February 25, 1991 12:00 PM

I have a thing about angels,” says Sheryl Lee, raising her eyes to two clay cherubs that grace the walls of her one-bedroom Los Angeles apartment. “I believe in them. I feel like I have a guardian angel. I think everybody has one.”

Metaphysics aside, Lee, 23, seems to have an angel looking over her shoulder. Last season, with little professional acting to her credit, she turned in a creepily sexy performance as television’s most famous corpse. Wrapped in plastic, her lips a silvery blue, Lee played Laura Palmer, the teenage beauty whose body was discovered at the start of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Now Lee has leaped to one of the strongest TV roles of the year. In NBC’s Love, Lies and Murder, a TV miniseries airing Feb. 17 and 18, she plays Patti Bailey, a member of a family dysfunctional to the point of homicide. In 1985, 17-year-old Patti helped kill her own sister, urged on by a brother-in-law who had a Svengalilike hold over her.

Lynch noticed a photo of Lee while she was acting in Seattle (she grew up in Boulder, Colo.) “I was so nervous.” she says of her audition with the director. “I sat on my hands the entire time. But he made me feel very comfortable.” It didn’t last. For her corpse scenes, shot near Snoqualmie. Wash., in 35°F weather, Lee wore nothing but panties and plastic. Hot tea, an electric blanket and yoga meditation pulled her through. But it could have been worse. she reports: Lynch had initially envisioned the body floating in the water.

Even washed ashore, Laura Palmer made a splash—a development that left Lee feeling guilty, she admits. “There I was, just lying on the beach dead, and bang! So I want to prove I can really act.” She gets her chance, playing Patti Bailey.

Bailey was watching the TV movie The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett as a woman who, after one beating too many from her husband, sets him on fire. “I felt so sorry for her.” Bailey, now 23, remembers. But that fiery bed was, in a sense, her own. Bailey had been numbed by years of emotional and sexual abuse.

The youngest of 11 children, Bailey never knew her father; her mother was an alcoholic. When she was 11, longing for any sort of financial and familial security, Patti moved in with her sister, Linda, and Linda’s husband. David Brown, a computer entrepreneur, who lived in suburban Garden Grove, Calif. According to prosecutors, Brown was a master of seduction and deceit, capable of reducing Patti and his own daughter by a previous marriage. Cinnamon, to blindly adoring, brainwashed puppets. He began sexually molesting Bailey when she was 11. By 1985, after taking out four insurance policies on Linda’s life, Brown was able to convince Patti, 17, and Cinnamon, 14, that Linda wanted to kill him to get control of his business. He asked them to prove their love by murdering Linda first. On March 19, 1985, he left the house with the understanding that Linda would be dead when he returned.

It is almost impossible for Bailey, an inmate at the California Youth Authority in Camarillo, Calif., since 1989, to explain why she helped plot the bizarre scenario in which Cinnamon killed Linda and then claimed sole responsibility for the murder. (Brown had assured Cinnamon that, because of her age, the authorities would deal with her lightly.) “I didn’t know anything about the world.” says Bailey, who married Brown 16 months after Linda’s death. “I had no friends. I was inside all the time. But I thought it was a wonderful life.”

With therapy, Bailey now realizes it was, in fact, a horrible life. After her arrest in 1988—Cinnamon, once in prison, implicated the other two—”there were times I used to scrub myself raw with a toothbrush,” she remembers, “because I felt so dirty.” Under California law, because she was tried as a juvenile, she will be released on her 25th birthday. (Brown, 38, will never be released. He’s serving a life sentence in Folsom prison and is ineligible for parole.) “That will be the first time that I’ll be standing on my own.” Bailey says. Once outside, she hopes to regain custody of her 3-year-old daughter (by Brown), who lives with one of Bailey’s brothers. Then she will settle on a career—possibly nursing, she says. “I want to be around people and help them any way that I can. It’s kind of like making up for the loss of my sister’s life.”

“Patti has such a life force.” says Lee, who visited Bailey during filming. “She’s going to be okay.”

—Tom Gliatto, Michael Alexander in Los Angeles

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