When Mary-Ann Moller set eyes on a tall older man at a friend's house on Christmas Day six years ago, she scanned his heavily tattooed body and figured he wasn't her type.
But when Paul Wood, a doctor of psychology, approached her, she was impressed by his charm and intelligence. After an afternoon chatting, Mary-Ann took the lead and asked him to coffee the next day.
That evening she excitedly typed Paul's name into Google and two words jumped out at her: convicted murderer.
"Obviously I wasn't expecting that," recalls Mary-Ann, 33, now Paul's wife and mother of their sons Braxton, four, and two-year-old Gordy.
"I looked through all the articles and was pretty concerned."
Paul, 42, had spent over a decade in prison for killing his drug dealer at 18. Just days after his mother passed away from a long battle with breast cancer, the associate attempted to sexually assault Paul, who bludgeoned him to death with a baseball bat.
But the rest of Paul's story was even more surprising. He'd become the first person in New Zealand to complete undergraduate and masters' degrees behind bars. After finishing his sentence, he completed a doctorate, before becoming a motivational speaker, and leadership and development specialist.
"I came to the conclusion he sounded like an awesome person who had been on an amazing journey," tells the then-sport and exercise nutrition university student.
Mary-Ann texted her date to say she knew about his past, but was still happy to meet up.
"I said I'd be an open book and she could ask me anything. She was prepared to invest in me – this stunning, charismatic, intelligent woman – and I feel a bit emotional saying that!" says Paul, his eyes welling up.
In his recently released biography, How to Escape from Prison, Paul talks about his struggle starting at 13, when his mum became ill. He was pulled into the wrong crowd, turning to drugs and crime.
"I was someone who responded to any perceived threat or issue with violence," tells Paul. "I chose to take actions that ended that man's life unnecessarily, because there was a point where I'd defended myself and he could've left my house."
The reformed man admits it took years to take full responsibility for his actions as he navigated a world of extreme violence, gang affiliations and drugs during 10 years in Rimutaka, Paremoremo and Mt Crawford prisons. But after a series of enlightening events, including meeting a criminal safe-cracker who saw his potential, Paul began studying and started on a remarkable path to redemption.
At 29, he was released from prison and invited to work at a family friend's consulting company. By the time he'd finished his doctorate five years later, he met Mary-Ann.
"I was absolutely knocked off my feet when I saw her," gushes Paul, who did long- distance with his Dunedin-based love for a year before she relocated to Auckland.
Mary-Ann says after two weeks of meeting, Paul said he loved her.
"But when I moved in with him, I started to feel lonely in the relationship," she recalls, describing her hubby as a lone wolf back then. "He was lovely to be around and I still liked him, but there was a lack of emotional connection."
They broke up but remained friends and two months later, Mary-Ann moved on with someone else. But they were soon shocked to find out she was six months' pregnant!
"I broke up with the guy I was seeing, and Paul and I agreed to be there for each other for the baby, but not romantically," she tells. "Our plan was to co-parent and live together for the first year."
They moved back to Wellington and after the birth of Braxton, decided to give love another go.
"We obviously still had these issues, so we went to a counsellor," recalls Paul.
The counsellor specialised in attachment-focused therapy and for the ex-crim, it proved life-changing. "I finally learnt how to be open to love, what it felt like and meant, and how to give love," explains Paul, who married Mary-Ann in Wellington three years ago.
For Paul – who is on probation for life – his focus now is helping people escape their emotional prisons and reach their potential. He's also dedicated to being the best dad.
"Mary-Ann found a really opportune moment to bring it up with our eldest son, when he came back from kindy talking about the baddies being in jail," says Paul.
"She told him, 'It's not always baddies who go to jail; sometimes it's people who are acting like baddies. They act like baddies because they don't know they're goodies.'"
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