ORLANDO, Fla. - Casey Anthony walked out of jail a free woman under heavy guard early Sunday, facing shouts of "baby killer" from a heckling crowd only days after a nation in rapt attention watched as she was acquitted of murder in the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
The 25-year-old woman, who had spent years in the spotlight's glare including two months of nationally televised trial proceedings, swiftly boarded an SUV and rode out of public view, her destination unknown as new questions unfolded as to what her future would hold.
Wearing a hot pink Polo T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, Anthony walked briskly from the Orlando area jail at 12:14 a.m. with her attorney, Jose Baez, at her side.
Her hair in a bun, a somber-looking Anthony quietly said "thank you" to a deputy sheriff waiting to escort her outside, and then strode with Baez to the vehicle as two deputies armed with semi-automatic rifles walked behind. Baez held the back door, she climbed in and the SUV drove off amid camera light flashes.
As Anthony's SUV left the jail's parking lot, the crowd of more than 100 people surged against the orange plastic police barricades and some yelled "You suck!" Mounted patrolmen and police cruisers blocked the street outside the jail so Anthony's vehicle could drive onto a nearby highway ramp unobstructed.
"A baby killer was just set free!" Bree Thornton, 39, shouted at the passing SUV.
Anthony had a handful of supporters in the crowd, including one man who carried a "Casey, will you marry me" sign.
But her backers - at the jail and across the country - appeared to be vastly outnumbered by her critics.
When Anthony was acquitted July 5 of murder in the death of her toddler, hundreds of thousands of people captivated by the case - and doubtful of her credibility - poured their rage into postings on the micro-blogging site Twitter and on Facebook, which has an "I Hate Casey Anthony" group. Those and other social media sites provided a platform and a vast audience for a decibel level of vitriol seldom seen before.
Anthony's legal team said on Friday it had received an emailed death threat with a manipulated photo showing their 25-year-old client with a bullet hole in her forehead.
Since her acquittal on murder charges, Anthony had been finishing her four-year sentence for telling investigators several lies, including an early claim that Caylee was kidnapped by a nonexistent nanny. With credit for the nearly three years she'd spent in jail since August 2008 and good behavior, she had only days remaining when she was sentenced July 7.
Early Sunday, news helicopters followed the SUV to a covered parking garage at an Orlando office building where one of her attorneys, Cheney Mason, has offices. The SUV didn't re-emerge, and it could not been seen in the darkness if Anthony was in any of the cars that appeared in the area.
A short time later, amid the crush of media attention, there was police activity as two vehicles pulled up to a twin-engine private jet at Orlando Executive Airport but no one saw Anthony get out and onto the plane. That plane took off shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday for Ohio, the home state of Anthony's parents. But an official there said that aircraft was only carrying golfers back from a Florida vacation.
Anthony, it seemed, had vanished into the night.
Baez and jail officials declined to say where Anthony would go next.
After three years behind bars, Anthony was given $537.68 in cash from her jail account to begin her new life.
For nearly two months, the murder trial of Casey Anthony was a living entity. It breathed daily across the nation's television airwaves, then was reinforced nightly on cable TV programs that dissected every word uttered in the courtroom and fueled speculation on her fate.
Baez, in a brief statement to reporters, signaled a new chapter was opening in the Casey Anthony case.
"It is my hope that Casey Anthony can receive the counseling and treatment she needs to move forward with the rest of her life," Baez said in the statement.
Certainly, she still faces anger and ire around the nation that brought tight security for Sunday's release.
"This release had an unusual amount of security so, therefore, in that sense, it would not be a normal release," Orange County Jail spokesman Allen Moore said. "We have made every effort to not provide any special treatment for her. She's been treated like every other inmate."
Moore said there were no known threats received at the jail. Yet officials had a number of contingency plans in place, including plans in case shots were fired as she was being released.
The crowd included about a half-dozen, sign-carrying protesters who had gathered despite a drenching thunderstorm Saturday night. Before Anthony's release, the evening took on a feel of New Year's Eve as spectators checked their watches regularly and announced how many minutes until midnight. Onlookers had varied reactions to her release.
"She is safer in jail than she is out here," said Mike Quiroz, who drove from Miami to spend his 22nd birthday outside the jail. "She better watch her butt. She is known all over the world."
Lamar Jordan said he felt a pit in his stomach when he saw Anthony walking free.
"The fact that she is being let out, the fact that it is her child and she didn't say what happened, made me sick," Jordan said.
Not all of those who gathered condemned the 25-year-old.
"I'm for Casey," said Kizzy Smith, of Orlando. "She was proven innocent. At the end of the day, Caylee is at peace. We're the ones who are in an uproar."
Outraged lawmakers in several states responded by proposing so-called Caylee's laws that would allow authorities to prosecute parents who don't quickly report missing children.
And many still speculate about what really happened to Caylee, whose remains were found in December 2008 near the home Casey Anthony shared with her parents: Was she suffocated with duct tape by her mother, as prosecutors argued? Or did she drown in an accident that snowballed out of control, as defense attorneys contended?
Now that she is free, it's not clear where Anthony will stay or what she will do next.
Her relationship with her parents, George and Cindy, has been strained since defense attorneys accused George Anthony of molesting Casey when she was young. Baez argued during trial that the alleged abuse resulted in psychological issues that caused her to lie and act without apparent remorse after Caylee's death.
Defense attorneys also said George Anthony made Caylee's death look like a homicide after the girl accidentally drowned in the family pool. But defense attorneys never called witnesses to support their claims.
George Anthony has adamantly denied covering up his granddaughter's death or molesting Casey Anthony when she was a child.
Prosecutors alleged that Anthony suffocated her daughter with duct tape because motherhood interfered with her desire for a carefree life of partying with friends and spending time with her boyfriend.
However, some jurors have told various media outlets that the state didn't prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt as required for a conviction - though some have said they believe she bears some responsibility in the case.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.