The homecoming

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It was the homecoming that no one came to, the party that never was. Louise Woodward returned to Elton yesterday, but hardly anyone in this Cheshire village of 4,000 came out to welcome her. The authorities had not expected this outbreak of apathy and, a full 24 hours earlier, had lined the village's main street with bollards. The police were out in force, both on the street and in black BMWs that cruised around looking for trouble. In the end, however, they only saw a few little old ladies going about their shopping and, of course, journalists. Lots of journalists.

"Call me naive but I thought that a few people would come out," said one reporter as the scramble began to find a "real person" on Elton's wet streets. In the end, there were only a dozen or so "reals" to be found and most came with their very own particular agenda. One wanted to be an au pair. Another was on hand to photograph the satellite vans.

One man whose umbrella trailed yards of yellow ribbon admitted that some might call him a nutter. Phil Ward had already spent 12 months outside the US Embassy in support of Louise Woodward, and yesterday his was the only voice raised to shout encouragement to her as the white Luxury Land Cruiser carrying the family turned into Marsh Road.

There is a certain logic to this. After all, what is the right way to welcome home a convicted child killer who also happens to be a sweet-faced local girl? We shouldn't be surprised that it was a bit strange. After all, the Louise Woodward story has been peculiar from the beginning and it makes sense that it should be peculiar as this chapter ends.

As always in this case, there were more questions than answers. The answers were given early yesterday morning by Louise in her newly Americanised accent at the Manchester airport press conference. Yes, she would give a proper interview when she got over her jet lag. No, she would not accept any payment for it. Yes, she still maintained her innocence.

The media were told not to ask questions about other things. Especially about the trust fund. If they persisted asking such questions then Louise would simply leave the press conference. The press wants to keep in with the Woodwards (after all, the story isn't over yet) and agreed.

But difficult questions remain, even if they are unspoken. What is going to happen to the trust fund that had raised some pounds 250,000 from all over the world? Did her mother Sue forge an invoice to that trust fund worth some pounds 9,000? Why had Jean Jones, a founder of the support group, suddenly turned on Sue last week, accusing her of being obsessed with money? Did one of Louise's former lawyers really say that she now thought Louise was guilty of killing baby Matthew? And has Sue Woodward agreed to sell her story to a very high bidder already?

The village of Elton pretends to not be interested in such things - on the record. Over the past 16 months they have become adept at this on the record/off the record stuff. Yesterday, for instance, there was no shortage of on-the-record theories about why no one came to welcome Louise home. Christine Gray, a support group member, explained that the village was thrilled. After all, she said, it was what they had been fighting for for such a long time. It's just that some things are better done in one's own front room. Behind closed doors. "The lack of support here means that everybody respects the girl and her family," she said. "In fact I think it shows a very deep respect."

Others claim that the welcome was subdued because no one wanted to be seen celebrating as they had last year when champagne corks flew in the Rigger pub the night Louise's sentence was reduced from 15 years to 297 days.

"I maintain to this day that it was the media that did that. They gave us the champagne," insists support group member Sandra McCabe. Anyone in the village will tell you the same thing. In fact it is one of two things that almost everyone around here agrees on. The first is that Louise Woodward is innocent, and the second is that the media are a ruthless lot. "I'll be glad when it all ends and we can get back to normal," said one villager yesterday.

Whatever normal is. It is hard for villagers to remember what it was like before Louise became their very own cause celebre. When pushed, they can just about recall that the Woodwards were once just another one of those families who didn't mix much with the rest of the village. Gary had helped to build their large detached house and some others in the road, too. He and his wife and their two girls Louise and Vicky lived quietly. So much so that the village did not really react at first when Louise Woodward was arrested in Boston for killing a baby in her care. "This terrible thing had happened and people were going round saying: `Who are these people?' They didn't know them," said one villager.

The person whom the village did know, however, was Jean Jones. It was Jean who mobilised that first support for the Woodwards. A public meeting was called. The Rigger pub offered to hold a Bingo night. A group of women, who became known as the Mothers of Elton, became the support system for the Woodwards. Then everything started to snowball. Sue and Gary often found themselves divided by an ocean as one of them always wanted to be on hand for Louise. Stresses and strains mounted. Money started to pour in and, in January, the money was placed in a trust fund.

The money is now way out of the Bingo night league and Louise and her family have also become mini-celebrities of a kind. The village is full of comments on Sue's new clothes and appearances in general. Why, for instance, did the Woodwards not move to sell their house at the beginning? Such questions may not be fair but then, village gossip rarely is. Sue Woodward is not the easiest person to get along with, they say, and the support group has had its moments. All of this is whispered. On the record, everything has been absolutely wonderful, thank you very much.

The deepest split in Elton is over the money (about pounds 49,000 is left, though fund-raising continues) and how it is used. The saga of Louise Woodward has had its twists and turns but it is only in the past month that things have become really bizarre, with the introduction of the relatively unknown figure of Elaine Whitfield Sharp. She is one of Louise's lawyers and has been described as a mother figure. Certainly she was a friend who let Louise and her family live with her for months.

Their falling-out came in March. Evidently the final straw came when Ms Whitfield Sharp left a note for Louise asking if her visitors could use the side door (and not the main office door). It's the kind of petty thing that you could talk about for hours in a village pub on a slow day. On 27 March, Louise moved out.

All of this came to light after Ms Whitfield Sharp was arrested for drunk driving in Boston on 22 May. Police say she could not recite the alphabet beyond the letter N and was unable to walk straight. They also say she told them that she now believed Louise was guilty. Ms Whitfield Sharp denies this and has her own set of accusations that she was sexually harassed (which the policeman, in turn, also denies).

She was fired from the defence team, but that was not the end of it. The Whitfield Sharps then claimed that Sue Woodward had forged an invoice for about pounds 9,000 for charges that they had never made. The trust fund wholeheartedly backed Sue Woodward but did not directly address the question of whether the invoice was a fake. Then Jean Jones raised further doubts in an interview about Sue: "The money became God. And I find it so sad and yet so sickening that something so good should turn into something like this. I believe the fund should be stopped. God bless all the people that helped and worked so hard."

When you ask the Mothers of Elton about this, they say that Jean is being vindictive. Others say that she had become friends with Elaine Whitfield Sharp when she went to Boston. And, when it comes to Ms Whitfield Sharp, the Mothers of Elton are vitriolic. "I find it incredible that Sue's integrity is being questioned by this woman," said Sandra McCabe. "This is a woman who got drunk and drove and then said that a cop had propositioned her!" But this is also a woman who was once a good friend to Louise Woodward, as was Jean Jones.

Now the talk is all about returning to normal, both for Elton and for Louise. But Louise Woodward will never again be a girl from a little village called Elton that nobody has ever heard of. Louise is infamous and so is Elton. Normal is not an option. The homecoming proved that.