Real Life

Real life: I married a prisoner sentenced to 75 years

I was fighting for my life, so why did they think I was a criminal?

Heike Phelan, 49, tells Take 5’s Mitchell Jordan how a simple Christmas card led to love … and life behind bars:

I opened the envelope and sighed at the sight of those familiar words.
I need money, John had written.
John was a murderer in America who I'd been corresponding with for the past six months through a prison penpal agency.
I'd barely gotten to know him, but all he did was harp on about cash for his upcoming appeal.
I felt cheated that I'd taken the time to write to him about my life, and try to get to know more about him as many prisoners suffer terrible loneliness and depression and have suffered with poverty, abuse or drug addiction.
Receiving letters from strangers can be a real help.
But demands for money were common and I wasn't about to hand over my hard-earned cash, either.
I'm fed up with your requests for money, I wrote, telling John it would be my last letter.
I decided to give it another shot by taking part in a Christmas card exchange with other inmates in the US.
It meant sending off a card with a nice message inside which would be given to a random inmate.
A few weeks later, I opened the letterbox to see an envelope with my name written in unfamiliar scrawl, postmarked from Texas.
It was from a 39-year-old named William, who explained that his cellmate had received my card: He doesn't want to write to someone in another country, but I'd love to get to know you.
The cynic in me scanned the pages for mentions of money.
There was none.
I've written a book about my experience.
As I sat down to read the letter properly, I learnt that he'd lived a tough life, getting mixed up with the wrong crowd and being forced to deliver drugs for bikie gangs.
He'd later been charged with being a party to the murder of a man who'd been stabbed to death five years ago.
Even though he hadn't killed anyone himself, he was sentenced to 75 years for his involvement.
I searched for details of William's crime online and learnt that what he'd told me was true.
I was brought up in a world of crime, William explained.
When I was 15, someone came to my house and pulled a gun on me.
As a teen, he'd been sent into foster care and developed a heroin habit.
I felt sure that if he'd grown up in a loving family, none of this ever would have happened.
To try to cheer him up, I told him interesting tales about my job as a coach driver, taking tourists all over the place.
I often sent him postcards of the towns I travelled to.
You'd love it here, I wrote on them.
Although he was a bulky bloke, covered head-to-toe in tattoos, he soon revealed a softer side.He loved animals more than anything, and poured his heart out to me in 20-page letters he posted three times a week.
Your handwriting looks like it's been done by a drunken spider! I chided him.
Me and William - he tattooed my name on his eyebrows.
In truth, I loved coming home to his letters.
They were the highlight of my week.
After a couple of months, William mentioned that he loved me.
When I sent that first letter, I knew you were the one for me, he revealed.
I brushed the comment aside – locked up in a cell for 23 hours a day, you'd latch onto anyone showing you some warmth.
I'd been married when I was younger and had two grown-up daughters, and certainly wasn't looking for love with a convict thousands of kilometres away!
But as the letters kept coming, I stared longingly at the photos William had sent.
Hard as I tried to fight it, I started to feel affection for him.
I feel like I know you better than any of my friends, I wrote.
Why don't we meet?
He was ecstatic.
It sounds strange, but we'd become so close, I couldn't resist finding out if our chemistry also existed in person.
Only trouble was, murderers were only allowed to have visitors one day a week for a maximum of two hours.
That meant in my two weeks in Texas, I'd only see the man I loved twice.
I visited as much as I could on my trips to Texas.
Still, I was determined to give it a go.
When I arrived at the prison on a late summer's afternoon, dressed in jeans and a cardigan, I started to sweat and took off my jacket.
But as I went through security, a prison guard looked at me sternly.
"You can't wear that top," she warned. "You're showing too much cleavage."
Quickly putting my cardigan back on, I was taken to the meeting room where I glimpsed William being led in handcuffed.
My heart leapt at the sight of the man I'd spent two years writing to, sitting behind the glass wall.
I wanted to reach out and hug him, but I had to pick up the phone just to say hello.
"You look fabulous," William smiled, looking deep into my eyes. "I can't believe you're really here."
Talking to each other was so easy.
It felt like only minutes had passed before our time was up.
"I'll be back," I promised.
When the prison learned how far I'd travelled, they granted me special permission to visit four more times!
None of it felt enough.
I wanted to be with William all day, every day.
Back home, I was miserable without him.
Will you marry me? he wrote in his next letter.
Ask me when we meet again, I replied.
Visiting William in jail.
I planned to continue flying back to Texas four times a year, until my total three-month tourist visa expired.
So when I returned, William wasted no time in popping the question.
"Absolutely," I gushed.
I didn't feel any doubt that I was doing the right thing.
It was just heartbreaking that we still weren't allowed physical contact.
Marrying him required having a proxy wedding, where he'd be represented by someone else at the registry office as he wasn't allowed to leave the prison – not even to say 'I do.'
"But I don't know anyone else in America," I cried.
After hearing my case, the JP just signed the papers.
When I returned to the prison a married woman, William had a present: a sparkling diamond ring!
"But… how?" I asked in surprised.
"Two officers helped me," he said.
He later got my name, Heike Elsa, tattooed on his eyebrows.
I so badly ached to hold him.
When I broke the news to my daughters, they didn't approve and wanted nothing to do with William.
I respected their decision, but I wish they could see how happy I am.Returning to see William again, I was overjoyed to discover our marriage had granted us a contact visit.
We can't wait to be together.
"At last!" I cried, throwing my arms around him.
It had taken four years just to be able to hug and give each other a peck on the cheek.
For the next three months, I crammed in as many visits as I could.
But one day, before I was due to fly back home, I went for a drive with some friends I'd made in Texas.
Suddenly, the car skidded out of control.
"No!" I screamed, as a truck loomed closer.
We missed it by a hair's breadth, but just seconds later my body jolted as the car smashed into a barrier.
Waking up in extreme agony, I could barely move.
Rushed to hospital, I had to undergo extensive therapy and visits to a chiropractor.
The weeks passed by in a blur as I was in and out of hospital.
My travel insurance had expired and I'd spent nearly all my money on medical bills.
Worse, I was too unwell to visit William, who'd found out about my condition and was distraught.
When I was given the all-clear to go home, I was so relieved.
But as I showed my passport to immigration, the officer looked at me sternly.
"Come with me," he ordered.
They were furious that I'd overstayed my visa by three months and sent me into a detention facility.
The damage from my car accident.
"Let me explain," I began, trying to tell them I'd had every intention of flying back home before the car crash.
But no-one would listen.
I was locked in a cell with 100 women who couldn't speak a word of English.
I couldn't believe now I'd become the prisoner!
Each day, I'd call William's friend who'd pass on my messages to him.
"He's going out of his mind with worry," his mate told me.
I was locked up for six weeks before finally I was free to go home.
Now, I'm not allowed back to the US for 10 years.
The thought of not seeing William for that long devastates me.
By the time I'm allowed to travel to the US, he'll be eligible for parole.
It's our hope that we can finally live together and start again as husband and wife.
He's the love of my life, and I don't know what I'd do without him.

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