Fans Of A True Crime Podcast Just Helped Exonerate An Innocent Man Wrongly Imprisoned For Murder

Published October 19, 2023
Updated October 20, 2023

James Reyos was convicted of brutally murdering Father Patrick Ryan in December 1981 but has now been exonerated thanks to Harlee and Michael Gerke, two fans of the true crime podcast Crime Junkie.

James Reyos

Innocence ProjectJames Reyos was sentenced to 38 years in prison for the murder of Father Patrick Ryan in December 1981.

Like countless others, Harlee and Michael Gerke like to spend long drives listening to true crime podcasts. But while listening to an episode of Crime Junkie about the 1981 murder of Father Patrick Ryan as they drove home to visit family in Odessa, Texas, they began to suspect that something about his convicted killer, James Reyos, didn’t add up. Now, thanks to their hunch, Reyos has been exonerated after 40 years.

“I just gonna sit back and enjoy my total freedom,” Reyos told Texas Monthly. “I don’t have to think about going to my parole officer or paying parole fees.”

The story starts back in December 1981, when Ryan picked up Reyos as a hitchhiker. The two struck up a casual friendship, and the priest soon afterward invited Reyos to dinner at his house. On Dec. 20, 1981, Reyos showed up with a family photo album to show Ryan, and shared several beers and screwdrivers with him. But then the night turned when Ryan — who was almost twice Reyos’ size — forced him to perform oral sex.

Father Patrick Ryan

Odessa Police DepartmentFather Patrick Ryan was found bound and brutally beaten on Dec. 21, 1981.

Despite the sexual assault, Reyos asked the priest to drive him to his car in Hobbs, New Mexico the next day. Ryan agreed, and their goodbye in New Mexico was the last time that Reyos saw Ryan alive. That night, the priest was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted at a seedy motel room in Odessa.

It didn’t take the police long to track down Reyos, who had left his family photo album at Ryan’s home. The Los Angeles Times reports that Reyos had a strong alibi: gas station receipts and a speeding ticket that proved that he was far away from the murder scene. The fingerprints found at the scene didn’t match his, and he even passed a polygraph test.

But Reyos also had a guilty conscience. When Ryan had driven him to Hobbs, he had also picked up another hitchhiker, and Reyos became convinced that his own request for a ride home had led to the priest’s death. So a year later, Reyos drunkenly confessed to killing Ryan.

“It just kept eating at me, eating at me, eating at me. I should have just hitchhiked to Hobbs. I’d done it before,” Reyos told Texas Monthly.

Motel Where Father Patrick Ryan Was Killed

Odessa Police DepartmentThe motel where Father Patrick Ryan’s body was discovered in 1981.

Though Reyos recanted his confession, he was promptly found guilty and sentenced to 38 years in 1983. Though Reyos was released in 1995, he continued to have trouble with the law and eventually served 24 years. Meanwhile, he told Texas Monthly that he felt like he had a flashing sign on his forehead which told other people “GUILTY” or “MURDERER.”

Years later, Harlee and Michael Gerke heard his story on Crime Junkie as they drove home to Odessa, where Michael’s father was the chief of police.

“We heard it and we were like, ‘Man, there’s no way he could have done this,'” Harlee told the Los Angeles Times. “We definitely thought it should be looked into more. And it just so happens that Michael’s dad is the chief of police in Odessa, and we were going to see him in about an hour.”

Michael Gerke

LinkedInAfter listening to the episode of Crime Junkie on Father Patrick Ryan’s murder, Harlee and Michael Gerke reached out to Michael’s father, who happened to be the Odessa chief of police.

Michael’s father checked out the case file and agreed with their assessment. Though the evidence from Ryan’s murder was thought to have been destroyed, the police department still had copies of the fingerprint templates. They were able to run them through a national database — which had not existed at the time of Reyos’ conviction — and found that the fingerprints matched three other men, all now deceased.

“It became pretty clear that wow — there was absolutely no physical evidence to show that Mr. Reyos was in that motel room where the murder happened,” Michael Sr. told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s really no physical evidence to show that he was even in Odessa when it happened.”

On Oct. 4, 2023, James Reyos was formally exonerated by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which ordered that he be compensated $80,000 for each year he was wrongly imprisoned.

Now, Reyos is looking forward to what comes next. Texas Monthly reports that he may use the money to invest in property, or perhaps start a foundation to help wrongfully convicted people like himself.

“My life has, you know, it hasn’t been wasted,” he remarked to Texas Monthly. “It’s just gone by without me living life fully, like I really wanted to. But still, I never gave up, despite all the downfalls.”

After reading about how a true crime podcast helped exonerate an innocent man, see how the investigation of another true crime podcast led to the exoneration of Darrell Lee Clark and Cain Joshua Storey after they were wrongly convicted for the death of their friend. Or, see how a true crime fanatic named Jung Yoo-jung killed a stranger “out of curiosity.”

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.