Trapped in Another Life : Kay Smith, Ideal Mom, Had Run Far and Hard. In the End, She Couldn't Escape Her Past

The Washington Post

She stares out the window past twin 12-foot fences topped with razor wire, watchtowers manned by armed guards, steel electronic gates, past the stand of hardwoods, the nearby men's prison and up the road.

It's dusting snow, cold, bleak. Just over the hill, a 10-minute drive if she could just drive out of here, and she would be home in her split-level house with a devoted but baffled brood: her husband, Ray, two teen-age sons.

Kay Smith was the very model of a Severn, Md., housewife and working mother, so perfect that no one around here can believe she was once a hard-drinking, pill-popping criminal with a gun.

But for a decade, until her capture last spring, she was a fugitive from a South Carolina mill town. She had been imprisoned for a string of armed robberies until she walked away from work release and disappeared. Her first husband was a convicted killer.

Dark Secrets Come to Light

These were secrets Kay Smith buried deep as she recast her life. Over the years, she had become a doting mom to her two boys and foster daughters. She ferried her sons to school and sports, took courses at Anne Arundel Community College. As a real estate agent for Gary Hart Realty in Glen Burnie, she sold house after house--$1 million in sales last year.

Who could have suspected that she really was an outlaw named Pamela Rodgers?

Kay Smith wore subdued suits and slacks, a bare wisp of Max Factor. In her home, she warned her sons about drinking. She spurned even a glass of wine, and politely insisted that friends take half-empty bottles home after parties.

"I can't imagine for the life of me how this woman could do anything remotely resembling what happened," says Bill Cashman, who coached her sons in track at Old Mill High. "She'd ask me what I thought about her sons' grades, their sports performance, the people they hung around with. Her family was always first."

Somehow, she managed to keep it together as she lived in fear and hid her past, even from her husband. "I just wanted to get my boys through school," she says, "then I was going to straighten it all out."

But detectives disrupted her plan last May. And when they came for her, she had run so long and hard, she barely knew the woman, handcuffed and under arrest. All at once, she again was Pamela Rodgers--the woman she thought she had left behind. In three months, she was on her way back to prison in South Carolina.

Just before Christmas, a routine interstate swap allowed her to serve out the rest of her 12-year sentence for armed robbery near home. She found herself in this stark red-brick campus, the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women.

"At least I don't have to carry that terrible secret any more," she says, wrapping a sweater about her to ward off the chill. Suddenly she looks panicked. "Oh, God, I'm so sorry my sons were cheated."

She wears a purple prison jumpsuit, works in the prison library, clips recipes and frets about her family. Figuring "someday they'll want honest answers," she writes letters she never mails.

Based on her record of violent crime and escape, Kay Smith was classified by Maryland prison officials as a security risk. So she awaits the outcome of early release pleas--by her reckoning she could be here until March, 1993, unless authorities grant an unlikely pardon, premature parole or work release.

Family and friends have canvassed the community, collecting at least 3,000 signatures petitioning South Carolina's Pardon and Parole Board for leniency.

"I'm not saying she ought to get a medal, but she's paid her debt to society," argues John Hassett, a former prosecutor, who took her case for expenses only.

In South Carolina, former prosecutor Dick Harpootlian took up her cause too saying, "I take other cases for money. Kay's case is among those I take because I believe in the folks."

But sniffs Jim Anders, the South Carolina prosecutor who put Kay Smith back in jail: "Don't make me cry. If we cut slack for her, we encourage people to escape."

Jean Gilbert, Kay Smith's mother, says of her daughter in a telephone interview from Greenville, S.C.: "If people could just understand what brought her to this point. She was just a woman desperate to have her kids, who was terrorized by bad men."

Kay Smith was born Pamela Annette Gilbert on Oct. 1, 1951, the second of six children raised by a trucker and a grocer's daughter in the Blue Ridge foothills of Greenville, S.C. She remembers her father's belt, his guns, his whiskey, his temper.

Her father declines to discuss the past, but other family members confirm her memories; her mother recalls stepping in to take "many of those licks."

"I watched him whip her . . . when she was just 15 months old," says her grandmother, Mary Hinton, 83.

Kay says of her father: "He just didn't know how to show affection. I can't remember ever hearing him say 'I love you.' "

When Kay was a 10th-grader, she dropped out and took a job at a convenience store, where she met stock boy Danny Rodgers, another dropout.

"I knew I didn't love Danny," Kay reflects. "I married him to get out. I thought I could make it work."

She was 16.

Bouncing between Rodgers' modest family farm in Cullman, Ala., and her hometown in Greenville, they moved into a dinky Greenville trailer.

"First time I ever saw him slap her," Kay's mother says, "I hit him back. He said, 'You hit me,' and I said, 'You hit my daughter.' So he informed me, 'It's not your daughter any more; it's my wife.' "

They moved to Florida, where Danny found construction work at Disney World, but preferred hanging out. Danny Jr. was born Dec. 17, 1969, as Pam was learning fast about her mercurial husband, who relished "playing with guns and knives, very nice one day and the next day beating the heck out of you."

Six months later, out of work, he ran off with a neighbor's wife, she says. So Pam headed home again, hired on the midnight shift as a cotton mill weaver. Danny returned, but she refused to make up.

Then, one night, when she was at work, he snatched the baby and ran, a tactic he repeatedly used to keep her in line. And it worked: She kept going back to him. "It was the only way to keep my baby," she says. Another son, James, was born in September, 1972, but life was only getting worse.

Kay moved home to Greenville and in 1973 won temporary custody of the boys. Rodgers stalked her, she says, and one day showed up and fired a pistol into the roof of her trailer. Days later, he snatched the boys again. Only this time Pam couldn't find them.

"She had dreams he'd drowned them because he swore he'd do it before he'd let her have them," her mother says. "She woke up at night screaming and fell into drugs and alcohol."

She boxed up their toys, reminders of her "failure," and dumped them at Goodwill. She reported her husband to the police, but no one offered any hope.

She found a kind of solace at the Little Darling, a Greenville bar that drew hustlers such as Arthur Broome Jr., a distant cousin.

She was 22.

Broome was 43, owned a tile company, but never seemed to work. He promised to help track her boys, and she moved into his trailer--a place police say attracted the local criminal fringe. Broome, she says, had money, and drugs to kill her pain.

Life was going badly for her. During the 1974 Masters golf tournament, she drove to Augusta, Ga., to hang out with a bar mate--a former hooker, she says. A man approached them at a local restaurant. They began flirting. Suddenly, she says, she was under arrest for possessing amphetamines and soliciting an undercover cop for prostitution. Police records suggest that case was never prosecuted.

Meanwhile, back home, Broome was teaching her how to use a gun--and everything a country girl needed to know about stickups. Together they held up stores in the Greenville area.

"I didn't really care if I got caught," she says. "I thought if I got in enough trouble, Danny would tell me where the boys were. I wasn't thinking straight."

On Sept. 14, 1974, they hit Paces Jewelers just before closing. Pulling a pistol from a large black bag, she ordered customers to the floor and grabbed 18 watches and $400 in cash.

Because witnesses had caught her license plate numbers, police easily tracked her to Broome's trailer, where both were arrested. But she got out on bail, and, high on uppers, hit a liquor store alone. Later, she drove the rolling countryside for hours, realizing she would never get her sons back now. She went home and gobbled pills to end it all, then raced to find her mother.

"She said, 'Mama, I took a handful of pills and I'm gonna die,' " her mother recalls. "I called an ambulance, they pumped her stomach and took her to the state hospital."

Rodgers got the news at his California apartment, where he had taken the boys. He phoned, invited his wife to join him and try again. Ignoring bail rules against leaving the state, her mother put her on a plane. "I had to do it to save her," she says.

But it didn't work out.

Danny began knocking her around, but for the first time, she fought back. When she called the police for help, Danny told them his wife was a bail jumper from South Carolina.

Detectives flew her home, where she pleaded guilty in state court to five armed robberies. In October, 1975, she drew a 12 1/2-year sentence. Broome got 25 years; Kay wound up in Columbia's women's prison.

Rodgers filed for divorce and won permanent custody of the children, but in March, 1977, he shot a man in California for which he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to five years in prison. The boys, 6 and 8, were dispatched to live with his family in Alabama.

Pam, who was told Danny was in a hospital, was being a model inmate. After 18 months, she made work release and labored in a printing plant. But she fell off the wagon on the job--using pills and whiskey, she says. And she feared further setbacks would let Danny keep her children forever. There was only one way out: Take a walk.

With six or so months left to serve, in January, 1978, she hitched as far as Glen Burnie, Md., rented a room, took a job as a waitress in a Greek diner. To avoid confusion with a waitress named Pam, she became Kay Smith. Days later, just after midnight, a short, balding trucker plopped down, spied the sad-eyed brunet in a white apron and fell in love.

She was crying. A cook was screaming at her. The trucker asked her name.

"Ray and Kay," Ray Smith joked. "Pretty neat. We ought to get along fine. We got the same names."

He was gentle, optimistic. He told her he had two daughters by a woman he never had married, that he was lonely on the road and looking for a co-pilot. At quitting time, she threw down her apron and climbed aboard his snorting '74 Peterbilt.

High in the cab, hauling steel and furniture over the next three months, they became friends. Ray talked of a hardscrabble life, raised by grandparents in the West Virginia hollows. She was amazed: He had suffered, yet was so happy. Kay hedged about her past.

After three months on the road, he proposed marriage at the Truck Stop of America in Knoxville. Her dilemma was right out of some country song: How could she let someone she loved marry an outlaw with a fake name? She had forged a birth certificate, gotten a Social Security card and a Maryland driver's license. "There was no right answer," she says. "So I just decided to block out the past."

On July 1, 1978, Ray's family and drinking buddies, about 500 in all, crowded into a Pasadena, Md., church, and went from there to a dance hall. "I was happier than anyone could be," he says. "I knew she loved me."

Kay was determined to change her life. That Christmas, gambling on her former in-laws to keep her secret, she drove to Alabama with Ray to see her boys.

Studying on the road, she passed a high school equivalency exam, enrolled in Anne Arundel Community College, began driving on her own.

In 1980, the Smiths bought a three-bedroom house in Severn, outfitting bedrooms for the boys. Life without them still drove her into the bedroom with a bottle.

When Ray drew the line over her drinking, she found a therapist in Baltimore, and her story tumbled out for the first time. She looked inside, read Norman Vincent Peale, tried biofeedback and stopped drinking.

She made friends, becoming close to neighbor Cathy Moore, a divorced mother who once rescued her dog. When Moore's daughter left to live with her father in Wyoming, Kay "reassured me," she says. "I wondered, 'How come she's so smart about life?' "

On one visit to Alabama, she learned her former husband was in prison. But she knew there was nothing she could do to get her boys back without giving herself away.

And there was nothing she could do when Danny got out, remarried, reclaimed the boys and resettled in his new wife's hometown, Boise, Idaho.

But she stayed in touch, sent money, opened local charge accounts for the boys, saw them at Boise's Flying J truck stop on trips west.

Meanwhile, she hired a Baltimore attorney to square her past. But he reported there was no record, raising her hopes. Only later did she discover her name had been misspelled in the search.

She grew more concerned for her sons. They had told her that Danny had recruited them to steal from the Salvation Army to furnish his yard sales. Then, in January, 1985, James attempted suicide; young Dan got into a fight with his father. One night, James sneaked out for a ride with a teen-ager who wrapped his car around a telephone pole, killing the driver.

Rodgers threw in the towel. "Come get them," he told his former wife. "They're yours."

She flew west the next day to claim them before he changed his mind. Back in Severn, the boys made friends quickly, reveled in their rooms, Reeboks and new jeans. When Ray wheeled in, they sat grinning at the kitchen table. For the first time, he saw Kay was happy. Curfews were set; grades improved. It was a "Leave It to Beaver" home, they liked to say.

She seized on real estate as a way to sock away money for college.

But she remained haunted by the past and present. In 1987, her former husband was charged again with murder for shooting a 21-year-old Boise man over a drug deal, chopping him into 13 pieces and dumping them into a reservoir. Now he was calling collect from jail; he wanted to see the boys, afraid he might get the chair.

After Rodgers was convicted last March, an Idaho pre-sentencing investigator ran a routine computer check of his former wife, discovered she was a fugitive and alerted South Carolina.

But the investigator, puzzling over an unlisted Maryland phone number in the killer's wallet, dialed it. He reached James, who confirmed his mother's maiden name and her hometown without knowing what he had done.

Now police had the tip they had been after. The phone rang and when she answered, it was Danny. "I guess we're in the same boat," he said. "They know about you."

She was numb, near hysterics.

Without alarming the boys, she hinted she "might have to go away for a little while" and phoned her attorney, who suggested she find a criminal lawyer. She found Hassett.

Then, on May 10, 1988, a patrolman knocked on her door. After her arrest, with handcuffs on, she turned white, broke into tears. "It's been 10 1/2 years," she said. "Why now?"

Ray was loading in New Jersey when he got the word. The boys were in school. The next day, out on $25,000 bail, she told the boys the rest of the story, then sat down with Ray, alone.

"She told me everything," he says. "She was crying. She said, 'I hope this doesn't break us up. I love you so much.' "

Now the house feels empty. Danny, a well-mannered 6-footer who has briefly curtailed college to work in a hospital billing department, cheers on James, who takes his anger out on a punching bag and works to stay afloat at Old Mill. Most Saturdays, they visit their mother for an hour in a communal room at the prison.

With Ray on the road, working double time to pay the bills, friends like Pam McLane, an Old Mill senior, drop by to fix dinner, help clean up and remember Kay.

As for Kay herself, "there wasn't any freedom for the last 10 years, not for anyone with a conscience," she reflects on this bleak Maryland winter day. "You overcome depression, drinking and negative forces, but you're not free. I was 21 when it happened. I made a terrible, terrible mistake. I feel horrible about it. . . .

But, she adds, "I am not Pam Rodgers any more. I just don't want my children destroyed. That's my sense of urgency. Why destroy a family when it's on the verge of changing the cycle?"

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