By Stephen Deere, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
ST. CHARLES COUNTY, Mo. — The ravines under her eyes have vanished.
Gone, too, is the graying mullet she sported the day of her release.
The prison dentures that fell out of her mouth when she talked have been scrapped for a custom set.
Vicky Williams can finally smile again.
(PHOTO: Vicky Williams, who was released from prison last year after being convicted more than 30 years ago, shows off her new look at an “unveiling” on December 8, 2011, in Creve Cour, Missouri. A group of doctors and a salon gave her plastic surgery and a makeover to help build her confidence back in civilian life.)
Williams’ transformation is almost complete: a face and brow lift, a new hair cut and color, and liposuction.
She bears little resemblance to the woman who left prison more than a year ago. Williams, who was convicted more than 32 years ago for orchestrating a plot to kill her husband, didn’t ask for any of this — in all, $18,000 in plastic surgery and other cosmetic treatments.
It came as a gift from three doctors and a salon owner.
Inspired by reality TV shows such as “The Biggest Loser” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” her benefactors — dubbed the “The Profile Group” — said they wanted to help someone raise her self-confidence by overhauling her appearance.
It seems to be working.
One night last month, Williams, 56, stood in a swanky medical office for her “reveal party.” It was the first time she showed off her new look to the lawyer who won her freedom and the counselors who had helped her for the past year.
“I hope to make you all proud of me,” Williams told the crowd.
She wore a black floral scarf and a dark green pants suit and was surrounded by fancy hors d’oeuvres, bottles of wine and a half-dozen computerized screens that flashed her before-and-after pictures.
But lost in the celebration of her new appearance were unseen changes.
Over the past year, she’s learned that she will never prove her innocence; that her relationship with her daughter is more complex outside prison; and that rebuilding her life is an ongoing project.
Williams was holding her infant son, looking at her husband’s casket when police burst into the Overland funeral home and handcuffed her. Williams’ 6-year-old daughter, Dawn, clung to her mother’s legs as they took her away.
Prosecutors said Williams paid five men $1,000 to ambush her husband, Gilbert Lee Williams, 27, while he worked security at the Spirit of St. Louis Industrial Park in Chesterfield. He was shot multiple times with a .22-caliber rifle.
Vicky Williams, then 24, wanted to leave her husband and worried about getting custody of her children because of a lesbian affair, authorities said. A jury convicted Williams of first-degree murder and sentenced her to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years.
Williams served more than 20 years before the Missouri Battered Women’s Clemency Coalition — a group of lawyers and law students — took up her case, along with those of 10 other women convicted of murdering their spouses.
All the women claimed that their husbands had severely beaten them. The lawyers argued the abuse took place in an era when domestic violence was poorly understood and victims had nowhere to seek help.
Williams had married when she was 16. She said in court filings that her husband often beat her, breaking her ribs, nose and hand. She said he raped her and forced her to bring home sex partners for him.
“There are times when he could be the most loving person in the world and times when he beat the hell out of me,” Williams said. “Half the time, I wouldn’t know what for.”
In 2007 the Clemency Coalition lobbied successfully for a state law to free four of the women still in prison. Others had received clemency or been released on parole.
The law said offenders would be eligible for parole if they had served at least 15 years in prison, had no prior violent felony convictions, had a history of “substantial physical abuse or sexual domestic violence” not presented at trial, and were sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 50 years.
After three hearings, Missouri’s Board of Probation and Parole released Williams in October 2010.
She was free, but still felt the weight of her conviction.
Williams spent her first months of freedom hatching a plan to exonerate herself while she lived in her daughter’s mobile home in O’Fallon, Mo.
She wanted to contact the men involved in her husband’s murder and ask them to testify on her behalf.
But her daughter, now Dawn Kaufman, worried that her mother might violate terms of her parole, or put herself in danger. So Kaufman hid the phone book and instructed her two teenage daughters not to help Williams search the Internet.
“We had to sit down and say, ‘Is this really important?’ ” Kaufman recalled. “Let’s just prove you are not going back.”
Williams’ parole officer sent her to Connections to Success, an organization that helps former inmates, domestic violence victims and others from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Williams’ years in prison were evident in her body language. She couldn’t make eye contact, her shoulders slumped forward. At times, it seemed she wanted to disappear.
At Connections, counselors taught her to stand up straight and look people in the eye. She learned to fill out job applications. Instead of explaining her felony on applications, she wrote four words: “Will discuss at interview.”
It made employers curious enough to talk with her.
She applied for more than 117 jobs before she landed one — stuffing envelopes for a bulk mail distributor in St. Charles County.
It paid $8 an hour, nearly the equivalent of what she made in a month doing landscape work or cooking in prison.
She moved out of Kaufman’s home to a house in an unincorporated area of St. Charles County and bought a 2000 Ford Taurus for $700.
Before long, she received invitations to speak. She spoke at law schools at St. Louis University and the University of Missouri-Columbia and sat on a panel at Connections to Success.
But as Williams gained new confidence, Kaufman felt a distance building between them.
Kaufman said Williams canceled outings with her to attend events with Connections to Success and Project Cope, another group that helps prisoners re-enter society.
Kaufman had spent years working for her mother’s release — writing letters, forgoing time with her children, attending parole board meetings. Now it seemed strangers had more influence in Williams’ life than she did.
Williams acknowledged that the relationship “hasn’t been a fantasy.”
But she said she still talks to Kaufman on the phone every other day.
“My kids are still the most important thing in my life,” Williams said. Her son, Michael Williams, is a master chief petty officer in the Navy and works on a submarine. Vicky Williams saw him over Christmas, the first time since her release.
Dr. Frank Simo, a plastic surgeon and Lilibet Iken, owner of Be Salon and hair restoration, had often talked about giving away a makeover.
Simo and his wife, ReGina, had known Kathy Lambert, Connections to Success co-founder, for years. Last winter, the couple asked Lambert for possible candidates.
“Once we heard Vicky’s story,” ReGina Simo said, “we knew she was the one.”
Eventually, Profile Group also included Dr. Norman Bein, who specializes in treating varicose veins.
When Williams learned last spring she had been chosen for the makeover, she considered rejecting it. “Nothing in life is ever free,” she said. “What were these people wanting from me?”
She thought about it for four months before accepting.
Kaufman is still sorting her feelings about the drastic alterations. She says they make her mother appear more feminine than she is.
“She’ll say to me, ‘I’m going to look younger than you do,’ ” Kaufman said. “I say, ‘You’re not supposed to look younger, I’m your daughter.’ ”
Williams, who earned an associate’s degree in prison, is applying for scholarships to return to school. She plans to enroll in an accelerated program at Lindenwood University and earn a degree in social work.
She is saving for a down payment on a house, where she hopes Kaufman will live with her.
She knows some will always see her as a murderer. She has stopped caring.
“Maybe I’ve started accepting myself,” she said. “On judgment day, I’ll be standing in my own shoes. As long as me and the man upstairs know the truth, it doesn’t matter now. I couldn’t say that a year ago.”