I Thought I'd Escaped the Abuse—Then He Shot Me in the Face

I was on a pedestal when we started dating, but he took me down, step by step.

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It's funny what seems important, what sticks, when you're in the middle of a crisis. I don't remember being shot. I remember stumbling through the house, checking to see whether or not he was really gone. I remember that my car and cell phone were missing, and that he'd cut the phone line to the house.

I remember moving to the couch, then breaking into my mother's bedroom and finding her on the floor. I remember kneeling beside her, and I remember that her hands felt very cold. I remember saying, "Mom, I am going to go get help!" But it was too late.

Blind to the Warning Signs

I grew up in Wisconsin, the only child to a single mom, Charlotte. I lived with her, my grandmother and, off and on, several cousins. Mom was one of my best friends. We bonded doing things like hiking to see Wisconsin's waterfalls and road-tripping to George Strait concerts.

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Sarah Engle as a child with her mother, Charlotte

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I met James LaHoud in 2005. He started calling me at the salon where I work—not to get a haircut, but to chat. I never told him where I lived, but one day, before we'd even been on a real date, I came home to a dozen roses on my doorstep. At the time, I thought it was romantic. Now, I realize that should've been my first clue.

James and I dated for two or three years, off and on. I'd been married before and knew what I did—and didn't—want. I told James that if he ever hit me, I would leave. Emotional abuse, however, I didn't even think about.

James put me down a lot. One of his biggest pet peeves was how I folded towels, which should have been my second hint. He'd say that if I folded them like he did, they would look better. I'd try it his way, but he'd just say, "My gosh, that looks even worse. Go back to the horrible way you were doing it earlier." He mocked my cooking, too. Once, I baked a chicken for too long and he threw it in the trash. It wasn't worth eating, he said, so that night we didn't eat at all.

I can forgive you if you'll change this, he'd say.

By our first anniversary, he'd already broken up with me multiple times. Our breakups would go like this: He would leave me crying, and before I could even clear my head, he'd be calling and asking for forgiveness. "I can forgive you if you'll change this," he'd say. Or "We can make it work if you'll fix that." It was always my fault, my flaws that needed work.

I was on a pedestal when we started dating, and he took me down, step by step. An emotional abuser makes you feel like nobody wants you, that he's the only one who can love you.

The Long Way Down

Even though I couldn't see how bad my situation was with James, the salon was going through a great deal of change, and I started looking for a new job further away. I planned to keep my place in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, and also stay with my mom in Prentice and work at another salon a few days a week. When I told James, he told me he'd leave if I followed through with that plan. We moved in together—closer to my new salon—instead.

One day a couple months later, in October 2006, he told me he needed time alone. He said I could have the bedroom, which was next to the bathroom, and that he would take the rest of the house. I tried to stand up for myself, saying, "I'm not going to stay in the bedroom. This is my house. I'm paying for everything."

That was the first time he chased me. I ran from the living room into the bedroom. Something, I still don't know what, whizzed past my ear and shattered the mirror. I was furious, and terrified. I figured there must be something mentally wrong with him, but I still didn't think of it as abuse.

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After that night, I filed for a restraining order and left for my mom's house out in the country. He'd call me, saying he needed me. When that didn't work, he told me he was suicidal. By New Year's, we were back together, and he convinced me to drop the restraining order, but the state of Wisconsin still had charges against him and sent him to therapy and anger management.

By the spring of 2008, I honestly wanted to leave him for good. One night, he beat his dog in front of me. It was brutal, and I told him I was leaving and never coming back. He went to punch a hole in the wall, except he hit the brick wall where the chimney used to be, and the bones popped out of his hand. Instead of leaving, I took him to the emergency room. He left the hospital with his arm in a cast. I felt like I needed to take care of him.

People don't understand why I didn't just leave. It's hard to explain. He made me feel like all of our problems were my fault, but that he needed me. Men like James twist your thinking until you're under their control. But finally, after my grandpa's funeral that summer, I did leave. We had gotten into a fight in the car, and he said I could come inside to work things out or leave and be done forever. I turned and left, and felt so relieved.

By the end of that summer, I was living in my mom's house, but realized I needed more clothes. I drove by our old house and saw that his car wasn't there, so I felt safe enough to walk inside. I wasn't there for more than five minutes when he came in behind me. He picked me up by the neck and pulled his fist back like he was going to hit me. I looked him straight in the eye and said, "Hit me. Hit me!" He knew me well enough to know that if he did, I wasn't going to get scared and run away. I would go straight to the police and make them take pictures. He dropped me without leaving any marks.

The Worst Night of My Life

A couple weeks later, on September 11, 2008, I met with James and his therapist for a morning appointment. I still was paying all the house bills, trying to save him money and keep my place. The cable bill was over $500 because he was renting porn. When I said that in front of his therapist, it hit a nerve. As we were walking out, he said, "You're going to pay for what you said in there. You're going to pay."

Later, while I was styling a client's hair, my mom stopped by the salon. I confided in her that I was terrified of James's threat. She told me everything would be okay, and we talked about cooking lasagna for dinner that night. After she left, I finished up my last few appointments and drove from town to her house in the country. I called friends as I was driving, trying to keep my mind off James, and we chatted until I lost service.

As I walked in the front door, James came around the corner, pointing my mother's rifle at me. When I tried to turn around and run away, he said, "You take another step, and I will shoot and kill you now." He shot the rifle once to prove it was loaded.

He said, "You take another step, and I will shoot and kill you now."

James had me walk further into the house and take off all my clothes. I could see that my mom's door was barricaded with her green couch. He kept telling me that everything was going to be okay and that my mom was fine. He used duct tape to cover my mouth and wrap my arms and legs behind my back. Then he started to rape me. I'd read in a magazine that if someone is raping you, you should just give in to make it physically easier on you. So I started to tell him—through the tape—how much I loved him, wanted him, and how much I missed him. He cut off the tape and raped me all night.

During my rape, I went inside my own head. I thought about my mom. Was she really okay? Did he knock her out? If I had been trapped in the bedroom, I would have been breaking the windows, trying to get out. My mind was all over the place.

James finally finished, had me put on my clothes and get into the bed. I remember thinking I should pretend to be asleep. Then, I was falling to the floor and remember thinking, This is a weird way to pretend to be asleep.

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Sarah Engle at the emergency clinic in Prentice, Wisconsin, on September 11, 2008.

(Image credit: Archives)

That's when he'd shot me in the face and left me for dead. The hours that followed are seared into my memory—breaking into my mother's room, feeling her cold hands. Because the phone line was cut, I had to run find help. There was a long gravel driveway between Mom's house and the main road. Barefoot and bleeding, I stumbled, then crawled my way toward passing traffic for help. Finally, the driver of a pickup truck stopped and drove me into town.

Next thing I knew I was in an ambulance. Medics cut off my clothes, despite my resistance. The rest of the night is foggy. I have a recording where I'm talking to a detective before I was whisked the hospital in a helicopter. From there, everything went dark until I woke up from a coma a month later.

Later, I learned that James told police that he'd broken into my mother's house to steal her gun and commit suicide. He said my mom had interrupted him and tried to grab the gun away from him. That's when James shot and killed her.

Putting the Pieces Back Together

From the moment I woke up in the hospital, I felt like I was in a dream. It honestly didn't sink in until I was testifying in court. That's when it all hit me—he really killed my mom, and he really thought he killed me.

Police had locked down our small town, and by the time they found James, he had taken some pills. Not enough to kill himself, but enough to make it look like he was trying. He admitted to killing me; they didn't tell him I was alive until several days afterward.

When I testified in court, I didn't want to look at James. They put him in another area so we couldn't see each other. The only reason I feel safe today is because he got life without the option of parole—and when that's done, he gets another 60 years. That doesn't happen very often with domestic abuse.

I was never shown the bullet from the day I was shot because it never came out of my head. Today, half of my face is paralyzed; the other half is numb. If my eyes water or if I have a runny nose, I'm not going to feel it until it's past my chin. The doctors gave me a metal eye socket because mine was shattered, and they were amazed that I didn't lose my vision in that eye. Still, I can't see side-to-side and I get eye infections all the time. It also left me half-deaf on my left side. My short-term memory also took a hit.

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Despite this, I'm dedicated to helping other victims of abuse. I started a 5K in Price County to raise awareness in the community. I'm also on the board of directors for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, and I work with Everytown to end gun violence and domestic abuse. I've spoken about domestic abuse in colleges, high schools and even detention centers. I have a business card for public speaking, so anytime someone needs me, they'll know how to find me.

I wish us victims knew when we were in it. I wish there was an easier way to leave an abuser. When I speak, I tell people that abuse isn't always physical. Sometimes, it's just about how you fold the towels. By the time you know you're being abused, your abuser has you so controlled and warped, that it's almost impossible. It's hard to get out, but believe me, you can.

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