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November 3, 2008

Beauty and the Bandit

sam israel and debra ryan

Ryan still lives in the couple's Armonk, NY, rental. She and Israel speak on the phone daily, though her bail prohibits her from visiting him in prison.

Photo Credit: Alessandra Petlin

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Bad back and all, Israel dragged some boxes filled with clothes to his camper. "At this point, I want to blow my brains out or vanish," Ryan says. Prosecutors allege that Ryan helped him pack the RV, which she disputes. Ryan does, however, admit that she followed Israel in her car as he dropped off the camper at a highway rest stop. They returned home together, where Israel sat down to write a suicide note. "You can't just run!" she pleaded. "They're never going to leave me alone!" Ryan retreated to the bedroom. Israel joined her in bed, caressed her, and again asked her for help. She jumped up, shaking. "I finally had enough courage to say no," she says now, weeping. Without a word, Israel turned around and left.

At noon that day, New York State Police called to tell Ryan that Israel's GMC Envoy was found abandoned near the Bear Mountain Bridge, some 40 miles outside Manhattan, the words "Suicide Is Painless" scrawled in the dust on the hood. Police searched the river, but when Israel's body never surfaced, they suspected that he'd faked his death to escape prison. Investigators questioned Ryan over the next week, but she denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. She even turned over the suicide note Israel had left behind. "I really wanted to tell the truth, but I was so scared, I couldn't think straight," she remembers.

Israel's disappearance sparked an international manhunt. Camera crews swarmed Ryan's home, forcing her to sneak in and out through the woods behind it. Ten days later, Ryan confessed to having helped Israel flee and was arrested. On June 19, wearing pink shorts and a ratty T-shirt, a gaunt Ryan was arraigned. (A wealthy client posted her $75,000 bail.) Then, 11 days later, she received a tearful voice mail: "Hey, baby, it's me, it's Sam. I love you so much. I'm so sorry, baby. I had no idea you had been arrested."

That morning, Israel emerged, scruffy and bleary-eyed, from a Massachusetts campground and turned himself in to local police. Newspapers reported that when he appeared in court the following day to face new charges, he seemed to be looking around for his girlfriend. "And I lost it, just lost it, because he was human again. He was looking for me," Ryan says, wistfully.

Ryan isn't allowed to see Israel--the terms of her bail prohibit her from visiting inmates. But they are still very much a couple, talking for 10 minutes every day. She fills his commissary account regularly, and they have even discussed marriage. Authorities are still weighing whether to prosecute Ryan for aiding Israel's escape - a crime punishable by as many as 10 years in prison. "I guess I have too much empathy and trust in people," Ryan sighs, wiping tears from her face with the backs of her hands. "I should just see it at face value and say he fucked me and walk away. But I can't let go."

Karen Weinreb's debut novel, The Summer Kitchen (St. Martin's Press), about a mother whose life is upended when her husband is imprisoned for white-collar crimes, will be published in June.

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