PULASKI, Tenn., Oct. 19 — Linda McElroy was tightly woven into the fabric of this city for three decades. Embraced by her new in-laws after she moved from Indiana, she was always quick with a kind word or a helping hand in troubled times.
And so friends and neighbors were astonished when word raced through Pulaski a week ago that Ms. McElroy, 64, had been keeping a secret: She once was known as Linda Darby and had been a fugitive since her escape in 1972 from an Indiana prison while serving a life sentence for murdering her husband.Ms. McElroy’s arrest this month and the revelations about her past have left residents here in disbelief that the woman in the news is the same neighbor who baby-sat for their children, cleaned their homes, and called to check on people.
Virginia Gordon, who grew up with Ms. McElroy’s in-laws in Pulaski, chatted weekly with Ms. McElroy and had talked with her for hours on the Friday before her arrest.“She was really nice and really kind,” said Ms. Gordon, 85. “She would never hurt anything. She would call and check on me. We really love her, and I really hate this.
According to Indiana authorities, Ms. McElroy was convicted of first-degree murder in March 1970 and sentenced to life in prison for shooting her husband, Charles Darby, whose body had been set afire in their home.
Before Ms. McElroy was returned to Indiana last week, she declined an interview request through Sheriff Kyle Helton of Giles County. In an earlier interview with a Nashville television station, she admitted fleeing but denied killing Mr. Darby. “I would love to know who killed Charles,” she told the station, WSMV. “I would love to know, and I would love to see them punished. But I didn’t kill him.”
In 1972, she escaped over a fence at the Indiana Women’s Prison. She met Willie McElroy Jr., whom family members called Junior, at a home where she sought refuge, explaining that she had been beaten and bloodied by a boyfriend.
Mr. McElroy brought her to Pulaski, a city about 75 miles south of Nashville where he had grown up. She took his name and calls him her husband, but Pulaski authorities say they have been unable to find evidence that the couple actually married.
The couple had two children and ran a second-hand shop. At some point, they apparently separated, although the couple remained close, friends said.
Ms. McElroy worked hard, cleaning houses during the day and sitting with a housebound elderly couple in the evening.
Then, on Oct. 12, police cars arrived on the street. A neighbor, Martha Slater, watched as Ms. McElroy was taken out of the house and put into a patrol car. It was only later that Ms. Slater found out why her neighbor was in custody.
“I was just flabbergasted about that,” she said.
Indiana authorities found Ms. McElroy by cross-referencing data on fugitives with people from around the country who had been in contact with police. She had never been charged with a crime in Tennessee, but Indiana authorities could gain access to information about her because she had once been a witness in an assault and been involved in a “domestic situation,” said Joel Robison, the police detective in Pulaski who investigated and arrested her.
She was held in the county jail before being transferred Friday to Indiana, the sheriff’s department said.
Mr. McElroy, reached by phone, declined to comment other than to say, “I’m going to go back to Indiana to reopen the case.”
Pulaski residents, meanwhile, are divided. Some say she should face justice in Indiana; others believe she is innocent. Some say that there is no reason to return her to prison after decades as a model citizen. There is talk of a fund-raising drive on Ms. Mc Elroy's behalf and a letter-writing campaign to petition for clemency.
Either way, her sudden departure has left a gap in Pulaski, according to Linda Gilbert, an acquaintance of Ms. McElroy. “When she came in, she just fell in place. She was just family,” Ms. Gilbert said. “It felt like now, part of the family’s been taken away.”