Hell In Gangstas' Paradise- The Sun Newspaper- Exclusive News Feature- **May 2011***

Sharon Bridges approached us to get the best possible deals for her story of what happened after she went to live with a man who she had married in a US jail after becoming his penpal.

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LOCKED out of her apartment and hammering on the door, Sharon Bridges had never felt so alone.

Inside was her husband of two years, Rickey Bridges, who had been released from a tough American jail just two months earlier after serving 14 years for manslaughter.

Sharon, 34, had given up her job, her husband, her son and her life in Britain to marry the ex-con after meeting him through a pen-pal service.

But instead of the fairytale romance she had hoped for, the British mum found herself living on a gang-ridden, drug-infested Los Angeles housing estate.

Now back in the UK, Sharon told The Sun: "I feel like an idiot but I loved Rickey with all my heart and I wanted to make my marriage work.

"But the final straw came when he locked me out after a blazing row about how I made the bed.

"I called my mum and she bought me a one-way ticket to come home. I'll always love Rickey but I just couldn't stay there any longer."

Sharon, from Nottingham, was a married finance worker with a young son when she first made contact with Rickey in 2007. She wants her ex and son to remain nameless to protect their privacyShe said: "I'd been married to my first husband for almost ten years and we'd become like ships that pass in the night. I'd seen a documentary about how prisoners often don't get mail and I felt sorry for them.

"So I found a website that allows you to write to a prisoner in America and logged on."

Sharon picked Rickey, also 34, to be her pen-pal after seeing his online profile, which seemed warm and friendly.

She said: "My first letter to Rickey was ten A4 pages long. It felt good to pour out my feelings to him."

Incredibly, just five months after receiving Rickey's first letter, Sharon ended her marriage and by March 2008 Rickey had confessed he was falling in love with her and proposed marriage.

Sharon said: "I was falling for him too and we got on brilliantly.

"I knew he had been a gang member in his youth and at 21 he'd been speeding when the car crashed and killed a 19-year-old woman, which led to the manslaughter charge.

"But he told me that was all in the past and he wanted to have a future together with me."

They married in October 2008 in the visiting room of North Kern State Prison, California. Sharon wore a simple white dress and Rickey was in his blue prison jumpsuit.

Sharon's mum Marion was a guest along with other inmates. With alcohol banned in jail they toasted the ceremony with cans of soft drink Sprite.

Sharon then returned home to the UK to begin the process of applying for a visa so she could live in America with Rickey, who was due to be released in February this year.

She said: "It was very stressful to be living halfway around the world from your husband while he's incarcerated, not to mention expensive.

"I'd try to visit two to three times a year and we kept in contact through letters and many phone calls."

After taking redundancy from her finance job and selling her house, Sharon moved to LA four days before Rickey was released.

She said: "As far as I was concerned I was going to start a new life with my husband.

"All the time he was in jail he'd told me how he couldn't wait to settle down with me and live together as husband and wife."

Rickey's grandfather owned a one-bedroom apartment on a social housing estate in central LA which the couple moved into, but Sharon found life there difficult. She recalled: "There were gangs hanging around outside every shop - not teenagers with hoodies on bikes, but real gangs.

"The Crips, to which Rickey belonged, and the Bloods operated in that area and although the police in LA have cracked down on people wearing gang colours or having gang tattoos, it was still rife.

"There was a lot of drug dealing and the park near our house - the only place I could get a mobile phone reception to call home - was littered with spoons which addicts had used for preparing heroin to smoke.

"I went into one store to buy some vegetables one day and a gang member came right up to me, in my face, and said he knew who my husband was and he was watching me. I was terrified and I left the store shaking."

Parole officers would visit their home unannounced at all hours of the day and night to test Rickey's urine to check if he was doing drugs. And, as Sharon struggled to get a job, she began to feel isolated so far from home.

She said: "All Rickey's old friends started to come out of the woodwork. I don't think they were gang members but they weren't working.

"Rickey would spend more and more time with them, drinking in their back yards and staying out late." Everywhere Sharon turned she was reminded of Rickey's past - once even bumping into the family of the girl he killed in the crash.

She said: "I noticed some women staring and whispering about me in the park and I found out they were the victim's cousins.

"It's lucky they had forgiven Rickey for what happened otherwise I could have been in a very dangerous situation."

And at home the situation was worsening.

Sharon said: "Rickey had become verbally abusive, saying I was not worth s**t to him.

"When I tried to talk to him about his behaviour he'd say he'd dealt with authority in prison for 14 years and wasn't dealing with it now he was out."

The final straw came earlier this month with a blazing row at 3am when Rickey came home and started an argument about the way Sharon had made the bed.

She said: "He threw me out of the house and locked the door, saying, 'I just don't care where you go b***h, walk in front of a truck for all I care.'

"My son was due to come out for a visit and I knew then I couldn't let him see his mother being treated that way.

"I phoned my mum and begged her to get me out. She bought me a one-way ticket and I left with just my handbag and the clothes I was stood in.

"It was a big shock for me to see how Rickey behaved.

"Obviously I had never seen this side to him when he was in prison and I thought we'd be blissfully happy together when he came out."

Sharon has spoken to her husband twice since she returned to the UK. Now living in Ayrshire, she said: "He was crying and desperate for me to go back but I have nothing to go back to there.

"I still love him. After four years together you can't just switch that off. But he needs help to deal with his behaviour.

"Rickey isn't the person I thought he was but I don't regret our relationship. I see it as something that was meant to happen and something I've learned a lesson from."

Now Sharon is planning to rebuild her life in the UK with the support of her family.

She said: "My mum has been very supportive and has never said, 'I told you so.' I haven't really told anyone else what's gone on and people might think I've been stupid. But really I'm heartbroken and I don't care what anyone else says.

"Now I want to get a job, focus on rebuilding my life and look towards the future."


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