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Mixed Reactions Meet Woodward in UK

June 18, 1998

ELTON, England (AP) _ Vowing to clear her name, Louise Woodward returned home Thursday to muted celebration in her hometown village _ and increasing grumbling about the heroine’s status some awarded the woman convicted of killing a baby boy.

The tabloid Mirror took it to extremes with the headline ``First Class Baby Killer,″ referring to the former au pair’s first-class airline flight from the United States.

But ordinary citizens, too, expressed reservations about her celebrity status coming at a dreadful price.

One caller in a Sky-TV phone-in labeled the hoopla ``absolutely disgusting,″ and others noted that no matter what view people might hold of the 20-year-old’s guilt or innocence, the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen should not be overshadowed.

Ms. Woodward, in her first public comment since November, spoke of the loss of the child entrusted to her care.

``I feel great sorrow for the death of baby Matthew,″ she said, nervously facing hordes of reporters at a news conference at nearby Manchester Airport. ``But like I’ve said time and time again, I had nothing to do with his death.″

In the north England village of Elton, yellow ribbons fluttered from trees and lampposts and residents expressed great joy, but there was little outward celebration on the mostly deserted streets.

Citizens remembered all too well the criticism that followed their raucous champagne celebration when a Massachusetts judge freed Ms. Woodward in November.

It all contrasted with the overwhelmingly enthusiastic support offered Ms. Woodward after her conviction in October, when most national newspapers waged campaigns to win her freedom and 93 percent of the respondents to a Sky poll said her trial was unfair.

Thursday, many newspapers did not even mention her impending return on their front pages.

Ms. Woodward’s trip home followed Tuesday’s ruling by a Massachusetts high court that a lower-court judge acted within his power when he reduced her second-degree murder conviction to manslaughter and sentenced her to the 279 days she had served since her arrest.

At her news conference, the former au pair said she did not receive a fair trial and predicted she eventually would be cleared of killing young Matthew by shaking him and slamming his head against a hard surface. He died Feb. 9, 1997.

In Elton, members of the Justice for Louise campaign committee said the low-key homecoming did not signify any weakening of the community’s support.

``It’s been a privilege to have been able to help an innocent girl,″ committee member Christine Gray said. ``Everybody just felt the family should be allowed to come home in a dignified manner.″

``I think the bad press made them all keep quiet now,″ Irene Williams said of her fellow residents.

Gwyn Hamilton, a 16-year-old supporter, said some residents had grown envious of the celebrity status Ms. Woodward and her family had received.

``They’re sorting out the people who really supported her and the people who went along for the ride,″ he said.

Jean Jones, a committee cofounder who recently quit, would not speak to reporters Thursday. Mrs. Jones had contended that Ms. Woodward’s mother, Sue, used a defense fund containing thousands of dollars as a private stash and that the family was generally ungrateful for all the support.

British Airways spokeswoman Kate Gay confirmed the defense fund had paid for the one-way, first-class Boston-London tickets for Ms. Woodward and her father, Gary. Ms. Gay would not disclose the price, but such tickets generally cost about $4,400 each.

Ms. Woodward still faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Matthew Eappen’s parents.

U.S. District Judge William Young barred her from spending any sales proceeds from her story and set a trial date of Oct. 5 in that suit. The former au pair vehemently denied Thursday that she has any plans to sell her story.

Elton resident Anne Hatfield, who supports Ms. Woodward, said it was perhaps inevitable that some people would turn on her now.

``I hope she does clear her name but sadly, a little boy has lost his life, which we can’t get away from,″ Ms. Hatfield said.

``Those who think she’s done it are going to be really vicious,″ she said. ``And those who are for her are really campaigning for her. There will be a small element _ there always is, isn’t there? _ who are doubtful.″

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