Rielle Hunter's life had a lurid, supermarket-tabloid quality to it _ full of deception, betrayal, reckless behavior and broken dreams _ well before she became a party to one of the biggest lies in recent American political history.
Her father had her beloved show horse killed for insurance money. An ex-boyfriend used her as his muse for the "cocaine-addled, sexually voracious" narrator of one of his novels. She went to Hollywood to become a star and left about a decade later with only a few bit parts.
Through it all, Hunter considered herself a truth-seeker.
"For as long as I can remember, I had a relentless desire for truth," she said on her personal website in the mid-2000s.
Then she met John Edwards in the bar of a New York hotel in 2006. Hunter said they had a connection the instant their eyes met, and a few hours later she was spending the night in the Democratic presidential candidate's room.
Their relationship led to a landslide of lies.
First, they had to hide their relationship. She stayed silent as Edwards publicly professed his love for his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and the two renewed their wedding vows.
When she got pregnant with Edwards' child, she agreed to protect his presidential ambitions by letting the candidate's devoted right-hand man claim paternity. Then she had to listen on TV as Edwards said it was impossible for him to be the father.
Whether Edwards is telling the truth or not is now at the center of his campaign finance trial, under way in North Carolina. Edwards' lawyers said the candidate had no idea nearly $1 million from a pair of wealthy benefactors was being spent to hide Hunter and keep her away from the tabloids during Edwards' run for the White House. Prosecutors said Edwards orchestrated the cover-up.
Prosecutors rested their case Thursday without calling the 48-year-old Hunter to the stand, despite granting her immunity. They refused to say why. But legal experts said she can be flighty and unpredictable and could have proved dangerous to the government's case.
Edwards' lawyers have not said whether they will call her to testify, but she could be hazardous to the defense for the same reason. Also, legal experts said, her appearance on the stand might only hurt Edwards with the jury by emphasizing his cheating and lying.
Hunter was born Lisa Jo Druck. Her father was a prominent lawyer, and she lived a privileged life growing up in Florida. Hunter, who adopted her new name in 1994 while out in Hollywood, said both her parents cheated in their marriage.
She loved horses, especially her show horse Henry The Hawk, which her father bought for $150,000. But in 1982, he was short on cash. He had an insurance policy on the animal worth $150,000 and taught a man named Tommy "The Sandman" Burns how to electrocute a horse so that it would look like a death from natural causes.
Hunter found her beloved horse dead in its stall, and her father later confessed to the scheme, according to a Sports Illustrated story on Burns, who eventually went to prison for his role in a string of horse killings. Hunter's father died in 1990 before any charges were brought against him.
Hunter spent her early 20s in New York. There she met writer Jay McInerney, best known for his novel "Bright Lights, Big City," about the 1980s party scene in the city. They dated for several months, and McInerney modeled the sexually aggressive narrator of his 1988 novel "Story of My Life" on Hunter. Hunter has said the portrayal of her in the book was quite exaggerated, but she still thinks McInerney is a great guy.
She was later married to a lawyer for nearly a decade and went to Hollywood to become a star, or at least a writer. The Internet Movie Database lists just four acting credits, all brief parts, and a writing and producing credit for a 20-minute short. It also lists her 2003 appearance on the game show "Lingo," where she split $500 with her partner.
It was her relationship with Edwards that would net her biggest show-business payday. Despite Hunter's lack of filmmaking experience, the politician arranged a $250,000 contract for her to make a series of behind-the-scenes documentaries from the campaign trail.
Though Edwards' aides quickly grew suspicious and derided her work as shoddy and unprofessional, the job gave her a reason to travel with the candidate while his wife was home in North Carolina fighting breast cancer.
Word of the affair got back to Elizabeth Edwards and Hunter lost her job. But the candidate continued to arrange for his mistress to meet with him on the road. She became pregnant in the summer of 2007.
As her belly began to show, tabloid reporters tracked her down in New Jersey. She fled to North Carolina and moved in with one of Edwards' most loyal aides, Andrew Young, his wife and the couple's three children. Within weeks, the Youngs set up Hunter in a $2,700-a-month rental home not far from the Edwards estate in Chapel Hill.
That December, in an attempt to contain the scandal, Young issued a statement claiming the baby was his.
Then Hunter went on the run with the aide and his wife. Edwards' campaign finance chairman let them stay at his vacation mansion in Aspen, Colo., and paid for them to live in a $20,000-a-month manor in Santa Barbara, Calif. Hunter chose the location because it was close to her New Age spiritual adviser, Bob McGovern.
Hunter so relied on McGovern that when an Aspen restaurant served her a Reuben sandwich with the wrong sauce on it, she made an angry call to him to ask him to fix it, according to testimony at Edwards' trial.
Her daughter, Francis Quinn Hunter, was born in February 2008, a couple of weeks after Edwards suspended his campaign because of poor showings in early primary states.
Hunter told Oprah Winfrey in an August 2010 interview that the decision to have Young claim paternity was the biggest mistake in her life. She said she had banked on Young's wife rejecting the idea.
"It was a horrid time, Oprah. Devastating. Devastating," Hunter said.
She deflected questions about whether she hurt Elizabeth Edwards, who died of cancer in December 2010. She vehemently denied she was a home-wrecker.
"I believe the problems exist before a third party comes into the picture," she told Winfrey.
Hunter now lives in Charlotte with her daughter, now 4. She has spoken little about her relationship with Edwards since his wife's death.
Before the trial, Hunter vowed through a spokeswoman to tell the truth if called to testify. In her interview with Winfrey, Hunter spoke about the unusual turns her life had taken.
"Being a person who's committed to truth and living a life where you're not hiding, it's almost like a cosmic joke to fall in love with someone who's living a big lie," she said.
Collins reported from Columbia, S.C.
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck