ELKHART — Lana Canen knew she hadn't killed anyone, but she was convinced she was going to prison anyway.
Canen, who was 45 years old when she was charged with felony murder in connection with the death of 94-year-old Helen Sailor, said at first she could not get over the shock of learning she was a person of interest in a homicide case.
"I'm no angel, but I'd never gotten in trouble with the law," she said. "I'm not violent. I've never even been in a fight. I'm a pretty laid back person."
Once she was incarcerated, she knew it wouldn't be easy to prove to the court she was innocent, Canen said.
Sailor was found dead the morning after Thanksgiving in 2002 in her apartment at the Waterfall Highrise housing building in Elkhart. Following an autopsy, officials determined Sailor died of asphyxiation caused by strangulation.
According to court files, Sailor's apartment was in disarray. Her dresser drawers were on her bed and their contents had been removed. A Bible in which Sailor was known to keep money was empty.
Canen and Andrew Royer, both residents at the Highrise apartments, were charged with murder in connection with Sailor's death two years later.
Canen and Royer were convicted of murder following a joint jury trial in 2005.
"It could have been for something I did do. It would have been easier to accept. But when it’s something you know you didn’t do, it's kind of hard to..." Canen trails off chuckling bitterly.
Canen said she was first told she was a person of interest in the homicide investigation when she was arrested for check deception.
Canen had been struggling to keep up with payments, barely able to pay for her rent, she said. She was arrested twice after she failed to pay a fee for overdrawing her banking account. It was on the second time she was arrested that she was interrogated about Sailor's death, Canen said.
"When my brother came to pick me up (from the jail,) I put my arms around him and started crying, I said 'Nick, you're not going to believe this.' I told him what police had told me that day. He was shaking his head in disbelief."
Canen said despite knowing no one else, aside from her family, knew she was being looked at as a person of interest in a homicide investigation, she still felt exposed.
Canen was evicted from her Waterfall Highrise apartment, and was in the process of moving into a new apartment when she was arrested.
It was Labor Day Weekend, and Canen was sitting in the basement in her mother's house, watching TV, when police arrived.
Sandra Brinson, Canen's mother, said she was babysitting that day when a couple of officers entered the house through the front door and immediately searched her home. A few other officers were standing around the house as well, she said.
"They surrounded the house like there was a serial killer in here," Brinson said.
Canen said that her first year incarcerated, while she waited for her trial, was difficult because she was still in disbelief.
"It was (hard) at first, but then you get used to it," Canen said. "You have to get used to it; there’s nothing you can do about this situation."
According to the files, when police interviewed Royer, Canen's co-defendant, he told them he said he went to Sailor's apartment and strangled her with a rope. He said he used towels to clean up the apartment and later threw them down the garbage chute.
The next morning Royer told police again that he strangled Sailor. In subsequent interviews Royer denied having killed Sailor, and his descriptions of his Thanksgiving Day activities were inconsistent. By then, Royer had provided details of the incident that were unknown to the public, according to court files.
Canen, who knew Royer as a friend and neighbor at the apartments, said she thinks Royer is innocent.
Canen said Royer would stop by her apartment and watch TV with her sometimes. When Canen moved to her new apartment, Royer helped her unpack.
"When he ran out of cigarettes I gave him cigarettes. He'd come up and drink coffee," she said. "We watched cable together, because he didn't have cable. He would help me go to the store and carry my groceries. We were just friends."
According to court files, one witness told police Canen and Royer fell silent and stared at the floor when conversation about Sailor's death was brought up. Another witness said Canen told her "no one was supposed to get hurt." According to the files, Canen also told the witness that "she went upstairs to see an old lady," because the old lady had told her that she could "come and get money."
The prosecuting attorneys' strongest piece of evidence against Canen was a medicine tube found in Sailor's apartment with a fingerprint that seemed to match Canen's.
After her conviction, Canen was sentenced to 55 years in prison. She said she was transferred to the Rockville Correctional Facility about two weeks later.
"When they found me guilty they wouldn't let me hug my mother or my daughter," Canen said. "I knew that once they took me to jail I wouldn't have the chance to hug them again."
LIFE IN PRISON
The shows on TV make it seem worse than what it is, Canen said. She had never set foot in a prison and was genuinely scared about being transferred.
"I know when I finally got there I started crying again, because I knew that was going to be my world from then on," she said. "I felt so alone, and I'm the type of person who likes to be by myself. But for once I felt so alone, like I had nobody."
Slowly, other inmates would approach Canen and introduce themselves. Canen became known as the other inmates' "prayer warrior," because of her faith.
Canen said she told other inmates her story, explaining that she was innocent. Some would believe her while others had their doubts.
"Some of them would come in and would straight up tell you who they killed," she said. "I was sometimes afraid of being with some of these women because some of them did kill people, or beat people up. I've never even been in a fight."
Canen said she never stopped fighting for her freedom.
Canen filed an appeal, but the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's conviction and sentence. She then filed a petition for post-conviction relief.
The State Public Defender's office appointed Cara Wieneke, a private counselor, as Canen's attorney. Canen refers to Wieneke as one of her angels.
Wieneke hired an independent examiner to look at the fingerprint collected from the scene and see if it matched Canen's.
In a post-conviction relief hearing in 2012, the original fingerprint examiner, Dennis Chapman of the Elkhart County Sheriff's Department testified, saying he had since looked at both fingerprints and found they did not match.
The Elkhart County Prosecutor's Office joined Canen's request for the court to vacate the conviction.
Canen was transferred back to the Elkhart County Jail to await her retrial when Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill announced he was dismissing all charges against her in November 2012.
THE TASTE OF FREEDOM
Canen said she was asleep when the jail officers came to her cell. They woke her up and told her to pack her items.
Confused, Canen asked where she was going. They told her she was being released.
Canen said she tried to contact her mother, and then a friend, to get ride home. When no one answered, she thought about walking the three miles to her house.
"I was ready to go, I just wanted out," Canen said.
An officer drove Canen to her mother's house, where Brinson was waiting for her. Brinson received a call from the prosecutor's office, with news about her daughter's case.
When Canen got home, Brinson explained to her that she wouldn't have to go to prison again.
"I was just feeling relief, shock. I was happy," Canen said. "All those years I prayed and waited, and the day finally arrived."
Canen said she has been busy rearranging her life. She had to get another driver's license, get her court records to apply for disability, get an apartment and get a car, among other things.
Canen said she lost most of her possessions while she was in prison because her family was not able to keep them.
All the boxes Canen had moved into her new apartment right before her arrest were kept in storage for a while, Brinson said. But when she stopped being able to pay for storage she knew she had to get rid of most of her daughter's possessions.
"I started from scratch," she said. "I walked out of (jail) with a pair of sweats, a sweatshirt, and they gave a T-shirt and a pair of pants and socks and a bra."
Canen is now dealing with several medical issues, some with which she was dealing before her incarceration, including back and neck injuries.
Canen said she missed her family the most. But there were so many other things she enjoyed once she was out from prison. She could now eat what she wanted. The prison didn't even have her favorite m&ms, the plain ones.
"I just wanted to do whatever I wanted to do, without asking if I could go to the bathroom," she said. "I just like to stay home and watch TV. I've always been kind of a loner kind of person."
During those eight years of imprisonment, Canen kept her faith, and eventually it paid off.
"I sometimes even wondered myself if I was ever going to get out. I didn't want to completely give up."