After the complaints, Maxwell moved the family to a different school. At the new school, there were new allegations. This time the youngest daughter said she, too, had been touched. She described waking up in the middle of a thunderstorm and wanting her mother. But when she got to the bedroom, Maxwell was the only one there. She said he groped her all over, until they saw the mother’s headlights in the driveway and he told her to go back to bed. This time Child Protective Services insisted Rita take the girls and leave the house, but again Maxwell escaped charges.
As he raised Pearson into the air, Maxwell yelled at her. He was still angry that she had disobeyed him in the car. He called her a bitch. No one had ever called her that. She could feel his hands on her body, roaming, probing. She felt something hard and pointed—it felt like a plastic bullet. She felt him put it in her rectum and then do something to make it start shaking.
It felt like he wanted it to hurt—and it did. In her polite way, she would later recall, “It was very uncomfortable.”
“I’ll keep you for two weeks,” he told her.
Then he started hitting her. At first he used a small black whip with red tassels at the end. Then he switched to a longer bullwhip. At some point, he used the end of a fishing pole. He hit everywhere, from her neck and throat to her feet and ankles and everywhere in between. He focused on her breasts, which hurt the most. She couldn’t help but cry out.
He told her again that when he was through with her, she wouldn’t believe in God. He asked if it hurt. She told him it did.
“Good,” he said.
When he finally lowered her to the ground, she could barely stand. He walked her up the small wooden garage stairs and into the kitchen, stopping to show her the rifle he kept loaded by the door. Pearson was terrified of guns. As soon as her father died, she and her mother had removed all the guns from the house.
Maxwell walked her to the bathroom and told her to clean up. For the first time, she got a glimpse of the bruises that were forming all over her body. Her right eye was swollen shut. She worried she might lose it. He must have overheard her asking God to spare her life, because Maxwell sneered through the doorway, “You better pray.”
He took a quick shower then gave her some of his jeans to wear. They were enormous on her, and they smelled like him. It was awful, but that was when she realized that she would live longer if she kept him happy.
That night he chained her ankles to the bed, turned off all the lights, and lay down next to her. Pearson didn’t sleep, though, and Maxwell didn’t sleep much either. Every time she would turn to look in his direction, she’d see his wide, owl-like eyes peering back at her through the darkness. It was her first night away from home in more than 40 years.
As dawn broke on day two, Maxwell told her he had to go to the store. He said he needed more padlocks. He stood her up and walked her toward the garage. She thought he was putting her back on the machine, and she broke into tears.
“Please, no,” she said.
He showed her a homemade wooden box on the floor of the garage. It looked like a coffin. She noticed the wood looked and smelled new. He told her she could pick: into the box or back on the machine? Her decision was instant. She would have done anything to avoid going back up on the machine. He put a metal ring in her mouth to gag her and closed the attached strap behind her head. Then he cuffed her wrists and ankles and told her to lie down in the box. Through the gag, she voiced her concern about air. He put a wrench on the edge of the box to prop up the lid about an inch. Then he left.
She waited for a few seconds after she heard the engine start outside to make sure the car was gone. Then, lying on her back, she tried to push open the homemade coffin. As hard as she pushed and kicked—and she tried until her knees were black from the bruising—she couldn’t do anything more than knock the wrench out and lock herself in darkness. She wouldn’t realize until he returned with the new locks that he had moved the box under a heavy workbench.
When he got back, he brought her into the bedroom and took her clothes off. He put her on the bed and began rubbing between her legs. Pearson had never talked to her parents about sex, and she had certainly never taken a sex-ed class. She didn’t know what he was doing to her, but it hurt. When she winced in pain, he asked how she’d like going into the garage and getting hung upside down. She tried to not make a sound after that.
When he was done, he cuffed her leg to the bed again. For the first few days, that’s what he did anytime he wasn’t in the room with her. Whether he was taking a shower or walking to the mailbox, he couldn’t be too careful. That night, her body exhausted, she finally slept a few hours.
The next morning, he told her he needed to drive into Dallas to pay a repair bill for his son. He cuffed her and gagged her and left her chained to the bed for hours. As she sat there, bouncing every now and then to keep the blood flowing to her hands, she wondered if anyone in the world would ever know she was in this house. She wondered what would happen if Maxwell got into an accident on the highway, if she would waste away attached to the frame of a bed bolted to the floor.
She could hear the sounds of people moving in the distance: a lawn mower, a loud motorcycle passing by, speed boats on the water by the house. She cried for help, but nobody heard her through the gag.
When Maxwell returned that afternoon, he yelled at her for wetting the bed. He mocked her. When he removed the metal ring gag, Pearson realized it had cracked the front of her teeth.
That was the day her house burned down. When Pearson spotted her driver’s license photo on the television screen, Maxwell rewound the DVR so she could watch the entire news segment. Pearson learned that her house was gone, that she had been declared a missing person, and that people were looking for her.
They fell into a routine. He would sexually assault her in the morning. She would spend the rest of the day praying. She had a regular prayer she recited: “Please, God, don’t let Jeff kill me.” She’d say it again and again, sometimes in her head, sometimes out loud. As the routine went on, she noticed that he seemed less angry at her. He would even smile sometimes as he made her oatmeal for breakfast.
In addition to praying, Pearson kept looking for an opportunity to make her escape or, at the very least, change the balance of power. After days of being molested and forced to perform vile acts, she found that opportunity.
On the seventh day, he jumped on top of her. She told him she didn’t want to have sex.
“Thou shall not commit adultery,” she said.
“God won’t hold it against you,” he said.
As he pressed down on top of her, Maxwell put his mouth against hers. He felt so heavy. She could barely breathe. That’s when she decided to take a different approach.
Her parents had always told Pearson that she carried a bronchitis germ in her mouth. It’s one of the reasons she never kissed boys when she was young. So she pushed as much of her saliva as possible into Maxwell’s mouth. She would later call the maneuver “germ warfare.”
There’s no way of knowing exactly why it happened, but the next day, Maxwell woke up with a fever and chills. He was pasty and could barely get out of bed. He never touched her in a sexual way again.
One morning he demanded she write him a check. He told her to date it February 2, more than a month earlier. He said to write “Thanks for the loan, Jeff” on the memo line and to sign it. She purposely botched her first attempt, tearing the check up and putting the bits in her purse. He told her to start over. This time she wrote “loan repayment” instead of what he’d ordered. When he got mad, she blamed it on her sore fingers. He went out that afternoon and cashed it.
“Groceries aren’t cheap,” he told her. He had already taken $60 in cash out of her wallet—the money for her trip into town. She was fasting every other day—drinking only water from sun up to sun down—because she felt like it brought her closer to God. She hoped the money might buy her a few more days.
Early on, Pearson had asked Maxwell if he had a Bible, and he’d brought out an old one that once belonged to his father. She asked to read it. At first, he insisted on turning the pages for her. Soon, though, he would just hand it to her and let her sit on the floor and read all day as he watched old Westerns and sci-fi movies. Once in a while he would interrupt her and tell her to come sit on his lap. But after a few minutes he’d tell her she was getting too heavy, and she’d pick up reading where she left off.
He began to trust her more. He kept her chained less and less around the house. One day she noticed that he left his cell phone in the bathroom. She thought about picking it up, using it to call for help, but she’d never used a cell phone before. She worried she’d do something wrong and not only would he stop trusting her, but he’d also put her back on the machine. She left it alone.
On weekends, she could see people out on the lake, enjoying themselves. She would stare at the walls, at the ceiling, and dream of floating through the drywall and wood to freedom. She prayed that maybe someone would come to a window and see her.
Maxwell started asking her more about her beliefs. He explained that he, too, had grown up in a strictly religious household. Sometimes it felt like he was trying to convince her that God didn’t exist. But sometimes he asked about forgiveness.
“Do you forgive me for what I’ve done to you?” he asked.
She said she had to. “If you don’t forgive others, God can’t forgive you,” she said. That’s what she believed.
He talked more about wanting to “find a way out of all this.” He wondered if maybe they could get married, so she wouldn’t have to testify against
him. He told her he couldn’t let her go because of her bruises, and, he said, she would “gossip” about it. She assured him she wouldn’t.
“Please take me home,” she said. “I won’t tell nobody.”
By then he had also convinced her that someone else—possibly multiple parties—was paying him to do this to her. He wouldn’t tell her who, but he told her he was trying to be as nice to her as possible. Even though he tried to be nice—sometimes he brought her fast food, and he had her dip her hands in hot water in a misguided attempt to stave off infection—it wasn’t long before he would go back to mocking her. He would ask her sarcastically how her praying was going, noting that it must not be working since she was still there.
Maxwell mocked her early on Saturday, March 12. He laughed at her as she sat on the floor, just as she had all the other days, reading the Bible and praying. In fact, she was praying that afternoon, and he was watching TV, when they heard a firm knock at the door.
He stood up and quickly walked her into the back bedroom. He told her to stay quiet. Before he could cuff her or gag her, they heard another knock. He went to answer the door. She heard him step out and close the door behind him. She could hear their voices outside, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying.
She crept out of the bedroom and over to a window at the front of the house. It was nearly 6 pm, but there was still enough light to make out “SHERIFF” on the car parked by the road. First she felt dread, which confused her. But then she realized this was her chance.
She ran through the kitchen and opened the front door. At first she told the investigators that Maxwell was her friend.
“He didn’t do nothing,” she said. “He’s okay.” She would later hear the term “Stockholm syndrome,” but all she remembers from those seconds is fearing for her life.
“Well, Lois, you’ve been beat up,” Ranger Bradford said as he cuffed Maxwell.
“He’s my friend,” she said.
“I didn’t do nothing,” Maxwell said as officers took him to the ground. Then he yelled, “I’ve got a bad foot!”
A few minutes later, once she was taken away from Maxwell, Pearson explained to the officers that he had taken her and hit her and put things in her that she didn’t want. Initially, investigators weren’t sure what she meant when she talked about “the machine.”
But when they searched the house, they found the winch she described and the yellow control box covered in blood. They also found the whips, the cuffs, three guns, four sex toys of various sizes, and wads of duct tape all over the place. There was blood on the sheets, on the floor below the winch, and on various pieces of clothing around the house. Police also found two tall file cabinets filled with bondage porn: movies, books, magazines. The dresser in the bedroom was also filled with porn. So was the nightstand and the top shelf in the bedroom closet. Slave fetish movies were stacked next to family photos. In the garage, they also found the wooden box.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he was going to kill her,” Sheriff Fowler told reporters. “He didn’t have any other options. If our men showed up a day later, who knows what we would have found.”
Over three days of interrogation, Maxwell admitted to almost everything.
“I got myself into something I couldn’t figure out how to get out of,” he said.
Still, he pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated kidnapping and two counts of aggravated sexual assault. The trial started on February 14, 2012. Even though the sexual assaults took place in Navarro County, the abduction occurred in Parker County, so the trial was held in Weatherford, with Judge Trey E. Loftin presiding. In the months between his arrest and his trial, Maxwell lost more than 60 pounds—and shaved his sideburns. Now he appeared lanky, a ghostly figure in an oversize suit.
In front of a jury of six men and six women, prosecutors Jeff Swain and Kathleen Catania laid out the case. Sgt. Montgomery and Ranger Bradford took the stand, along with several other investigators. The jury listened as prosecutors played the tape of Pearson bursting free, and watched the DVDs of Maxwell’s confession. The state submitted more than 100 pieces of evidence. The coffin, the machine, the shackles, and the guns all sat just feet from the jurors for most of the five days of testimony. Jurors heard from doctors, nurses, DNA experts. They also heard from Pearson. She has always been shy around crowds—she can’t even play the piano at church until everyone’s leaving—but she stood bravely before the court, swore on the Bible to tell the truth, and proceeded to describe the events in horrific detail.
Defense attorneys Richard Alley and James Wilson tried admirably, despite the mountain of evidence. Alley objected to the search of Maxwell’s property because an investigator entered the house in the time between the initial sweep and when the search warrant arrived. (Pearson had insisted someone take her in to get her purse.) But the judge overruled the objections. The defense lawyers told the court they did not wish to call any witnesses.
The jury took less than an hour to convict Maxwell on all three counts. At the sentencing, as in the guilt-innocence phase, Judge Loftin ruled that jurors could not hear about Maxwell’s suspected involvement in the slashing and subsequent disappearance of his ex-wife Martha. But they did hear from the woman Maxwell raped two days before his wedding. They heard from two of Rita’s daughters, who described how being molested all those years ago has affected them gravely. They heard from a detective who, in the ’80s, became convinced that Maxwell wanted to live out a fantasy that involved keeping a woman as a prisoner under his total control.
Pearson took the stand again, this time to talk about the pain she was still suffering more than a year afterward. She described her fractured shoulder and the ligament damage in her fingers. She explained that she can no longer haul water from her well. She talked about the three cats that died in the fire: Bluey, Blacky, and Bluey’s kitten, which hadn’t been named yet. The worst part, she said, was that she had always believed that by remaining a virgin for all eternity, she would receive her reward in heaven.
“He took that from me,” she told the court.
She said she tries not to think much about those dark days. Her life is slowly getting back to normal, and she feels like the mere fact that she’s alive is a miracle.
Again it took less than an hour for the jury to give him three life sentences. The judge stacked two of the sentences, meaning that at the absolute earliest Maxwell could be eligible for parole, he’d be 119 years old. When the proceedings were over, the crowded room watched as a sheriff’s deputy put cuffs on Maxwell’s wrists and ankles.
“Sheriff,” Judge Loftin said, “take your prisoner.”
Ordinarily, victims of sex crimes aren’t identified in the media, but after the trial, Pearson told reporters that she wanted her story to be known. She said she wants people to know that her faith in God carried her through the worst times.
“It was strictly God,” she said. “God answering prayers got me through it.”
After her 12 days with Jeffrey Maxwell, Pearson was left with only memories of her previous life. He took so much. It wasn’t just the house, or her clothes, or the car she loved, but all of her earthly possessions: her old manual typewriter, her piano and all her mother’s sheet music, shelves of photo albums. She no longer owns a picture of her father, and she’s not sure one exists.
She struggles with forgiveness, but she goes to weekly counseling sessions. “I don’t want to miss out on heaven because of that man,” she says.
She wonders sometimes why he picked her, what she could have done differently. She has been told it’s because Maxwell knew she could be gone for days without anyone noticing, that she was the perfect victim. She wonders if he hadn’t burned down her house and started the search, would anyone ever have known she was gone? She knows there are so many things that could have gone differently and that she could so easily be dead.
Pearson, now 63, began slowly rebuilding her life. Her church raised more than $17,000 to buy her a small trailer for her property. It’s not the house she grew up in, but the old wooden house had holes in the floor where rattlesnakes and rodents would sometimes climb in. It was almost impossible to heat in the winter. But the new trailer is all sealed up and cozy on cold nights. The church even gave her a new piano. A neighbor put in her septic tank. She doesn’t have a car yet, but she does have a new phone, and she gets rides from her friends.
“Before the kidnapping, I rarely talked to anyone,” she says. “Now I’m having to adjust to a social life.”
These days, she gets calls from church friends all the time. She chats with her neighbors nearly every day. People are always stopping by to check on her or to bring her food or small presents.
Members of the congregation have asked her to sing in front of the church. In the old days, she never would have considered it, but now she’s giving it some thought. She likes the feeling of making so many people happy. She still relishes the quietude of nature, but she also enjoys spending time with her new friends.
“Before this,” she says, “I never knew how much I liked people.”
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