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.