A Huddersfield mum who is married to an American serving a 75-year sentence for murder is hopeful he will be released so they can live together.
Heike Phelan, 49, married Texan William Matthew Schiffert in November 2012 in a ceremony in a US prison where he is serving a sentence for his part in a fatal knife attack on a man in 2001.
The mum-of-two is now writing a book called Child Convict about her husband’s life which tells the story of his troubled family background.
“The book is based on my husband’s childhood and is the first book in a series of three,” says Heike.
“He was brought up in a world of crime and was sent to an adult prison at the age of 16. He was 15 when someone came to his house and pulled a gun on him. He shot and killed him and was convicted of murder. He did two years after a plea deal and because he was still a minor.
“He grew up in the stockyards area of Fort Worth, Texas and was sent into foster care. He later went to live with his grandfather and at 13 had a heroin habit.”
Heike, who works as a coach driver for tourists in Europe, said that Mr Schiffert was 13 when he was sent to a juvenile detention facility for “numerous things” including robberies and burglaries.
But his life of crime started even before then, she says.
He was aged about four when a relative took him along to raid several drug stores by lowering the boy through skylights with instructions on what items to steal.
“At present he is inside for being ‘party to a murder’ - a stabbing incident. He was at the scene when somebody else did it. He was sitting in a car when his friend had an argument with somebody outside a hotel room. He got 75 years (custody) in 2001.”
Heike says that her husband - who is known as Matthew - may be eligible to apply for parole in as little as two years.
If he does get out, the aim is to set up home together.
The pair, who are both 49, have known one another for nine years and have been married for more than five years - though they have only ever met in a prison setting.
A year before they married, Mr Schiffert had Heike’s names tattooed on his eyebrows.
“He had the tattoos done as my birthday present. It was a complete shock.”
She says that they became acquainted by chance.
Heike had been writing to a Death Row inmate in California and took part in Christmas cards ‘swap’ organised by the website Prisontalk.com
“My card went to a friend of my now-husband. The friend didn’t have time to write back but my husband said ‘I’ve got all the time in the world’. He said as soon as he got the card he knew I was the one.”
The pair were pen friends for a year before Heike flew to Texas to meet him. They wed on November 9 2012.
She knows that people will judge her on this decision and lives with the knowledge that family members disapprove of her choice of partner.
“I don’t like to give the impression that I’m one of those lunatic women that you see on TV programmes that go out to find a guy in prison. That’s not how it happened.”
Her decision to marry Mr Schiffert didn’t go down well with family members.
“My family are not happy with me being married to him. It just doesn’t get talked about. My daughters are 32 and 30 - they don’t want to know about him. It’s my life and it’s his life and he has been part of my life for several years. I didn’t go out to find a prisoner husband.”
Heike, who went to Colne Valley High and has a degree from Huddersfield University, has seen her husband’s prison records and says she isn’t frightened of him.
“I just view it as something he did a long time before I knew him. They happened in a completely different setting.”
Her long-term dream is to one day live with Mr Schiffert.
“Yes, that is the plan. I have no qualms at all. It sounds clichéd but I know everything about him. He has told me everything that he has done. Everything that he did was because he was part of a lifestyle. I’m not making any excuses for him at all, he doesn’t ask for pity.”
However, if her husband is released they won’t be able to live together in the United States because Heike is banned from entering the USA for 10 years due to overstaying her tourist visa on her most recent visit.
The ban means that she cannot currently visit her husband in jail.
Heike overstayed after a car crash in Dallas in which she was injured and is still receiving treatment.
She spent six weeks in a US immigration detention centre after being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
“I was the only white person, the only English person in a dorm of 86 women. It really wasn’t a pleasant experience.”
Although one inmate tried to bully her, Heike wasn’t physically harmed. She was eventually released and deported back to the UK.
She is now considering appealing against the 10-year ban.
“I am hoping to challenge the ban. But I hope Matthew will be out before the 10 year ban is concluded. This (travel ban) hasn’t affected us as our relationship is very strong. It’s frustrating and upsetting but it doesn’t affect the two of us.”
* Child Convict is due to be published by Koehler Books on May 13.