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Originally published Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 4:47 PM

Family, friends await homecoming of Amanda Knox

Within hours after Amanda Knox's conviction was overturned in an Italian appeals court, a sign went up on the marquee of a record store in the Seattle neighborhood where the young American grew up: "WELCOME HOME AMANDA."

Associated Press

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SEATTLE —

Within hours after Amanda Knox's conviction was overturned in an Italian appeals court, a sign went up on the marquee of a record store in the Seattle neighborhood where the young American grew up: "WELCOME HOME AMANDA."

Free for the first time in four years, the 24-year-old is returning to her Seattle home after an Italian appeals court threw out her murder conviction for the brutal stabbing death of her British roommate, Meredith Kercher.

Knox's uncle, Michael Huff, said Tuesday he would give her a big hug. A former middle school official said she couldn't wait to talk to Knox and welcome her home. And her elated grandmother, Elisabeth Huff, said she and her family would do everything they could "to get Amanda back to a normal life."

"We all are as happy as can be. I can't tell you how long we've been looking forward to this day," she told The Associated Press outside her home in West Seattle, a tight-knit community a few miles across Elliott Bay from downtown.

"I felt like a huge rock fell off me," she said, recounting how she heard the verdict Monday night on television. "It was like the weight of the world had gone. Now I can look forward to sleeping at night. We were just jumping with joy."

Friends and family anxiously awaited the arrival of the former University of Washington student, whose fate thousands of miles away has captivated supporters. They held spaghetti dinners, bowling events and concerts over the years to raise money for her defense.

A bar in the Capitol Hill neighborhood offered half-priced drinks to celebrate Knox's acquittal. A big blue sign with "Welcome Home!" in yellow writing was hung at the house of her father, Curt Knox, on a block of modest homes in West Seattle.

Family spokesman Dave Marriott said Knox and her parents are on a British Airways flight from London due to land later Tuesday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Her parents and legal adviser were expected to talk to reporters after the plane lands, but it was unclear whether Knox would speak, Marriott said.

Nevzeta Plavcic, who was waiting at the airport for relatives on Knox's flight, wiped tears from her eyes as she described how happy she was to hear that Knox was on her way home. She said that as a mother, she could relate to what the family went through.

Several dozen reporters, photographers, cameramen and other media crowded around a gate near the scheduled news conference. Jerry Hausman and his daughter drove from their Auburn home to watch the media spectacle surrounding Knox's homecoming.

"The whole world media is focused on this," he said. "I'm glad she's innocent. Four years, can you imagine that?"

Plavcic's 16-year-old daughter, Amra, shook her head as she said she didn't see what the fuss was about. "I don't think this is important. It's way too much," she said.

For Knox's family, it's been "a lot of time waiting," her uncle said.

"We're planning a big hug," he said. "We'll see day to day how it goes. She's going to have to get acclimated. She's a strong kid."

Huff last spoke to his niece during her weekly call home Saturday, days before the appeals court overturned her conviction on the sexual assault and slaying of the 21-year-old Kercher.

"She told us not to worry. We're all going to be OK, no matter what," said Huff. "She's one of those people who looked out for someone else. She was more concerned about others."

"We always talked about what we would do when she gets home... She wanted to lay down on the lawn, her grass," he said.

Huff said his niece was able to manage the four-year ordeal because "she's a strong kid. She's unbelievable."

"We always knew that she was innocent. It was trying to get the court to see that," Huff said. "The defense team did a fantastic job to show that."

Knox grew up in the West Seattle neighborhood, where many members of her family live. She graduated from the private Explorer West Middle School in 2001, where she so impressed staff and teachers that the school created an award in her honor.

"We started our valedictorian award because of Amanda," said Claudia Rose, the school's admissions director, who attended high school with Knox's parents. "She came across as one of our exemplary students ... She's an amazing young lady, the best high quality caliber person you'll ever meet."

Rose said teachers and staff from the school independently wrote letters to support her and supported her family. "We've always stood behind her and her family ... She's our baby girl and we love her," Rose said. "I can't wait to talk to her. I just can't wait."

Knox earned a scholarship to Seattle Preparatory School, a Catholic, Jesuit college preparatory school. Her parents divorced in 1989. At the University of Washington, a large urban campus near the shore of Lake Washington, Knox studied writing and foreign languages and enjoyed the outdoor activity in the Northwest, including rock climbing, hiking and camping.

Beth Kirchhoff, who lives blocks from Knox's mother, Edda Mellas, said she was glad Amanda was coming home.

"Having your daughter go off to school and end up with this kind of experience, I just can't imagine," said Kirchhoff. "...I just hope everyone will leave her alone, let her figure out her life. Her path from here is going to be challenging."

Loren Lukens, out walking with Kirchhoff, said the neighborhood "was really pulling for her."

"I'm sure she's going to be mobbed for the first few days, and she owes it to people to show her face a little bit," Lukens said. "Then it will be time for her to hide out for a little while."

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Associated Press reporters Donna Blankinship and Manuel Valdes contributed to this report.

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Follow Manuel Valdes on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes.

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