ALDERSON, W.Va. – In the stealth of darkness, Martha Stewart quietly surrendered Friday, reporting to prison before dawn – several hours before the 2 p.m. deadline.

At about 5:50 a.m., a Ford Expedition drove up to Alderson Federal Prison Camp.

Stewart was seated in the rear with her daughter, Alexis; two bodyguards sat in the front.

The SUV paused briefly, then sped through a stop sign and inside the stone gate.

And with that, Stewart, the celebrity diva of domesticity, took on a new identity: Inmate No. 55170-054.

She will spend five months at Alderson, then five more months confined to her Bedford, N.Y., home for her conviction on conspiracy, obstruction of justice and other charges. She is appealing that conviction.

Stewart did not address the media assembled outside the prison. An hour after her surrender, she released a statement on her Web site:

“Today marks the beginning of the end of a terrible experience, and I am now one step closer to getting this awful time behind me.”

The journey to Alderson began late Thursday when Stewart skipped a party for her friend and adviser Susan Magrino and flew in to this remote section of West Virginia on a private jet, two sources said.

She and Alexis then stayed overnight at the farmhouse of a prominent politician whose wife is a big Martha Stewart fan, a source familiar with the matter said. The source would not reveal the politician’s name.

She and her daughter got up very early Friday and were on the road by 5 a.m., chauffeured over the winding Appalachian back roads in the fog-shrouded pre-dawn darkness with former West Virginia state trooper, Tim Boothe, and other bodyguards riding shotgun.

The Ford with vanity plates “BOOTHE” sped out of the prison with Alexis about 20 minutes later.

The successful effort to dodge the press amused some local law enforcement officers, who’d watched dozens of reporters camped outside the prison for more than a week. Said one local source, “Inside they’re laughing because the (media) made such a big hype about it, and then we slipped her in when nobody was looking.”

For nearly an hour after Stewart’s arrival, TV reporters were telling their viewers that Stewart would soon be arriving, unaware she was already inside.

Inside the prison starting at 6:15 a.m., she was fingerprinted and forced to disrobe for a visual inspection for contraband. She then was assigned a cell unit and began a two-week orientation process that will include a work assignment and physical and psychological testing.

“While I am away, my updates here will be less frequent, if not altogether impossible,” Stewart said on her Web site. “But please know this change is only an unfortunate reflection of my current circumstances, and in no way diminishes my commitment to my life’s work or to the friends, colleagues, customers and supporters who make it possible.”

What effect Stewart’s prison stay will have on her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, remains to be seen. Stewart won’t be allowed to work while she does her five months.

She addressed this problem in her statement Friday, noting that her company “will be in the good hands of its talented management team and creative staff, and every day I am away, I will look forward to rejoining them.”

Then she added a one-line promise repeating her intention to be back home in Westport, Conn., in time to tend to her spring garden.

“I’ll see you again in March,” she wrote.

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