Living With Freedom | John Stoll served 20 years for a crime that never happened and built his life back up with just $80 in his pocket
Living With Freedom is a special series by MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that explores the lives of those wrongfully incarcerated after they are exonerated. Through these stories, we hope to give readers an insight into what it takes to start over.
John Stoll, in his mid-70s, seems like your average friendly neighborhood grandpa - someone who'd always have a smile on the face. He would love gigs around town and is someone you'd always greet. And, of course, he has an adorable dog. You'd never guess the hell he's been to and back.
John, a 41-year-old carpenter at the time, was wrongfully incarcerated for child molestation in 1985 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was convicted on 17 counts of child molestation. There was no physical evidence and the testimonies of six boys, aged seven to nine were contradictory, to say the least, but all of it didn't matter at the time in Kern County.
At the time, Kern County was plagued by a false satanic panic. The authorities were locking up literally everyone they could get their hands on with no explanation or evidence, alleging that they were all involved in an elaborate child abuse sex ring. This crime crusade was spearheaded by the District Attorney Ed Jagels who is still very much infamous with the locals. Apart from Stoll, around 36 people were convicted and most of them spent years imprisoned. The reason why was simple - official misconduct.
But that's in the past, John says, telling us very clearly that he wants to leave it there. Can anyone really blame him?
John was exonerated on May 4, 2004, with the help of the Northern California Innocence Project after serving half of his sentence at San Quentin State Prison. The same prison that was home to the Freeway Killer, among many other notorious criminals. This was also the same prison that a 2005 court-ordered report found was "old, antiquated, dirty, poorly staffed, poorly maintained with inadequate medical space and equipment and overcrowded". He doesn't talk much about the violence he's seen inside but says that he just kept his mouth shut and head down and just went with it. Prison is about survival after all and for someone in for child sex abuse, things are even scarier. John instead made up a story about a drug charge and miraculously, it worked.
Never having been in trouble before, it was terrifying, he says. "I just stayed right on the main line with everybody else," he says. He had also refused protective custody. He says no one really knew him because he went to prison much about eight or nine months after the others, because he had won a new trial motion. He had been in county jail for much longer than the others. "They had a great deal of problems because they were on TV a lot. I had been on TV for nine months and nobody questioned who I was or anything. So I was very fortunate," he shares. "I think the only time I had a little suspicion was when I was getting out and getting legal letters," he says laughing.
He'd read a lot of books in prison, devouring at least two or three a week. It helped him escape. He's currently reading a Michael Connelly.
The day he was released, was his 61st birthday. "It was a Monday," he says. It made great headlines, he says jokingly. "The gift of life, what a birthday present and all that," he says. But he knew that it wasn't all wrapped up in a bow.
He had his birthday steak dinner and went home with his lawyers, who were kind enough to give him a place to crash for the night. "I slept on the couch that night but I didn't really sleep," he recalls. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and about $80 in his pocket and he had no idea what he was going to do when he woke up. He had been thrust into this new world with "Apple phones and iPods", computers and nowhere else to go. His parents, who were his greatest support, passed away when he was still inside. They never got to see him exonerated.
But he had two very real friends - his lawyers, Cookie Ridolfi and Linda Starr, the director and co-founder respectively of the Northern California Innocence Project. They let him stay with them.
"When I woke up for breakfast the next morning they told me that I could stay with them in a little house out back like a little granny unit," he recalls, his voice heavy with emotion. The paint thinner wasn't quite done in the tiny house but to John, it was everything he needed at the time. He had a place, he had an address. He lived there for a year. He filed for his carpenter's Union license and worked around for most of that year.
He was a pretty good carpenter before he went in, he says and wanted to get back on his feet. He was also in good health. He worked on the side of the temporary home. "I really did good there for a year and it helped me," he says. They helped him get a car too. "I believe they saved my life," he says softly.
His compensation came in on time as well. He received $1,624,060 from the state and later went on to win a $5 million lawsuit against Kern County for his wrongful prosecution and imprisonment. He also went on to help a friend build his home, after all, he had the skills. But it was still rough. "You had to learn everything all over again," he says telling us jokingly, "you know, everything you guys all know!"
He had really thought he was prepared though. "I had read different magazines while I was in prison, and I thought I had some idea about what was going on and then took me to an Apple Store!" he says laughing. "Also, shopping at a center for clothes. People just walking around and all these things just there - it was just quite amazing." There was, of course, "the whole getting back into society". "You're so shut away from inside, you have trouble with the little things," he says. The big ones, you see on the news but living it out is a whole different ball game, he says.
He stopped doing appearances and interviews after 5 years, he says, because it makes him relive the pain. He has let go of the anger too. "It doesn't do anyone any good," he says in a matter-of-fact tone. "It's too hard being pissed off all the time. You can't enjoy your life. Who are you going to get mad at," he asks.
As for his two boys, only one of them is in touch. As for Jed, who had testified against John and had not recanted his testimony when the others did in 2002, they're not really on great terms with his family. "He's still not sure what happened. I mean, he was only five years old," he says. "I'm sure his mother told him about the horrible stuff," he says talking about his ex-wife who was one of the reasons why John was suspected in the first place. They had a bitter divorce.
But, he's in a good place and you can feel it.
He's happily married to his wife and the couple has a dachshund named Meatball. He's working on his land and home and just enjoying the blues - you'll probably spot him in music gig. "We go for one at least five days in a week," he says. Joe Bonamassa is his new favorite.