by Matt Pulle
When Margo Freshwater escaped from prison in Nashville in 1970, it was relatively easy for someone to apply for a Social Security card without identification. According to Greg Elliott of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Freshwater took advantage of the system to obtain a new Social Security number. Using the alias Tonya Myers, she moved in with Phillip Zimmerman, and the two of them wound up in her home state of Ohio. Nine months and one day after Freshwater escaped, she had a son, whom she named Phil Zimmerman. According to a story about Freshwater in The Commercial Appeal, an Ohio prosecutor wondered about the timing of the birth.
Did Freshwater exchange sexual favors with a guard in return for help in her escape? Or did she engage in a quick tryst almost immediately after she jumped the fence? Freshwater and Zimmerman later had a daughter, Angela. Much like Freshwater's own father, Zimmerman left the family in the mid-'70s and lost contact with both children. Single once again, Freshwater and her two young children moved around Ohio, with Freshwater taking whatever jobs she could find.
When she worked as a housekeeper, she brought her children along because she couldn't afford a baby-sitter. It was a struggle for the family to pay the bills, and yet her children say that their mom did what she could to give them a normal childhood. She took them camping, helped them raise Great Danes, and never missed her children's softball and baseball games. And like all good parents, she knew her children's friends.
"You know, when you're a kid and you say, 'I wish so-and-so was our mom,'" says Angela Hudkins. "Well, that was our mom. All of our friends loved her."
Freshwater's oldest son, Phil, lives in an assisted-living home because of a disability. School wasn't easy for him, but she made sure he graduated. "She was our best friend, and she was our mom," Phil says. "I feel like I'm kind of lost. She has always been there for us."
In 1979, Freshwater married Joe Hudkins, a truck driver who had three children of his own. He was perhaps the first good man in her life, and together, they had a son, Tim. Hudkins adopted Angela and Phil as well. Together, the two raised six children and, by all accounts, enjoyed a happy marriage and lived a regular, all-American life. He promised that, one day, he'd teach his wife how to drive a rig, but he died of cancer in 1988, before he could make good on the deal.
A little more than two years ago, in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, Freshwater married Daryl McCartor.
After Freshwater's past life came to light, her friends and family expressed amazement that this loving woman they had known had such a dark past. Naturally, they insist that the person they know could never have been involved in a murder and simply must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. "I would have never guessed anything about this. Never," says Tina Carter, Freshwater's maid of honor during her wedding to McCartor.
Jerome Woods worked at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company with Freshwater as a property-and-casualty specialist. He recalls that when he found himself in a rather contentious divorce, she helped him cope. "I didn't have anything in my condo after my divorce, and she gave me plates and dishes and she lent me her mattress," Woods recalls, adding that he told her not to go out of her way but that she insisted.
Like her other friends, Woods says that he still supports the woman he knew as Tonya McCartor. "Even now, I'm still in shock," he says.
Even though Freshwater is unable to discuss her murder conviction in any detail with anybody other than her attorneys, she does talk to her family by phone. "I had the opportunity to ask her if she killed anybody and she said no,'' her husband says. "That's all I needed to know."
Knoxville lawyer Robert Ritchie enjoys a reputation as a top criminal defense attorney, but the Freshwater case may be one of his toughest challenges. Not only did a jury find Freshwater guilty of murder, but the state Court of Criminal Appeals upheld that conviction. And since her original defense conceded that she was at the scene of the crime, it's not clear what sort of new evidence Ritchie could collect to corroborate her assertion that she was an unwitting accomplice in the brutal slaying of Hillman Robbins in Memphis in 1966. For example, she testified that she tried to help the victim, going so far as to untie him. But no one alive can corroborate that claim, other than the man who actually pulled the trigger, Glenn Nash, who was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Ritchie won't detail his legal strategy, but indications are that he's going to either craft another appeal or hope to prove to the state that she's rehabilitated in an effort to win clemency. "At this point, we are reinvestigating the original case," he says, "as well as her life -- the past 32 years." To date, Ritchie hasn't exploited the fact of Nash's freedom to gain favor for his client.
But the man who helped put her back behind bars says that's exactly where she belongs. "She was convicted of first-degree murder, and she did not finish serving her time," Elliott says. "In my mind, how she's lived her life since then is irrelevant."
By some accounts, Freshwater is holding up well at the prison she thought she left behind for good 32 years ago. Her friend Jerome Woods depicts her current state as somber and numb. "Still, I don't detect any signs of bitterness," he says.
Carter says that her friend is trying to be strong, if only for her family. "She called me from jail and said that her spirits were okay. I told her I was there for her, and she kind of broke down crying."
Earlier this month, Freshwater's three children and Tim's fiancée Casey rented a car and drove to Nashville to see their mother. If she was despondent, she did a good job of keeping up appearances. "She was beautiful and, as always, cheerful," Casey says. "And we told her that we love her and we're doing everything we can to get her out."
The day after that visit, Freshwater was allowed to call her family. Sounding more like she was on a business trip than in a penitentiary, Freshwater, who was on speakerphone, calmly arranged with her family who would visit her and when. Like most inmates, Freshwater is restricted to a certain number of visitors each month. Throughout the conversation, Freshwater remained composed and strong.
Daryl McCartor is overhauling his life to pay his wife's extensive legal bills, which include a $60,000 retainer. He has dropped his health insurance, organized car washes with her children, and made himself available to media across the country, hoping to draw more public attention to his wife's plight. He also helped develop a Web site (GEOcities.com/mccartorfund) dedicated to telling her story and soliciting donations to her legal fund. He won't say how much money the site has raised but indicates that it's minuscule.
As Margo Freshwater sits alone in prison, the man who confessed to the killing for which she was sentenced roams free. In 1994, Glenn Nash gave a brief interview to Michael Kelly of The Commercial Appeal. "I'm just concentrating on taking the medicine that I have to take at the right time," he said. Today, people who have kept up with him say that Nash still lives at the same home with the same woman he was married to at the time he met Margo Freshwater.