A Prison `Angel' Hopes To Fly Free -- But Mom, Wife - And Copycat Strangler - Has Yet To Convince The Parole Board

GIG HARBOR - Veronica Compton, who gained national notoriety as a copycat criminal and girlfriend of Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi, proudly spreads drawings by her 5-year-old daughter across a table at the women's prison here.

She displays the little girl's sketch of the Spice Girls and her pencil portrait of Mom and Dad - Compton and James Wallace, a retired professor Compton married in prison almost 10 years ago.

Compton beams a cover-girl smile. Her wary veneer fades. On this day, she talks of a new outlook on life and her hope of convincing the state parole board that she is ready to be released.

In 1980, when Compton was 24 and involved with Bianchi, she lured a Bellingham woman into a motel room and tried to strangle her to make it look as if the Hillside Strangler were still at large, and therefore couldn't be Bianchi, who was in jail at the time. Compton was convicted of attempted murder and sent to prison. She escaped for a week and a half in 1988, and was released on parole in 1996 - a parole that was quickly revoked after she failed to comply with its terms.

In April, the state parole board held a hearing in Compton's case, and this week it is to officially announce whether Compton will again be paroled, after 18 years in prison. Or whether she'll have to wait two more years before being considered again. Compton heard Friday from prison officials that the board had turned down her second chance for parole, although she has yet to receive that message from the parole board.

Her mother, Elizabeth Johnson, said Compton was disappointed - like the rest of the family - because "she has tried so hard to turn her life around." And Wallace wonders how much longer it will be before he lives with the woman he loves.

Compton, now 42, is not without detractors. One psychologist said in 1990 that she had a "severe antisocial personality disorder," and in 1994 another called her a shrewd manipulator. The man who prosecuted her refers to her to this day as dangerous and bizarre.

Yet, Compton seems to have won more fans than critics in prison. "I grew up here," she said. Prison authorities praise her. Fellow inmates call her inspirational, even an angel.

The prison's recreation director wrote a letter on her behalf, applauding her "dedication and innovation," which helped create the recreation program. And a psychiatric social worker told the parole board in another letter that Compton is sincere in her rehabilitation and recommended "without reservation" that she be paroled.

Compton credits the changes in her life in large part to her relationship with Wallace, who fathered their daughter during a conjugal visit here at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

Compton says that when she attacked the Bellingham woman, she was under Bianchi's evil spell and addicted to cocaine, and also was in turmoil over being physically and sexually abused during her early years.

"Rehabilitation is real," she insists. "Not just for me but for the other women. . . . We can change. Here, miracles can happen."

If parole is finally granted, Compton will go home to the child and to Wallace, a retired Eastern Washington University political-science professor whom she married during a formal ceremony at the prison, officiated by then state Supreme Court Justice James Dolliver, a friend of Wallace's.

She'll settle into Wallace's brick rambler in the Ravenna area of Seattle and, according to Wallace, begin "to lay the foundations of a genuine intimacy."

Wallace says that while his two grown children have accepted his second wife, who is 27 years his junior, a nephew once told him, "There is no fool like an old fool."

But he shrugs the comment off, saying he approached his marriage with open eyes - and an open heart.

"Veronica is one of the most moral people I've ever known," Wallace said. But if she reverts to her old ways, "we would go our separate ways."

`I gave him control'

In 1980, when Compton tried to strangle Kim Breed of Bellingham, a 26-year-old cocktail waitress, Bianchi was being held in the Whatcom County Jail for the strangulation deaths of two Bellingham college students.

He later was convicted of those two murders and sentenced to more than 116 years at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla, where he remains today. He also confessed to strangling five other women in Los Angeles in late 1977 and early 1978.

Some of the stranglings were committed with an accomplice, Bianchi's cousin, Angelo Buono, who also is in prison. Because the bodies were left in the open on hillsides, both men came to be called the Hillside Strangler.

Compton first met Bianchi when she was a free-lance screenwriter from Los Angeles. She had gone to interview him in the Whatcom County Jail for a screenplay about murder. Later - at the time of her own arrest - she said she had quickly fallen in love with him.

She was a drug user when she met him, she admits.

"I gave him control," she said. "He told me what drugs to take, what to drink and what to do."

An addiction specialist, Dixie Johnson, later wrote in Compton's prison records: "Quite possibly the event of her crime was her salvation. . . . Drugs had taken over what had been a talented, promising and creative person and turned her into a person even she couldn't comprehend."

Compton was raised in Los Angeles. Her mother, a single parent, worked as an office worker to support her and her two brothers. She said her father, an artist, had a spacious home in the Hollywood Hills. She was seriously ill frequently from a kidney ailment, and she was molested by relatives and later by a stranger who broke into her Los Angeles home, she said.

She studied art and drama and had a budding career as an actress and scriptwriter.

Prison authorities say she has reclaimed some of those talents in prison.

Superintendent Alice Payne wrote her a letter commending her leadership of the prison art program and praising her for a series of murals she supervised and helped paint.

An angel or truly bizarre?

Other letters from prison officials and counselors commend her for starting reading and music programs and working for peaceful alternatives to violence.

"She's an angel," said fellow inmate Marva Morehead, who was recruited into the reading program by Compton. "She's got me to read everything from philosophy to history. Before, I wouldn't have cared. Now, I'm a sponge."

"I know Veronica quite well. She's a leader," said Diane Bowerman, another inmate. "Veronica was instrumental in getting the music program going. We're not professionals, but we like to think we are. It's a great program.

"It's going to break my heart when she goes."

But Dave McEachran, who prosecuted Compton for the attempted murder, hopes Compton won't be released anytime soon.

"I think she is still a dangerous person, and dangerous to be out," he said. "She had numerous problems while in prison . . . and is truly a bizarre person."

Breed, the victim in the case, could not be reached for comment.

The parole board's executive officer would not say what the board had decided, only that it considered how well Compton had behaved in prison and whether it still considers her dangerous.

If the board has indeed decided to deny Compton parole, "it's purely malicious on their part," Wallace said, adding that many inmates with far more serious crimes are paroled in much less time.

Because attempted murder is a Class A felony, the maximum term is life in prison. In most cases, though, inmates don't serve more than 16 years for attempted murder, according to John Henry Browne, a high-profile criminal-defense attorney in Seattle who is representing Compton.

He said that if, indeed, the board has rejected Compton's parole, he will appeal the decision.

Letters lead to marriage

Wallace first came in contact with Compton in 1987, six years into her term at the women's prison.

He had lectured at the prison on aspects of criminal law, and Compton wrote to him expressing her disagreement. Wallace, then married to another woman for 37 years, began corresponding with Compton. That led to visits in prison.

Not long after, Wallace and his wife divorced. He said they had drifted apart over the years.

"I didn't leave my wife for Veronica," he said. "Veronica was the excuse I needed."

Then, one day in July 1988, Wallace was appalled to hear a radio report that his friend Compton and another woman had escaped from prison by cutting through wire fencing. Police questioned him, wanting to know if he had helped her break out. He hadn't.

Compton says she broke out because she was desperate to be with her preteen son, whom she bore when she was 17. At the time, she says, he was being transferred to a new living situation.

She was apprehended in Arizona and returned to prison. For the jail break, she was convicted of first-degree escape and possession of a firearm and sentenced to an additional two years.

Wallace, now 69, said he isn't sure when the friendship and concern for Compton turned into something more serious. But one night on the phone - inmates can call out, collect, and Compton often did - he proposed marriage. He told her to take her time deciding.

Compton now says she was partially motivated by concern for her son and encouraged by Wallace's agreement to adopt the boy, which he did. Compton said yes. Now grown, Compton's son works as a roofer in Los Angeles.

When Compton and Wallace married in the prison on Aug. 27, 1989, 60 inmates and 10 of Wallace's friends heard Justice Dolliver quote Shakespeare's words on love before pronouncing them man and wife. The bride wore a cream-colored suit, hat and gloves. A private wedding by a Catholic priest followed.

Three months later, Compton and Wallace had their first of many conjugal visits in a trailer on the prison grounds. In 1993, their daughter was born at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, healthy and feisty, Compton said.

Hours after giving birth, Compton returned to prison. First her mother, and then Wallace, cared for the baby. Compton arranged to see the infant almost every day during visiting hours, and nursed her. Compton's mother still keeps a basement apartment in Wallace's home and helps him care for the child.

A blissful parole

Wallace said that when Compton briefly won parole in 1996, the two of them had a blissful two weeks together at his home in Cheney, Spokane County.

"We went out on dates together. We got dressed up and went to see a foreign film in Spokane. She looked smashing," he said.

But her freedom ended abruptly after a routine and impromptu visit by a social worker, who was checking on the welfare of the little girl. The social worker claimed Compton answered the door in the nude - which Compton disputes - and had pornographic paintings on the wall unsuitable in the presence of a child.

The paintings, in vivid colors and in some cases bawdy poses, do show some nudity. While attorneys and parole officials disputed the intent of Compton's art, they couldn't dispute that she had stopped going to her counselor, a condition of her parole.

Parole board Chairwoman Kathryn Bail wrote that Compton was a danger to the public. Bail doubted her commitment to either her child or her husband. She revoked Compton's parole. The little girl was temporarily removed from the home and later returned to Wallace.

Compton appealed the parole board's decision, taking it all the way to the State Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, and in the end she lost the battle. Mommy's long `timeout'

In the meantime, Wallace tries to keep his family together and takes his daughter to prison to visit her mother, telling her that Mommy can't live at home yet because she's in a very long "timeout."

"The most tragic and awful part" of Compton's 1996 return to prison, said Wallace, is that mother and daughter "were getting along just fabulously."

Compton says that she has been waiting for another chance ever since.

In the prison visitor's center, on a board behind Compton, she has posted two of the paintings she has done in prison. One shows her daughter cuddling with her maternal grandmother. It bears inscriptions: "Beloved daughter" and "Be careful how you think. Your life is shaped by your thoughts."

"I want her to think about that as she grows up," Compton said.

Compton says she longs for the little things that would come with freedom. She wants to be there when her daughter comes home from school, when she needs help with homework, and when it's time to tuck her into bed.

Compton calls Wallace her best friend and says she admires his intelligence and compassion. Wallace says he and Compton look forward to the days they can be together again, doing the everyday things most married couples take for granted.

"If you should stop by our place, . . . you'd probably find us doing what we would have been doing for the past 10 years - digging dandelions out of the grass, washing windows, taking our daughter to the playground, making love by making life.

"If that sounds rather ordinary, Veronica will tell you that real, everyday happiness in life is like health, only valued by those who have had to forgo it." Nancy Bartley's phone message number is 253-946-3978. Her e-mail address is: nbartley@seattletimes.com