Last winter, a wedding invitation from Bhutan arrived in the mailbox at Sally Uhlmann’s pink 1928 villa in Mission Hills. A close friend of Uhlmann’s, the son of the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (the first man to conquer Mount Everest, in 1953), was marrying a member of the Bhutan royal family. At the last minute, Uhlmann opted out of the spring-break trip to Washington, D.C., she had planned to take with her husband and two sons. She called her closest girlfriends, Deb Fischbach of Orlando and Sherry Stein of Santa Fe, to see if they wanted to spend a month trekking in Nepal — one of Uhlmann’s favorite pastimes.
“I think part of me lives in Nepal. I find myself being there in my mind and in my dreams constantly,” Uhlmann says, reliving the journey.
The trip got off to a hectic start. Fischbach had nearly backed out when she had a panic attack as she was about to board her plane in Orlando; she went home and called Uhlmann, who insisted she find a way to go. So Fischbach caught a flight through Amsterdam and met up with the other two women in Bangkok. The three set off for Kathmandu, where they would meet a staff of 13 Sherpa guides and porters arranged for by the Norgays.
On the third day, in a remote part of the Annapurna range, the group spent all morning on a grueling climb of about 2,000 feet in 90-degree heat. They finally reached a plateau at about 13,000 feet.
“When we finally took off our day packs and turned around, all three of us, in unison, just gasped,” Uhlmann remembers. “You could look down to the river gorge we had climbed up, and across the river were all these mustard fields completely in bloom, like a patchwork quilt of amazing yellows mixed with green. And the river gorge was (filled by) a glacier-fed stream that gave it this opaque jade green color, and there was a Hindu temple all painted in blues and reds and that same mustard yellow. The skies were pristine, and the mountains — it was just this panoramic vista.
“We were just giddy with the sight, but Deb was just bawling her eyes out.”
“Chantal,” Fischbach was saying, “Chantal will be too old and institutionalized when she gets out and she’ll never see this. It’s just so beautiful, and Chantal will never see it.”
Fischbach couldn’t stop crying. Her emotions had been heightened by the extreme temperature changes between night and day, the physical strain of the uneven rocks and sheer step-ups, the isolation, the mortal danger of a misstep or a rockslide — and the beauty. Distraught, she felt overwhelming guilt for being on such an adventure while her close friend Chantal McCorkle suffered in prison in Tallahassee, malnourished and cold, with rancid food and violent cellmates — including one woman who had microwaved her own baby.
Now 32, Chantal had moved from England to Florida in 1988 to work as a nanny. She soon met William McCorkle, a former exotic dancer and aspiring local politician who made money buying and reselling government-foreclosed properties. When William McCorkle decided to use televangelist-style techniques to sell his get-rich-quick program, he formed Cashflow System Inc. and started filming 30-minute infomercials that ran on late-night TV in cities all over the country. Chantal appeared by his side, showing off fancy homes, sleek limousines, and helicopters bearing the McCorkle name. The couple eventually made more than $40 million off the infomercial deals.
People who bought his $69 book and video kit, McCorkle claimed, could earn $10,000 in just 30 days. But when his plan didn’t work for them, some of his customers complained that they could not get refunds and were constantly put on hold when they called the company. Others complained that McCorkle rarely followed through on his offer to put up the cash and split the profits if a customer found a “good deal.” The U.S. government got involved, charging that McCorkle used rented props and hired actors to pose as satisfied customers and that the couple hid $7 million in a bank account in the Cayman Islands. In November 1998, the McCorkles were convicted of 150 counts of fraud and money laundering. Both are serving 24 years without parole in federal prison.
Throughout the ordeal, Fischbach had spoken to Chantal McCorkle twice a day. The two had been close — they call each other “sis” — ever since McCorkle had enrolled in Fischbach’s Jazzercise class when she first moved to the United States. Fischbach and McCorkle had planned many trips together, and now it looked as if they would never take them. Fischbach didn’t believe her friend had done anything wrong.
“When I went on the trip, I felt that I was letting her down. I felt terrible. My heart was with Chantal,” Fischbach says.
So she cried when she saw the rural villagers in Nepal dressed in beautiful saris. When a little boy took the women on a tour and showed them his baby sister, she cried — because Chantal desperately wants to someday have children. When she saw mangy, scruffy dogs, she cried because Chantal loves animals and would rescue stray kittens or bleeding dogs that had been hit by cars.
“We always talked about the cats and the dogs first. And fitness — we loved to work out. We would go spinning together and we’d have a protein shake at the juice bar, then we’d go to work for our husbands,” Fischbach says. “She worked for William, and I worked for my husband at the ranch. And we had a little shopping problem. Once in a while we’d go to Saks and have a girl day … I’m talking shoes. And when we walked in, we had the attention of every salesperson in the place. They knew Chantal could buy anything and they knew I had a bad thing with shoes.”
When Chantal went to prison, Fischbach was shocked and felt guilty for not encouraging her to settle with prosecutors. Chantal’s husband and their famous attorney, F. Lee Bailey, had promised her she wouldn’t have to spend a night in jail.
For months before their trek to Nepal, Sally Uhlmann had been ignoring Fischbach’s pleading e-mails about Chantal’s case. She did not own a television, Uhlmann told Fischbach, and had no sympathy for someone who had been charged with infomercial fraud and had probably bilked poor, ignorant people in order to lead a glamorous lifestyle.
She told Fischbach her life was too hectic anyway — with being on the board of the Kansas City Zoo and involved with the Science City project, doing yoga, gardening, writing for Kansas City Magazine and Home Design, taking care of sons who were 8 and 12, and entertaining — to spend a minute worrying about such a person.
But in Nepal, Uhlmann gave in.
“Finally, I said, ‘Okay, Deb, tell me about Chantal,'” Uhlmann says with a sigh.
Fischbach tried to paint a picture for Uhlmann. Not of a conniving infomercial queen swindling the elderly and the infirm with shady deals and deceit but a beautiful, magnetic woman who got no help from her husband and a raw deal from cunning federal prosecutors who wanted to seize the McCorkles’ millions.
“She just has a beautiful, kind, compassionate heart, and she kind of vibrates lots of energy around her,” Fischbach explains. “All she does is listen, and when she talks with you, she stares deep into your eyes. There could be a hundred people running around behind you and her eyes never stray from yours. They stay right there with you. She always reaches out and grabs your hand, and when she starts talking, she starts going on and she’s laughing and she tilts her head back and laughs these deep, wonderful laughs, where people will look over and smile. It’s kind of electrical. She is like a very old spirit with a very youthful mind. You feel really peaceful and happy and safe around her — it’s a good place to be. She listens, connects, makes you feel really special and important.”
Fischbach remembers that when the McCorkle business grew to 400 employees, Chantal delighted in baking cakes for them, handling the lunches, and organizing elaborate Halloween and Christmas parties. Her other task was to keep everything organized. She cared for rescued kittens at work.
“I’d go into her office sometimes and Chantal wouldn’t be there. Then she’d pop up from underneath the desk — and she’s in a beautiful suit — with an eye dropper in hand, and she’d be hand-feeding these little kittens. She had brand-new carpeting, and they’d throw up all over the carpet and she’d just carry on, take them to the vet to get their shots, and try to find homes for them.”
Fischbach had a strategy for telling Uhlmann Chantal’s story. “I just kept feeding her little bits and she took the bait,” she says.
The women parted ways after the trek, and Uhlmann headed off to the wedding in Bhutan. She told Fischbach that she would at least look into the case when she returned to Kansas City.
“But I’m not promising anything,” she said.
When Uhlmann returned home from Bhutan, she still wasn’t sure she wanted to devote much time to learning about Chantal’s case. But, keeping the promise she’d made to Fischbach, she began looking through news articles about the case and reading copies of court documents. Then Uhlmann started telling her husband, Robert, a Harvard MBA who invented computer hardware and software that monitors radio and TV airwaves, about the case.
“So I go for long walks with my husband, who is the most conservative person in the world. And he is totally into research and no-nonsense, a completely nonfiction kind of guy. So on these walks I start telling him about this case and how it just doesn’t make sense to me and how it’s really starting to disturb me. So he plays the devil’s advocate and, after about a month, he starts going online and doing his research. And he comes back and he says this is a case that never should have gone to trial. It should have been settled. They should have been fined and over.”
It was enough to convince her that McCorkle should not be in jail.
“So I told Deb, ‘Okay, I’m hooked. It’s time to figure out what’s going on here.’ Deb told Chantal to write me. I wrote her back and said, ‘My plate is completely full. I don’t need to get involved in any more things. I’ve made a great discipline and habit of learning how to say no. And I am now emotionally hooked into this story, because too many things don’t go together and too many things are really upsetting to me. So I’m willing to take it to the next step, but we have to have an understanding. If I’m going to start spending my time on this, if I’m going to try to figure out how to get you out of this nightmare, I have to know that you’re going to listen to what I have to say. That I’m not going to spend lots of time and energy setting something up and you’re going to say no.'”
Before the women ever met, Uhlmann told Chantal what to do about her marriage.
“I said, ‘The first thing is, you’ve got to divorce William. You’ve got to divorce this man. The reason you are in prison is because of him. Point blank. Case closed. He never once, to his lawyers or the prosecutors or the judge or anyone, said, ‘This is my business. My wife had nothing to do with it. She signed documents at my direction and I will take whatever punishment you want, but what do we have to do to make sure she doesn’t get pulled down with me?'”
Uhlmann asked Chantal whether she was willing to divorce McCorkle. “She wrote back and she said, ‘I’ve been knowing in my heart this is coming. I’ve been preparing myself for this. Yes. I’m ready to do it.’ So then I said, ‘Okay, we have to figure out a plan of action. We have to set a goal and figure out how we get there.'”
At the end of July of this year, Uhlmann flew to Florida to visit Fischbach, but they weren’t able to get into the federal prison in Tallahassee. Chantal still had not met Uhlmann in person, but that didn’t deter her from seeking Uhlmann’s approval on how to sever her marital ties. Chantal’s diary entry from July 27 reads: “At 9 a.m., I had called Deb’s and spoke with Sally…. I read her the letter I wrote to Wm. And she said it sounded good and to send it out…. I sent the letter to Wm. And I feel scared. I hate to hurt anyone … today I took off my wedding ring also. Oh, Lord, I pray I am doing the right thing, please help me, Lord!”
Uhlmann and Fischbach went through more court files. Uhlmann decided that they had to aim for a presidential pardon, since McCorkle had been sentenced under federal mandatory minimums and only a small percentage of those cases get overturned on appeal.
“I told Chantal that everything needs a mission statement — one sentence that sums up what you’re all about. So, I said, our mission statement is to focus on the five P’s: to position yourself with the public and the press to gain a presidential pardon. I just realized that really, her hope is a presidential pardon. And the Dalai Lama, his Holiness the Dalai Lama, says something so profound. He says if Tibet will ever be free of Chinese occupation, it will be because of the American women. He says there is no force on earth as strong, as powerful as American women. It’s fantastic, but it’s also very, very true.”
By the time Uhlmann left Florida, she was behind the cause.
“I had come from a point of being so negative toward Chantal and so skeptical of the whole thing, to the point of being so hooked in and realizing that her case epitomizes so many of the wrongs and injustices in our country — so many of the abuses from the government, of taxpayers’ dollars, of efforts and energy.”
The bond was sealed in August when Uhlmann met Chantal for the first time. Uhlmann and Fischbach managed to get Uhlmann on Chantal’s phone and visitors’ list, and set up five-hour blocks of time on a Sunday and Monday. Uhlmann was driven by a deep curiosity about Chantal and says she immediately “fell in love with her as a human being.”
Chantal says she instantly adored Uhlmann as well.
“I felt like I knew her,” Chantal tells Pitch Weekly from jail. “We hugged and kissed and talked and cried and held hands. We were like three girls — we could totally share everything. I don’t know what I’d do without her now. Before I met Sally, I was eating and sleeping all the time. I gained 11 pounds. I didn’t want to get up in the morning. She’s been like a godsend to me. She’s giving me hope to go on, hope that one day I’ll be free.”
The admiration was mutual.
“Chantal is so positive and cheerful, and when she smiles or when something tickles her funny bone, when she’s engaged, everything about her lights up in a way that the entire chemistry around her is changed,” Uhlmann says. “And I realized that she’s like a true, living Buddha, that she’s like this angel that has fallen to earth. And for her to be in such horrible, horrible circumstances and for her to still have this inner strength and this glow, all of a sudden I understood why Deb, who’s this woman I respect so much and care about, had been fighting so much for Chantal. Then the connection was made, and here we were, Deb and Chantal and I, these three women, just sitting in the visiting area of federal prison, holding hands, just bawling our eyes out.”
Fischbach remembers that when it was time for Uhlmann to meet Chantal, Fischbach “kept praying: ‘If they don’t have a connection it’s all over.’ When they met, it was instant. They were deeply connected in a very spiritual way, a deep female bonding. Everyone was tingling and just feeling a big, beautiful surge of energy. I just think of the dynamics between Chantal, Sally, and me as the perfect triangle: We are all in different places, but we’re all so connected. There’s just a very good flow.”
The jury never had a chance to make that same kind of connection with Chantal, Uhlmann and Fischbach say, because F. Lee Bailey and Chantal’s husband advised her to keep her mouth shut and look “like a million bucks” for the trial. Fischbach believes Chantal wouldn’t be sitting in jail today if she had presented herself differently.
“William is so strong and had her completely spellbound. Her attorneys and all these men told her, ‘Chantal, you will never spend one night in prison.’ She believed that so much that the last night, when they were waiting for the jury to come back, she hadn’t even made arrangements for her cats,” Fischbach says, lamenting the fact that Chantal presented a far too glamorous image to the blue-collar jurors.
“Imagine if you were a hardworking person with four kids, divorced, and you see Chantal, perfectly manicured, Chanel suit, hair and nails done, absolutely beautiful. You’re going to instantly hate her. But if she had gotten to talk, and worn a regular pants and shirt, nothing snazzy …” Fischbach says with a sigh.
Uhlmann is determined to get Chantal’s story out to the public. Her second action, after convincing Chantal to file for divorce, was to get Chantal to sign over the rights to her life story.
“Robert said, ‘She needs to give you the rights to sign all the deals, negotiate all the contracts, and (specify) that you own her story.’ He said, ‘You can’t go any further until you have this piece of paper.’ So I talked to her about it. I said, ‘This is what my husband says we have to do. To me it sounds like a big, scary thing for you to do. Are you up for doing this?’ and she said yes.” Uhlmann says Chantal was relying on Fischbach’s assurances about Uhlmann’s character. “Remember, she’s known Deb for 10 years and Deb’s telling her, ‘Sally’s got plenty of money. She’s not in this for the money — believe me, you couldn’t hire her, you couldn’t pay her to do it. She’s not there to rip you off in any way, shape, or form, so if she says she needs this to progress, you need to do it.'”
Uhlmann contacted a family friend who had worked in Hollywood for 30 years, had headed the made-for-TV movies division of CBS, and now worked for Universal. He advised her that no one in the business worked with unknown writers and told her she should write an “as told to” autobiography, which could then become the basis for a screenplay. She showed him pages from Chantal’s diaries, and he encouraged her to move ahead with the project.
“He said, ‘This is unbelievable. This is a story of the times. This is the best cautionary tale and it hits so many levels, so many different issues,'” Uhlmann says.
Uhlmann told Chantal to send all her journals, and she started sending Chantal questions about characters and events in her life. Chantal now sends her journal entries daily.
Chantal began keeping detailed journals starting on May 9, 1997, the day more than 40 federal agents raided the McCorkles’ million-dollar home. Chantal’s “mum” was visiting from England so she could go on a Mother’s Day cruise with her daughter. Uhlmann read thousands of pages of her journals and assigned Chantal writing projects to tell about various episodes in her life. She also convinced Chantal to talk to the American press, though Chantal had little faith in the media that had portrayed her as a glamour queen and a swindler. But she had talked extensively with British press, and London’s Daily Mail championed her as “The British Girl for Whom the American Dream Became a Living Nightmare.”
After Dateline aired one segment about Chantal without interviewing her, Uhlmann convinced Chantal to talk to the program’s producers for an hourlong special. Uhlmann is now working eight hours a day on Chantal’s autobiography.
Chantal Watts was born in Slough, Berkshire, England, about an hour west of London. Her mother, a dental hygienist who also ran a mobile food canteen, left the family when Chantal was 7, and Chantal took over the ironing, laundry, cooking, and mothering of her 3-year-old sister. Her father, whom she adored, ran a silk-screen printing business, making posters and T-shirts. She was devastated when he committed suicide in 1994 because of financial problems.
When a friend of her father’s moved to the United States, Chantal decided to visit and work as a nanny for six weeks. To pay for plane fare and earn spending money, she waited tables and cleaned offices. In America, Chantal met William McCorkle, and when her visa expired he told authorities the two were engaged. They married in a rush in 1989, and friends described them as in love and happy.
McCorkle, who in photos looks like Chantal’s father, was dark, muscular, and attractive; he was charismatic and somewhat evangelical in manner. His business acumen had been apparent even as a D student in high school, when he created an escort service for students who needed dates to the senior prom. When Chantal met him, he was only a few years older than she and already had a Porsche and a real-estate business.
Friends did not know it, but McCorkle was at times a jealous, even abusive husband. He refused to let Chantal go out with friends at night unless he went along, and he erupted in a rage when she spent $13 on a Christmas turkey before his business took off. The two looked like a fun, glamorous couple, getting dressed up to go to a Mike Tyson match and training for triathlons. Chantal volunteered at the local humane society on weekends and would sit outside of pet stores trying to get cats adopted.
At 21, she was trying to make a success out of a little real-estate magazine she owned, which advertised “for sale by owner” homes. Sometimes she worked 13-hour days. McCorkle would occasionally ask her to appear in his infomercials, taking advantage of her blonde beauty and soft British accent. He would pick out her clothes, tell her when to show up, and hand her a script.
Though she was not involved in daily operations at the company, Chantal was listed as president and had to sign all company documents; McCorkle’s credit had been destroyed when one of his businesses went bankrupt years earlier. Early in their marriage, they struggled to make money, sometimes sleeping on the floor at friends’ homes or finagling a deal to live in a home while helping to sell it.
In 1996, McCorkle’s business, Cashflow System Inc., started to take off, and Chantal went to work with him. The business grew from six employees to more than 400, and they moved to new office space. Chantal set up a canteen for the employees, putting to use what she had learned in catering school in England.
According to Chantal, the company moved to the new office so fast that it couldn’t get the right phone systems installed. Because customers couldn’t get through to ask for refunds, they complained to the state attorney general, who filed subpoenas against the business.
But the federal government later contended that the situation was much worse than a simple phone debacle and that McCorkle hated to give refunds and would avoid doing so any way he could. Though he sold thousands of kits a day, U.S. Attorney Paul Byron argued, McCorkle imposed a limit of 10 refunds per day and gave priority to complaints from the Better Business Bureau and the Florida Attorney General’s office. One former employee testified that while there was no clear policy on refunds, sometimes refunds he had processed were deleted from the computer.
Chantal says she never knew anything was wrong with the business and that she personally knew people who had made tens of thousands — even hundreds of thousands of dollars — using McCorkle’s system. And, she adds, the federal government never charged that the system did not work. The McCorkles are appealing their convictions on the basis that satisfied customers were not permitted to testify on their behalf because of a ruling that only customers who had telephoned the company to ask questions could testify.
When the Florida attorney general began investigating customer complaints, McCorkle hired F. Lee Bailey to defend him. Bailey came straight from the O.J. Simpson case and received $2 million for his work with the McCorkles, and his wife was dying of pancreatic cancer at the same time as he was handling the McCorkle case. The distracted Bailey conferred with the state attorney general and helped McCorkle set up a $2 million fund to provide quick refunds for dissatisfied customers.
Bailey also advised McCorkle to hire a chief executive officer. But after an argument with McCorkle, the new CEO went to the U.S. attorney general to report fraud. Soon afterward, the government obtained forfeiture and racketeering liens against the McCorkles’ property. In May, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and other government agencies stormed the McCorkles’ home and seized their bank accounts, cars, jewelry, and credit cards. McCorkle asked if they were closing down his business, but the agents told him no and that he could continue operations the following day.
Chantal says McCorkle told her not to worry, that it was all a mistake. For the next year, the company continued operating as it had been.
The couple were vacationing in Mexico when Bailey called with news that indictments had come down, charging them with fraud and money laundering. Ten of McCorkle’s companies were also indicted. The two flew back to Orlando and turned themselves in at the federal courthouse. Chantal was handcuffed and shackled, strip searched, and transported to the county jail. The judge set bond at $3 million — exactly the amount of money sitting in the bank in the Cayman Islands.
The McCorkles spent every free moment preparing for trial. They hired a separate attorney for Chantal, who did not consider making a deal with prosecutors; she was sure she would be found innocent. She later pointed out that she and her husband could have fled from Mexico, since they had bank accounts in the Caymans.
During the nine-week trial, the government called in witnesses who complained that the McCorkles had ripped them off — including several elderly customers and a mother whose paraplegic son had ordered the program.
The pair was also charged with money laundering for transferring the fraudulently earned cash into the bank account in the Caymans. Instead of one or two years in prison with parole for fraud, the McCorkles faced decades in prison, as each act of money laundering carried a mandatory minimum sentence. The government portrayed the transfers as hiding money in offshore accounts, even though the account was in McCorkle’s name and Bailey had told state and federal investigators about it. Each time she had made a transfer of money, Chantal accumulated more points under mandatory minimum sentencing rules.
“One more week and I would have had a mandatory life sentence,” Chantal says over the phone from jail.
Her mother and stepfather were in the country for the trial’s closing arguments. They all went out for breakfast on the first day of the jury’s deliberations. They visited the lawyer’s office and were discussing where to eat dinner that night when the call came that the jury had reached a verdict. Though the two McCorkles and three of their employees were facing 60 to 90 counts each, it had taken the jury just four hours to make a decision.
The group went back to the courthouse in pouring rain. Chantal and her husband sat down, holding hands as the jury prepared to read the verdict. The foreman began to read McCorkle’s counts — one guilty finding after another. Halfway through the reading, McCorkle’s body jerked back and began to spasm. A guttural sound came out of his throat and he fell to the floor, unconscious, as Bailey screamed for someone to call for help. After paramedics arrived and carried McCorkle away on a stretcher, the foreman read Chantal’s counts: 69 guilty findings. Marshals handcuffed and shackled her and took her to a holding cell. Alone, she still had no idea whether her husband was dead or alive. After four hours, officers took her to jail.
“They have her strip. They strip search her, poking into all of her orifices. They throw her into a suicide-watch cell and give her a blanket that has menstrual blood all over it, dried menstrual blood, and throw her into this little 8-foot cell with no windows and the door is a solid metal door that they shut on her. It is 60 degrees — they keep the jail at 60 degrees — and she is naked with this one thin blanket. And they leave her,” Uhlmann says.
That night the warden finally told her that McCorkle had had a severe stress attack and was resting at the hospital.
Between the November 1998 conviction and the January 1999 sentencing, Chantal was transferred to five different county jails. At each new jail, it would be two or three days before she was given even a toothbrush or toothpaste. One of Chantal’s early cellmates had decapitated her own parents with a knife.
“Now, Chantal has led a very sheltered, loving, caring, sweet life, other than William going off on her at times, and now she’s in a jail room, locked in with a woman who’s heavily medicated, who’s farting all the time, in this solid enclosed room, who had been in the loony bin for 10 years and had just been transferred down to county jail and they were releasing her into a halfway house. So she would have served 11 years for murdering both of her parents, cutting their heads off.”
Uhlmann is incensed that Chantal has to serve 24 years, when a murderer got less than half that. Even the judge, known as a tough sentencer, said she was disturbed by being forced to sentence the couple so severely.
“This case is troubling,” she said in court. “The defendants are young. They have no prior records…. This is a very stiff sentence and it gives me great pause.”
Alan Jones, a high-ranking attorney from England, told Dateline that the sentence was the most “barbaric” one he had ever come across. He has met with Chantal several times and is working to get her released.
Now Chantal’s best hope is a motion for a mistrial, stemming from allegations of jury misconduct. After the trial, the judge had ordered attorneys not to talk to the jurors — an unusual ruling. Suspicions of misconduct came out when an author with ties to William McCorkle’s brother-in-law found that a bailiff might have influenced the jury. The bailiff allegedly told jurors that one of the McCorkles’ witnesses had been a witness for Bailey when he had tried the “Son of Sam” murder case; the implication was that the witness was a paid witness for Bailey. The foreman also said the same bailiff had told jurors that they would not have any trouble convicting the McCorkles if they knew what he knew.
Meanwhile, the government is trying to seize the $2 million in legal fees the McCorkles paid to Bailey. Chantal served McCorkle with divorce papers, but he returned them to her with Biblical sayings written all over them.
Uhlmann hasn’t had any luck sending out blind queries on the book and is working her connections to get a book deal. She has written three unpublished novels that taught her “how not to write.” Chantal’s story, however, seems like something that could garner its author attention and status.
But Uhlmann gets irked at the suggestion that she would pursue the book for any reason other than getting Chantal released.
“The goal in all this is to get Chantal out of jail — period,” Uhlmann says.
Once she got mired in Chantal’s case, Uhlmann knew she would be consumed by it. Much of her day is spent on Chantal. She goes to her yoga class, comes home and starts working on the book, or on writing for the new Web site www.freechantal.com. Then Chantal will call, and the women will talk for 15 minutes, at $20 a call. Then it’s back to reading Chantal’s diaries and writing.
“Now, I’m having her work on this so she can be totally engaged in it, and I feel like I’m becoming her so I can use her words and use her point of view and not have it be my autobiography as I think Chantal should see it.”
But being Chantal feels miserable.
“She’s freezing cold all the time, because she’s very thin,” Uhlmann shudders. “She has sores inside of her mouth; her skin’s broken out from the lack of vitamins. Many times she lives by taking two pieces of white bread, putting butter on it, and putting potato chips on it and making a potato-chip sandwich. She ends up with green eggs frequently, and she hasn’t had a piece of fresh fruit in over three weeks. She’s allowed outside for a total of three times a week for one hour each time. But they make the hour be at 6 o’clock in the morning … and the uniforms are really flimsy. There’s cold, loneliness, and boredom.”
At night, Uhlmann reads McCorkle’s journals again before sleeping, and they give her “the most horrendous” dreams.
“I know a lot of my dreams are me being her. I hear the noise, I feel the fluorescent light and the cold. I wake up cold a lot because she’s so darn cold. I just have to shake myself out of it. If it weren’t for my yoga I’d go nuts.”
But Uhlmann has felt that same kind of cold in more than just her dreams. In 1968, Uhlmann was a 19-year-old hippie with a business designing one-of-a-kind outfits for rock stars and celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Janice Joplin, The Rolling Stones, and Jefferson Starship. She moved from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to Ibiza, Spain, and on a trip to Beirut to buy Syrian bedspreads and cloth for robes, Uhlmann was arrested at the airport and thrown in prison. Her crime: being listed in the address book of an American celebrity for whom she designed clothes and who had become involved in the international drug and weapons trade.
Uhlmann had no idea what was going to happen to her. She was told to keep her mouth shut or she would be killed. She was thrown in a basement dungeon with rancid water up to her thighs, with feces and water rats. For a week straight, she was tortured, beaten on the bottom of her bare feet with a sand-filled hose until her arches were destroyed. Soldiers tried to rape her, and she watched the man who ran the prison smash a newborn baby’s head against a wall because it wouldn’t stop crying. After two years, prison officials released her with an apology — but no explanation. Uhlmann says the country had been on the edge of a civil war, and the political upheaval contributed to her detainment.
She sees it as a “badge of honor” that she was able to survive the experience without becoming “a warped, twisted human being.” But she hates to talk about that period in her life and says her own jail experience is not one of the primary reasons for her involvement in Chantal’s case.
“The only connection is that I was so completely disgusted and appalled to find that the prison conditions in America are so bad, so barbaric,” Uhlmann says. “That, and I know how long 24 hours a day can be — if you are truly innocent or, like in Chantal’s case, what little crimes you have done certainly don’t warrant such a punishment. It’s interminable.”
So, Uhlmann says, she has become obsessed with finding the one thing that will get Chantal out of prison.
“(I want) to figure out the system. It’s like breaking a code. The punishment just simply doesn’t fit the crime and it’s so out of whack, it’s so completely off the charts, and it’s like how do you go about getting the people in power, the keepers of the gate, to see the injustice? It’s like a game.”