No Way Out
08/07/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
On the eve of her parents' trial for fraud it was clear that, at least outwardly, Louise Woodward has changed. No longer the teenage British au pair convicted in the death of a Massachusetts infant nearly three years ago, Woodward, 22, now a third-year law student at a London university, sported a new hairdo, smarter clothes and all-grown-up poise as she stood by her parents, Gary and Sue Woodward, outside England's Chester Crown Court on July 17. As she told Britain's Daily Mail last year, she has tried to put the past behind her. "I do want to make a success of my life, so I'm known for something more than what happened in that trial," Woodward said, "and I think I'm doing a pretty good job of it."
But sidestepping controversy hasn't proved as easy for Woodward as changing her style. Since returning to England in 1998 after serving 279 days in a Massachusetts jail for manslaughter, the ex-nanny has suffered a series of embarrassments, including most recently her parents' weeklong trial, ending in acquittal, on charges of submitting a phony invoice for $15,400 for reimbursement from Louise's $500,000 defense fund. Although a judge instructed the jury to find the Woodwards not guilty, saying the couple were free to spend money from the fund however they saw fit, the issue of the allegedly forged receipt has disillusioned and angered many former supporters. Says Jean Jones, 53, a neighbor who set up the defense fund and helped to collect donations: "At the time I thought I was doing right, trying to offer support to the parents of a girl in trouble, but I wish now I had never heard of the Woodwards."
For Louise Woodward, whose attempted reentry into obscurity has been anything but smooth, there have been other brushes with notoriety as well. Just weeks before her parents' trial, Woodward was victimized in a bizarre stunt orchestrated by an acquaintance, Jean-Pierre Verard, who had apparently persuaded editors of The Sun, one of Britain's less savory tabloids, that Woodward was pregnant with his child. Confronted by photographers outside a doctor's office where Verard had taken her last May 30, a confused Woodward demanded, "What on earth is going on?" and denied any romantic link to Verard—who later admitted he had set up the encounter for money.
Woodward has chosen to surround herself with a tight circle of close friends since her return to England, where most of her neighbors in the northwestern village of Elton saw her trial for the "shaken baby" death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen as a case of overzealous American prosecution. Expecting a happy reunion with her parents, both now 44, and younger sister Vicky, 21, Louise learned instead that they were on the verge of separating. (Gary Woodward, a furniture maker, now lives with a girlfriend in a nearby town, while Sue, a clerical worker, remains at the family home with Vicky.) At the same time, the once solid support of neighbors began to crumble, especially after prosecutors revealed that the family had secretly accepted $75,000 for a newspaper interview while billing Louise's defense fund for such trifles as 50 cents for chewing gum and $6.80 for hamster food. "I don't know of anybody who would help them now," says erstwhile supporter Jane Collins, 46, a supermarket supervisor, who took care of Vicky during the trial.
Though Woodward was able to escape some of the rancor at home when she enrolled in 1998 in an undergraduate law program at London's South Bank University, she soon learned to be wary of fellow students as well—including young men who reportedly placed bets on who would be the first to bed her. "Do they like me or do they want to go out with me because I'm Louise Woodward?" she asked during an interview with the Daily Mail. These days Woodward says she avoids the student union and lives quietly in an apartment with carefully chosen female friends. She had a summer job at a collection agency in Edinburgh—where, predictably, a crowd of photographers waited for her on her first day.
Indeed, it sometimes seems to supporters and detractors alike that her trials have never really ended. Yet no one seems to doubt she'll survive them. "She'll come through it all right," predicts 86-year-old retiree Joseph Slater, who donated $75 to Woodward's defense fund in 1997. He also thinks her dream of a legal career will one day come true. "She's had plenty of practice," he notes.
Pete Norman in London and Esther Leach in Chester