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Now free, Linehan sets up a new life

Megan Holland
Mechele Linehan appeared in Superior Court for a pre-trial conference April 27, 2010.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Prosecutor Pat Gullufsen shows John Carlin IV a replica of the gun that his father owned Oct. 1, 2007, at Mechele Linehan's murder trial. Carlin's testimony countered a defense argument that John Carlin III acted alone in killing Kent Leppink to protect his son and to have Linehan for himself.
Her conviction overturned, Mechele Linehan is back to being presumed innocent, the judge said.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Defendant Mechele Linehan, center, confers with attorneys Wayne Fricke, left, and Kevin Fitzgerald between witnesses Thursday at Nesbett Courthouse. Prosecutors say Linehan used the plot of a movie thriller to set up the murder of her fiance Kent Leppink.
Mechele Linehan during her March 2008 sentencing.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News file photo
Scott Hilke, former fiance of Mechele Linehan, testified that he never hid his intimate relationship with Linehan from Kent Leppink and John Carlin.
Mechele Linehan listens at her sentencing hearing after her mother-in-law spoke on her behalf on April 2, 2008. Linehan was sentenced to 99 years in prison for her role in the death of Kent Leppink.
Photo by / Anchorage Daily News
Mechele Linehan confers with attorney Wayne Fricke Sept. 20, 2007, the first day of her trial.
Defendant Michele Linehan talks with friends and family members during a break in closing arguments at her murder trial Wednesday, October 17, 2007.
Mechele Linehan listens as her lawyer speaks in court.
Mechele Linehan, right, listens to the prosecution response to her defense team's motion to acquit Thursday October 11, 2007 at Nesbett Courthouse. Defense attorney Wayne Fricke listens at left.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Kent Leppink's parents, Kenneth and Betsy Leppink, embrace after John Carlin III was found guilty of Kent's 1996 murder. Carlin and Kent Leppink were both engaged to Linehan.
Melissa Hughes, sister of Mechele Linehan, testified in court, Mar. 23, 2007, about a computer Linehan had owned.
Jim Lavrakas
Michele Linehan speaks with one of her attorneys, Wayne Fricke, during closing arguments at her trial for murder Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007.
Mechele Linehan reacts to the guilty verdict in her trial for murder, Oct. 22, 2007.
Alaska State Troopers take Mechele Linehan into custody after the jury in her murder trial found her guilty Monday.
Defendant Michele Linehan, and her husband Colin, return to the courtroom after a morning break to hear her attorney deliver closing arguments at her trial for murder in Anchorage Superior Court Wednesday, October 17, 2007.
Mechele Linehan
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
Prosecutor Pat Gullufsen summarizes the State's evidence during closing arguments at the trial of Mechele Linehan Wednesday, October 17, 2007.
Mechele Linehan talks with her lawyer Kevin Fitzgerald in Anchorage on Oct. 19, 2006. She is charged with first-degree murder in the 1996 death of fiance Kent Leppink and is in jail after postponement Oct. 19, 2006 of a decision about whether she will be allowed to await trial at her home in Olympia, Wash.
Mechele Linehan, left, walks into Anchorage Superior Court arm in arm with her attorney Kevin Fitzgerald before she was found guilty of murder in the death of Kent Leppink Monday, Oct. 22, 2007.
Defendant Michele Linehan and her husband, Colin, return to the courtroom after a morning break to hear her attorney deliver closing arguments at her trial for murder in Anchorage Superior Court Wednesday, October 17, 2007.
Jim Lavrakas
Michele Linehan listens with one of her attorneys, Wayne Fricke, during closing arguments at Linehan's trial for murder Wednesday, October 17, 2007.
From left, Colin Linehan, prosecutor Pat Gullufsen, defense attorney Kevin Fitzgerald and defendant Mechele Linehan stand as the jury returns to deliver their guilty verdict. Jurors said Linehan's life as an exotic dancer played a role in their decision. "When ... you were soliciting yourself to be attractive sexually in all those ways -- you were soliciting yourself in that manner for money -- that all goes into the factor of manipulation and seduction," said juror Christine Eagleson.
Mechele Linehan prepares to leave the courthouse in Anchorage on October 9, 2007, after another day of testimony in the murder trial involving the former stripper, who is accused of conspiring to murder fiance Kent Leppink in 1996.
Mechele Linehan, in court April 27, can go outside twice a week and must always be in sight or sound of a third-party custodian.
BILL ROTH / Daily News archive 2010
Dr. Colin Linehan speaks with his wife, Mechele, during a recess in her murder trial.

Mechele Linehan's moment of freedom Tuesday night was not what she had expected after 2 1/2 years in Hiland Mountain prison. Her husband and daughter weren't waiting outside the razor-wire fence. It was her court-appointed third-party custodian, an Anchorage woman she hardly knew, who was there to whisk her back to society.

That first day, she said, she was busy with setting up her new life. She moved furniture into her studio apartment, began to prepare for the visit of her husband and daughter, met with her bail bondsman and talked with her new public defenders.

She also indulged and bought the mango and avocado she had been craving, ate sushi at a restaurant and slept in a queen-sized bed. "I had forgotten how soft a bed could be," she said.

In February, the Alaska Court of Appeals tossed out Linehan's 2007 murder conviction, saying she did not get a fair trial. The state has chosen to prosecute her again.

The 37-year-old Olympia, Wash., woman is accused of conspiring with John Carlin to kill Kent Leppink in 1996. Prosecutors say her motive was a $1 million life insurance policy payout, which she never got. Carlin also was convicted; he was killed in prison.

Linehan was living with Carlin and Leppink was a house guest when someone shot him in a patch of woods near Hope.

Linehan later left Alaska, married a doctor, started a family and got a master's degree. She insists she doesn't know who murdered Leppink, her one-time Bush Company customer and momentary fiance.

Linehan spoke with the Daily News for two hours Wednesday night. She insisted on some ground rules: The location of her apartment couldn't be disclosed, she wouldn't talk about her case because she is waiting for her new team of defense lawyers to assemble, and the name of her daughter was not to be published.

But she talked expansively about life in prison, trying to maintain a relationship with her now-10-year-old child and the notoriety of her case.

THE GUILTY VERDICT

The first days after the verdict was read to Linehan on Oct. 22, 2007, were a haze, she said. She was handcuffed, fingerprinted, brought to Hiland and immediately put on suicide watch.

She had never expected the jury to find her guilty. She had dinner plans that night, she said.

She would look out the prison window and see a familiar-looking SUV driving on the road, she said. It looked like a car her lawyer owned. Was he coming to get her? She thought that the mistake had been realized. It was all a big misunderstanding, she told herself. It would correct itself.

But the car belonged to the prison.

INFAMOUS CELEBRITY

Linehan has been both vilified and praised by people across the country.

In the prelude to her trial, as the case captured the public spotlight, she was labeled a teenage runaway, a manipulative stripper, a black widow, a rich doctor's wife and a soccer mom.

She's none of those cliches, she said.

Even in the courtroom, she was misinterpreted, she said. "My attorneys always told me to be stoic in court, even during the trial: 'Just be stoic.' So I'd sit there and try to be stoic. Which I laugh at now because that got twisted (into) 'Cold, manipulative bitch. Look at her.' No, I was being stoic, that was my stoic look," she said.

She laughs about much of it now because "You got to either laugh or cry at the situation and crying does you no good."

It disturbs her that people who have never met her hate her. The trial judge at her sentencing said there are two Linehans -- the one who committed the murder and the one who has been fooling the world since then. It echoed what Leppink wrote to his parents about her in the days before he died.

"You don't know what it's like to be told that you are the devil woman," she said.

"From the beginning people told me I'm too thin-skinned. 'You need to toughen up. Let it roll off your back like water, you're a duck,' " she said. "I thought I wanted to be like that, for it to not bother me. But it always did."

ACCLIMATING TO PRISON

Linehan's first prison work was an 85-cents-an-hour job sewing uniforms. It was the job that most resembled work on the Outside, a sense of normality, she said.

She also quickly learned what prison life really meant.

She learned how to work the inmate black market, where everything from hard drugs to lip gloss is bartered or sold. She mostly sought out fresh fruit and vegetables.

She learned how inmates established their identities based on their uniforms, how certain creases ironed into the shirts were eyed with envy.

She learned she could avoid prison food by ordering from Costco, an inmate privilege, and use an iron to make ham and cheese croissant paninis.

After about a year, Linehan switched to the night shift to reduce her exposure to other inmates. The more interaction she had, the more potential for conflict or drama, she said. So she became a janitor who stripped, waxed and buffed the linoleum from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.

She said she passed her time reading magazines like The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, and whatever books friends or family sent her.

She ended up in the "hole" a couple of times for breaking the rules, including having chewing tobacco -- she had it for bartering.

In the middle of the night, Linehan would hold her hand up to the wall next to her bed to check to see if she had woken from a nightmare, she said. No. She was still there. "God, it was real. I'm here. Shoot. I'm here," she said.

CALLS TO COLIN

Most of the time she was in prison, Linehan was lucky and had her own 8-foot by 10-foot cell. She could isolate herself in that space.

But it was her contact with the Outside that kept her going, she said. Her lifelines were 15-minute phone calls to her husband, Dr. Colin Linehan, and daughter in Olympia, and her mother in Mississippi.

She said she also got thousands of letters from strangers, of which only three were negative. She wrote back to many, even the hate-letter writers, she said.

She decorated her prison cell with some of those cards -- the ones she found touching, pretty or funny, like the one of the fairy with combat boots.

BEING A MOM IN PRISON

Linehan's daughter was 8 when Linehan entered prison and is 10 now.

"I had a woman tell me when I first got there that you could be a mom from jail," she said. She learned from that woman and others about that careful balancing act.

"Not being able to control and structure for her was the hard part," she said. "I would just talk to her and try not to be a disciplinarian. That was really difficult because I had always been the disciplinarian. Colin wanted to be her best friend.

"He would want me to get on to her about not wearing a headband or not putting barrettes in her hair, her hair is always in her face, or not doing her homework when she first gets home, and I didn't want to be that," she said.

The parents had to switch roles.

Her daughter visited about once a month for the first year. But the family's money began to dry up, mostly from paying lawyer bills, and the visits became less frequent, she said.

Linehan's daughter was the first person she called when her third-party handed her a cell phone on the drive away from prison last Tuesday, she said.

NOW WHAT?

Asked what she thought of the strangers who have come forward giving her money to help -- Brian Watt, an East Coast executive, donated $25,000 for bail money and Anchorage strip club owner and businessman Terry Stahlman put up his motel as collateral for the bail -- she expressed gratitude.

But at first, she admitted, she was leery. "I've taken presents from men before that didn't want anything and it didn't get me in a good place."

Linehan said she's not sure what she will do with her time until her next trial, which might be another year away.

"My emotions have been kind of all over the place. Even driving in the car over here this evening I was like, 'Let me feel the car, am I really here?' "

She wants a job but the judge's bail restrictions have her under house arrest except for two four-hour periods a week. She must be within sight and sound of one of three third-party custodians; her husband is one of them, although he will continue to live in Olympia and visit when he can, she said.

Her husband and daughter arrived in Anchorage on Thursday night.

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.

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By MEGAN HOLLAND
mholland@adn.com