in from Odessa, and Barber and his assistant, Carmen Villalobos, phoned in on FaceTime; the cellphone was propped against a bag on a table. Documentary filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi, who made the critically acclaimed 2016 film Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four and has been working on a film about Reyos since October, set up a camera.
Reyos sat in a big chair, his walker in front of him, and looked bewildered at the gathering around him. Clayton, a gregarious lawyer accustomed to speaking in front of large groups, explained to Reyos how they had all come to be there. “We always thought all the evidence in your case had been destroyed,” she said. “But there was some that wasn’t.”
Clayton asked Smith to talk about what the police had found, and the burly cop moved to the couch across from Reyos. “We’ve identified some people that we can place in that room,” he began. Reyos nodded his head, but the words didn’t register. He was still processing the fact that a policeman from Odessa—from the same department that had helped send him to prison—was sitting there talking to him. Smith continued, explaining how officers had taken the fingerprint evidence to the DA’s office. “We’re all working together to try and help you.” Reyos thanked Smith—but his face was blank.
“So!” Clayton said brightly. “Here’s where we’re at.” She kneeled down at Reyos’s side and looked him in the eye. Then she took his hand. “We think we know who really did it.”
Finally, Reyos understood what they were telling him. His face started to collapse. He reached into his left pocket to get a tissue but pulled his hand back empty and began patting his chest slowly. Tears came to his eyes. Clayton drew closer, like a mother comforting her child. After a few seconds, Reyos began repeating the mantra he had held fast for forty years. “I knew all along that I was innocent from the beginning,” he said slowly, his words slightly slurred from his stroke. “I did not kill Father Ryan.” He was shaking his head. “I know that in my heart.”
After a pause, Smith said, “With everything that we have in our report, I believe one hundred percent you didn’t do it.” Reyos was finally getting the official validation he had desperately sought. He dabbed at his eyes as Barber piped in from the phone. “The Ector County district attorney’s office believes you’re innocent and is working with Allison to go forth and prove that.” Reyos nodded his head. He could barely get the words out. “Thank you. Long overdue, but thank you.”
When they were done, Reyos was exhausted, and Clayton walked him back to his room.
On Thursday, Clayton filed a writ of habeas corpus with the judge of the Seventieth District Court, the one in which Reyos was convicted forty years ago. “New evidence proves Applicant, James Reyos, is actually innocent,” it reads. The DA will file a response, and both sides are angling toward getting the judge to hold a hearing, at which time the identities of the three men whose fingerprints were found at the crime scene will be revealed. After that, the judge will decide whether or not to recommend that Reyos be granted “actual innocence,” and the case will go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for approval.
Lately, Reyos has been dreaming even more of going home—to his family, his mountains, his tribe. For years he’s subscribed to the Jicarilla Chieftain, a newspaper that is published twice a month and is full of stories from Dulce and the reservation. Now he finds himself studying the articles even more closely. He was reading about how elderly members of the tribe live in a retirement community in Dulce, and he wants to see if he can live there too. He says he might also look for a job. “There’s a supermarket,” he told me, “and I wouldn’t mind working there. You know, as some kind of cleaning person, to sweep and mop the floors and maybe help carry out groceries for the patrons.”
Clayton told him that, while the legal process runs its course, she could arrange for him to get released from his parole restrictions so that he could go home. He told her he would rather wait until he can tell others his whole story, from 1982 to whenever, from wrongful conviction to exoneration. “I’m not going to leave Texas until I’m officially considered actually innocent,” he said. “I don’t want to leave Texas until I know I don’t have to come back.”