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June 3, 2009

When White-Collar Hubbies Go to Jail

white collar wives of criminals


Photo Credit: Lauren Greenfield

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Her friends pay her grocery and utility bills

THE GIDDY TRILLS OF CHILDREN romping in the pool of the nearby country club echo through Amy Shelton's overgrown backyard. Her two sons used to swim there, too, until the family's membership was terminated in 2004 after Kirk, Shelton's husband of 20 years, was convicted of fraud. A former executive of Cendant, a hotel franchisor, he was found guilty of lying about his company's financial health in a major corporate accounting scandal. He's been in prison for the past two years — eight more to go. "I'm just a little lost right now," Shelton says, crying. "You stay so strong for so long, and now I'm just at a meltdown point."

The parched flowers and spindly bushes on Shelton's patio stand in stark contrast to the lush gardens of neighboring estates. She reflexively apologizes, then fesses up that there isn't any money — or any will — to keep up appearances. Shelton, who once had millions of dollars in the bank — now frozen by the government — gets by on the generosity of friends who help pay for groceries and utilities. They've even picked up the tab for her children's college tuition. Shelton earns a few extra bucks selling colorful luggage tags she makes herself. Accepting handouts isn't easy, she concedes. "You always feel like you have to thank them, let them know how grateful you are," Shelton says. Sometimes she runs errands at off-hours just to avoid these well-meaning benefactors. "You worry about the way you spend money because you feel like you're being judged. I find it humiliating to have to rely on people. It's pride."

Shelton dabs her eyes with a tissue. "I've lost everything," she manages. The trappings of what she calls her former "fairy-tale, charmed life" — the vacations in Vail, extravagant dinner parties — vanished when her husband reported to a rural Pennsylvania prison. Even their closest friends —"They were like family" — abandoned them. "It's not like your husband's died and people are rallying around you and are supportive of you," she explains. Couples shun her. "Women don't want you anywhere near their husbands."

Every other Saturday, at 7:30 a.m., Shelton makes the two-hour slog to visit her husband, passing the time on the road listening to books on tape — suspenseful best sellers, mostly. Those are long days for her, spent on folding chairs in a crowded room with her husband — whom she insists is innocent — trying to make conversation for six hours. As desperate as she is to see him, when 3:30 rolls around, she always leaves unfulfilled. "You can't maintain the intimacy of the relationship that you had," she says. "But you try."

Her husband sends her magazine articles on photography and travel, and they always end their letters with a meaningful memory. There are a lot to choose from in their 20-plus years together — and yet that may not be enough to sustain them. "It's very difficult to maintain a relationship that's phone-based — there's no physical component at all. We're trying to keep our marriage together, but it's really hard," she says, choking on her words. Before he went to prison, her husband suggested they divorce — for Shelton's sake. Their two sons, he said, were old enough to understand. It wasn't an option for her then, but today, she just doesn't know.

For now, Shelton's just trying to grasp for some grace while battling what her psychiatrist has diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. "I think I've run through all the stages of grieving that would be consistent with death," she says, breaking down again. "It really is the death of your life as you know it." Now Shelton is toying with the idea of writing her memoirs. What with the Madoff and AIG scandals and the reactions to her own husband's downfall, Shelton knows people are endlessly fascinated by white-collar crime — and maybe it's time for the wives to speak for themselves.

Gretchen Voss is a Marie Claire contributing editor. She recently wrote about a female church pastor with an unholy past.

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