A Life Renewed After Years As A Fugitive, Karlene “Kerry” Ke Counsels Battered Women
Every morning, for five years, Kerry Winthrop would look out across the ocean from a beautiful house in Half Moon Bay, Calif., before getting the children ready for school.
But they weren’t her children. It wasn’t her house. And Winthrop wasn’t her name.
The woman who called herself Kerry Winthrop had left her name behind in Colorado, where she also had skipped out on a prison sentence.
Since 1980, she had called herself Winthrop, living a straight-as-an-arrow life - most recently as a nanny - and dying to go back to her own four children. But she knew she couldn’t go back, not ever.
Caught in abusive marriage
It was the winter of 1971 in St. Louis and 19-year-old Karlene Keyes was in love. The trouble was, she was in love with a black man.
“My father said, ‘If you go with this guy, you are no longer my daughter. You are out of this house. You are not mine,’ ” Keyes recalls. “But I really loved him and I thought he was the one.”
They married and moved to Colorado. Keyes is matter-of-fact as she recalls how her husband started slapping her around. She claims her husband, whom she declined to identify, could never find work - even after she became pregnant.
“He would come home and yell that there was no money, there was no groceries in the house. ‘Go and get some groceries in the house.’ And I’d tell him we have no money,” Keyes says.
He insisted she write checks though there was no money in the account, she says; she claims he would tell her her paycheck would cover the checks, but then he would take her money.
Keyes was pregnant again when she was arrested in 1974 for check fraud. Prisons would not take pregnant women then and she was to report to the penitentiary five days after her child was born.
Keyes says her husband refused to let her report. Abuse, she claims, continued. “By that time - I have a half-moon scar on my forehead, that took 18 stitches. That was - um - a belt buckle,” Keyes says.
She says she wanted to leave, but that there was nowhere for her to go. There were few battered women’s shelters and Keyes said she could not go back to her family. Police were little help.
“Seventeen years ago what they thought of domestic violence is a world away from what we think of it now,” says Denver criminal defense attorney Larry Pozner. “Then it was, ‘We’re not going to arrest him. He’ll just go back.”’
She admits she wrote thousands of dollars in bad checks, but says the abuse was its root. She claims she was let out of the house only to write the checks. The husband was never charged in the check-writing scheme.
Keyes ended up in the state penitentiary in Canon City in 1976. Over the next four years, she was in and out of prison. Behind bars, she says, she suffered horribly, and even was impregnated by a guard (authorities investigated the allegation, and rejected it); released, she returned to her husband, and to writing bogus checks.
Keyes arrived at a Denver halfway house in 1980. She had been there a month when she heard rumors she was being sent back to Canon.
“I knew if I went back to Canon something very, very bad might happen. And if I walked away from the halfway house, my life would never, ever be right,” she says, her usually strong voice cracking. “I wouldn’t be able to fight for my children - I wouldn’t even be able to see them.
“But I knew that if I went back (to Canon City) I might not ever be able to see them. So I walked away.”
A family in a book she read on the way to California was named Winthrop, and she took the name. But she couldn’t give up all of herself: “Ever since I was a baby, I’ve been Kerry. To anyone who was close to me, I’m Kerry. I thought, ‘OK, I need to stay with Kerry, because I am Kerry.”’
Kerry Winthrop arrived in San Francisco in 1980 and “I did anything that was honest. Anything to survive.”
In 1985, she became a nanny. She found a place and a family.
“Birthdays and Christmas and all of that were really hard,” she says through tears. “I would just pray that somebody was looking out for the boys.”
In 1990, she took a chance: She returned to St. Louis. By that time, she had mended her relationship with her family, and she contacted her sons, who were raised by their father. She quickly landed a job as a nanny for the son of two doctors.
Then, at 5:30 a.m. on March 8 of this year, the doorbell rang. Kerry Winthrop threw on some sweatpants and slippers and answered the door. An officer said her car had been vandalized - not surprising, since her neighbors had had the same problem a few days earlier.
When she walked out of her house, the St. Charles County sheriff appeared from behind a building and put her in handcuffs.
“Here we go,” she thought. Somebody close to her had given her up, she was told.
Misfortune turns to good luck
Karlene Keyes was wanted on a warrant 17 years old. She was back in the Colorado system by April; as she awaited extradition, “I thought, ‘It can’t be happening.’ But it had.”
But what seemed to be misfortune turned out to be good luck.
She did not rot in prison; in fact, she was paroled in July. And while she sat in the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, waiting for her release, Keyes saw something she didn’t like.
“They had alcohol groups for women, drug groups,” but none for battered women, she says. “I went to my parole officer and said, ‘If I have to stay here, I want to do something worthwhile.’ ”
“She opened the doors by corresponding and developing an interest for a battered women’s program,” says Stephen Rodgers, who was Keyes’ parole officer in the 1970s and is now a case manager at the DRDC.
By giving women counseling and help in becoming independent, “at least it’s a chance they can turn their lives around,” Keyes says.
Keyes also has begun writing a book. “Holding on to Kerry” is for all the women who may be suffering as she did, she says.
She is 45 and living alone in the St. Louis area, and is becoming reacquainted with her sons, now ages 20 to 24. Her ex-husband doesn’t bother her; she’s been hired as a preschool teacher. And she’s able to breathe easily like she never could before.
“It’s over with, it’s all over with. I don’t have to worry about the doorbell ringing, nothing,” she says.
“I can do anything I want. I can get a library card. I can get a drivers license. There are so many things that people take for granted.”