PHOENIX (KSAZ) - It's a fear we all have, being arrested for a crime you did not commit. What if the crime was murder? It's been said that our justice system while imperfect is still the best on Earth, but as you'll see mistakes do happen. One mistake cost a valley man his freedom and destroyed his life.
"The first thing I knew something was going on is when the cops flew through my door. Cops entered my apartment, about seven of them with guns drawn on me, I ran back into my room, and they called me every name in the book. I didn't know what was happening, I just walk outside, and it's like a horror movie. There's blood on the ground, blood going down the stairs, blood on the rail," said Denny Rizzo.
"They told me like you know what happened Mr. Rizzo, you just stabbed this (expletive), and you're going to jail forever," said Rizzo.
It was midnight on September 11, 2013. A victim lays dying on a sidewalk at a midtown Phoenix apartment. A trail of blood leads up to a flight of stairs and apartment A-11. Police responding and looking for the killer bust through the door and shattered a man's life.
Thirty-five-year-old Denny Rizzo returned to the scene of the crime with FOX 10. How does he feel being back? "You know it's real scary, it takes me right back to the night I was arrested for murder. A murder I didn't commit," he said.
Rizzo was a former loan officer with Wells Fargo Bank, had no criminal record; that is until he was accused of murder.
"It destroyed my life, this is where my life ended," said Rizzo.
So how does an innocent man end up in jail? It started in the courtyard of Rizzo's then apartment complex. Two men argued over drugs, there was a struggle, and 33-year-old Michael Collins was stabbed under his left arm that severed an artery. While bleeding profusely Collins walked 80 feet down a pathway, and up the stairs, looking for help, banging on doors, but no one answers. He stumbled down the stairs and collapsed face down on the sidewalk.
At the hospital, before losing consciousness, officers asked Collins who stabbed him. He says "Frankie." That name will haunt Rizzo for the rest of his life.
"I never did know Michael Collins. I never touched this guy, never knew this person, never did nothing to this person," said Rizzo.
Police questioned residents looking for a suspect named Frankie. Of 11 residents interviewed, two think "Frankie" lives in apartment A-11, Rizzo's apartment. Police entered Rizzo's apartment without a warrant, but after questioning him most officers seem convinced he had nothing to do with the crime, but one Detective persists.
"Mr. Rizzo we see you don't have any felonies, no misdemeanors, nothing. We're very sorry; I'm going to let you go upstairs and go back to bed. Det. Hardina then says wait a minute, this is the guy, he has blood by his door down the stairs, and he was very persistent," said Rizzo.
Det. Anthony Hardina is an 11-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department.
"Hardina says we're not just going to let him go; this is the murderer right here. He kept calling me Frank. I say I'm Denny Joseph Rizzo Jr, Frank is not my name. The detective was persistent here and he was so persistent and nasty, so gung-ho," described Rizzo.
Blood by Rizzo's door and two residents who think he is Frankie. That's good enough and police arrest Rizzo.
"I'm like you know what dude you made a big mistake, you guys made a big mistake, you got the wrong guy," he said.
"He goes well you know what that's fine, you're going to have the rest of your life behind bars in jail to think about what you did tonight," said Rizzo.
Still dressed in his bedclothes, Rizzo is hauled downtown to the police station and interrogated by Det. Hardina. He repeatedly asks to take a polygraph, but none is given.
"Give me a lie detector test, take my fingerprints, I have no record never. I do not have nothing to do with this, nothing. This is my life!" said Rizzo on a police recording.
"The gross level of incompetence here is stunning," said Michael Manning.
Manning specializes in civil rights cases involving police.
How thin was the evidence they used to throw him in? "It was beyond paper thin, it was almost non-existent," said Manning.
At Rizzo's apartment investigators collect samples of anything that appears to be blood, none of it matches the victim. But those results won't come back from the Phoenix Crime Lab for almost five months. Rizzo is then charged and booked into jail. For 7 1/2 months, Rizzo is kept in custody at the 4th Avenue Jail.
"They kept trying to get me to sign plea bargains, what am I going to sign a plea for, what am I gonna do 10 years for, I'm innocent. I'm not ever coming out; I came to terms with it," said Rizzo.
Then one day without any explanation he was released. "They said roll up your stuff, you're out of here, we got the wrong guy," he said.
By then everything he owns is gone, and with a second-degree murder charge on his record no one will hire him.
"I haven't been at a job more than 24 hours, and they tell me thank you for your time, goodbye, and don't give me any reason," said Rizzo.
In 7 1/2 months, he lost everything, is homeless, and was forced to live in a shelter.
"It can happen to anybody here, and that's why the police have to be so careful here," said Rizzo.
"You're gonna make mistakes, and we all must forgive those innocent mistakes that are going to happen, but gross incompetence when you hold the power to ruin a life cannot be tolerated. This man's life is done," said Manning.
Now Rizzo is still trying to put back together the pieces of his shattered life.
"Gone in a night, a lifetime of work is gone forever. With my faith in God I'm working to get things going in the right direction, whether they'll ever be the same again I don't think so," said Rizzo.
Phoenix Police still haven't caught the man who killed Michael Collins. Seven months after Rizzo was cleared Silent Witness went public with a reward looking for information in the case.
Rizzo is suing the City of Phoenix and Police Department for gross negligence, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The police department is not commenting on the case. Rizzo however still is looking for someone that will hire him.