Holding On

Finally, there are no bars keeping couple apart now after more than 40 years of separation

04:12 PM CST on Sunday, February 6, 2005

By DAVID TARRANT / The Dallas Morning News

Shirley Coney waited a lifetime for this day.

Dreamed about it when she waitressed tables at the hotel or cooked dinner at her southeast Dallas home, alone in the kitchen with the photos of her grandchildren taped to the white cabinets and refrigerator.

A day she thought might never come, when her husband, Robert Coney, would leave jail and come home to her, finally.

No more running from the law, no more dashed hopes. A dream they had kept alive more than 43 years.

"Our story should really be a great love story," Robert says. "Still together, still together, after 50 years."

On a sunny afternoon, he sat on his patio with his wife, whom he calls "Babe,  and talked about that love story.

Photo by Michael Ainsworth/Dallas Morning News
Robert and Shirley Coney
Robert and Shirley Coney, together at last. 

She is 65 and he, at 76, is still getting to know the world at a time when most his age are retiring from it. But he knows one thing. He wants to spend what's left of his life with her.

He has pasted love notes all over their white, clapboard home. He writes in big block lettering because his cataracts have left him nearly blind. One note printed neatly on a yellow sheet of legal paper reads: "I Love You Too! Guess Who?"

He says he's "courtin' " her, "trying to make her feel like a teenager again."

But, in some ways, the "courtin' " never stopped. Shirley has kept bundles of letters the couple have written over the years, which she has carefully tied up with pink ribbons.

The letters, with mailing addresses from prisons in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, help chronicle a tale as tangled and murky as the boggy trails of the bayou and played out against the backdrop of smothering Jim Crow racism and desperate times.

In 1962, Robert, then 33, got a life sentence for a robbery he insists he didn't commit. He fought the conviction, never knowing that an appeal he filed in 1973, which alleged that his confession was beaten out of him, had been successful. But the court order setting aside his life sentence had been lost somewhere between the courts and the prison system.

The life sentence set Robert on an odyssey of escapes and recaptures. Each time he went back to prison, he sought to escape, once nearly drowning while attempting a midnight crossing of the Mississippi River and narrowly avoiding disaster when a deputy's pistol misfired at point-blank range.

The escapes inevitably failed. Authorities always knew where he was heading.

"It was always Shirley or die," he says. "What's the use of taking a chance on your life if you can't be with the people you love?"

In his youth

Robert Coney grew up in the small town of Many, La., just east of what is now Toledo Bend Reservoir. At 16, he added two years to his birthday to enlist in the Navy. He served in the last months of World War II in the ammunition hold of a destroyer escort. He got a medical discharge in 1946.

A few years later, he re-enlisted in the Army under an alias, Roland Smith, because he thought his Navy medical discharge would disqualify him. He wound up in Korea, where he was briefly captured by North Korean guerrillas. He escaped after 17 days and ended up in a stateside hospital.

It was the first of many escapes he'd make over the years.

When he first met her in 1954, Shirley Mae Stewart was a tall, slender 14-year-old from Baton Rouge, La., with long curls, flashing eyes and a sweet smile. He was 11 years older, a confident young soldier on a weekend pass from nearby Fort Polk.

"I talked to her mom about her," he says. "Her mom wanted me to wait until she was older, and I did. I respected that."

He came back for her three years later, and they lived together in common-law marriage.

By the early 1960s, the Coneys were living in Dallas with their son Robert, nicknamed "Rick." In 1962, the older Robert was convicted of driving the getaway car in a grocery store robbery. In later appeals, he claimed it was a case of mistaken identity but falsely confessed to the crime after Angelina County deputies smashed a cell door against his hand.

Robert was given a life sentence, a verdict enhanced by previous convictions for forging and passing bad checks.

He went to prison on March 19, 1962. Less than two months later, according to prison records, he escaped. He says he bribed a guard with $1,500 that he borrowed from a friend on the outside. The friend, now deceased, drove him to the Louisiana border. From there, Robert waded across the Sabine River and walked to Many, about 80 miles away.

After borrowing a car, he picked up his wife and son in Baton Rouge, where they had gone to live with her family. They drove to Denver, where he found work in a chop shop, an auto yard where stolen cars are altered for black-market sale or dismantled for parts. He kept the work a secret from his family, only telling them that he was doing temporary day jobs for labor services.

"I always kept everything away from the family," he says. "I didn't want them involved."

After a few months, he was "snitched out" and returned to prison.

Court records show he subsequently did stints in a federal lockup for auto theft, in Mississippi for assault, and in the Louisiana state penitentiary, where he went to jail in 1968, for passing counterfeit checks – 11 checks for two dollars each.

"What does that tell you? I wasn't trying to buy a Lamborghini or a fur coat. That was just to put food on the table," he says. For that offense, he received 44 years in the Louisiana state penitentiary.

He escaped again, swimming across the Mississippi River, which curls like a winding snake near the Angola prison. "I had to cross the river three times," he says. "I didn't think I was going to make it."

Each time he emerged from the water, he heard barking dogs from the search parties. Near dawn, he was discovered under some brush, where he had fallen asleep.

A security officer, his pistol drawn, ordered Robert to turn around and put his hands on his head. That's when he felt the gun barrel against his skull.

"I heard the click," he says. Exhausted and confused, he didn't comprehend what happened until later, when the officer told him he was lucky the pistol had jammed.

On another escape attempt, he inadvertently involved Shirley.

He asked her to deliver a letter to a friend of his but warned her not to open it. Suspecting he had a girlfriend, she opened the letter, which asked the friend to smuggle Robert some hacksaw blades. She bought a package of blades and gave them to the friend. For that she was found guilty as an accessory and served nine months in prison.

Running away was only digging him a deeper hole. So he decided to quit running. He credits a federal judge with helping him come to that decision. In the early 1980s, U.S. Magistrate Jerry Davis of Mississippi told him that he had to "clear the books," or else he'd always be looking over his shoulder, Robert recalls.

But to clear the books, he would have to serve many years in prison. And that would be too hard on his wife. So he told her to forget about him, to stop writing and visiting. And he did something he had never done before. He stopped writing to her.

Eventually, Shirley lost touch with him. She remarried, but it lasted only a few years. After years of not hearing from him, she assumed the worst, she says.

"I thought he was dead."

Back in her life

The copy of The Dallas Morning News sat on the floor of her house unread for three or four days while Shirley worked double shifts at her waitressing job at a Dallas hotel. Finally, on that morning in early March two years ago when she didn't have to work, she picked up the newspaper. Her eyes soon rested on a familiar name in a brief article about an old man who was being sent back to prison in Texas more than 40 years after his escape.

Shirley shouted to her son, who was also home that day. "I said, 'Rick, Rick, guess who's in the news?' "

She dashed off a letter to Robert. A friend at work asked what she would do if he didn't write back.

"Oh, he'll write back," she said. "And then he'll keep writing and writing every day."

Sure enough, over the course of the next 18 months, they wrote hundreds of letters to each other, nearly every day.

He had no money, no attorney, no cards to play. He had only one person in his corner: Shirley.

"Happy Birthday," she wrote on July 8, 2004, when he turned 76. "Ba," she continued, using her nickname for him, "these days seem like a year. I am so afraid of leaving the house because you might call ... You know I love you so much. I can hardly wait. I will try to make you the best wife in the world ... Love forever, Shirley."

Together they wrote letters to lawyers and legal aid organizations all over Texas. One of them landed on the desk of David O'Neil, a lawyer in Huntsville. Every year, his law firm gets hundreds of wrenching letters from inmates asking for help. But the one from Robert, which arrived in the spring of 2003, stood apart.

Mr. O'Neil, an ex-Marine, was taken by the plight of Robert, a fellow veteran who had fought in two wars for his country.

"I spent 21 years in the Marine Corps, and I get a letter from a man who fought in World War II, who fought in the Korean War," Mr. O'Neil said.

"He didn't say it. But I could read between the lines. Here's a black man going back to the South. He couldn't find work. He gained dignity in the service. He got some stature. Went back to the South trying to support his family, and he couldn't make it happen. He turned to a life of crime. Writing checks and such to support his family," the attorney says.

"We've seen this after every war, the problems the veterans have. Here's a black veteran returning to the South. I figured we owed it to him."

Robert finally got a break in the summer of 2004. State District Judge David Wilson, responding to a court filing, started investigating the Coney case and found an old court order from 1973, setting aside the life sentence against Robert, which had been lost.

Judge Wilson found reason to believe Robert's allegations that he did not have adequate legal representation and that his confession could have been falsely obtained by beatings. The judge wrote that the sheriff and his deputies "were known for obtaining confessions by physical force."

Both the sheriff and the judge involved in the case are dead. But the district attorney at the time, Hulon Brown, adamantly denies Robert's version of events.

"I never heard of anything like that," says Mr. Brown, 84, who is in private practice in Jacksonville, Texas. Judge Wilson never conferred with him, Mr. Brown says.

In cases where defendants admitted guilt, Mr. Brown did not rely just on the confession, he says. "I would put him on the stand. You question him about it. And you satisfy yourself that he did it. He took the stand, and believe me I put him through the mill."

Mr. Brown says he believes Judge Wilson "just got carried away," with his findings and "made a hero out of a felon. That's what it appears to me."

Judge Wilson said his findings weren't done in haste. "I didn't do this in one setting. I dug into this thing."

On Aug. 10, Robert's case was dismissed, and he walked out of a Lufkin jail, with Shirley at his side.

Wedding day

A few weeks later, the Coneys were formally married in a ceremony at the downtown Dallas office of John DeJean, a legal aide who was helping with Robert's case.

The old veteran signed up to get medical benefits through the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center and slowly but surely began adjusting to life on the outside.

His big worry was that he still tended to take short steps, a product of years of walking with chains around his ankles. "I'm afraid that if I cross the street, the police will think I'm drunk and arrest me," he said one day, only half joking.

But there was no happy ending – yet.

In early December, the Coneys were returning home after a routine visit to the VA hospital. They were met in front of their house by U.S. marshals, holding an old fugitive warrant for Robert. In 1959, he had walked off a Georgia prison farm, where he had been serving an eight- to 10-year sentence for writing forged checks. He was arrested and taken to Dallas County jail.

They had been looking forward to spending their first Christmas together in many years. Instead, they reverted to an old pattern, with Shirley visiting him in jail every Sunday morning – including the day after Christmas.

"We just say we love each other and tell each other he'll be out soon," a teary Shirley said after a mid-January visit to the jail.

And, it turned out, they were right.

On Friday, Jan. 21, he walked out of the jail, where he was met with a big hug from his wife. Robert, who has diabetes, a heart condition and cataracts, was granted a medical reprieve while waiting for the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles to rule on his clemency appeal.

With his arm around his wife, and wearing an American Legion cap, he stood on the steps of the Lew Sterrett Justice Center for an impromptu news conference.

"I believe this is an example of your country and my country doing the right thing," he said.

Later, in the legal offices of Mr. DeJean, the Coneys sat on a couch, patiently talking to news reporters. During the interviews, they kept their hands clasped tightly, like teenagers on a first date.

Shirley, who was mostly quiet during the interviews, was asked why she had stuck with Robert for so long and through so much. Her answer came quick and sure.

"Because he loves me. And after all these years, we found out nobody else will do."

E-mail dtarrant@dallasnews.com

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