How Serving Time for Tax Evasion Restored Michelle's Integrity
The following article was originally published in the Women's Spring 2020 edition of Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.
"I was never able to be just an innocent child," says Michelle Payette.
Her father was an abusive man with legal troubles. Those troubles eventually drove Michelle and her family from Illinois, her birthplace, to the racetrack town of Saratoga Springs, New York. Soon after, her parents got divorced, and Michelle's mother married a man who was a convicted felon, though Michelle didn't know it until much later. He ran an automotive shop that kept two sets of books. Michelle grew up thinking that it wasn't quite legal, but she figured that was just the way business was done.
Her life lacked stability. To top it off, her mother was depressed. By the time she was 13, Michelle was spending her evenings in a bar, piling on makeup and pretending to be much older. She partied hard with the rock stars who came through town.
THE APPEARANCE OF SUCCESS
At 21, Michelle married an older man and had her first child, a daughter. She settled into motherhood and worked for a salon. On the outside, she had the appearance of success—a nice house, a car, a family. But her marriage was unhealthy, and when she got pregnant again, her husband didn't want the baby.
Michelle ended that pregnancy, but the decision left her depressed—and she was told she'd be unable to conceive again.
"I was convinced, even though I didn't really have a relationship with Christ, that God was punishing me," she remembers.
UNDER THE TABLE
Michelle's marriage fell apart after that. She fell back on wilder habits and went to the Bahamas with a younger man. She got pregnant with a son, and it felt like a miracle. But her relationship with this child's father was also unhealthy. It ended in a restraining order.
It was then, Michelle remembers, that her boss asked her to help him evade taxes. At the same time, under financial strain, Michelle started paying herself "advances" under the table and used the corporate card to pay bills. Deep down, she knew it was stealing, but she told herself she would catch up on her finances eventually.
"In hindsight, it was probably selfishness. I loved [our lifestyle]. It brought me comfort being [in my home]. It filled an empty space that I had," she says. "But in reality, it still didn't fill everything."
THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE
In 2008, Michelle started going to church. Soon, she didn't feel comfortable with what her boss was asking her to do, but she also didn't know how to tell him "no." So she simply stopped filing the taxes, and that triggered a tax investigation.
Michelle laid her situation before Sue, a friend from church. Sue told her plainly, "Michelle, you've got to stop lying. There's an old saying, 'The truth will set you free.'"
Ready to be free from her web of lies, Michelle told the district attorney what she'd done. She was offered two to six years in state prison.
A WOMAN RESTORED
"Everything changed the day I went into lock-up," says Michelle. The girl in the next cell was suffering through heroin withdrawal. To comfort her, Michelle, who despite going to church had not yet accepted Jesus into her life, started reading aloud from a Bible.
As she moved from one state prison to another, Michelle turned an empty closet into a Christian reading room and played the piano for chapel services.
In 2011, Michelle helped with the Angel Tree® sign-ups at her facility, so that mothers could make sure their children received a Christmas gift. Michelle's daughter was already grown, but her son was 11. He received his first Angel Tree gift that year. He began going to church and would tell Michelle about Jesus during their phone calls.
"My son led me to that close, personal relationship [with Jesus Christ], and it was all due to him receiving that Angel Tree gift," she remembers.
Michelle went home on April 27, 2012, with $40 and a bus ticket to her name.
As she got her life reestablished, Michelle contacted Prison Fellowship® and eventually became an Angel Tree volunteer. In 2017, she was hired as an Angel Tree program specialist and was promoted to Angel Tree field director a year later. She now helps make sure that thousands of children just like hers get a Christmas gift and a message of love from Mom or Dad.
It hasn't been easy, but Michelle has paid back nearly every penny that she owed, and last year, she bought her own home again. She has moved past the lies that were part of her past. And though she might make less money than she did breaking the law, she doesn't mind.
"Everything I need is provided for," she says. "I'm paying taxes. I'm doing it legally. I got custody of my son back. And I feel richer today than I did back then."
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