Rosalynn McGinnis was 12 years old when she left her middle school in Poteau, Oklahoma, for the last time.
Ever since she was 10, McGinnis's stepfather, Henri Michelle Piette, had been sexually abusing her, she would later tell investigators. On January 31, 1997, he sent his son to pick her up from school in a small grey pickup truck, and took her to a hotel room in Tulsa, about two hours away.
At first, Piette told McGinnis that her mother would be joining them. But once they got out of town, he said that her mother didn't want her, and she was now a runaway. She would be in serious trouble if she ever went back home, he warned.
"I didn't know what was happening," McGinnis later told KSHB. "The next thing I know, my mother's not there, my brothers are not there and none of my family is there and I am by myself with this man."
Nearly two decades would pass before the nightmare finally came to an end. During that time, McGinnis was repeatedly raped and abused by Piette, who forced her to take on fake identities and earn money as a panhandler as they travelled around the United States and Mexico, federal prosecutors say. She gave birth to nine of his children, starting when she was 15. Finally, in July 2016, she managed to flee to a US Consulate in Mexico and ask for help.
On Monday, the US attorney's office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma announced that Piette, 63, had been found guilty of kidnapping and travel with intent to engage in a sexual act with a juvenile. He has also been charged with lewd molestation, child abuse and first-degree rape in Oklahoma, and potentially faces life in prison.
"I know this verdict cannot heal the countless wounds inflicted by the defendant," US Attorney Brian Kuester said in a statement. "It should prevent him from ever inflicting more."
McGinnis grew up in Springfield, Missouri, where she was an honour roll student who played the violin and hoped to be a veterinarian when she grew up, she told KSHB. Her mother, who had split with her biological father, was handing out fliers for a neighbourhood watch when she met Piette. They quickly became friends, and then more. When McGinnis was 10, Piette moved the whole family out to Oklahoma. She now suspects he did it to isolate them from their relatives.
"He knew exactly who to target and how to get what he wanted," McGinnis told KSHB.
By January 1997, when McGinnis was abducted, her mother had left Piette after less than a year of marriage and moved into a women's shelter for victims of domestic abuse. As soon as McGinnis failed to show up after school, her mother notified police that the sixth-grader had been kidnapped, court records show.
But authorities never caught up with Piette, who had gone on the run with McGinnis and several of his children from previous relationships in tow, switching to a different car in Tulsa so they wouldn't be recognized. For about a year, they travelled around the United States, staying in hotels, ranches and trailer parks from Montana to Arizona to California before eventually crossing the border into Sonora, Mexico. He forced McGinnis to dye her hair black and wear glasses so she would be unrecognizable.
On multiple occasions, McGinnis tried to escape, she told KSHB. But she always got caught, and the consequences were dire.
"Eventually at one point in time, it didn't affect me anymore, because I was used to it," she said.
Later, McGinnis and her stepsiblings would tell authorities that Piette had frequently used crystal methamphetamine and tortured them with sticks, rocks and knives. He forced them to beg and steal to fund their life on the run and made them use fake names, beating them if they slipped up. McGinnis was molested nearly every day. Before leaving Oklahoma, when she was still only 11, Piette had "married" her in a wedding ceremony performed by her teenage stepbrother, who later told investigators that he had been "programmed" by his abusive father.
While on the road that first year, McGinnis got pregnant with Piette's child, but had a miscarriage. Terrified and confused, she had no idea what was happening. Her stepfather directed her to flush the fetus down the toilet, she told KSHB. About three years later, she delivered her first child in the back of a van in Mexico. She was 15.
In public, Piette claimed that McGinnis was his daughter and that her Mexican boyfriend had gotten her pregnant, prosecutors said. He dictated letters and forced her to write them in her own handwriting to make it look as if she was travelling the country as a runaway. Once she turned 18, he made her go to a police station in Arizona and say that she had left home on her own accord to escape a bad situation, so that her name would be taken off the national missing-persons registry.
"He parked three blocks down the road from the Phoenix Police Department and he had three of my children," McGinnis later told People. "He told me what to tell them. He said that if I didn't come back within two hours, I would never see my children again."
Life in Mexico was hellish. McGinnis's older children would later tell authorities that their father hit them with boards, pulled their hair and threatened them with a machete. His daughters described being sexually abused. If anyone attempted to leave, Piette would find them and beat them. He forced them to beg for money, which he would then take and spend on alcohol and drugs. Eventually, her oldest son, by then a teenager, managed to run away.
Then, one day in early 2016, McGinnis took her children to stock up on groceries in an Oaxaca supermarket. At the checkout, she discovered that she was short on cash. An English-speaking couple in line behind her picked up the bill, and they struck up a conversation.
From the start, the couple, who asked KSHB to identify them only as Lisa and Ian due to safety concerns, sensed something was off. Just as they were starting to form a friendship with McGinnis and her kids, Piette moved the family to a ramshackle home in a remote village in the mountains, but the couple stayed in touch. One day when they were visiting the hideaway, Piette accidentally revealed that he was 62. Lisa, who knew that McGinnis was 32 at the time and had a teenage son, started doing the math.
"This is wrong," she recalled thinking. "There's something seriously wrong."
As soon as she could be sure that Piette wasn't listening, Lisa told McGinnis that she knew something was up and offered to help. Weeks later, when Piette passed out from drinking, McGinnis told her children to quickly grab some clothes, then called a taxi to take them to the couple's home.
Up until that point, Lisa told KSHB, McGinnis had told them her name was Stephanie. But two weeks into her stay at their home, she admitted that she was really named Rosalynn McGinnis, and the man whom they had known as Bill was her stepfather, Henri Piette. Lisa searched the name on her computer and the missing-person flier popped up. The resemblance was to McGinnis's children was uncanny.
"She turned to me and said, 'I've been waiting 20 years for somebody to do the math and figure out that a 15-year-old or 16-year-old shouldn't have babies like this,' " Lisa told the station.
McGinnis showed up at the US Consulate in Nogales with eight of her children in July 2016 and was later reunited with her oldest son. While the family was settling into life back in the United States, the FBI began investigating Piette. In September 2017, he showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City asking to get a new passport and was arrested. Court records don't indicate what happened to McGinnis's stepsiblings, but two of her stepbrothers spoke to investigators and corroborated her account of being abducted and abused.
When interviewed by the FBI and Wagoner County District Attorney's Office, Piette claimed that he thought McGinnis was emancipated at 12 and had gone with him willingly, court records show. He admitted to having sex with her when she was underage, fathering nine children with her, and hitting her with a baseball bat and breaking her arm. But he also remained defiant, insisting to investigators that he wasn't a monster and later telling a reporter from Fox 23 that "99 percent" of the allegations were lies.
"I never raped any children," he said. "I made love to my wife. We were married."
After Piette's arrest, McGinnis told People that the word "relief" wasn't enough to sum up what she was feeling.
"My children and I suffer daily as a result of this predator's abuse," she said. "Now, we look forward to continuing our newfound life of freedom and moving forward, having a lifetime of happiness and success."
The Washington Post