A “Rape Fantasy” Plot Sent Her To Jail. Now She’s Fighting Back.

Michelle Hadley never thought she had enemies, until she was framed for a heinous crime.

Michelle Hadley doesn’t know if her coworkers know. In the 15 months since she began her latest job, it hasn’t come up — and before then, to her relief, no one at the agency that placed her at the company asked about it either.

When there’s a gap in your work history, prospective employers usually want to know why. It’s one thing to tell them it’s because you were in jail. It’s another thing to tell them how you ended up there.

“You can imagine going into a job interview,” Hadley said after work one Monday night in December. “How do you talk about something like that?”

Usually, she begins with: “Well, I was falsely imprisoned...”

In the summer of 2016, Hadley arrived home from a date, parking on her quiet cul-de-sac in Ontario, California, to find police officers waiting. In her driveway, she said, they told her they had a warrant to search her phone, tablet, and laptop. Not long after she handed her devices over, Hadley was in handcuffs, sitting in the back seat of an unmarked cop car on her way to the Anaheim Detention Facility.

In her jail cell, the 29-year-old grad student was freezing, still wearing the short, sleeveless black dress she’d worn on her date. But as she shivered and muffled her sobs, Hadley believed the police soon would realize their mistake. Soon they’d see that someone else had committed the litany of sordid sex crimes she’d been accused of.

A month earlier, threatening emails had begun flooding the inbox of a woman named Angela Diaz, the 31-year-old newlywed and pregnant wife of Hadley’s ex-fiancé, Ian Diaz. The messages were unstable, vengeful, and terrifying.

May 29: “I hope you are scared to death tomorrow. Be prepared. Don’t sleep”; “We will steal your child and we will watch as it dies”; “YOU ARE A PIECE OF SHIT AND I HOPE TO GOD YOU BURN FOR WHAT YOU HAVE DONE TO US.”

May 31: “You deserve nothing but a life of lonely torture”; “I have ways to hurt you”; “There is no place you will be safe anymore.“

June 1: “You might be beautiful, you might be the one he married but you are still a sinner and must be punished. I will make sure you are reminded of your place, by force.”

June 2: “I know you are leaving work. I watch as you walk, let’s play a game!”

They carried on for weeks, all appearing to be sent from different email addresses belonging to Michelle Hadley. Some included photos of women, beaten with black eyes, or groped by men in masks, or naked and strangled. Around the same time, someone went on Craigslist looking for a “rape fantasy” partner, begging men to attack her while she was out walking her dog. The user provided Angela Diaz’s address, but these ads and replies too appeared to be written by Hadley. On June 24, 2016, Angela called 911 to report she’d been ambushed in her garage by one of these men.

But that night, as Hadley protested her innocence in the detectives’ car, and then in an interview room at the jail, no one believed she was the victim of a setup — that the emails and Craigslist posts came from faked addresses. It would take months for the truth to come out.

“This is a case where a bunch of cops were looking out for each other.”

Now, two years later, the nightmare is technically over, but it doesn’t feel that way to Hadley, whose story unfurls to anyone who googles her name. For her, to meet a new person is to wonder whether or when they’ll find out. She’s gone on dates with men who’ve searched her name online beforehand and then, in person, only want to talk about her strange past. It makes her angry, and not just because she was framed.

“This is a case where a bunch of cops were looking out for each other,” said Hadley, who lost her job, her reputation, her apartment and possessions, and nearly her sanity, and who last month went public with a fight to reclaim her good name. “I could walk away and say my life is effed, it’s over, who cares anymore? But I want to take a stand, and it’s more than just for me. I don’t ever want this to happen to anyone else.”

Hadley spoke to BuzzFeed News over several hours of interviews, interrupted every so often by tears she quickly wiped away, telling parts of her story she hasn’t before. For the first time, Hadley’s demanding that her ex-fiancé and the police, who could have put her behind bars for life, pay for what she said they did. And she’s got help.

On Dec. 20, a nearly 80-page civil rights lawsuit was filed on her behalf by attorneys Maggie McLetchie and Carrie Goldberg — the latter is best known for representing victims of revenge porn and other sex crimes, including, last year, a woman who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. One night in her downtown Brooklyn office, as Goldberg put finishing touches on Hadley’s complaint, she turned to Hadley and said: “You’re telling the story now. You’re deciding who’s coming to court. Your freakin’ terms. They’re gonna look like shit.”

Hadley’s federal lawsuit — an amended version of a more narrow complaint she filed in California state court in 2017 — alleges that her ex-fiancé, Ian Diaz, a deputy US marshal, was “so hell-bent on punishing her after their relationship dissolved” that he plotted to frame her for stalking and threatening his new wife. Hadley believes that in arresting her, the Anaheim Police ignored Diaz’s masterminding to protect their fellow lawman, becoming a “weapon in his tortuous campaign.”

“At its heart, this is a case about the ‘blue wall of silence,’ i.e. law enforcement officers and officials enabling fellow officers to violate civilians’ rights,” says the complaint, which accuses the city of Anaheim, four Anaheim detectives, and Ian and Angela Diaz of 15 violations ranging from false imprisonment to defamation. While Angela played a role in the scheme, Hadley’s suit alleges that Ian Diaz orchestrated it, yet he alone remains virtually untouched by the scandal. He was never charged with a crime, despite what Hadley said is clear evidence of his involvement and of his law enforcement colleagues’ failure to investigate him.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my head about who did this.”

Instead, the police and the press, fueled by sexist stereotypes, portrayed the case as a “catfight” between two women, the result of a “love triangle” gone bad, said Hadley, who turned 32 the day her new complaint was filed. “The crazy ex, the crazy new wife, all those crazy girls getting emotional.”

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my head about who did this,” she continued. “There never has been.”

Ian Diaz didn’t respond to requests for comments over email, mail, or phone. The Anaheim Police Department said it was “prohibited” from commenting on civil litigation, which includes Hadley’s ongoing lawsuit. But Anaheim’s assistant city attorney, Moses Johnson, who will be representing the police in court, told BuzzFeed News “the position the city’s taking in this case is that the officers had probable cause for the arrest” of Hadley.

Women suspected of crimes — whether innocent or guilty — have long been painted in courtrooms and the media as unhinged, motivated most often by relationship drama. If they’re not the vengeful ex, they’re the temptress mistress. These stereotypes don’t just aid in prosecution, but can also make exoneration harder.

From the beginning, Hadley was outmatched — not only by her ex’s stature as a law enforcement officer, she said, but by the cops’ snap judgment of her as a scorned woman mad with jealousy. The case made more sense if Hadley was a femme fatale rather than a victim. When she told police she was being framed by Diaz, she said they didn’t take her seriously. When she told detectives her relationship with Diaz was abusive, they allegedly asked why she hadn’t reported him earlier. In one interview with police, she recalled being surprised by how many questions they had about her sex life following her breakup with Diaz.

Women suspected of crimes — whether innocent or guilty — have long been painted in courtrooms and the media as unhinged.

Until Ian Diaz came into her life in late 2013, Hadley said she’d only been in one relationship, with the high-school sweetheart she married at 22. Four years later, not long after her divorce, she met Diaz on a dating site. Hadley was 26 then, a thin, bookish brunette with big, expressive brown eyes. Diaz was a 35-year-old US marshal, tall and lanky but sturdy. Hadley found him attentive and sweet, a hard worker who lived with his mom. She felt flattered when Diaz said “I love you” on their second date. It didn’t seem weird to her. Maybe because he was older and more experienced, Hadley thought, he just knew what he wanted.

By the spring of 2014, they’d moved in together.

Diaz’s controlling nature emerged early on, Hadley said in her lawsuit and in our interviews. He wanted her to adopt a sexier look, nagging her to wear crop tops and acrylic nails and pierce her belly button. She said he pressured her to take a $20,000 pay cut to leave her job for a marketing position at his “favorite place,” Disneyland Resort, where he’d formerly worked — something she believes was intended to ensure his ex-colleagues kept an eye on her.

Looking back, Hadley can see the red flags, but then, she went along with what Diaz wanted. She wanted to make him happy, afraid he’d leave her if she didn’t. A detective would later confirm in court that Diaz spied on Hadley’s computer and online activity throughout this time. She believed he was tracking her car, too, her suspicions fueled by Diaz allegedly calling her every time she drove a few miles outside the zone of her home, work, and the school where she was taking night classes to obtain her MBA.

Still, Hadley said yes when Diaz proposed with a big, haloed diamond ring in December 2014. She didn’t just love him — she felt addicted to him. And his influence was intensifying.

For months, Hadley said, Diaz had been asking her to have sex with other men while he watched. She declined repeatedly and eventually threatened to break up with him if he continued. He told her she was overreacting and kept asking. (Diaz’s fantasies would later be discussed in court.) But one Valentine’s Day, Hadley said she gave in, worn down after taking an over-the-counter nighttime cold medicine and a few shots of Fireball for courage. He filmed her having sex with another man, a stranger whom Hadley believed Diaz solicited from Craigslist. The next morning she was sick with regret, she recalled, begging Diaz to destroy the tape. He allegedly told her, “No one put a gun to your head.”

“Nice guy,” Hadley said, reaching for a tissue to dry her eyes. “Nice Valentine’s Day.”

In the summer of 2015, the couple moved into a brand-new two-story condo in downtown Anaheim. Hadley came up with a $14,400 down payment, and they took out a mortgage together. But after they bought the property, the relationship turned more toxic, paranoid, and, from her perspective, physically frightening. She recalled Diaz once pulling over his SUV on the freeway during a fight and telling her to get out. (She didn’t.) Later, when she tried to leave him, he allegedly threw her down on their bed, holding on to her as she tried to claw away, screaming. Hadley’s lawsuit cites “angry tirades and rants for hours on end.” One day, she emailed her sister in New York, detailing some of what was going on and asking for a “crazy check.”

“It started to dawn on me: Yes, there is something wrong with this situation, and I’m not crazy.”

“It started to dawn on me: Yes, there is something wrong with this situation, and I’m not crazy,” she said.

At the end of that summer, Hadley and Diaz broke up. He took her engagement ring back, accusing her of cheating on him. She fit as many of her possessions as she could into her Volkswagen Jetta and drove away. The move freed Hadley physically but marked the beginning of a year-long battle over their condo, where Diaz remained while Hadley still paid half of the mortgage. Their attempts over email to come to a financial agreement over the condo became increasingly bitter. At her most enraged point, Hadley said she blacked out, letting loose with fire-and-brimstone language that she now attributes to a byproduct of Diaz’s alleged abuse.

“You’re in your body, but your mind is somewhere else,” she said of an email she sent Diaz on Sept. 10, 2015. It read: “Your sins are many, including defiling me and my family with your wicked and evil sexual acts, your financial coercion and irresponsibility, your gluttony, your greed, your lust, your sloth, your wrath, your envy, and most of all your pride.” And: “I will bring the full force of the Law and the Word of God against you to judge you.”

By now, despite her strong words, Hadley was becoming increasingly fearful of Diaz, convinced he was using his law enforcement ties to track her and intimidate her into giving him the condo. She recalled spotting SUVs identical to Diaz’s without license plates at various locations far from Anaheim. She told security officers at her job and school, Chapman University, that she was afraid of him. After she reported her concerns to Chapman, school security barred him from campus. Finally, at the end of 2015, after Hadley and Diaz hired property lawyers to help end their dispute, they agreed that in six months — early June 2016 — Diaz would fully assume payments for the condo. If he couldn’t afford it by then, they’d sell. It was over.

What Hadley didn’t know was that during their especially heated online exchange in mid-September, Diaz had reported her “annoying emails,” including her Bible-invoking diatribe, and the fact he’d been banned from Chapman, to the Anaheim Police Department. Though a judge would dismiss it, he also applied for a restraining order, citing his ex’s alleged “emotional instability” and “history of fits of rage.” Hadley was now on law enforcement’s radar.

In January 2016, authorities said, Diaz met a woman named Angela Connell online. A month later, they were married. Angela, who was pregnant, moved into the Anaheim condo with him.

Hadley didn’t know any of this, she said. She was starting over, renting a small apartment near her school, furnishing it on a shoestring budget. She saw Angela’s name for the first time on some financial paperwork, as Diaz’s deadline to assume the mortgage on the condo neared.

A few weeks later, on June 6, she saw it again. This time it was on a restraining order Angela had taken out against her. Hadley was stunned; she’d never met the woman. And until a court hearing related to the order on June 17, she had no evidence or documentation of whatever complaints her ex’s new wife was making. Walking into a courtroom that day with her dad and property attorney, Hadley saw the Diazes surrounded by friends and relatives, some gawking and giggling at her. Angela strode over, confidently handing her a stack of papers — printouts of wildly threatening emails, each signed in a variation of Hadley’s name.

“Here you go,” Angela allegedly said, speaking to Hadley in person for the first and only time.

Hadley, a self-described goody two-shoes, was horrified at the prospect of having a restraining order on her record.

“I had no concept at that time of what was coming,” she said.

Tracing emails back to their origin is a fairly straightforward process. An email is tied to an IP address, which identifies the computer that sent the message. In internet crime cases such as Hadley’s, law enforcement officials can subpoena companies like Google or Microsoft for IP addresses linked to email accounts, although it’s possible to mask IP addresses through virtual private networks (VPNs) or proxy servers — common tools used by people trying to cover their tracks online.

By the end of May 2016, a week or so before Angela filed her restraining order, Hadley sensed something strange was happening to her accounts. She got an email from Google informing her that a Gmail address she’d never started had been shut down. Later, from Microsoft, she received automated messages alerting her that her primary email was now being used as the recovery contact for a handful of new Outlook addresses. It seemed like someone was creating new accounts and trying to tie them back to her.

It seemed like someone was creating new accounts and trying to tie them back to Hadley.

On June 13, one of those new accounts, linked to someone using the name “Lilith Hadley,” replied to a Craigslist ad seeking women interested in rape fantasies in Orange County. “If you are free tonight, come find me,” wrote “Lilith,” providing Angela and Ian’s address. “Force me into my house and take me down.” On June 21 — a few days after her courtroom face-off with Angela — Hadley got an email from Craigslist asking her to verify that she’d created a new ad titled “gang rape fantasy.” According to her lawsuit, she emailed abuse@craigslist.org about the fake ads, but she said she never heard back.

Three days later, Angela called 911 to report that a man had tried to rape her in the garage of the condo. Police found her crying, with a reddened neck and ripped shirt. A few hours later, as Hadley returned home from her date — “a nice date, too,” she said — she was arrested.

While Hadley spent the night in jail, the emails to Angela stopped. But after her parents posted $10,000 in cash to get her released the next morning, the abuse continued. Angela kept receiving macabre emails. Someone kept inviting men on Craigslist to the Anaheim condo. On July 13, Angela called 911 again, reporting a mysterious teen lurking around the condo. The next day, Hadley was arrested again, this time while she was doing homework at her parents’ office. Her bail was set at $1 million, more than her family could afford if they also wanted to hire a good lawyer. Hadley would spend the next three months in jail.

“We believe we have a true public safety issue and if Michelle Hadley is not arrested then [Angela] Diaz will eventually be raped or killed,” the Orange County District Attorney’s Office said later, explaining the arrest.

Hadley likes to say that she wouldn’t wish incarceration on her “worst enemy.” But before all this, she wouldn’t have described herself as the kind of person to have enemies.

She was a “nice person” — a “super-private” “super nerd.” She grew up in a strict, conservative home in Ontario, California, raised to be risk- and party- and even spotlight-averse. She was close with her parents, who own a modest manufacturing business, and her sister, younger by three years. When talking about life before her mid-twenties, Hadley repeats the same safe and orderly adjectives: simple, straightforward, clean, on-track. Nothing that bad had ever really happened to her. She oriented her life around work, sometimes clocking up to 70 hours per week. She paid her bills on time and had an office with a window. Her criminal record was nonexistent.

None of that seemed to sway the detectives assigned to her case. According to the lawsuit, before her first arrest, she’d phoned the Anaheim Police four times to tell them about her suspicions that someone — Ian Diaz, she guessed — was impersonating her online. She contacted the FBI and the Department of Justice too, explaining that her ex was trying to scare her into signing over their shared property. Nobody returned her calls or messages, and prior to arresting her, it appears the Anaheim Police failed to thoroughly confirm Hadley was the one sending threats or orchestrating rape.

“This was not some sort of sophisticated cybercrime.”

Among other things, Hadley’s lawsuit says: surveillance cameras at the entrance to the Anaheim condo’s garage showed no activity during the time Angela claimed to have been attacked; IP addresses showed many of the emails received by Angela had been sent from her and Ian’s condo; emails were alleged to have been sent from Hadley at times when she had no access to her accounts or devices, because they had been seized by police between her two arrests. (Hadley never did get her laptop, phone, or tablet back.)

“This was not some sort of sophisticated cybercrime,” the lawsuit says, describing the Diazes’ attempts to impersonate Hadley as “sloppy” and easily spotted, if investigators had looked.

What appeared to interest police more was that all of these unnerving emails, with all of their Biblical revenge threats, sounded similar to those legitimately written by Hadley — the holy justice–seeking missives Diaz reported as “annoying” months earlier, after their split. Hadley believed whoever was sending the messages had possession of those emails and was trying to mimic her voice.

In jail, because she faced sex charges, Hadley was branded as the worst kind of inmate on the block: an R3, or Romeo in jailhouse parlance. She was strip-searched, confined to her cell 23 hours a day, and allegedly denied access at various times to toilet paper, sanitary products, and contact lenses. An avid runner, Hadley could now only pace around her cell. When she was assigned a roommate, she got a kindly, chatty grandmother being held on child kidnapping charges. The two women couldn’t have been more different, yet now they were stuffed in a cell the size of a walk-in closet, their shared toilet practically touching their bunkbed.

While Hadley’s wrongful arrest gave her a taste, for the first time, of the criminal justice system’s flaws, county jail exposed her to just how thoroughly it was poisoned — and how much worse it was for women who weren’t white or young or healthy. Her roommate was black, 85 years old, hard of hearing and slow-moving, all of which Hadley said inspired taunts and abuse from deputies. Helping her avoid the guards’ ire gave Hadley some purpose. So did writing letters, mostly to her family, but she also received a considerable amount of mail from strangers. Hadley’s arrest made the news, which spread throughout the jail ecosystem, bringing in letters from male inmates hoping she was “freaky.”

On the outside, Hadley’s parents were trying to gather evidence to show she couldn’t have been online at the moment some of the harassing emails and Craigslist messages were sent. It wasn’t difficult. They pulled her school records to show she’d been in class, and medical records to show she’d been hospitalized briefly, indisposed during times she was suspected of menacing Angela. If any of this evidence would have helped sway prosecutors to drop charges, Hadley will never know. Because when she finally was released, she said it was because of Ian Diaz.

On Sept. 30, 2016, he arranged to speak with an Anaheim police detective assigned to Hadley’s case; then, according to court records, Diaz told the detective that he believed his wife had framed Hadley.

The lies he attributed to Angela didn’t end there. Diaz told police that a miscarriage Angela claimed to have suffered in the spring of 2016 as a result of Hadley’s torture was no such thing: It was an abortion he’d encouraged her to have, allegedly because she wasn’t sure who’d fathered the baby. Her next pregnancy also was a lie, Diaz said: She’d bought sonogram photos online and doctored a home pregnancy test to fool him. When he learned the truth, they separated. Authorities would later say Angela faked checks, jobs, doctor’s notes, and cancer, too.

The week after Diaz came forward, Hadley said Richard Zimmer, an Orange County deputy district attorney, reached through cell bars to shake her hand and apologize. She was released while investigators shifted their attention to Angela.

Even after that handshake, it took three months for officials to publicly exonerate Hadley. During that time, she said the district attorney’s office instructed her not to speak publicly about her volatile relationship with Diaz, even though news of the crime had gone national, covered by People magazine, the Washington Post, in multiple stories by the Daily Beast, and eventually Dateline. The goal of the Anaheim Police Department, Hadley’s lawsuit says, became to “cover up its own complicity in the wicked scheme.”

“Everyone wanted to silence me, and that’s the worst thing as a victim,” Hadley said. “How can I heal when the true story’s not even out there, and people are asking questions about the ‘love triangle’?” Hadley wanted to be polite, but she also wanted to yell: “There was no freakin’ love triangle, you idiots!”

“There was no freakin’ love triangle, you idiots!” 

Three months after her release — fed up with waiting and scarred by the heavy ankle monitor she wore for weeks, which banged against her bones each time she went for a run — Hadley told prosecutors that if they didn’t announce her innocence soon, she’d go to the media and tell them all the investigative steps law enforcement had seemed to skip over in order to lock her up.

On Jan. 6, 2017, Angela was arrested, and three days later, Hadley was exonerated by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. Going public with the case, prosecutors portrayed Angela’s capture as the result of “painstaking” cybercrime investigative work, which ultimately revealed that the threatening emails came not from Hadley’s IP addresses, but the IP addresses of the Anaheim condo, Angela’s father’s home, and Angela’s cellphone.

The DA’s office referred to the two women by their names. Not Ian Diaz, though. “The evidence we currently have does not show involvement by John Doe,” the district attorney said, giving Diaz the Doe moniker typically reserved for crime victims. (The DA’s office did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.)

After exposing his wife to police, Diaz “was never questioned again,” Hadley’s lawsuit alleges. When an Anaheim detective asked Diaz to turn over the phone he’d used at the time of the faked emails, Diaz replied that he’d given it to his mom. That phone was never retrieved, the detective later testified.

Prosecutors referred to the case as a “tale,” “stranger than fiction.” The “love triangle” element of the case thrilled reporters, almost as much as the “catfishing.” Hadley’s setup was compared to the book Gone Girl, in which a woman frames her cheating husband for killing her: “Real-Life ‘Gone Girl’ Framed Love Rival in Twisted Craigslist Rape Plot.”

With Angela’s arrest, new details emerged about how the scheme had initially succeeded. Investigators said her use of VPNs made it impossible early on to track the emails they’d originally blamed on Hadley, a defense that Hadley and her attorney dismissed as an excuse to cover their incompetence. According to Hadley’s lawsuit, a warrant returned three days before her first arrest showed that at least 21 of the threatening emails came from the IP address of the Anaheim condo where Ian and Angela Diaz lived.

On Oct. 17, 2017, Angela pleaded guilty to 10 felony charges, including false imprisonment and perjury. Hadley had faced a maximum sentence of life in prison for crimes the Diazes accused her of committing; Angela struck a deal with prosecutors and was given five years in prison. She’s now serving time at the McFarland Female Community Reentry Facility in central California.

Angela’s criminal defense attorney, Allison Margolin, did not speak to BuzzFeed News for this story. But before Angela’s conviction, Margolin suggested the plot wasn’t an “Angela-only scenario.”

“The failure to investigate adequately the role of Ian Diaz in it is a serious concern,” she told Dateline.

Hadley’s feelings about Angela are complicated. She thinks that framing her was “an evil thing to do.” But having experienced incarceration, briefly, Hadley believes jail or prison should be reserved for “the baddest of the bad.”

“And she’s not one of them?” I asked her.

“I don’t think so. He is,” Hadley replied: Ian Diaz. “To me, her going to jail isn’t really true justice.”

Since her exoneration, Hadley’s obtained her MBA and found a good job in her field: marketing for a beauty company. She moved across the country to New York to live with her sister and escape Orange County, the place where she’d become infamous. On the surface, her life might seem back to normal. But trauma has left a crater in her life, as Hadley explained it. She’s still climbing out of debt, largely a result of unpaid bills that piled up during and after her incarceration. By the time of Hadley’s release, Ian Diaz had sold the Anaheim condo, which they’d purchased for about $470,000. She said she didn’t see a cent from the $499,000 sale.

Any money awarded to Hadley from the lawsuit might help pave over some of her life’s destruction. But in hours of talking, Hadley never brought up any cash she hopes to win. Her lawsuit doesn’t come across as a solo quest for a payday or even vengeance, though she’d like to see Diaz investigated and the detectives on her case fired. Rather Hadley said she wants to use her experience — her awakening to the justice system’s cruelty, and her privilege in being exonerated — to do something about the “blue wall of silence.”

After she got out, Hadley persuaded her parents to help the jailhouse cellmate she’d grown close to to pay for an attorney. As a family, they’ve lost the faith they once had in the justice system — a faith Hadley realized was a luxury of being born middle-class and white, prone to assuming the best of the police.

“I don’t think my parents ever saw law enforcement or authority figures with anything but respect,” or as the good guys you’re supposed to trust, she said. She was raised like that, too. “My family has a completely different view of them now.”

The year following her release, Hadley struggled to find work. Employers would show interest and then ghost her, she said, which made her believe they were scared off by her past and those Google results. When she was able to at least get in the door, interviewers would stumble around talking about the case.

Before 2018, California employers were allowed to ask applicants about their criminal record; because she was exonerated, Hadley would never have to check the dreaded box indicating she’d been convicted of a felony — but that didn’t stop employers from asking about her dropped felony charges. Once, she recalled, a hiring manager said, “I came across an article about a Michelle Hadley, but that wouldn’t be you, would it?” At one temp job, the receptionist talked openly about seeing her on the news.

Sometimes, in work or romantic situations, Hadley tries to get ahead of the story to avoid awkwardness later on, bringing it up herself before a new acquaintance can ask. Sometimes she’s able to cast her experience in a positive light, explaining how it’s made her stronger, more resilient, and given her more depth and maturity.

But it’s also made her a cynic, someone who finds it difficult to trust others. She used to want a family of her own someday, but she doesn’t know what’s out there for her now. How do you connect with other people after being so thoroughly betrayed? Hadley questions whether her identity as a “nice person” — that vulnerability that defined her before meeting Diaz — let this happen, and whether she’ll ever get back her optimistic view of the world.

“It’s like she’s still in there, but now there’s another part of me saying: ‘Careful. Careful, because people are dangerous,'” she said. “The world is dangerous.” ●

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