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Video: Fugitive mom glad 'nightmare is over'

TODAY contributor
updated 4/8/2011 10:38:37 AM ET 2011-04-08T14:38:37

For 32 years, Marie Walsh lived a seemingly idyllic family life as a soccer mom in sun-kissed Southern California. But she harbored a secret so dire she couldn't even divulge it to her husband and three children: Walsh was formerly Susan LeFevre, a teenage wild child from Saginaw, Mich., who had escaped from prison.

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It was a past that, despite making a new life for herself, haunted her daily. Attempts to turn herself in through attorneys proved fruitless, and she learned from the few family members she kept in contact with that the long arm of the law was closing in. Finally, her double life caught up with her when federal agents arrived at her San Diego home and arrested her in front of her daughter Katie, more than three decades after she jumped a prison's barbed wire fence.

After leaving prison a second time in 2009 — this time on parole — Walsh put her journey on paper in a new book, "A Tale of Two Lives: The Susan LeFevre Fugitive Story." Appearing live on TODAY Friday with daughters Katie and Maureen, Walsh told Meredith Vieira how she found herself in many ways a typically troubled teen who had gotten caught up in a fierce judicial system.

"I feel like I was a pretty average, very average kid," she told Vieira. "This could happen to anybody, and the system is very aggressive. I was lost. I was on the wrong path, but prison was not the answer. There's so many people suffering in the prison system just like myself."

Walsh says she got involved in the wrong crowd in high school and, through a boyfriend, began using marijuana and cocaine. In 1974, at age 19, a friend asked her to drive him to a pizza joint — but instead of picking up a pie, he made a drug sale. Walsh told Vieira she believes she was set up, and she was arrested in a police drug sting despite having no narcotics on her at the time. Walsh was charged with selling about $200 worth of heroin to an undercover officer.

Still, Walsh told Vieira she didn't fear the worst. "My bail was $150, [it was] my first-time offense; I had never been in trouble before." When her attorneys, including an uncle who was a lawyer, advised her to plead guilty and get probation, she conceded. But instead, she was hammered with a 10- to 20-year prison sentence.

Story: ‘A Tale of Two Lives’: The true story of a fugitive mom

In her book, Walsh said she learned later that the advice may have been a ruse to get her to plead guilty and then go away, as she had become an embarrassment to her family. But she had one strong advocate in her doting grandfather, one of the few family members who visited her when she was put away in a downstate prison near Detroit. It was her grandfather who, believing his granddaughter was destined for a long stretch in prison, urged her to make an escape and plotted it out with her. She scaled a barbed wire fence at daybreak and he was waiting for her at a predetermined pickup spot.

Vieira asked Walsh about her fears in making a prison break. "You hear stories about people being caught on the barbed wire — I didn't know what to expect; I didn't know if they would shoot me," she said. "You wonder and you worry. But it was wonderful, my grandfather prodding me like that. It takes a lot of nerve, but I wouldn't have had the courage without my grandfather helping me out."

She migrated to California, where she assumed the name Marie Walsh and began working odd jobs that ultimately ended when employers asked for her Social Security number. She fell in love and eventually married, making a safe haven for herself with her family, which grew with two daughters and a son. But Walsh said she always had an inkling that she was living a double life on borrowed time.

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"I had a couple of extended family members I shared this with and we just said, if I can wait until [the children] are out of high school," she told Vieira. She even hired lawyers to try to work out a deal to turn herself in and receive probation, "hoping there is some consideration that I did turn my life around.

"They approached the prosecutor and he said I couldn't turn myself in, that I should stay away and if I came back he would give me more time than the 10 to 20," Walsh said.

Meanwhile, her children remained blissfully unaware of their mother's struggle with her conscience, even while they got hints mom wasn't all she seemed to be. "We had such a normal childhood," daughter Maureen, 24, told Vieira. "Oftentimes I would find little things here and there, like letters with a different last name, and I thought maybe she had a secret, maybe a different husband in the past, nothing serious. I didn't think too much about it."

But later, Maureen said she "started to notice bigger signs, and I just kind of gave her space to come to us to talk about it when the time was right for her." Marie still kept her secret when she was told by relatives that police had been recently calling them, decades after her prison escape; she checked in to a hotel for a few days, but eventually returned home to inevitably face the music.

She received a phone call from a federal agent posing as a landscaper, who lured her out of the house. When she was arrested, she finally had to break the news to daughter Katie, who was just rising to greet the day. "She came in [to my bedroom]; she was in tears and told me she was going to be taken away for a while, and I walk out and immediately start to cry," Katie, 23, told Vieira. "But I was strong for her."

Walsh was shipped back to Michigan, where she served an additional year in jail. While Walsh wasn't expecting a walk in the park, she nonetheless said that she was treated horribly by prison guards, which in part prompted her to write a book on her experiences. "I didn't expect prison to be that hard," Walsh said, saying the year behind bars was "very traumatic."

Now back home with her family and a newly minted author, Walsh found that her family needed a period of adjustment after learning the incredible secret she kept from them.

"It's been a long journey," daughter Maureen told Vieira. "We're just happy to have her home, but it has been a struggle. Even the day she came home, that was kind of a whole other chapter we were embarking on as a family."

Walsh still insists her sentence back in 1974 was wildly out of line and that current laws wouldn't even provide for a prison sentence for her conviction. She remains adamant that she was promised probation, even though her former attorney, Nick Trogan, told TODAY that he never gave Walsh such assurances. Still, Walsh believes she was a victim of a system that nearly forced her to run.

"This isn't the way to deal with kids who have definitely lost their way," Walsh said.

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