It’s started again. Sixteen years ago, another ‘Toby Young’ kept appearing in my email inbox. I’d created a Google Alert telling the search engine to send me an email every time my name popped up on the internet, but this Toby turned out to be a 47-year-old woman who was running the dog rehabilitation programme at a correctional facility in Leavenworth, Kansas. The reason she hit the headlines is because she fell in love with John Manard, a 25-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for murder, and smuggled him out of the prison in a dog crate. They went on the lam together for 12 days and were the subject of a nationwide manhunt – manna from tabloid heaven. After they were caught, Manard went back to his cell and Toby was sentenced to 27 months.
I thought I’d seen the last of my namesake, but this week she starting cropping up again in my Google Alerts. Turns out, an American cable channel has made a film about the unlikely couple as part of its ‘ripped from the headlines’ series. Jailbreak Lovers stars Catherine Bell as the married, church-going dog lady and Tom Stevens as the red-headed killer. To coincide with the film’s debut, Toby has written a book called Living With Conviction: Unexpected Sisterhood, Healing, and Redemption in the Wake of Life-Altering Choices which she’s energetically promoting. Her website – Escape Your Prison – says she’s available to give after--dinner speeches.
It would be easy to mock this other Toby Young, but the more I learn about her, the more sympathetic she seems. She describes herself as a rule follower, the type of person who would stop and count to three whenever she encountered a ‘Stop’ sign in her car. She married her high-school sweetheart at 20 – the only boy she’d ever kissed – and raised two sons, never missing a high-school game they were playing in. She was a pillar of the community who’d always done everything expected of her – until she met John Manard.
‘He stopped directly in my path, eclipsing the blazing autumn sun, which created a dazzling crown of light,’ she writes, describing their first meeting in the prison. ‘He offered his hand and with a deep drawl he announced: “I’m John Manard. I’d like to be your next dog handler.”’
One day she got into an argument with another prisoner, who she thought was about to hit her, and Manard came to her rescue, squaring up to the man and telling him to go back to his cell. After that, Manard was allowed to serve as her bodyguard whenever she visited the prison, and the two became close. He would compliment her, saying nice things about her clothes and hair, and she enjoyed the attention. She felt invisible to her firefighter husband after 27 years of marriage and it was intoxicating to be noticed again.
In the TV mini-series Escape at Dannemora, which is based on a true story, Patricia Arquette plays a middle-aged prison employee who is manipulated by two inmates who feign romantic interest to persuade her to help them escape. But Manard’s interest in Toby appears to have been genuine. As he pointed out to a journalist, he didn’t ditch her once he’d gained his freedom, but remained shacked up with her in a wood cabin until they were caught. That, in turn, makes Toby more appealing. She wasn’t duped by a psychopath; this was a genuine love affair.
She paid a heavy price for following her heart. Her husband filed for divorce before she stood trial, and her two sons refused to speak to her. Her father, who had stage-four bladder cancer, died eight weeks after her arrest, and her mother and some of her siblings blamed her for his death. Her mother visited her almost every week in prison, and she remained on good terms with her two brothers, but her relationship with her four sisters proved irreparable.
The story has a happy ending. She met and married another man and has turned her notoriety into a business opportunity, teaching courses to other women trapped in loveless marriages, although she doesn’t advise them to follow her example.
And this goes to the heart of what makes her story so compelling. Like many people, she was leading a life of quiet desperation; but instead of resigning herself to it, she saw an opportunity to break free and seized it. What she did was reckless and irresponsible and caused many of those closest to her a good deal of pain. But it also took courage, and for that I salute her.