By John Aguilar
Camera Staff Writer
LeAnn Emry took pity on the powerless, whether abandoned animals or men behind bars.
As she struggled with bipolar disorder and depression, she fed her own sense of self-worth by helping the underdog, said her father, Howard Emry.
“She had a compassionate heart, but she didn’t know when to be cautious,” he said.
As a young girl, Emry remembers, LeAnn “kidnapped” four or five kittens from her grandparents’ farm in Idaho, hiding them in the back of the family pickup for the drive home to Colorado, because she thought the animals might not get the care they needed.
“Our place looked somewhat more like a zoo than a home,” said Emry, who counted two chinchillas, a rabbit, a ferret, three dogs, two cats, a turtle, a hamster and a goat among his daughter’s collection of pets over the years.
Her compassion, he said, would later shift to male inmates.
“They were down-and-outers that nobody else cared about,” Emry said. “Here she is again — this compulsion to help someone that nobody else wants to help.”
Born in Weiser, Idaho, LeAnn moved to Colorado at age 7, where she took an interest in music and science and was an A student at Eagle Crest High School in Aurora. She became a Christian, graduated a year early and won a community service award from President Clinton for her volunteer work at the University of Colorado Medical Center and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
But fellow students teased her reliance on a backboard — which she carried from age 14, after cracking a vertebra while play-wrestling with her father.
As a result, LeAnn’s loyalties lay with unpopular classmates and kids who came from tough family circumstances.
She suffered further setbacks after high school. Her failure to get into a physical therapy program at Arapahoe Community College “totally devastated her,” Emry said, and LeAnn postponed her career at age 19, after her mother, Darlene, developed a brain aneurysm that hospitalized her for two months.
“That changed the entire dynamics of the family. Before that, Darlene was the glue,” said Jennifer Howland, a neighbor of the Emrys at the time. “LeAnn sort of had to pick up all the pieces.”
LeAnn stocked shelves part-time at Walmart while caring for her mother and younger sister for nearly a year.
She then turned back to her love of animals, volunteered at a no-kill shelter and became a veterinary technician. When she lost that job in early 1999, she began to lose all hope.
Her back pain — exacerbated by a car accident — combined with career troubles to plunge LeAnn into a dark place.
“Her life spiraled like you wouldn’t believe,” Howard Emry said. “She fell into a terrible depression.”
When an old high school classmate, Kevin Niner, asked for her help in bailing him out of jail, LeAnn obliged and soon eloped with him.
But the relationship quickly soured.
LeAnn was arrested on felony menacing charges in the fall of 1999 after brandishing a gun and threatening to kill her husband and herself.
After the couple moved to Dallas, LeAnn started stripping at private parties and was being physically abused, Howard Emry said.
“She called me one evening and said, ‘Dad, I can’t take this anymore. My life is hell,’” he said.
Emry drove to Dallas in the spring of 2002 and brought his daughter back to Colorado, where she filed for a divorce.
But by then, LeAnn had begun a romantic relationship by letter with another man behind bars. Steven Holley, who once shared a cell with her ex-husband, would soon introduce her to Scott Kimball.