Moving Witness

Cheri Young Tells the Edwards Jury of Her Ordeal

The wife of John Edwards's ex-staffer held the courtroom rapt on Monday with stories of Rielle Hunter's bizarre behavior and demands.

Shawn Rocco / Landov

It was arguably the most compelling day of testimony so far. Thirty-eight-year-old Cheri Young, wife of Andrew Young, the onetime top aide to Senator John Edwards, held the courtroom spellbound as she gave a running narrative of how her family's life was turned upside down once a pregnant Rielle Hunter entered the picture.

But most important for the prosecution's case, Cheri Young placed presidential candidate Edwards smack in the middle of the so-called Bunny Money, the $725,000 donated by the wealthy philanthropist Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, which began to flow in June 2007.

When Cheri Young was questioned whether it was legal for her to deposit the Mellon checks by endorsing them with her maiden name, she testified, "I heard Mr. John Edwards tell me on the phone he had talked to his campaign lawyers ... This was not a campaign donation. He said, 'Get the money in!' [to the bank] He was very short and very angry."

Prosecutor Robert Higdon asked how she reacted to that command from her husband’s boss. After a long pause she said, "My husband and I had given everything to make this man president. If I didn't do this, the campaign was going down."

"So you took the checks to the bank?"

"Yes I did ... I was shaking in my boots. How could this be legal?" And from that day on, Young told the jury, she and her husband were "always scared," fully aware they were the only ones who knew that a presidential candidate had a pregnant mistress.

There was much testimony about the personality quirks of Rielle Hunter. The first night she came to hide at the Youngs' home—located in a gated community they thought would keep the media at bay—"she took a big spin in our entryway and said, 'I'm heeeere!'" Young recalled, holding held her arms wide over her head, mimicking Hunter's move. "No hello, nothing,” Young said. “She was glad to be pregnant and wanted the world to know about it. I was very intimidated."

Once the Youngs were tasked with keeping the very demanding Hunter both hidden and happy, they quickly realized it would be an expensive proposition.

"Did you keep track of the Ms. Mellon money separately?" asked the prosecutor.

"No. I was told to cash the [Mellon] checks and that's what I did. The only instruction I got was to take care of Rielle Hunter." The donated monies were co-mingled with funds in the Youngs's personal checking account, creating one big pot of money as more Bunny checks arrived. From that account, Young said, she wrote allowance checks for Hunter of between $5,000 and $11,000 dollars each month, paid rent, and bought furnishings for a $2,700-a-month home for Hunter near their residence in the same gated community near Chapel Hill, N.C. She also got a $2,500 cashier's check to give to an ob-gyn for initial prenatal care for Hunter (who had no insurance), and provided Hunter with a companion card to their American Express account and paid all her bills.

"She had come up with a new name for herself," Young said. Hunter chose the name Jaya James for the American Express card "because it sounded like Jesse James and she liked Jesse James." Andrew Young took Hunter shopping for a car and she chose a used BMW that cost more than $26,000. And there were checks for Hunter's Santa Barbara-based "spiritual adviser" that totaled close to $10,000.

When it came time to turn on the utilities at her new rental home, Cheri said, she handed Hunter a list of contacts to call for electricity, landline, cell service, and the like. "She handed it right back to me and told me to set it up."

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Twice Cheri Young said she had to leave her own home with her three small children for the entire day because John Edwards wanted to be alone to visit with his mistress.

The tiny Mrs. Young, dressed in a red-and-white patterned cotton sleeveless dress, commanded the jury's attention. Diagonally across the room at the defense table sat a haggard looking John Edwards in a dark suit, blue shirt, and red striped tie. With his upturned hands, fingertips together, he tapped his chin but otherwise showed no emotion as the witness told of how Edwards’ adultery and obsession with keeping it under wraps caused turmoil within the Young family.

There were moments of deep emotion during the day-long testimony, specifically when Prosecutor Higdon asked Young why her husband decided to go along with Senator Edwards’s idea for Andrew to publicly claim paternity of the mistress's baby. Mrs. Young told of a four-way call between the Youngs, Hunter, and the presidential candidate in early 2007. "Mr. Edwards said it was for the good of the county. It's a one-day story if you take responsibility. Who cares about two staffers having an affair?" With a catch in her throat she added, "Then he talked about his ill wife, said she was very ill (and) didn't want her to find out about this because she was going to die soon. He said he loved us and he would take care of us." (In fact, Elizabeth Edwards didn't die until nearly three years later, in December 2010.) “Andrew said he agreed, he was willing to do it because it was their only chance to cover this up.”

The prosecutor pressed her for her reaction. Cheri Young’s face reddened, she struggled for control and covered her face with her hands. She tried to answer but could only beg, “Just a minute, please.” Finally, the judge instructed the jury to leave the room to give Mrs. Young time to compose herself. When the jurors returned she answered, “I didn’t want the responsibility of knowing that since I didn’t want to try it [Andrew claiming paternity], the campaign would explode and it would be my fault.”

In other words, Cheri Young was bullied into giving her husband the go-ahead to claim that he was the father of John Edwards's child. “I had to go along with the lie,” she testified.

After two representatives of the National Enquirer scared them silly one night by peering into the windows of their Chapel Hill home, it was determined that the Youngs, along with their three young children and Rielle, had to get out of the state. It was a frustrating time. Hunter would reject the various hotel rooms offered her as “not having the right energy.” She would constantly complain that Edwards didn’t call her enough and threaten that she was going to “call her friends in the media” and go public. As the group moved from Florida to Aspen to San Diego, then back to Aspen and finally to Santa Barbara in early 2008, the evermore pregnant Hunter became unbearable, according to Young. Payments to her spiritual adviser were requested more frequently. Life inside the $20,000-a-month home they all shared in Santa Barbara was an emotional rollercoaster. After the baby arrived, Cheri Young testified, Edwards stopped calling. Finally, Cheri announced she wanted to go home to North Carolina.

Impossible, she said she was told by another wealthy donor, the late Texas billionaire Fred Baron, who had been footing the bill for the nomadic group. According to Cheri Young, in a meeting at his Dallas home with his wife, Lisa Blue, an attorney and psychologist, the Youngs were told they could never move back to North Carolina.

“Lisa said to me, 'Cheri ... I was with Elizabeth over this last weekend. I am a doctor. I can tell you she is not well, not mentally healthy.'” Young testified that Blue claimed that Elizabeth Edwards posed a serious threat to the Young family’s safety if they returned to North Carolina.

“Were you scared?” the prosecutor asked.

“Yeah, we were scared through the whole thing. We were the only ones who knew the truth!” Cheri said emphatically. Fred Baron said there was still the possibility that Edwards would get a cabinet appointment in the Obama administration and he asked the Youngs to hold on for a little while longer.

And then came the fateful day in July 2008 when Johnny Reid Edwards (his given name) was caught at the Beverly Hilton Hotel visiting his mistress and his baby daughter. The National Enquirer was there and cornered Edwards in the hotel men’s room. The two-time presidential candidate and vice-presidential wannabe immediately called Andrew Young.

“Mr. Edwards was crying, very scared that he was photographed coming out of the bathroom ... he had hidden in the bathroom.” The candidate and his long-time aide conspired, according to Cheri Young, to come up with some other reason Edwards had been in that hotel, something they could say to explain his being there. But the cat was out of the bag and the National Enquirer had a massive scoop.

Supporter Fred Baron called Andrew Young too.

“At that point Mr. Baron was done,” Cheri Young told the court. “And within a week of them getting caught, Mr. Baron said, ‘You’re going home.’ He was very angry.”

It had been an exhausting day of testimony and during the afternoon break, about an hour before the usual adjournment time, Cheri Young’s lawyer stepped forward to say his client could not continue. She was getting a migraine headache. Court adjourned and a glance at John Edwards at the end of the day indicated he too might have had a headache.

Cheri Young’s testimony continues tomorrow.