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Millionaire ex-inmate dies in crash

Man wrongfully locked up for 19 years is killed in a scooter accident.

October 08, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

For a man who spent 19 years locked up for a murder he says he didn't commit, DeWayne McKinney emerged from prison a man at peace.

He wasn't angry or bitter. On weekends, he spoke at churches about the faith that carried him through those lost years. He appeared at anti-death penalty conferences and told his story.

And when some money came his way from a legal settlement, he turned it into a multimillion-dollar business in the Hawaiian Islands, where he lived in an oceanfront home and could fall asleep listening to the crashing surf. Movie studio executives were interested in turning his life story into a feature film.

But McKinney's remarkable story came to an end early Tuesday.

The 47-year-old McKinney crashed the scooter he was riding into a wooden light pole in Honolulu about 12:30 a.m. and was thrown onto the pavement, said Caroline Sluyter, a spokeswoman for the Honolulu Police Department.

McKinney, who was not wearing a helmet, died at a local hospital.

"He had a really beautiful soul. He really did," said Denise Gragg, an assistant public defender who successfully obtained McKinney's release from prison. "The most amazing thing about him was the lack of anger he had when he came out. . . . He really was one of the best people I've ever known."

McKinney made national news in 2000 after then-Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas obtained his release from prison, saying he had been wrongly convicted of a 1980 robbery-murder at a Burger King in Orange.

Prosecutors originally had sought the death penalty for McKinney, but he was sentenced to life in prison without parole after jurors deadlocked in the penalty portion of his trial.

McKinney, who was a member of a Los Angeles street gang, was arrested in December 1980 and charged with the killing of Walter Horace Bell, 19, during a holdup at the fast-food restaurant.

Restaurant employees had picked out his mug shot and said he looked like the killer. Nearly two decades later, however, another suspect emerged and Rackauckas agreed to help secure McKinney's release, even though the other suspect was never charged.

When McKinney was freed in January 2000, he was forced to start his life from scratch. He didn't have a driver's license, Social Security number, savings account or a place to live.

Initially, he settled in Orange County, working at UC Irvine as an audio-visual technician and living for free in an apartment funded by a local businesswoman.

On weekends, McKinney spoke to church groups about how his faith carried him through some difficult times in prison. He said he wasn't angry at the system that put him away.

"Understanding what you truly lost, it makes you embrace what you have," McKinney said during a 2002 interview. "I'm who I am today because of those 20 years."

Many people who came to know McKinney in the years after his release said they were inspired by the way he handled things.

McKinney eventually met the judge who sentenced him to prison and accepted a hug -- and an apology. He shook the hand of the prosecutor who convicted him -- Rackauckas -- and even endorsed his reelection campaign.

"He never complained about what he didn't have. He was always focused on what he did have. He had life. He had liberty," said Nancy Clark, the businesswoman who gave him an apartment to live in after his release. "I remember seeing him riding down the street on a bicycle, talking on a cellphone and thinking, 'Isn't this amazing?' "

McKinney rubbed elbows with Hollywood celebrities and traveled to New York and Europe, visiting places that a few years earlier he read about in magazines at the prison library.

In 2002, McKinney pocketed $1 million in a legal settlement with the Orange Police Department and started looking for ways to invest it. At a prayer meeting, he heard someone explain that individuals could now buy ATMs and keep convenience fees as profit.

He installed the machines at bars, restaurants and shopping malls throughout the Hawaiian Islands, taking a profit each time a tourist or thirsty bar patron withdrew money. In turn, he paid a cut to the business owners who gave him a place to install the machines.

"To spend 19 years in prison and get out and do what he did, it was amazing," said Carl Stein, a business partner and friend. "He had this way with people. They just couldn't say no to him."

Jeffrey Rawitz, a Los Angeles attorney who represented McKinney in the years after his release, said he got the news of his death Tuesday morning.

"He really appreciated life in a way that most people can't because of all the time he lost," Rawitz said. "He laughed easily. He made friends easily and he appreciated every day he lived."

In recent years, McKinney had struggled with alcohol, Stein said. He divorced and was forced to divide his ATMs with his former wife. His struggles were not surprising considering the years he spent in California's toughest prisons.

Twice he was stabbed in prison. At times, he strapped magazines around his torso to defend himself against attacks while he slept.

He tried to block out the reality by reading western novels by Louis L'Amour, which he collected in swaps with other inmates.

Within two days of his release, McKinney was summoned to the front of a crowded Lancaster church hall.

He held a microphone and spoke softly about a jailhouse conversion to Christianity and the faith that sustained him.

"I was placed in an unspeakable situation for something I didn't do," he began. "Two years ago, I met God. I realized there's nothing he can't do as long as we believe. If I trust in him, he can take me anywhere."

During a 2004 interview in Hawaii, McKinney said he was much happier in Hawaii than he was in Southern California.

"I finally found my place," he said. "I enjoy being able to breathe the fresh air, feel the wind on my face and know I'm free."

--

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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