Hell-mates: Sad tale of Winston and Conchita

The final years of the world's foremost railroad photographer were not all peaceful. O. Winston Link, the man who chronicled rural life and steam trains, spent nearly a year in the early 1990s as a prisoner, a slave, or both, according to some of the late photographer's associates.

"I'm surprised no one's written a screenplay yet," says New York gallery owner Robert Mann. "It's an amazing story."

If the case of Conchita Mendoza Link and the alleged in-house imprisonment of her elderly husband sounds unbelievable, think again, says New York lawyer J. Edward Meyer. At the January 10 opening of the new Link museum in Roanoke, Meyer will deliver a presentation entitled "The Trouble with Conchita," detailing the ways Link's wife made his life miserable.

The story began in 1984 when the 70-year-old photographer married a real estate agent 20 years his junior named Conchita Mendoza.

"First, she was sweet as pie," says former Link assistant Tom Garver. "She laid on the charm with a trowel. But then she became pretty nasty."

And according to Westchester County, New York, court records, by the early 1990s, Mendoza Link was treating her husband like the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg. An official court ruling in Winston's 1992 civil suit against Conchita revealed that she

* stole $257,000 by forging his signature and otherwise misusing his bank accounts,

* handed over $60,000 of Link's money to her lover in upstate New York,

* swiped her husband's coin, stamp, and Currier & Ives collections, and– in a move that horrified art-lovers...

* stole about 2,400 of his priceless photographs.

The court also found that at about the same time that she began stealing his money and photos, she began spreading the word to Winston's friends and associates that he was losing his mind, telling Railfan magazine that Link was "going down the Alzheimer path." She mailed cards to galleries and dealers claiming that "due to illness," all correspondence for Link should go to her post office box.

"No one realized what was going on then," says gallery owner Mann, "but this is how she was setting a foundation for her master scheme."

Mendoza Link's mendacity included, the court found, leveling false charges against her elderly husband, including submitting a picture of herself with deeply blackened eyes as evidence of his alleged abuse. She neglected to mention that the photograph had been taken a year earlier, when she had undergone cosmetic plastic surgery around her eyes.

Winston Link's divorce and misappropriation of property suit resulted in a November 1993 civil judgment of approximately $5 million against Conchita Mendoza Link.

New York prosecutors then indicted the former Mrs. Link on criminal larceny charges for all the missing loot. She was convicted of grand larceny in the first degree and sentenced to six-and-a-half to 20 years. In November 2002, she was paroled after serving four and a half years, the required minimum.

Attorney Meyer notes, "She had always denied that she took anything." But Link's old assistant Garver was wary. Scouring eBay in early 2003, Garver spotted a Link picture of a man lubricating the connecting rods of a locomotive in Bluefield– "a very rare print," Garver says. He decided to contact the man who put the print on eBay.

"I said, 'Who's the real seller here– could it be a woman, rather statuesque and very assertive and convincing, named Conchita?" The description matched.

"So I contacted the District Attorney in Westchester," says Garver, "and they set up quite an elaborate sting."

An investigator made a buy, and in May 2003, Conchita was back in jail. A search warrant led to a storage locker near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that contained thousands of Link's photographs, negatives, and transparencies: the long-lost trove.

"She had always denied having them," says Garver. "They caught her red-handed," says Mann.

Unable to post $100,000 bail, Conchita, now 68, and Edward Hayes, whom she married after she got out of jail last year, are behind bars on charges of criminally possessing stolen property. Each faces a maximum 15-year sentence if convicted, and Conchita might face six more years for allegedly violating parole, says Dutchess County prosecutor Ed Whitesell.

"At her age, she's looking at the possibility of spending the balance of her life in prison," he adds.

Conchita will be represented at the March 8 trial by L. Brittany Kilpatrick, a lawyer in the public defender's office.

"She didn't take any of his prints," says Kilpatrick, adding that Conchita came into possession of the pictures lawfully over the course of the marriage.

Amazingly, the most nefarious allegations have never been prosecuted.

In 1991, Meyer says, Mendoza Link confined her husband to the basement of their home. He says that sturdy chains at the top of the steps and a two-by-four barring the outdoor exit kept the 76-year-old arthritis-stricken photographer trapped in the basement where his darkroom was located.

"The effect of the chains on the stairway and the two-by-four was to make him a captive," says Meyer. "She brought food to him and compelled him to make prints."

The basement had no phone, no mail could get out, and she disabled his car by putting sand in its crankcase, Meyer alleges. She told the state that Link– despite a clean driving record– should be stripped of his driver's license.

"This woman is the epitome of evil," says gallery owner Mann. "I wouldn't have been surprised if she had succeeded in killing him."

However, one day, Mann– by this time accustomed to dealing with Mendoza Link– happened to telephone the house while she was out. Moments earlier, Mann says, Link– in search of food from the main floor refrigerator– had escaped from the basement and was near the phone when it rang.

"He had shimmied his frail body through the chains when I called," Mann explains. "He didn't sound like his old self. He was nervous and hesitant– if he were caught, there would be hell to pay."

Mann found Link a lawyer who claimed to be willing to accept photographs in lieu of legal fees from the by-then destitute photo-artist. That lawyer eventually brought Meyer into the picture, and in February 1992, Meyer went to the Links' home in South Salem, New York, and began freeing the photographer from his basement of alleged servitude and his marriage.

"Some of this sounds overwrought," says Garver. "I don't think the kidnapping allegations are as dramatic as have been described, but there's no question that she made Winston print his photographs and sign them too, day after day– and she certainly stole thousands of them."

How did Link end up with such a wife? "That's a question certainly that I asked him," answers Meyer. "First of all, he considered her gorgeous."

Conchita's attorney agrees. "She's a charming, beautiful lady– she's just lovely," Kilpatrick says. But any suggestions of captivity are "absolute nonsense" she says. "Her daughter lived across the street. And her daughter and her husband helped Link around the house. They were very family-oriented. If he'd been kept prisoner, they'd have known about it," says Kilpatrick.

Ironically, Mendoza Link met her alleged conspirator and future husband, Edward Hayes, through Winston Link's train obsession. Link sent a Canadian Pacific freight engine he owned to the locomotive repair business Hayes operated in Rome, New York. According to court documents, Hayes performed little of the contracted work– but took Link's money and his wife.

Link had borrowed $150,000 from a relative to pay for the repair of the locomotive. "Certain parts of the steam engine were lost, taken, or stolen, and the condition of the steam engine has greatly deteriorated," reads the court finding. While Garver believes the engine lies moldering somewhere, officials with the Link museum say the engine was eventually scrapped.

"Mr. Hayes worked on that engine for two years," responds Conchita's attorney, who calls the money-for-nothing allegation "a vicious lie."

Gallery owner Mann considers Westchester County D.A. Ken Citarella a hero for prosecuting Mendoza Link in the first criminal case. So why didn't he prosecute the alleged in-house imprisonment? Citarella can't speak to the press, but Mann believes the evidence may have paled beside the larceny evidence.

"He probably chose the crime that gave him the most rope to hang her by," says Mann. "They didn't want to take any chance that she would walk."

According to Garver, Link's mind never faltered– but his heart did. Link underwent bypass surgery after suffering a heart attack while visiting Roanoke in 1994. Although Link had been active in encouraging the museum dedicated to his life's work, he did not live to see it finished.

In January 2001, near his home in New York, he suffered another heart attack. According to Garver, as Link was driving to see a doctor, his condition worsened. He pulled his car over but died before help could arrive. The car was in Katonah, New York, parked– coincidentally, Garver insists– outside the town train station.

This card, allegedly sent to art dealers and galleries, was evidence in the civil case against Conchita Mendoza Link.