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Last Chapter Of Black Widow Saga: Muddy, Cold, Dying Near Birthplace

February 28, 1987 GMT

ANNISTON, Ala. (AP) _ Exposure to cold brought an end to the criminal career of the ″Black Widow,″ a killer and master of disguise who was found wet, muddy and delirious on a rural porch after four days on the run.

Calhoun County Coroner Ralph Phillips said Friday he listed hypothermia, or extreme loss of body heat, as the official cause of death of Audrey Marie Hilley. An autopsy confirmed the cause of death, officials said.

Mrs. Hilley, who killed one husband, fled custody, staged her own death and set up a new life before being recaptured in Vermont in 1983, became a fugitive Sunday when she failed to return to prison from a three-day leave.

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″Nobody in their wildest imagination thought it would end like this,″ said Sheriff Roy Snead.

″In the end, she was going to confound the experts and do what they would never have thought,″ said District Attorney Bob Field.

Mrs. Hilley, 53, a former Anniston housewife, became known as ″Black Widow″ when she murdered her first husband by lacing his food with arsenic and attempted to murder her 19-year-old daughter by injecting the poison into her veins, claiming it was medicine.

After her arrest in 1979, she fled while free on bond, eluding authorities for three years from Florida to Texas to New England as she posed as a proper professional woman.

According to the FBI, she married a man named John Homan, moved with him to New Hampshire, then went alone to Texas where she faked her own death and returned to Homan posing as his late wife’s sister. She had lost weight and changed her hair, and Homan said he was fooled by the masquerade.

After her latest escape, investigators had said they expected her to leave the state again, once more posing as a respectable career woman.

But she was a grim, ghastly figure when Sue Craft spotted her sprawled out on a rural porch Thursday.

″I really didn’t like looking at her. She was scary,″ said Mrs. Craft. ″There were spots of mud on her face. Her bangs were stuck to her forehead. She had long fingernails, like she had never wrung out a mop. She had thin hands, and the little finger on her right hand wouldn’t straighten out. It was bent double.

″She was so dirty. She talked like her tongue was thick.″

Rescue workers said Mrs. Hilley was still conscious when the ambulance arrived but suffered a convulsion at the scene and lost consciousness.

Linda Barnes, a spokeswoman for Regional Medical Center at Anniston, said Mrs. Hilley suffered a cardiac arrest upon arrival at the hospital. Doctors tried to raise her body temperature and revive her, but were unsuccessful.

The coroner said she apparently had been crawling around in a wood, drenched by four days of frequent rain and numb from temperatures dropping to the low 30s.

″It’s unbelievable,″ said Field. ″This goes against everything she’s done in the past. The biggest escape artist in this area in 10 years, and what does she do? She ended up crawling around in the woods.″

The porch was less than a mile from her Blue Mountain birthplace.

Mrs. Hilley was serving a life sentence for the poisoning of her first husband, Frank Hilley, in 1975. She has been sentenced to 20 years for the attempted poisoning of her daughter, Carol, in 1979.

Field said Mrs. Hilley had a criminal record that should have barred her from any prison pass. He promised an investigation, possibly by a grand jury, into the state prison system’s furlough policy.

The case was the subject of a book titled ″Black Widow″ by former Anniston Star reporter Robin McDonald.