FOX Focus: Finding Your 'Better Half' Behind Bars

Crime, Law and JusticeFamilyMarriageCrimeWXMIHomicide

You never know where you'll find love. Just ask Shirley Hayes. She found her husband while he was in prison for committing murder.

"It wasn't the ideal marriage, like somebody would just want, but it is what it is," Hayes told FOX 17. "You try to make the best of it."

The couple met through a chance phone encounter. Shirley, an ordained minister, was living in Orlando at the time.

When an inmate in Michigan named Ross Hayes called his family in Florida for prayer, he eventually ended up talking to Shirley.

"I got chills and I started sweating," recalled Ross. "When I walked away from the phone I heard something say, that's your wife."

Though Shirley didn't want to believe it at the time, she said God told her the same thing about Ross. After one more quick phone call, the two began to write each other letters.

After just a few months, Shirley was ready to put down the pen and get on a plane. "I was shaking," she said.

 "I'd never been in prison and to hear those doors cling, people watching you, people searching you. I just thought that was horrible."

During that first visit Shirley learned what had landed Ross behind bars. He'd been serving 22 years of his sentence for second degree murder. The charge came after Ross and his cousin broke into a Grand Rapids home on Adams Street SE, May 31, 1974.

"We went in and started searching for stuff," Ross told FOX 17 News. "Our whole intention was to get stuff to buy a tux for prom the next day."

89-year-old Katherine Thomas stopped them in the act when she came home. "She was screaming and we asked her to be quiet. We asked her where the money was," recalled Ross.

Eventually, he grabbed a knife. "I stabbed her in the chest and pushed her and I ran out the door... I didn't know she had died." Ross was just 16, but ended up being tried as an adult. He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.

"It was scary. I really didn't have contact with those type of people," said Shirley.

The revelation didn't keep the pair from getting closer. They discussed the crime in their letters, and then came a proposal. On October 22, 1996 the two exchanged vows in prison. Shirley wore white and for a few moments Ross was allowed to wear something other than his corrections uniform. A few family members even got to witness the union. But, there was no wedding night and no honeymoon.

"My children thought I went crazy," said Shirley. "It was different, it was an experience, I wouldn't want to do it again, not in a jail."

Five years after the nuptials, Shirley moved to Michigan to be closer to Ross. Even with no conjugal visits and not being able to call Ross, they made the marriage work for the next 13 years.

Then in 2009, Ross was released on parole. "I had in my heart, and mind and soul that I was gonna get out someday," he said. "And I wanted to get out with somebody, rather then have to come out and look for somebody."

 He explained that he earned his release after years of being an ideal inmate and after one of the last remaining relatives of the victim came forward to campaign on his behalf in front of the parole board.

Shirley suddenly had her husband at home.

 Two years later, the couple's 15 year marriage is still going strong. "If it wasn't God, I don't think I could be sitting here with her like this," said Ross. "Anybody that's in a relationship in the system and coming out, you have to have a lot of loyalty in your heart and a lot of love for that person."

The Hayes say they decided to open up about how they found love to let people know the challenges facing couples in and after the system. They advise keeping an open line of communication and having lots of patience. Shirley and Ross admit it's not for everyone, but say that it helped them develop a deeper bond through all the letters and a deeper appreciation for the little things like a hug or a kiss during the supervised visits.

Ross currently shares his story to help mentor

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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