How We Met: Fran Boyd & Donnie Andrews

'I was sitting there reading about this notorious person and I'm thinking, "This isn't Donnie"'
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The Independent Online

Donnie Andrews, 55, was a stick-up man, robbing drug dealers in Baltimore, and is the basis for the character Omar in The Wire. Arrested 19 times, he gave himself up to the police in 1987 after an attack of conscience for a contract hit on a drug dealer, and was given a life sentence. Released in 2005, he now works for the University of Maryland Innocence Project. He married Fran Boyd in 2007. They live in Baltimore, raising her nieces and nephew

I'd been down [in prison] about five years. My first wife had just got murdered and I was cussing at God, "You've taken my wife, what am I supposed to do?" One day I called Ed [Burns, the homicide detective to whom Andrews had surrendered and who later co-wrote The Wire] and he told me about Fran, how she needed help [as a drug addict], and I said, "Looks like you got trouble on your hands."

I called her, and the way she started off cussing at me, I'd normally have just hung up, but there was something in her voice that was saying, regardless of what's coming out of my mouth, you know what's in my heart. So when she finished, I said, "OK, now are you ready to talk? I know just what you're going through, I was on drugs myself, and I rose up from the darkness, and if you don't want to do it for me, do it for yourself."

We talked for about five hours, and when we finished, she asked if I'd call again. We spoke at 4 o'clock every day after that.

I'd always had David [Simon, the reporter who had written up Andrews' story for the Baltimore Sun and later, with Burns, wrote Homicide and The Wire about crime in the city] to talk to, but for personal stuff, I needed Fran. We'd spoken every day for months and her phone bill got to be $2,500. I kept expecting it to be cut off.

It was a year before we exchanged pictures, and another three before we met. The first time I saw her, she came to me and I kept trying to pick her head up to look at me, but she just buried it in my chest. We talked for about seven hours. I'd just met her and it felt like I'd known her forever.

My deal that had been agreed was that I was supposed to get out of jail after 10 years [Andrews had helped Burns with a sting operation against the man who had ordered the murder he was convicted for], but the prosecutor said he hoped I'd die in prison. I told Fran, "You go ahead with your life. I've got a big fight ahead of me," and she said, "If you're fighting, I'm not walking away." Every time the parole board denied me, I broke down and started crying, I felt she was wasting so much time on a lost cause. But Fran got tough and said, "Can we stop the pity party now?" She was so strong-willed, and was there throughout the long journey to get me out.

Fran Boyd, 52, is a former heroin addict who was the subject of The Corner, Simon and Burns' book on street life in west Baltimore. After rehab, she began participating in outreach work for drug addicts and now works as an HIV counsellor for a Baltimore hospital

Back in 1994, Ed and David were writing my story. When they were trying to get information out of me, I'd cuss them out. One day I was telling Ed to get away from me, and he said, "OK, seeing as you're so tough, I've got someone for you." And I was like, "F you, and f the person you're talking about."

The first time Donnie called, on 21 January 1994, I didn't know Ed had given him my number, so I asked him why he was calling, cussing him out. I said I didn't need nobody, and I was just trying to keep that wall up, but we ended up talking for four or five hours. And after that, we'd talk every day. When you're using, nobody wants to hear what you have to say, everybody got problems. You keep everything bottled in, you're mad at the world. But it was different with Donnie. He never judged me, he never criticised me. He'd just say: "It's no problem you messed up, you used again, there's always a new day ahead."

We talked for about three months and I didn't know why he was in jail, but he told David to bring me the article he'd written about Donnie's case. I was sitting there reading about this notorious person, and I'm thinking, this isn't Donnie; I thought it had to be wrong. But it didn't make me want to back away from him; whatever I did, Donnie didn't judge me for nothing. It made me realise that if this man can come up from all this, then I know I can.

A year later we exchanged pictures. He sent me his and when the mail came, I remember sitting on my bed, opening the envelope and the picture fell out, but it was face down, and I thought, "God, please don't let this be a monster." When I flipped it over, I said, "OK, I can work with that."

About three years later [after Boyd had kicked her habit, in late 1996], we actually met. I was afraid of flying and Donnie was in Phoenix, but when I finally built up the courage to fly, David took me to him. I felt like a five-year-old girl. I couldn't look at him; I'm talking all this shit for years on the phone and when I get up to him all I can do is fall into his chest and blush. It took about a half-hour for me to get comfortable, but then it was like I'd known this man for ever.

I've known a lot of women who've had relationships with men in prison; I thought it was one of the stupidest things anybody could do. And knowing Donnie got a life sentence, why would I get involved? But I was already in love with him. And that eight-year wait until he got out: I didn't need that. It was the longest wait of my life.

'Homicide' and 'The Corner' are published by Canongate at £8.99 and £12.99 respectively