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about her case because she is waiting for her new team of defense lawyers to assemble, and the name of her daughter was not to be published.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.
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.
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.
By MEGAN HOLLAND