By Karen Billing
She was only 19 years old when she landed in a Michigan prison on a drug charge, 21 when she scaled a barbwire fence to escape. Thirty-three years later, Susan LeFevre’s past came to her doorstep in Carmel Valley where she had created a new life living as Marie Walsh, a wife, mother and secret fugitive.
Taken back to prison in 2008, Walsh has been out since April 2009. A new book, “A Tale of Two Lives: The Susan LeFevre Fugitive Story” tells her unbelievable story and the “Fugitive Mom” has again captured the nation’s attention — she will be featured on "Oprah" on April 7 and appear on "The Today Show" on April 8.
Walsh once thought the “Fugitive Mom” label was crass but has embraced it now, it’s the way people know her and the platform she has been given to tell her story, one that carries a message that the prison system needs to be reformed.
Proceeds from her book will go toward re-entry programs for women released from prison.
“(Prison) was unbelievably painful and the only way to take care of that pain is to use it for good,” Walsh said. “There needs to be more rehabilitation and education in prison, more than just a façade of it like it is now. It is almost devastating for some women to get out, the transition is very hard if they’re poor or don’t have a family like I did.”
Walsh’s story begins in 1974, when she was arrested with two and a half grams of heroin, about $20 worth of drugs. She maintains that she was not guilty of selling drugs but was just taken advantage of for her age and naiveté by her co-defendant, a 22-year-old who ended up serving 3 1/2 years for the crime.
“I wasn’t a drug dealer, but I did use drugs. I was on a wrong path,” Walsh said.
In her book, Walsh writes how she later found out the Saginaw, Mich., judges had made a pact that every drug offense would get 10 to 20 years — it was a kind of a “witch hunt,” she said.
“I thought it was a misunderstanding,” said Walsh, who was so unaware that she would be doing time that she even had a ski trip planned the weekend of her court date.
While she had been promised probation, she ended up in jail instead; an experience she said was horrible and frightening.
“I could hear women being raped in their cells when it was quiet at night, even through the iron doors of my cell,” Walsh said, describing how fearful she was that she would be next. “The women were so vulnerable…It was a very incredibly painful experience to go through, I don’t think there’s anything I can say that really conveys that.”
After serving about a year of her sentence, Walsh escaped with the help of her grandfather in 1976. She made up a social security number that was just a few numbers off her real one and took her middle name as her first and planned to go far, far away.
She said she never imagined that running would be as easy as it was, thinking she would have to live in a cabin in the woods, but instead found herself in California.
“The moment I came to San Diego, I opened my eyes and there was this glittery sky and pastel-colored ocean,“ said Walsh. “I just thought I was home. I had felt out of place in Michigan.”
Walsh kept her fugitive past a secret — in the beginning she told one of her boyfriends but he reacted so poorly that she decided she would never tell anyone again. She did not tell her husband, Alan Walsh, or her three children, but she did say that they later admitted suspecting she had some kind of secret, especially when people from a crime website began contacting her and her family, looking for her.
The secret did weigh heavily on Walsh.
“I had to just deal with it,” said Walsh, who said she attempted on a few occasions to turn herself in but the authorities she contacted weren’t interested. “Everyone has their cross to bear. I had this thing hanging over me and I couldn’t just continue to feel sorry for myself.”
It came to a head in April 2008 — she received a phone call that some tree trimmers had clipped one of her trees and wanted her to come outside her home. A tip to the crime website had led the authorities to Carmel Valley and when she stepped outside that morning she saw not a tree trimmer but a man flashing his badge.
“He asked, ‘Are you Susan LeFevre?’ and I went a little numb, I was cognizant that sh--, this is it. This has actually happened,” she said.
She traveled from San Diego to the Michigan prison with her hands handcuffed at her waist for 24 hours a day for an entire week — she was only released once a day during the journey to use the restroom. She was facing 15 years, to finish her original 10-year sentence, plus additional time for the escape.
Walsh’s second time in prison was much worse than the first time. She said the guards had been told to target her and she was the subject of constant harassment and abuse.
“I feared for my life several times,” Walsh said.
She was locked in one cell, in direct sunlight for days during an intense Michigan heat wave.
“No air was coming in, I was sealed in between these concrete walls,” Walsh said.
She would wet her clothing to try and keep cool, causing her skin to become raw. It became so hot that she collapsed, feeling as though she was having a heart attack or stroke. The guards wouldn’t do anything to help, just yell at her and call her names.
“It was sadistic,” she said.
The guards would write her up for offenses she did not commit, one month she received 11 violations for things like smoking.
“I wasn’t yelling or angry, I was doing everything I could to follow the rules,” Walsh said.
She was transferred to another prison after complaints about her treatment to the warden and even the governor. But the second prison wasn’t much better as she was placed in cells with extremely violent cellmates, “I think they wanted to put me in with someone who would kill me,” Walsh said.
When one cellmate threatened to kill her, Walsh was taken to the segregation cells, “the dungeon cells” they were called. She was served dirty food and lost her appetite, losing 25 pounds and becoming horrified by her loose skin hanging off her bones. When edible food was slipped into the cell, guards sometimes placed pubic hairs on it so she could not eat it.
One November day she was locked outside in the cold and sleet for an hour without a jacket.
“I thought I was going to die from the cold, after thinking I was going to die from the cold at the other prison just 20 miles away,” Walsh said.
Walsh said she felt awful but she did not cry.
“I’m not a crier,” she said. “I didn’t let myself dwell on it. It was too much to deal with.”
As many horrible experiences as she had, she also met some very exceptional people. She received letters every day from strangers, as well as her friends in Carmel Valley, who were supportive and “wonderful,” as was her family, including her husband. Her daughter set up a website for people to send messages to her mother. Walsh’s son assured her that “a zillion people adore you, Mom.”
In January 2009, the Michigan Parole Board voted to release her and she was released on May 18 of that year. She had begun writing her book in prison but spent another two years working on it, writing for hours on end, filling thousands of pages and finally whittling it down this year.
“People keep saying to me that my story is so unusual. But the story that I have is not unusual and that is what’s tragic. So many of the things that happened to me have happened to others,” said Walsh of the jail system she strongly feels needs to be reformed. Whether it was easier to escape her past or to finally confront it, Walsh isn’t sure.
“I just did what I had to do. As awful as it was to hide, I had to look at the good side. I feel that’s what you always have to do in life,” Walsh said. “Before I jumped that fence I was such a weak person. My confidence was so beaten and I had always turned to drugs to deal with things. I realized I didn’t need to use drugs…I had to get self control. I don’t have much control over anything but I do have control over me and that’s a great thing. The one thing this experience gave me is that I learned I can control myself and my actions.”
Find “A Tale of Two Lives: The Susan LeFevre Fugitive Story” at