'I Fell in Love With an Inmate and Broke Him Out of Prison'

Newsfeeds flashed a still photo of a male inmate in chains following Vicky White, an officer in uniform. It read: "Lauderdale County Corrections Officer, Inmate Missing."

There, in the photo, the one lone officer without backup, faced away from a potentially dangerous inmate. The image made obvious the fact that she felt zero risk of the convicted inmate attacking her from behind. Her behavior broke every protocol of prisoner escort.

I knew immediately—intimately—that those two were up to no good. I fell in love the same way.

Toby Dorr headshot photo
Toby Dorr fell in love with John Manard, an inmate at a prison in which she was volunteering with a dog program. She broke him out. Toby Dorr

I never smoked or drank alcohol, chewed gum in class, rolled through a stop sign, or had been late for curfew. I provided subtle clues of my instability before the escape, but my husband, family, and the prison system didn't hear my pleas.

John Manard did.

The prison itself defeated my normal defenses that prevented advances from men. Any men: The insurance agent, the gas station attendant, the construction workers that catcalled me, or the neighbor that flirted with me at a barbeque.

John's highly constrictive environment not only freed me but encouraged me to explore an emotional bond with him. The bars, cinder blocks, and guard towers, designed to constrain John provided me with a false sense of security.

When I began the Safe Harbor prison dog program in August of 2004, my highly trained, corporate director personality took the helm. Meanwhile, my inner child, bursting with excitement and wonder, propelled my productivity. My efforts saved the lives of hundreds of dogs and the souls of even more condemned men. Adopters felt part of a movement as they told prison dog tales to friends and family.

With an audacity reserved only for innocent children who don't see danger, I shone a canine light on every dark corner of Lansing Prison. However, had I allowed myself to see them, barriers existed. Social etiquette, procedural regulations, concrete walls, and personal values convened to protect me, keeping inmates at professional distances. While maintaining countless, tedious daily activities, my head remained in the clouds; thunder clouds.

A mere two months had passed since the first dogs entered the prison. My feet mindlessly carried me toward the press corps waiting at the far end of the prison yard as I silently rehearsed an inspirational message, one of many efforts to publicize Safe Harbor.

Another presence appeared from far right. Casually, he strolled. A tiny fraction of me estimated his approach. His first steps the beginning of an intercept course, yielded none of my conscious thought. I continued rehearsals in my head: "Inmates rehabilitate condemned dogs for regional family adoptions..."

His next steps caught up with my attention. "Why do I feel targeted?" I wondered. I tried to refocus on the upcoming press conference, but his pace conveyed intention.

My inner child immediately recognized the kindred spirit, the one entitled to move through boundaries to places disallowed by society and protocols and systems of control. He coolly strode through all the fences and walls, real and imagined, his eyes locked on my location.

Simultaneously, his behavior unsettled me, yet strangely disarmed me. Our intersection somehow felt predetermined as if fate had carefully crafted millions of dynamic life events to converge at that moment beneath a blazing autumn sun. Something primal, a ticklish little notion, just beneath the delicate surface of awareness, stirred imperceptibly, like a fish beneath an otherwise mirror finish.

Vicky and I willingly participated in the escapes of Casey White and John Manard, yet nobody suspected a thing until we were gone. I knew Vicky's heart and mind. Reason stolen by passion, sleepless weeks of planning, soaring highs and heart-pounding adrenaline followed by the pit she faced when the honeymoon was over: Prison time, the court of public opinion, swarms of media, and a family ashamed.

I knew the intoxication of a ludicrous plan underway. I knew the intense desire to be ravaged by a hungry man. And I knew it would inevitably end when the U.S. Marshals caught up.

I stared at the computer, emotional but motionless. My stomach churned. Our similarities struck me deeply, stealing my air. I pushed away from my desk and took a drive to clear my head. Sixteen challenging yet incredibly rewarding years had passed while rebuilding my life and healing old wounds.

John Manard noticed me and my hardships. I felt a significance I had yearned for my entire life. Before I could muster a defense, I had fallen for a convicted murderer and love took no prisoners, even if it involved a prison break.

On the morning of February 12, 2006, God sent an icy wind, sharper than razor wire. It cut through the prison yard, stung the waiting visitors, and sapped the guards' resolve. A perfect day for a perfect plan.

I approached its most imposing presence, that of massive Civil War-era stone buildings and iron-barred windows. The menacing fortress, skirted by tall fences topped with coils of sharp wire, separated us from them.

No stranger to the routine, I waited for gate one to open. Conflicts within me had never been greater; should I face what's next? Logic told me to run, but my heart yearned. A hundred opportunities came and went in the past few weeks, but I simply couldn't refuse.

Holding my breath, I watched the inmates lift the crate from the wagon and slide it into place. One of them grunted from the strain, murmuring about the weight in the crate. I looked over my shoulder to see if the officer overheard, but he was busy with the dogs behind the van. I slammed the side door and marched to the rear of the van and closed those doors too, determined to get off prison property as quickly as possible. Dog handlers hastily shoved their adoption reports at me, eager to get out of the wind.

In disbelief, I realized that everything seemed to be working perfectly. I took the wheel, the officers shut gate three, opened gate two ahead of me, and I drove out. Barely breathing, I waited for a siren to go off as I cleared the expanse of asphalt to gate one, but no one stopped me.

I hissed at the dog crate: "John, are you there?" No answer. My adrenaline soared even higher. I stared at the rear-view mirror into the shadows of the van. My mind raced with the possibilities. What would I do next?

At the final gate of the prison, I rolled to a stop. That was it, the point of no return. The van idled while foggy exhaust wisped past my brake lights, reflecting the red hue. After a few agonizing seconds, gate one began to open in front of me.

As I drove forward toward freedom, every moment seemed to be in ultra-slow motion. My heart pounded in my ears. Even the blinking of my eyes felt like the slow roll of a prison door closing.

Just outside gate one, the gravel road turned to the right and my life turned with it. The first few feet of frosty gravel under the tires crackled and popped but then became mere whispers as the van rolled forward. The road paralleled the gray wall of chain link fence to my right, which was topped with a maze of razor wire. The sentinel towers in the backdrop seemed to frown at me from above. To the left of the road was an endless wintry prairie of dry brown grass and gray snow.

The road felt different from all the other days I'd driven on it to take hundreds of dogs to their salvation. Today, on this same road, there was no going back.

Until that moment, it had all been a dazzling fantasy about running away with a handsome younger man who loved the way I smelled and the way I talked. Now, this road displaced my fantasy with an uneasy gray.

I glanced in the rear-view mirror without turning my head. The humming motor and clinking of chain as it slowly pulled gate one closed behind me ended with a final clash of the gate that seemed to sever me from everything for which I'd worked so hard. I drove several hundred yards to the first outer corner of the prison and took another right. Thirty seconds later, I turned onto the paved road of the city. The dog crate behind me remained quiet.

Relieved at the silence, I began to believe that I had left John behind and that the rest of my day would be routine. Suddenly, an arm pushed through the side of the box from inside the crate and a manic laugh filled the van. I yanked the wheel and pulled to the side of the road. Wearing only boxer shorts, John crawled the rest of the way out of the box and said: "Drive, Toby, drive!" And I did.

In a nano-second, the absolute security of prison walls stripped clean away. The usual city streets felt eerily foreign. John cowered gleefully in the rear of the van, scrambling to put on the change of clothes I brought for him. His sexy calm had evaporated, replaced by a frightened predator with an instinct to run from the compression of life behind bars.

Chaos snapped and popped in my mind as thought after idea screeched up from the depths of my core and burst like fireworks. Fiercely conflicted feelings raged as the price of my purchase became more prominent.

Could it be that the sensual, charismatic guy that presented such character remained at the prison, while the convict escaped with me?

At the storage facility where we planned to swap the van for our getaway truck, John snatched the keys and ran to drive the truck free of the storage unit. It crossed my mind for a moment, that he had the keys, the cash, the truck, and the guns.

When John stopped and waited for me to park the van and join him, we crossed another threshold, proving that whatever happened next we faced together.

The rocket-fueled escape preceded two weeks of euphoric highs. Gentleman John serenaded me, drew my baths, and fed me. John truly loved me, but prison tortured his soul and conjured darknesses found only in the heart of a man doing life for murder. My own twisted female need ached for the danger John offered yet lied to me about my chances.

The U.S. Marshals set the record straight when they forced us from the highway into the woods at high speed.

Later, safely within my own prison cell, I found a whole different kind of freedom. Relieved of all duty, I used my 27-month sentence to focus on myself, analyzing and healing old wounds and charting a course for significance after prison.

I had no intentions of a new relationship, believing I would simply live a quiet life with my mom. But, just months after my release, I met Chris, a man of profound character. Like the keel of a boat, he keeps me on course. For him, I provide the anchor, a place to call home. Together we weather all storms. Chris inspired me to embrace my story and my life. Chris and I even visited John in prison six years after my release, a very healing moment. John and I had the opportunity to finally acknowledge and accept what remained of our chaotic stint.

John disrupted the status quo for which I'd settled. Today I am a courageous, emotionally healthy woman, determined to change the world. For the first time in my life, I can say I love the person I am, and that's worth any price I had to pay for it.

People often ask, "Would you do it again?" Not only do I believe, but I know that love is the most persuasive drug in the human condition. None of us could possibly know to what extreme we are willing to sacrifice for it.

Vicky and I shared extraordinarily similar stories with teetering precipices for which simple decisions of life or death brought profoundly different results.

I'm heartbroken that Vicky didn't take the opportunity to learn that nobody is their worst mistake.

Toby Dorr's memoir, Living With Conviction, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million and other select locations. Visit her website at TobyDorr.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.