When Bess McDoniel visited the state prison to meet the man who callously victimized her more than 10 years earlier, she was looking for something inside herself - a gut feeling.

She wondered if this man who had robbed and ransacked her home could really have changed. If she had been there, he and his partner might have killed her for the combination to her safe.But circumstances McDoniel attributes to divine intervention kept her from returning on schedule. So the men just ransacked her home and carted off the safe.

Weyland Cowan, once a malicious criminal, now claimed to be a caring and thoughtful Christian who needn't be feared. Despite assurances from his minister, from college officials who had work with Cowan and from others, McDoniel had to see for herself.

"I knew there was a strong possibility religion could be used by someone trying to get out of prison, and it could be used to get to me," said McDoniel, who describes herself as a Christian. "I wanted to see him for myself and trust my gut feeling about it."

She found a man she believed was vastly changed from the "mean and ornery" criminal she had seen years earlier during the trial. That meeting marked the beginning of a mutual admiration and an unlikely friendship between ex-criminal and victim.

Against the advice of friends and family, McDoniel continued the friendship with Cowan and his wife-to-be, Kim. Later, McDoniel played a major role in winning Cowan's parole and served as a witness at Weyland and Kim's wedding.

But she said it wasn't a relationship she jumped into immediately, or blindly. It developed only through a long process initiated and nurtured by Cowan's fiancee.

"I was frustrated that every time Weyland came up for parole it was denied because of the prosecutor in the case," Kim said. "Weyland had a lot of supporters in and out of prison, but this prosecutor kept showing up and said he was representing the victim who did not want Weyland released."

McDoniel said later that she had had no contact with the prosecutor through those years.

After an earlier parole denial, Cowan wrote McDoniel a letter assuring her that he'd changed and she didn't need to fear him. McDoniel found it interesting but did not respond.

Kim, however, took a bolder approach.

"I decided I would contact her," she recalled. "I didn't want anything from her except to assure here that Weyland was a different man and she shouldn't be afraid of him."

Through a coincidental mutual acquaintance, Kim first obtained the name of one of McDoniel's close friends and met with her. Months later, and with the help of the friend, Kim arranged to meet McDoniel.

"She was very guarded and cautious at first and asked a lot of questions," Kim said. "But the longer we talked, the more she opened up."

Many months later, and after many meetings with Kim and conversations with Cowan's minister and others McDoniel accepted an invitation to visit Cowan in prison.