Mary Rush lay in a bed with metal guard rails last week. Pill bottles and a remote control were splayed on a tray across her chest.
Paralyzed from the waist down, the 67-year-old widow was fresh off a lengthy hospital stay and getting reacquainted with the comforts of home: a single house in the Zion City neighborhood that New Orleans Saints players helped rebuild after she reported that a shady contractor had fled in 2008 with more than $50,000 in cash.
James Michael Riley, meanwhile, sat in a jail cell more than 500 miles away, getting acquainted with iron bars. Riley, 38, was arrested Dec. 15 at his home in Athens, Georgia, on a fugitive warrant alleging the theft of Rush’s money more than seven years ago.
“The Bible tells me ‘Vengeance is mine’ — is the Lord’s — but I’m glad they got him so he doesn’t do this to anyone else,” Rush said.
Yet according to Riley’s family members, friends and attorneys in two states, the payback being leveled upon him is woefully misdirected.
They claim Riley couldn’t possibly be the unscrupulous “Praise God Contractor,” who Rush says bilked her in a confidence scheme, preying on her faith and post-Katrina trauma.
Armed with affidavits and family photos, they say Riley was living in San Francisco and working as a busboy when authorities claim he stole from Rush; that he’d never done any construction work, though Rush said her devious contractor in fact managed some of the promised work before disappearing; and that Riley last visited New Orleans in early 2005 on a gambling junket with his mother.
Riley’s attorneys in Georgia and New Orleans are pressing Georgia officials for his release while lobbying Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to dismiss the case, claiming authorities mistakenly tagged him as the same James Riley whose name appears on handwritten invoices spelling out work for Rush that never got done.
“ ‘Improbable’ is not the right term. ‘Impossible’ is. It’s mind-boggling,” said Riley’s father, Jim Riley, a CPA who lives in Florida.
“I know New Orleans has gone through hell from more than 10 years ago until today as a result of Katrina. It disgusts me that there’s been so much fraud associated with that. It’s infuriating. But we were not involved in it at all.”
Christopher Bowman, the spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, declined to discuss the matter, citing office policy regarding open cases. Bowman would say only what Riley’s attorneys don’t dispute: that the James Michael Riley who sits in a Georgia jail is the same James Riley listed in a July 12, 2013, arrest warrant.
Just how authorities identified him as the one who swindled Rush remains a mystery.
“The only way she identifies him, to my knowledge, is when she fills out that affidavit where she writes his name,” said John Radziewicz, Riley’s attorney in New Orleans, referring to a fraud complaint form that Rush filed with Cannizzaro’s office in May 2010. “There’s been no representation by the DA’s Office about why they chose this particular person.”
Conveyance records show that Rush in June 2008 secured Road Home grant money to renovate her Katrina-damaged house in the 1100 block of South Gayoso Street.
Rush gave authorities a sketchy, handwritten contract from the following month, signed by a James Riley of Mobile, Alabama, working as Praise God Contractors. It described $76,000 in planned work, to be paid in cash.
“I will not do you wrong. I am man of God,” one note read.
The warrant application, written by NOPD Detective Frank Denton, says Rush made two cash payments totaling $25,000 in July 2008, then another $30,000 payment the following month as an advance for a home elevation. It says Riley walked off the job that September and never returned.
Rush told authorities the only work Riley did was “new roof underlayment that was blacked in with felt paper, some interior framing, and rough in of the electric.” An estimate pegged the value of those efforts at $10,000 or less. Riley faces a charge of theft over $500.
“He has no idea what this situation was about,” Radziewicz said. “He didn’t do it.”
His father said Riley, who goes by his middle name, and his now-wife, Brandy Poston, had moved in June 2008 from Huntsville, Alabama, to California, where he lived in an apartment with four roommates on Treasure Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. He got a job busing tables at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., one in a long series of food-service jobs he’s held, his father said.
Jim Riley speculated that authorities keyed on his son because he had lived and enrolled in college in Alabama, though Huntsville lies 350 miles north of Mobile. No police report was written in the case. Riley was charged in a direct bill of information in 2013.
His attorneys say he first received a mailed notice of the charge in the fall, as he and his wife were preparing for a move from California to Georgia. Riley called court officials, pleading ignorance, and was told he needed to appear in New Orleans to handle the matter. He never did.
Between then and his arrest last month, Radziewicz filed a motion seeking dismissal of the charge, arguing that Riley wasn’t properly served in time. In response, Cannizzaro’s office cited numerous earlier attempts to serve Riley in Huntsville and California, to no avail.
They claimed Riley used his father’s Social Security number, making it harder to track him down. An Orleans Parish judge denied the motion to dismiss the case. Riley has appealed.
In the meantime, his attorney in Georgia has filed a petition seeking to throw out the “fugitive hold” that keeps him locked up in Clarke County without bail, claiming misidentification.
It’s all part of a strategy to keep his son from landing in long-troubled Orleans Parish Prison, Jim Riley said.
“Thank God he’s not in the Orleans Parish jail. He’s in the Clarke County jail, and by God that’s where we want him to be,” the father said.
Cannizzaro’s office has not yet moved to extradite Riley to Louisiana. But if it does, Jim Riley vowed to fight it “with every breath I take, with every dollar I have in the bank.”
Riley’s attorney in Georgia, Miguel Debon, said he’s secured affidavits from former roommates and co-workers, vouching for Riley’s alibi. Debon said he’s working to secure old Bubba Gump payroll records.
He noted that Rush pegged her thieving contractor as a white male “about 45 or 50” years old. The James Riley who sits in jail was 30 at the time.
In the meantime, Rush awaits justice from her bed, recalling how she was duped. “When you see people and they talk about God, you just know they know God and you trust them,” she said.
With her house in ruins, Rush stayed for years with family out of state. She said she would “be living under a bridge” if it weren’t for offensive lineman Jahri Evans and other Saints players who came to her rescue, along with the United Way, PNOLA Build and other volunteers. She finally returned to her home in 2012.
Rush said she’s suffered multiple strokes and a heart attack since the fraud and now relies on a caretaker and family members.
“Everything just went down, down,” she said. “I thank God for Jahri Evans, No. 73, and United Way. They put all this back together for me.”
Shown a photocopied image of James Michael Riley — the one who sits in jail — Rush insisted that she recognized him as the one who bilked her.
“That’s what he looked like. He looked just a little heavier than this. He didn’t have this stuff all here,” she said, running a finger across Riley’s beard in the photo. “He had a little, small mustache.”
Riley’s family members said they don’t recall him ever wearing just a mustache.
A hearing on Riley’s habeas corpus petition in Georgia is scheduled for Friday.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.