Ballad of the thief and the therapist

Affair: They came from different worlds and met in a prison. And the unlikely pairing of Elizabeth Feil and Byron Smoot became painfully public because of a jailbreak.

June 12, 1999|By Devon Spurgeon | Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

"Ours is a love story not a crime story," Byron Smoot, June 1, 1999

After a long day of counseling patients, Betsy Feil was speeding along the Baltimore Beltway when she heard her pager vibrate. Not an unusual occurrence for the busy psychologist, except that when she glanced down at the display, she saw that the caller was her lover. That was odd. He couldn't page her. He was in prison, and paging their lovers isn't a right afforded those behind bars.

But it was his signal, unmistakably: The digital readout said "007."

When she pulled over and called the number, she learned why he was able to page her.

He was no longer in prison.

He had escaped. In a hushed voice, Byron Smoot told her he and a buddy had wiggled through the barbed wire fence at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup and were outside a liquor store less than a mile from the prison. Now, he needed her.

He had cut himself badly and broken both ankles.

Without pause, Feil leaped back into her Subaru wagon and rushed off toward Jessup. Somewhere in her mind, she knew she was making a momentous decision, that this was the point in her life between Before and After.

But she forced herself to focus only on how she would stop Byron's bleeding.

Twenty minutes later, she pulled into Mel's Liquor, and Smoot, an armed robber, and his bunkmate, murderer Gregory Lee Lawrence, hobbled to her car.

Feil was appalled by Smoot's condition. Blood dripped from his face and soaked his shirt. His flesh looked like tapioca pudding.

The two escapees fell exhausted into her car. As she pulled into traffic, Betsy Feil knew everything had changed.

Her Main Line Philadelphia upbringing, her Ivy League education, her professional standing, all of it would now be seen through a new lens. She would be known as the psychologist who helped her prisoner lover escape.

The counselor on infidelity had also, incidentally, betrayed the man most people believed to be her husband.

The role of counselor

The thief and the therapist first met in the summer of 1997, when Betsy Feil went to work at the Correctional Mental Health Center, where prisoners with severe mental illnesses are treated.

Feil, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, had earned her doctorate the year before from Catholic University in Washington.

To become a licensed psychotherapist in Maryland, Feil needed 2,000 hours of supervised training. The Correctional Mental Health Center is one of the few places she could work and receive hours toward accreditation.

Byron Smoot, a short, voluble thief with fits of grandiosity, had been sent to the center from a prison in Hagerstown where he had been serving a 30-year sentence for 11 armed robberies. The prison system had transferred him there after he tried to kill himself.

Feil was assigned as Smoot's therapist, and for the next nine months they met five days a week.

Their sessions ended abruptly -- because of Feil's relationship with another inmate.

While performing therapy with Smoot, Feil was also seeing the prisoner in the cell next to his, Richard "Crazy Horse" Crowell, a 34-year-old self-described alcoholic who frequently got arrested for barroom brawling.

His dubious distinction in prison was a tattoo. It was supposed to say, "Cold Beer. Hot Women," but the inmate tattoo artist got confused.

So Crowell's forearm reads, "Hot Beer. Cold Women."

Feil's attachment to Crowell became something more than professional, enough so that her bosses forbade her from seeing Crowell anymore. That was not the end of it, however.

Feil established a post office box where Crowell could write to her. He addressed her as "Miss Marbles" because, he said in an interview this week, "her eyes looked like marbles."

When prison officials found out about the correspondence, they fired Feil.

The reason Feil had gotten a post office box was that she didn't want Crowell's letters coming to her home in Annapolis. She shared that house with Glenn Bosshard, an unemployed maker of lady's handbags.

The two had lived together for 11 years and held a marriage ceremony three years ago. But the marriage is not legal: They never got a marriage license for fear that it would reduce Bosshard's disability checks.

About a month after Feil's firing, Crowell got paroled, and the psychologist made her first trip to pick up a former prisoner-in-need. She dropped him off at his friend's house in Annapolis, but the next day, he showed up drunk on her lawn.

Bosshard extracted a promise from Feil: never bring an inmate home again.

Letters from Crowell kept arriving at the post office box, however, and one day Feil discovered a new pen pal: an obviously smitten Smoot.

Crowell recalled that Smoot, 39, was well-liked by other prisoners. He was easy-going and soft-spoken, and he ran laps around the prison yard to stay in shape.

The son of a minister and still married to a Methodist minister, Smoot had converted to Islam. His nickname was Gazu, after a purple Martian from the Flintstones cartoon.

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