After spending 13 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Adam Riojas regained his freedom, found God and became a pastor
OCEANSIDE — Those who know him best say nothing but glowing things about the joyful outreach pastor at Oceanside’s Calvary Chapel.
“I love the guy, I think he is the real deal,” said his boss, Pastor Mike Reed.
His wife, Cleta Riojas, said that when she first met him, “You could just see the light beaming from him. I just felt so much peace with him, so much love and joy.”
Both of them said that it rarely occurs to them that Adam Riojas spent more than 13 years in state prisons for second-degree murder — a murder Riojas did not commit.
Riojas, whose face is marked with creases from smiling so broadly, was released from Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in 2004 after serving 13 years in California prisons. He was convicted for a murder that he later learned his father had committed.
“I walked into this place where I knew I didn’t belong and I was unafraid,” said Riojas about his time behind bars. “I think a lot of that has to with what God gave me.”
While he views his time in prison as a gift for bringing him to God, Riojas still struggles with the 13 years he lost.
Riojas grew up in Oceanside during the 1960s and ‘70s. He played football and ran track for Oceanside High School, where he graduated, and surfed on the side.
By his late 20s, Riojas was in the process of moving from Carlsbad to Hawaii to pursue his career as a real estate agent when he was arrested on suspicion of murdering Jose Rodarte.
Rodarte was shot and killed in Los Angeles in December of 1989.
From the start of the investigation to this day, Riojas has maintained that he had nothing to do with the crime. He claimed that on the day of the murder he lent his car to a friend and spent the whole day with his then fiancée in North County.
Witnesses of the murder said they saw Riojas’ car at the scene and claimed that Riojas was the driver.
Riojas was convicted of second-degree murder in 1991 in Los Angeles County, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
It wasn’t until he had spent nearly 10 years in prison that his father Adam Sr. confessed on his deathbed to committing the murder.
Over the course of his sentence, Riojas served time at six different prisons. He spent the last six and a half years in Chuckawalla Valley State Prison.
Prison is where Riojas said he discovered the most fulfilling happiness he had ever experienced in his life by becoming a Christian.
“How is it possible for me to feel such contentment in prison? I mean it’s crazy, it’s ludicrous,” he remembers thinking.
Riojas began to attend Bible studies after nearly a year in prison, and eventually was ordained in prison to serve as the inmate pastor.
As years slipped past him in prison and his faith in God grew, so too did his faith in his innocence and that one day he would be released.
“I knew I was going to get out because how could you keep someone in prison who didn’t commit a crime?” he said.
Riojas wrote to law firms and colleges around the country, proclaiming his innocence and imploring for someone to take on his case.
After Riojas had spent nearly a decade in various state prisons, the CIP (California Innocence Project) at California Western School of Law in San Diego agreed to investigate his case.
Founded in 1999, the CIP is a program where staff attorneys and law students study claims of innocence and investigate cases to release wrongfully convicted inmates.
The cases the CIP takes on must meet two criteria according to CIP’s Co-Director Jan Stiglitz.
“Do we truly believe that the person who is claiming innocence is, in fact, innocent and, two, do we think there is some chance that we can convince a court of that?” he said.
CIP took on Riojas’s case based on the questionable witness statements that identified Riojas at the crime as well as Riojas’s alibi, his father’s confession, and his lack of a criminal record.
“Adam was not someone who was a gangbanger with any record,” Stiglitz said.
In 2002, the CIP represented Riojas before the parole board in hopes of obtaining an early release.
While the board granted Riojas parole, Gov. Gray Davis blocked its decision.
Riojas was released on parole on April 26, 2004 after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allowed the board’s decision to stand. But his conviction still stands.
“(CIP) did more for me than anybody has done for me in my entire life,” said Riojas.
But his eternal gratitude is ultimately placed in God.
“Why I believe I’m still here, it’s because of Jesus Christ. And, I know, people don’t want to hear that, but I want you to know that. I believe that I am here because of Him, even though the Innocence Project had this huge part in it,” he said.
After his release, Riojas returned to Oceanside and immediately began attending Calvary Chapel.
Utilizing the vocations he completed in prison, he started and ran a successful construction company for a little over a year.
He left his company to work for the church full-time. After completing the parish’s internship program, Riojas joined the staff as an outreach minister.
But getting a job was not the only transition Riojas had to make after his release.
It took time for Riojas to make friends, and years before he even considered dating.
“I hadn’t dated someone for 15 years. I had really forgot what it was to, like, hold somebody’s hand,” Riojas said.
He eventually met his wife through church, and has been married for just over two years.
Very little of his daily life reveals any hint of his past in prison.
“For the longest time, even now, it just never occurs to me that my husband spent several years in prison,” said his wife.
But Riojas still copes with the loss of 13 years of his life.
He said that up until a year ago he still wore his slippers in the shower, a habit he developed from sharing showers with other inmates.
And he still has dreams that he is locked in prison.
“Nobody can really go into my head and see everything that is going on in there,” said Riojas. “I’m the one that has to deal with everything that has happened. You know, it’s left a lifetime impression on me. I still have these dreams from being in prison.”
But he is far from taking his freedom for granted.
“I have my life back,” he said. “I don’t feel like they’ve (the state) taken so much from me anymore. I have a daughter, I have a wife; I have a place that I love calling work.”