Eleven years in prison have taken their toll on Randy Collins. He has the look of a man who'd do anything for redemption. His bearlike head is muscular, his mustache coarse as broom bristles. And his brown eyes -- they are as soulless as two well-circulated pennies.
Prison isn't easy for convicted child molesters. In 1994, Collins was found guilty of gross sexual imposition and rape, and sentenced to up to 25 years at Grafton Correctional in Lorain County. His victim was his own stepdaughter, an innocent nine-year-old waif with sugar-blond hair.
Collins says he's innocent. They all do. But there's at least one man who believes him. His name is Jerry Smith, and he's a good man to have in your corner.
A towering figure with slicked-back hair and Nixonian jowls, Smith favors the wardrobe of a Vegas gambler. On a recent day, he wore a pressed, RocaWear button-down, exposing a gold eagle medallion dangling against his bronzed chest.
Once a humble insurance salesman, through saving and investing he slowly built a fortune. He claims that at his peak, he was worth $10 million.
Smith used his wealth to surround himself with an array of accoutrements even gaudier than himself. His palatial estate -- located just a five-minute drive from Collins' spartan prison cell -- is like a cross between a casino and a wax museum. A bronze leopard guards the front lawn, while statues of Roman boys adorned in gold jewelry frolic on a nearby teeter-totter. In the living room stands a skeleton dressed up as a pirate. In another corner, a bug-eyed alien smokes a spliff. The well-stocked bar is tended by Brenda, a mannequin whose clothes Smith dutifully changes once a week.
As eccentric as Smith's taste in furnishings may be, his taste in friends is even stranger. Why would a millionaire embrace a wretch like Collins -- a child molester, the lowest of the low?
Perhaps it's because Smith sees himself in Collins -- or at least sees what might have been.
Nine years ago, Smith had never met Collins, never even heard his name. Then he received a letter from prison. In it, Collins introduced himself and explained that he'd been framed by a woman who'd manipulated his stepdaughter.
It was the woman's name that caught Smith's attention: Julie Hernandez, his own daughter. Two months earlier, she had accused Smith of virtually the same crime.
To hear Randy Collins tell it, his life was pleasantly mundane before she entered the picture. He was a road worker, pouring concrete on I-480 during the summer. He lived in a small house in Avon Lake with his wife, Tina, their daughter, and two stepchildren. They got by.
Then, late one June afternoon, as Randy was scraping the grill to prepare for a cookout, a bouncy, square-shouldered blonde pushed her bicycle into his driveway. She introduced herself as Julie Hernandez. Her son and Randy's stepson, Brian, were playmates.
Before long, Hernandez and Tina became close friends. While Randy worked long, hot days on the freeway, the women cemented their friendship, drinking at his house while their kids played outside.
Tina was enamored of her new friend, who seemed to have everything she didn't -- a big house, nice car, fancy clothes, and a rich dad footing the bill. Tina often baby-sat for Hernandez. For her trouble, Hernandez would bring a bottle of wine over for them to share.
It was a night like that when everything changed. Randy had just gotten off work. He walked upstairs, opened the door to the master bedroom, and found Hernandez' face buried between Tina's thighs.
Tina poured out excuses: I was drunk; she jumped on me; I swear it'll never happen again.
Damn right, it won't, Randy told her. He banned Hernandez from his house.
But a month later, she showed up at the door again, this time with a birthday card for Tina and a 12-pack. Randy told her to please get the hell out.
The exile didn't last long. In February of 1993, Randy walked in on his wife and Hernandez arguing. Tina was refusing to baby-sit, but Hernandez wouldn't take no for an answer.
No need to argue, Randy told them. He pushed Hernandez out the door. That's the end of her, he told Tina.
Three days later, the couple received a surprise visitor: an investigator from Lorain County Children's Services. There had been an anonymous complaint that their house had no food or hot water.
It was goddamn Julie, Randy knew. She later called to gloat. "What can you do?" she said, laughing.
And she was right. Despite the problems Hernandez was causing, Tina continued to hang out with her. And as they grew closer, Randy and his wife became more distant.
One day in March of 1994, a strange man called for Tina. "Let me speak with your old lady," he demanded, rudely.
Tina claimed it was Hernandez' cousin. He'd gotten his car impounded and needed a licensed driver to get it out.
But Randy wasn't stupid. He called Hernandez, who was eager to explain. It wasn't her cousin at all. It was Tina's new man. They'd been playing house together in Bay Village. He'd even proposed. The answer was yes.
In a blind rage, Randy flipped over the coffee table. Next, a 25-gallon, glass aquarium went crashing to the floor. Randy's stepchildren -- Brian and nine-year-old Misty -- grabbed a bowl and shoveled the fish, slippery and convulsing, back into water.
Amid the chaos, Hernandez called back with an offer: Let Misty spend the night with her. It would give Randy and Tina some privacy to work out their differences. Against his better judgment, Randy agreed.
The next morning brought another unexpected call, this time from an Avon Lake detective. He wanted Tina and Brian to come to the station, but wouldn't tell Randy why.
A half-hour later, Randy's wife and stepson came back hysterical and explained what they had learned from the police: During Misty and Hernandez' sleepover the night before, they'd visited the police station to make a report.
Hernandez claimed that Misty had confided in her that Randy had abused her. According to the allegations, Randy had made Misty scrub the kitchen floor naked while he watched.
There was more to come. At an appointment with Children's Services a few days later, Misty was taken into a small room with an anatomical doll. Prompted by a case-worker, Misty demonstrated how Randy had licked her vagina and put his fingers inside her.
The arrest came a few days later. Collins was charged with gross sexual imposition and rape. He pleaded not guilty on both counts and waived his right to a jury, putting his fate in the hands of a judge. "I was confident I could clear my name, if given the chance," he recounts.
The prosecution put up a compelling case. Hernandez told the judge how Misty had come to her that night, a frightened little girl. She'd been peeling potatoes at the sink when Misty asked her, "Can I tell you something?"
After Misty opened up, Hernandez packed her into the car and they drove around the block, just talking. They cruised past McDonald's, then to the police station.
But Misty was too scared to tell the detective her story. "I don't want to say it to a man," she'd said. So Hernandez reported to the police what Misty had told her in the kitchen.
Misty was braver on the witness stand. With then-Prosecutor Lisa Locke-Graves guiding her, Misty told the judge how, one night after Halloween 1993, her father had told her to go upstairs and lie on the bed. Randy had entered her room, pulled down her pants, and licked her between her legs.
"Does that feel good?" he'd asked, according to Misty's testimony.
On another occasion, Collins roused her and Brian out of bed in the middle of the night and told her to strip naked and start scrubbing the kitchen floor. He'd stood in the hallway and watched.
"He told me to wash the floor naked, because everybody else in the family did," Misty testified.
Enraged, Collins lunged across the trial table at Locke-Graves. A bailiff had to restrain him.
Randy's defense was equally aggressive. His lawyer, Mary Papcke, argued that Collins couldn't have watched Misty scrub the floor from the hallway because you can't see into the kitchen from there. Brian took the stand and swore that his sister was lying -- yes, Collins had made her scrub the floor, but she wasn't naked.
In closing arguments, Papcke portrayed the lissome nine-year-old as a pawn in a love triangle. "We have a manipulative girl that likes mommy's boyfriend," she said. "This may be a way we have to get Dad out of the picture."
But Judge Kosma Glavas didn't buy it. He found Randy guilty on both counts, and sentenced him to 7 to 25 years in prison.
Behind bars, Randy was just another "innocent" prisoner, one of the multitude of convicts claiming to have been railroaded.
Three years into his sentence, Randy got a letter from his mother. In it was a newspaper article about a millionaire named Jerry Smith who had been accused of crimes strikingly similar to Randy's. And one of the kids involved just happened to be an old friend: Julie Hernandez.
Randy sat down at a prison typewriter and began to peck out his plea: "My name is Randy A. Collins. I am 39 years old, and am currently serving a seven to 25-year sentence . . . "
The day Randy's letter arrived, Jerry Smith was two months into his own defense. In Randy, Smith could see a nightmare image of himself. There but for the grace of God went he.
Like Randy, Smith had blue-collar roots. Smith grew up in Indiana, the child of working-class parents. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade, never to return. He started selling insurance at 18, married, and had three kids: Julie, Jamie, and Jennifer.
Amid marital problems, Smith divorced his wife and moved to Rocky River to open his own insurance agency. There he met his second wife, Irene, who already had three kids of her own.
Smith did what he could to provide for the growing brood. Flush with money, Smith set up investment funds for the kids. When they got older, he gave them jobs. He helped them buy their first homes and set them up with their own businesses.
But, says Smith, "Money does funny things." It's the only explanation he can muster for the bizarre turn his life took next.
On a cold day in January 1997, his phone rang. It was a reporter from The Chronicle-Telegram in Elyria. He wanted Smith's comments on a lawsuit his kids had just filed against him that day.
"What lawsuit?" Smith asked, flabbergasted.
The reporter was too embarrassed to read the complaint to him over the phone. Go to the courthouse and read the complaint yourself, the reporter said, then call back with your comments.
The 13-page document portrayed Smith as a latter-day Marquis de Sade. He was accused of raping, torturing, and beating his three biological children, now in their late twenties and early thirties.
Smith had an odd notion of family fun, that much was indisputable. Three months earlier, he had hosted his annual Halloween party, a raucous gathering of family and employees that at times resembled something out of Caligula.
Perhaps the strangest activity was what Smith calls "The Leg Game." The rules were as simple as they were unconventional: Both of his daughters would don blindfolds. They would then blindly grope the bare legs of several men, including their father. The goal was to guess each man's identity based on his limbs. When that round was over, the blindfold would be swapped, and the men would try to guess the children's identities.
According to the lawsuit, it was when Julie Hernandez was being groped that she had a "sudden flash of memory" of the childhood abuses.
It had begun when she was 13, she claimed. She and her siblings had been sent to live with Smith and their stepfamily while their mother got set up in a new job in South Carolina.
The abuse started right when they walked in the door. They'd forgotten to hang their coats up, so Smith sent them out in the snow to gather sticks. When Jamie sat down to rest, Smith came out in his bathrobe and started lashing his son with a belt.
It was just the first of many beatings they endured at his hands. So it was a blessing, months later, when their mother said she was ready to take them back. Hernandez went first, and the rest were to follow.
But before they could pack their bags, tragedy struck. Their mother committed suicide with a bottle of pills.
Smith picked up Hernandez in South Carolina and brought her back to live with him. The kids weren't going anywhere. The nightmare had just begun.
After that, the beatings got worse, according to Hernandez. One night at dinner, Smith decided to play another of his strange games. He told Hernandez that he was going to punch her each time she flinched. He pretended to swing at her. She recoiled. Then he pounded his fist into her face with such force that it sent blood spurting onto her sister's plate.
Even worse than the violence was the molestation, Hernandez claimed. In this too Smith had an obscene idea of a good time. Hernandez said that Smith would French-kiss her and perform oral sex. She also distinctly recalled being forced to watch Smith as he went down on his secretary, Paula Reusch.
The recovered memories rocked Hernandez. A week after playing the leg game at Halloween, she turned on her gas stove and lay down to die. At the last minute, her boyfriend found her and saved her life.
Hernandez turned to her siblings for support. Her sister, Jennifer, said she had similarly horrific memories of their childhood. Jamie too recalled the abuse, the lawsuit maintained. The three were asking for $47 million in compensation for their pain and suffering.
"They have lost a father and the father has lost his children," Smith wrote in his diary a week after the lawsuit was filed. "May they all survive this holocaust."
Smith had no intention of playing defense. He would mobilize his vast financial resources in a campaign to discredit his children and preserve his good name.
His first move was to assemble a "Dream Team" to help gather the evidence he needed. The team included his girlfriend, his brother-in-law, and his secretary, Reusch -- who had skin in the game, having been named as part of the sick sexual fantasies. They operated out of Smith's rec room, which he christened the War Room.
The Dream Team interviewed dozens of witnesses: Smith's employees, business partners, neighbors, stepchildren -- seemingly everyone who had ever met his kids. Every minute of the conversations was tape-recorded, transcribed, and logged.
"I didn't sleep," says Smith. "I spent 90 days of constantly interviewing people."
The work included the kind of opposition research more commonly found in down-and-dirty political campaigns.
Hernandez had a wealth of dirty laundry to pick through. The Dream Team found that she owned a lengthy rap sheet that included everything from petty shoplifting to felonious assault. They even took a statement from a neighbor, who went so far as to claim that Hernandez' suicide attempt had been a hoax.
This was more than discovery -- it was stone-cold revenge.
The kids clearly got the message. Less than a year after filing the lawsuit, they dropped it.
Jamie told the media that it had all been a lie they'd concocted to get their father's money. "I wish I could tell the whole world my father is not the monster my sisters and the attorneys made him out to be," he told one reporter.
But his sisters stood by the charges. Hernandez claimed she'd simply run out of money to pursue the case; Jennifer said she'd dropped out because she couldn't legally claim her memory was repressed -- she'd always remembered -- which meant that the statute of limitations had expired.
Smith wasn't through with them yet, though. He would teach them a lesson. One they wouldn't soon forget.
He filed a lawsuit of his own, accusing them of defamation for making the false charges against him. Further, he attacked Hernandez' husband, Duane, claiming the couple had improperly withdrawn almost $300,000 from joint accounts he'd set up in their names. Smith's secretary, Reusch, also sued for defamation.
Smith drew first blood. An arbitrator awarded him $100,000 from Hernandez and Duane. Reusch won an even easier victory. After Hernandez twice failed to show up for the hearing, Judge Kosma Glavas slapped her with another $100,000 judgment.
Seeing the bloodshed, Jennifer filed for bankruptcy to escape her father's wrath. Hernandez, however, had no more intention of paying her father than he'd had of paying her. She and Duane fled to Florida, where state law kept Smith from collecting.
Last year, Smith got from her what he had wanted all along: an admission of guilt. It came in the form of a letter from Hernandez.
"I've been wanting to write and let you know how sorry I am for all the lies that were in that terrible lawsuit," she wrote. "I know it will take the rest of my life to show you how sorry I am."
For Smith, it was sweet vindication. But that was only half the battle: Randy Collins still languished in prison.
The attempt to exonerate Randy had thus far been a losing battle, though not for lack of effort.
Soon after receiving Randy's letter, Smith sprang into action. He asked Randy for the names, addresses, and phone numbers of Tina, Misty, Brian, and anybody else who could back up Randy's story.
Next, Smith assigned the Dream Team to comb through the hundreds of pages of trial transcripts, police and Children's Services reports, and court papers, looking for incongruities.
Smith built trust with Tina and her kids. He gave her money for groceries and paid the kids to rake leaves. They'd visit him at his house, even Misty herself, where the questioning would continue.
But unlike the rest of her family, Misty, then 12 years old, was a hard nut to crack. She wasn't changing her story.
Smith remained convinced that she was lying, but after three months of interviews, all he had to show for it was 600 pages of typed conversations that led nowhere.
The case stalled. It sat cold for four years.
The spring of 2001 brought an unexpected break. Brian called Smith to relay a message: Misty, then a 16-year-old runaway, wanted to meet with him.
Over lunch, Misty told Smith that she had a secret to confess. After he placed a small tape recorder in the middle of the table, Misty admitted that she'd never been molested. She'd made it all up to please Hernandez, she said, who had bought her new clothes and gifts, and promised Misty she'd get to live with her.
This was a bombshell, and Smith was careful to calibrate it for maximum impact. Back in the War Room, Smith sat Misty down with a copy of the trial transcript and a pen. At his urging, she went through it line by line, writing "lied" next to each answer she'd given -- a total of 68 times.
If that wasn't enough, she spelled it all out in an affidavit. "The only reason I lied was because Julie Hernandez, a family friend, promised me I could get new clothes and toys, and that I would live with her," Misty swore.
Still, Smith wanted more. He made Misty write a signed letter of confession to the judge and an apology letter, signed and notarized, to Randy himself.
"I put you in prison for something that I cannot say is true any longer," Misty wrote.
To punctuate the point, Smith made Misty gather signed statements from her friends, testifying that she had confessed her deception to them as well.
Now armed with a wealth of evidence, Smith had his lawyer apply for super-shock probation on Randy's behalf. The case appeared to be a slam dunk.
Yet Judge Glavas didn't agree. Randy wasn't even eligible for super-shock, Glavas wrote in his decision. He wouldn't even consider Misty's statements. With one word -- "DENIED" -- Smith and Randy were right back to where they started.
Luckily for the millionaire and the inmate, time was no object. Smith arranged for Misty to tell her story to an investigator from the public defender's office, who prepared another affidavit for Misty to sign.
But unbeknownst to Smith, another man had entered Misty's life. In May 2002, Smith called her to arrange a Mother's Day surprise for Tina. Misty's boyfriend answered the phone and offered a surprise of his own: Misty would not talk to Smith. Instead, the boyfriend gave Smith the number of her lawyer, Edward Zak.
When Smith called, Zak told him to stay away. No more calls, visits, letters, e-mails, and surely, no more signed statements.
Frantic, Smith phoned Misty again. This time she answered. Yes, it was true, she said, apologetically. She couldn't go through with it anymore. She had reversed herself again: The admission about lying was itself a lie, she claimed. Randy was guilty.
But Smith didn't believe her. There had to be another explanation, he thought. The answer appeared when Randy told him about the state's fund for victims of violent crimes. Misty was in line to get $50,000, Randy said. But in order for that to happen, she had to remain a victim, and a real crime had to have been committed.
"What better evidence that a crime had been committed than the individual sitting in prison," Smith wrote in his diary.
With Misty incommunicado, Smith had no choice but to close the book. He carried the voluminous files down to a crawl space in his basement and shut the door.
Which is where things stood until a few months ago, when Smith got a call from a reporter who'd heard about the case. Set aside a whole day, Smith said.
Not surprisingly, Smith had the visit well orchestrated. He seated the reporter at his poker table and laid a thin black binder in front of him -- a chronological history of how he came to meet and fight for the prisoner.
Like a Hollywood director, Smith carefully walked the reporter through the story, pausing along the way to let the plot twists sink in. He paced nervously, trying not to jump ahead and spoil the ending. At one point, he had to distract himself with a game of video scrabble to calm down.
As the reporter got up to leave, Smith furrowed his brows. "I can tell by looking at you, this is going nowhere," he said. "No one wants to take this. It's just too much."
Despite his reservations, Smith set the reporter up with a list of people to contact, along with addresses and phone numbers.
But one piece of the puzzle was glaringly absent: Where was Misty? Smith said he had no way to contact her. But the reporter tracked her down at a trailer park in Strongsville, and she agreed to meet for lunch.
They met at TGIFriday's, where Misty alternated sips from her purple fruit smoothie with drags from a cigarette. Four months pregnant, Misty looked pretty but tired. Her pixie-cut blond hair was tucked behind her ears. She wore a warm smile and dark lines under her eyes.
The reporter began to explain: "I'm doing a story about your stepdad --"
But she cut him off. "Is Randy still in jail?" she asked.
She explained that she hadn't seen him since she was on the witness stand 11 years ago. She remembered positioning the microphone to block his face so she didn't have to look at him.
"Yes, he's still in jail," the reporter answered. "The reason I'm --"
"Can I get a lie detector?" she interjected. Once and for all, she wanted to prove that her stepfather is guilty.
Before she could go on, it was time to order. Misty asked for a steak, bloody rare, with a side of pickles.
"She must be pregnant," chirped the bubbly waitress.
Misty smiled back and took another long drag.
As she waited for her food to arrive, Misty explained that she was never coached by Hernandez. Julie was just there when she needed to open up.
"I was so tired of the fighting and the arguments, and that's how it got started," Misty said. "I just told her everything. She was the only person I had to trust."
Seven years later, Misty was still a scared little girl. She was locked up in a detention home for running away from home when Brian came to her with a way out. All she had to do was sign some papers.
Brian told her that Smith was promising that if she helped get her stepfather out of jail, they'd sue the state for false imprisonment and split the windfall, she said. "I thought, why not get him out of jail? I'll never see him again. I don't care."
Smith even helped her craft her statements and letters, she recounted. "He made me rewrite 'em like three times. Every time I went out there, I was working on the computer for hours."
But Misty had a crisis of conscience when Smith told her she'd have to testify in court.
"That's when I said I couldn't do it," she said, sawing into the cold, red center of her New York strip. "I can't go in front of a judge and swear on the holy Bible things that weren't true."
Asked if she'd ever heard of the victim's fund, Misty just laughed. "If I did, I wouldn't be poor today."
In the end, it's hard to know whom to believe. Misty has changed her story so many times that the water has been hopelessly muddied.
But there's one man who's positive of Randy's guilt: the detective who took his confession.
In 1994, Detective Frank Herceg was a decorated vet on the Avon Lake police force. Just days after the accusations, he interviewed Misty. He remembers how specific she was in describing what she felt after her father molested her: "I came downstairs, I looked out the window, I saw a bird in a tree, and I tried to think of happy things," she told Herceg.
"Now who's gonna coach a child to say that?" Herceg asks.
Herceg also remembers another telling incident. He was interviewing Tina when Randy came walking into the interrogation room. She began screaming at him hysterically. She wanted answers, and Randy gave them to her: "Yeah, I did it," Herceg remembers him saying.
Now retired, Herceg isn't surprised that Randy maintains his innocence. "They all do that," says the detective.