On the outside, Marie Walsh was living the American dream. She had a happy 22-year marriage and was a devoted mother to three children. She played bridge, tennis and rode horses in her upper-middle-class San Diego suburb.
In truth, Marie was living a life she had spent decades crafting to hide her true identity. Marie was really Susan LeFevre—a fugitive who had been hiding from the law for 32 years.
In 1975, 19-year-old Susan was arrested for selling 2.5 grams of heroin to an undercover Michigan State Trooper. She pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.
After a year behind bars, Susan's grandfather helped her escape. With just clothes, a toothbrush and $200, Susan fled to California to start a new life, under a new identity: Marie.
In 1985—eight years after escaping prison—Marie met Alan. They married 10 months later and had three children. Marie never told any member of her family who she really was.
In April 2008, Marie's past caught up with her. While planting flowers in her garden, federal agents arrived at Marie's home with a mug shot of 19-year-old Susan LeFevre. She was arrested in her front yard and sent to a Michigan prison to await trial.
After serving 13 months in prison, the woman, now known as Marie Walsh, was released in May of 2009. Now, for the first time, Marie and her family are sharing her story.
Marie says she took drugs as a teenager, when she was known as Susan LeFevre. "During high school I smoked marijuana, [took] diet pills, tranquilizers. That summer before I got arrested, cocaine and heroin came out on the table," she says. "I thought I was experimenting. I was trying things out. I was kind of following what I felt everybody was doing."
Marie says she never sold drugs. "No one would have considered me as someone who sold drugs. I was going to a community college," she says. "Now friends that I had, they had all the connections. I was usually getting drugs from them."
Still, Marie says she would pick up drugs for her friends. "All the time, they were much more sophisticated than I was and more involved than I was," she says. "If they asked me for drugs, I was glad that I could kind of cop for them, as we called it, and I would go get drugs."
Eventually, Marie says she had gotten carried away with her lifestyle, and moved to an apartment to get away from the drinking and drugs.
Marie, then still known as Susan LeFevre, was arrested about a week after she moved into that new apartment. The night began when her friend Richie stopped by. "He right away brought out a joint, and, even though I'd moved away from my friends to get away from them, I was very glad to see this joint because I hadn't found one in my boxes, any kind of dope at all to use," she says. "So we smoked a joint, and we were talking."
Marie says Richie then suggested they leave to get a pizza. "I said no, and he was very persistent," she says. "I eventually just said, 'Okay, whatever.' I was kind of hungry."
Marie and Richie drove to the pizza place, and, Marie says, she stayed in the car while he went inside. "I looked up, and I saw Richie in the restaurant behind the glass," she says. “I said to myself, 'What am I doing here and what's happening now? He can't even get a pizza.'”
When she went inside to see what was taking Richie so long, she says she was surrounded by a SWAT team. "They came out from the shadows, from behind the counters—rifles, military gear—and pointed the rifles right at me and Richie," she says. "They put Richie against the wall...then they handcuffed me. Put me in one car, put him in another, and we were arrested."
Marie says she never sold drugs to an undercover state trooper. Still, Marie says she eventually pleaded guilty on the advice of her family and legal counsel.
Marie says the assistant prosecutor originally tried to get her to set up an ex-boyfriend—not Richie, the with whom she was arrested. Marie says she refused. "He screamed at me for a while. It went on and on, and he said, 'Okay, if you plead guilty, we'll give you probation,'" she says.
According to the court transcript, the judge asked Susan six times if she was sure she wanted to plead guilty, after telling her four times that there could be a maximum sentence of 20 years. Susan still pleaded guilty, and the judge sentenced her to 10 to 20 years in prison—not probation.
The defense attorney and prosecutor on the case were contacted by The Oprah Show. Both say no probation was ever promised.
In a statement, Marie's defense attorney, Nick Trogan, says: "It was a surprise to everyone that Susan got 10 to 20 years. There were never any promises made to her about probation. That simply is not true. Nobody knew she was going to get 10 to 20 years. The only one who knew was the judge."
During the trial, Marie also testified that heroin was kept at her house and that she and Richie were planning on selling it and splitting the money.
Marie says she only agreed to say that because she was told she would go free if she did. "That's why I want to make it very clear, because it's very complicated," she says. “They pressured me with 'You do what we say, and you'll go free.'”
The Oprah Show talked to the undercover drug agent who arrested Susan that night. He said that he stands by what he said under oath in court 36 years ago—that Susan was, indeed, a drug dealer.
After 12 months in medium-security prison, Susan made a desperate decision. "I was feeling suicidal,” she says. “I prayed to have the courage to end my life."
Marie says she did not have a single visitor—until her grandfather came to see her one day. "I thought maybe he'd come to tell me that a court was appealing this," she says. "He said, 'Nobody's coming. Nobody knows what to do.' And they're building a maximum-security prison soon.'"
Marie says her grandfather told her she needed to escape. She agreed, and they began planning. "I don't recall exactly how I coordinated," she says. "We didn't have cell phones or anything in those days."
The day she escaped, Susan reported for work, as usual, to a job that required her to be outside before sunrise. “There were towers, but they weren't really manned. It was pretty lax as far as that,” she says. “There was a helicopter that came out.”
Susan threw her jacket over the top of the barbed wire fence, made it over the top and ran through the woods to where her grandfather was waiting in a car. "We waited for the snow to clear because that would be kind of hard to get tracks," she says. "There weren't any leaves, though, either. So they could see down, so I had to hide by a tree when the helicopter went over. And I was running, running, running."
After her escape, Susan fled to California. "I wanted to basically forge a new identity," she says. "I had to change also because, while I was in prison, there was a drug program, and I did realize then that I wasn't just partying. That I had been using drugs. That I had escaped into drugs every time there was a problem."
Susan Marie LeFevre became simply Marie. Though she needed a Social Security number to work, Marie says she never stole anyone else's identity. "After I was working, I would usually have to move on to another job because they would say, 'There was a mistake there. Can you straighten this out?'" she says. "And I would just have to move because I never had a name and a Social Security number that matched up."
Living on the lam, Marie says she never let herself get comfortable—and also never dwelled on the fact that she was a fugitive. "I said to myself, 'What's the use of going over barbed wire and going through this if you're going to be worried every day?'" she says. "I just have to leave in the hands of fate or a higher power that, if it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
Throughout her life on the run, Marie kept in touch with her parents. "[My parents] felt like I was innocent and wrongly convicted, and they were there for me, and we kept in touch, and they were supportive of me."
In 1985, Marie met Alan, the man who would become her husband. "I tried to tell him that I had done drugs, I had a boyfriend, I got into drugs with him...and he didn't want me to go any further," she says. "He just never really wanted to hear the story. He just felt like it doesn't matter now."
After 10 months, they were engaged. Alan even asked Marie's father for his daughter's hand. Alan says he never suspected Marie was hiding a secret that serious. "She did refer to a period of time when she had a boyfriend that was not the type of guy you want to bring home to [your father] and that it was a bad period in her life and she got into drugs for awhile," he says. "In my mind, it was in the past. It wasn't something I needed to dwell on."
Three children later, Marie kept her secret from Alan, not even telling him the truth about why she didn't attend her mother's 2004 funeral. "I had to go home urgently when I heard my mother was really in very serious condition," she says. "My husband and I flew back, and she died in my arms."
Marie told Alan they wouldn't be attending the funeral—never telling him that attending the funeral meant risking her capture. "He thought I was kind of a monster for not going," she says. "Why would I even suggest not going to my mother's funeral? Who would do that?"
At the time, Alan says he didn't understand Marie's decision. "Her mother died in her arms, and she was devastated by it—that's how she explained it to me," he says. "She did not want to go through the funeral. She'd already been through this traumatic period, and I respected it. I didn't understand it initially. But I respected it."
In April 2008, Marie was tending to her flowers when officers arrived to take her into custody. "So I had these two worlds. This terrible, terrible, destructive world, corrupting world of this prison and then this idyllic world," she says. "When he showed me these pictures and said, 'Susan LeFevre,' it was like I knew that finally they had collided."
Marie says she wasn't handcuffed right away. "They were good about it that way. I have a little cul-de-sac and everybody looks out and can easily see what's going on," she says. "They took me upstairs to get rid of my wedding ring and jewelry."
In the house, Marie came face-to-face with her daughter Katie. "I just said, 'These are policemen, Katie.' That I'll be back. I'll be all right," she says. "She started crying right away."
Marie also called Alan at work. "I said, 'Alan, the police are here, and they're going to take me to a jail," she says.
The year prior to her arrest, Marie says she had been receiving phone calls that someone was searching for her. She told her husband and her children that something was going on. "They knew there was a problem because I said, 'I can't tell you the details of this, but I have a serious problem,'" she says. “That was just before [the arrest] because I had been getting phone calls that someone was searching for me.”
When he finally learned the truth, Alan says he felt angry. "I have to say that initially I felt a little betrayed," he says. "Knowing the mother and the wife that I've known for 25 years has been an outstanding mother and a good law-abiding citizen for all the time I knew her, I understood why she kept the secret."
Marie and her family say their attorney has advised them not to say when they learned about her criminal past.
Though daughter Maureen never suspected her mother was a fugitive, looking back, she says there were signs. "I always thought of my mom as such an ambitious woman and smart and intelligent, so I always wondered why she didn't have a normal career. That was one thing I always wondered about, and I just figured she wanted to raise her family and devote herself to that."
Maureen says she also once found a letter addressed to her mother with a different last name. "I was confused by it, and I thought, 'You know, maybe she was married or engaged before my father,'" she says. "And I just kind of [decided] I wanted her to come to us in her own time."
At 53 years old, Marie was sent back to Michigan to await trial. A Michigan judge left the decision of whether Marie should serve out the remainder of her original 10 to 20 year sentence in the hands of the Michigan Parole Board.
Alan says the ordeal wasn't easy for his family. "For anybody who has a loved one or family member that ends up in prison, in a way the entire family is going to prison," he says. "You never stop thinking about them. You never stop worrying about what they're dealing with."
Marie and Alan's son, Alan Jr., was only 16 when his mom was arrested. "To see her come out and chained by the ankles and hands and in some old rugged jumpsuit and to have to talk to her behind a glass window, to justify that this woman needs to be put in a cage with a bunch of murderers, it's unbelievable," he says.
Maureen says reading letters from her mother was incredibly painful. "It was her greatest fear that not only would her life sort of be ruined, but that our family would just slowly crumble," she says. "I just had this whole flash of my wedding day and having her not there and possibly even having my first child and her not being there."
After 13 months behind bars, Marie was released from prison in May 2009. The parole board determined that, since her escape, Marie had lived a productive life.
While in prison, Marie says she often thought about her family. "I felt really bad that I had put them through this," she says. "That they had to suffer."
Susan says she now feels compassion for other women who have been sent to prison on drug charges. "[It's] just unbelievable that these women got years because their boyfriend left a little bit of dope in their basement," she says. "And the women—there's no proof. There doesn't have to be [any proof] that they were selling anything. All the new laws are geared to widen the net to increase the populations in prisons."
In some ways, Alan says, jail may have been the best thing to ever happen to his wife. "She has reinvented herself again. I've seen a great metamorphosis in her," he says. "She has immense compassion for the people she left behind in that prison. We talk about it a lot. She tells me all the cases where these people should not be there. These are the weakest and the poorest that have done very little to be in prison."
When Marie's story made national headlines, thousands of supporters thought she should not have gone back to prison, because she lived the life of a model citizen.
Mike Thomas, the Michigan prosecutor for Marie's 2008 trial, disagrees. "I don't think she was respecting the justice system while she was on the lam for years. Our position was, 'You never filed an appeal for 32 years, so you didn't even have standing to complain about your sentence in the first place,'" he says. "Obviously she never filed an appeal because she didn't want to be apprehended and she avoided detection all those years."
Mike says it was unfair for Marie to avoid serving her time. "I bet you every single person in the prison system in America would like to have the same opportunity to have 32 years of their life," he says. "If you're found to have done something wrong, part of justice in America is paying the penalty, and she, just the same way everyone else served their sentence, she should have had to serve hers."