Conchita's plea: Link's ex-wife admits guilt

In the decade since she was divorced by the world's most celebrated railroad photographer, Conchita Link Hayes always insisted that she was not hoarding his steam railroad photographs and other priceless memorabilia. That changed on Thursday, March 4.

"She pleaded guilty," said prosecutor Edward Whitesell, "so there's no trial."

In January, the fame of her former husband, O. Winston Link, who died three years ago, got a boost with the opening of a museum in Roanoke bearing his name.

Whitesell said he fully expected the prosecution to begin as planned on Monday, March 8, in Dutchess County, New York. "There had been some [plea] discussions over the past few weeks," Whitesell said, "but they didn't seem to be very fruitful."

About a week before the trial, Whitesell says, the defense attorney suggested a deal that would probably result in a two- to four-year sentence. Conchita, age 68, could have faced up to 15 years had she been convicted at trial, Whitesell says. She and her current husband have been jailed since they were caught trying to sell some Link photographs in May.

Whitesell says the plea has several positive ramifications, most notably that Conchita waives her right to appeal. That means the Link estate– and perhaps the new museum– will soon get the recovered booty: over 100 20"x24" prints and nearly 400 16"x20" prints. Just 30 of the larger prints, confiscated last May in a sting, were appraised at nearly $500,000, Whitesell says, so the total trove is worth several million dollars.

And there's more than photos. When authorities searched a rented storage unit in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Conchita was living, Whitesell says, they also found early notebooks and other Link writings– as well as the original ink stamp Link affixed to his unique nighttime photographs of America's last steam railroad. Whitesell says that had the case gone to trial, appeals might have stretched as long as five years, and the state would have to retain all the memorabilia.

"Those are things people might want to be able to see," says Whitesell. "I thought it was important that those things didn't stay locked up in some evidence locker."

The case of O. Winston Link and Conchita Hayes had the makings of a scary movie. Some of Link's friends have described the elderly photographer confined in a basement by a cheating wife who forced him to make prints day after day, the proceeds of which he wouldn't live to see.

Link would, however, live to see some measure of fame. At the time of his death in 2001, the photographs he shot along the Norfolk & Western Railway in the late 1950s had become the subject of numerous gallery shows and two books.

The couple married in 1984. The court agreed with Link's claims in his 1992 divorce suit that his wife had stolen over $300,000 by forging Link's signature, misusing his bank accounts, and handing over $60,000 to her lover in upstate New York. The recent criminal charges had stemmed from her failure to comply with a court order in that case.

A 1996 larceny conviction put Conchita in jail for four years; upon her release in 2001, she married her lover, Edward Hayes. In May 2003, prosecutors conducted a sting operation in which an investigator– posing as a corporate collector recovered 30 prints valued at $350,000 to $500,000. "And that value has increased," Whitesell says, "due to the publicity." The pair are currently jailed for that crime.

Tom Garver, the museum's organizing curator and a former Link field assistant, says that many of Link's possessions have never been found.

"In fact," says Garver, "a lot more was stolen: his father's stamp collection, his father's coin collection, and many more photographs."

The prosecutor included a clause that might address those missing goods. As part of the plea, Conchita Hayes had to swear that the contents of the raided storage unit are the last of the property she took from the marriage. Should more material turn up, she would immediately face a perjury charge, Whitesell says.

"I think it's very interesting that she has admitted she was selling hot goods," Garver says, "because she never has before."

While Garver downplays the claim that Link was held captive by his wife, two close Link associates, attorney J. Edward Meyer and gallery owner Robert Mann, allege that Conchita used barriers– including metal chains on the staircase– to confine her arthritic husband in their Westchester County basement in the early 1990s.

She told a railroad magazine he had Alzheimer's and sent cards asking galleries to direct all correspondence to her "due to illness."

"No one realized what was going on," Mann told The Hook in January, "but this is how she was setting a foundation for her master scheme."

What isn't disputed is that Link– who survived another 10 years and played a role in bringing the photographic trove to Roanoke– lived in his basement where his darkroom was located and made prints. Link's friends say that the photographer was indeed physically ailing at the time but that his mind remained clear.

"This woman is the epitome of evil," Mann has said.

"That's nonsense," says Conchita's lawyer, L. Brittany Kilpatrick, who describes the basement as "carpeted and nicely furnished."

"She felt that he had Alzheimer's," continues Kilpatrick. "And my reading of the transcript of the criminal trial led me to believe this guy was wacko. He certainly did not sound like a nice man from the [trial] transcript. He was very caustic."

Link's friend Garver blames Link's physical frailty– after a lifetime of independence– for turning him "negative" and "querulous" in his final years. Garver says there is another good reason: "He always had a paranoid streak, and the episode with Conchita amplified that."

Kilpatrick says that although her client has pleaded guilty to criminally possessing the photographs, they were fairly acquired during the marriage. "She maintains she never stole any prints from Mr. Link," says Kilpatrick.

Be that as it may, last week, Mr. and Mrs. Hayes pleaded guilty to criminal possession of stolen property. Sentencing is set for April 2.

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



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