Jeffrey Maxwell told the police officers that his house was a mess. He stepped outside and closed the door behind him. He was a big man, 6-foot-5 with nearly 300 pounds poured over a broad frame. He had thick, gray sideburns and greasy, disheveled hair. He smiled at the investigators waiting for him on the small front porch.
It was just before 6 pm on March 12, 2011. Sgt. Ricky Montgomery and four other investigators had come to this modest, modular lake house in Corsicana—50 miles south of Dallas—with questions about a missing 62-year-old woman. When the woman’s house had burned down and her remains weren’t found in the ashes, search teams had combed the surrounding hillsides. There were helicopters with heat-detecting cameras and ever-expanding grids. After a few days, police figured they were looking for a corpse. They brought in cadaver dogs and pumps to drain two nearby ponds, but there was still no sign of the woman. Then, eight days after the fire, a check for $500 cleared on her account. It was addressed to Maxwell and dated from weeks back. When police learned that Maxwell also owned a blue hatchback fitting the description of one seen by a neighbor on the day of the fire, they got a search warrant for the car and drove more than 100 miles from Weatherford to Corsicana to question him. A digital tape recorder in investigator Montgomery’s pocket caught the entire conversation.
“We are talking to several people that knew Miss Lois Pearson,” Montgomery said. “Are you familiar with who she is?”
“She used to be my ex-neighbor,” Maxwell said.
“We’re talking to everybody that lives in that area, everybody that used to live in that area, and everybody that’s been in that area recently,” the investigator said.
“I ain’t been out there in a long time,” Maxwell said.
“When’s the last time you had any contact with Miss Pearson?”
Maxwell thought about it for a moment. “Well,” he said, “she sent me a check here—” He stopped to clear his throat. “She owes me some money.”
Montgomery didn’t miss a beat with his follow-up. “What does she owe you money for?”
Maxwell said he’d loaned her money a couple of years earlier, but he couldn’t remember the exact amount. “A couple thousand dollars,” he told the officers. “I guess I felt sorry for her.”
Montgomery started to ask Maxwell if he would be willing to come down to the sheriff’s office when the front door swung open. They heard the high-pitched voice of an older woman.
“I’m here!” she said. The woman was frail, hunched over, her unwashed hair in knots, her face covered with bruises. She limped quickly past Maxwell, toward the officers. Though Montgomery was carrying a picture of the missing woman, he didn’t recognize her.
“Who are you?” he said.
Before she could answer, one of the men behind Montgomery called out in shock: “That’s her!”
“Lois Pearson,” she said, her sweet Texas twang lingering in the air.
There was a second of stunned silence. Texas Ranger Anthony Bradford, who was standing next to Montgomery at the time, would later explain, “We all needed to pick our jaws up off the ground.”
Bradford pushed Maxwell against the wall and put him in handcuffs, even as Maxwell cried out that he hadn’t done anything. Montgomery and another officer went into the house with their guns drawn, clearing each room, calling out, “Sheriff’s Office!” over and over. They didn’t find anyone else in the house, but they did find an assortment of chains, locks, and bloody sex toys. They found handcuffs and shackles next to an open jar of peanut butter, a bottle of lube on the bedroom windowsill, a loaded pistol next to a half-built model ship, and something in the garage that reporters soon took to calling a “homemade deer-skinning device.”
“In all my years of law enforcement, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler told the media. He called the scene “a house of horrors.” The case quickly garnered international attention. It drew comparisons to the movie The Silence of the Lambs. But just as what happened in the home of Jeffrey Maxwell would illustrate the depths of human depravity, it would also prove the endurance of the human spirit.
In many ways, Lois Pearson’s life resembled something out of a Thoreau essay. Instead of bustling city highways and crowded strip malls, she preferred the peaceful solitude of the small wooden house she grew up in, surrounded by the rural hills of northwest Parker County. Her family lived in that house when she was born, in 1949, and except for the two years she spent at Tarleton State—where she and her mother shared an apartment—Pearson never moved away. She was content living on the modest income she got from leasing her 60 acres to a man with cattle. On warm days, she would stroll through the pastures with her cats and feed the cows.
“I’ve just always been comforted by animals and nature,” she would say. “There are so many things in society that are harmful.”
After her mother died, Pearson became fiercely self-reliant. When the pipes froze a few years ago, rather than hire a plumber, she decided to live without running water, hauling jugs of water herself from a well. Many of the lights in the house stopped working long ago, too, so she carried an old lamp, attached to an extension cord, from room to room as she went about her daily business.
She grew up a devout Baptist. Every Sunday, she drove to church, and once a month she’d go into Mineral Wells, the nearest town with stores, to buy groceries and wash her clothes at the laundromat. She drove the 1970 Nova she bought new during her first year as an elementary school teacher. On Sundays when the Nova wouldn’t start, she would walk to church and back, a 20-mile round trip. She got rid of her television more than a decade ago. She often went days without any human interaction. She never had a boyfriend. She had, in fact, never been naked in front of a man—not even a doctor.
The first time she met Jeffrey Maxwell was in 2001, not long after he bought the property to the west of hers. Maxwell was in his late 40s at the time, and Pearson in her early 50s. They made small talk every so often, and he’d wave as he’d pass her house. One time he helped her borrow a tractor for the field out back. As a thank-you, she brought him a basket of fresh vegetables and berries. She hated feeling indebted to anyone.
Maxwell once asked her out on a date, to dinner. She told him the invitation made her feel “weird,” and she declined. Then one afternoon he showed up at her house, jumped out of his car, and asked her for a kiss. Pearson was insulted. The expectant smirk on his face made her angry.
“Don’t you ever come to my house ever again,” she told him. “You’re not welcome.”
He moved away shortly after that, in 2005, but, much to her surprise, she saw him once more before he left. Their conversation was brief and civil. He stopped by to show her photos of the modular house he was having built on Richland Chambers Reservoir, just outside the city limits of Corsicana.
On the afternoon of March 1, 2011, Pearson was preparing to make her monthly trip into town—she was actually standing next to her car—when Maxwell pulled up behind her Nova in a silver Chevy TrailBlazer.
“If he came five minutes later, I would have been gone,” she’d say later.
Maxwell greeted her cordially, with a smile. He got out of the truck, making small talk along the side of the house. Before she could remember that she’d been mad at him all those years ago, he asked her about her church. As she talked, he slowly moved toward her. She slowly moved away. Before long they were nearing the back of the house. Pearson, feeling a bit embarrassed about her containers of well water, began directing the conversation back toward the driveway. Then she noticed that something about his face had changed.
“He had this strange look in his eye,” she’d remember. “We both just stopped talking.”
He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a can with a strange top, and lifted it to her face. Before she could say anything, he unleashed a stream of pepper spray, making sure to get it into both of her eyes. But the spray had no effect. She turned and ran for the barbed-wire fence next to her car.
She’d just reached the fence—her hands were on the top wire—when he caught her. He wrapped his arms around her abdomen and heaved, but she wouldn’t let go of that fence—even as the barbs dug into her fingers and blood began dripping from her hands.
He was too strong, though. He dragged her to the ground in front of his truck. That’s when, in an act of desperation, she yelled as loud as she could. Hoping someone might hear her, or maybe it would deter Maxwell, she screamed, “I got AIDS!”
But in the seldom-traveled back roads of Parker County, there was no one to hear her. And Maxwell just muttered something along the lines of “I woulda done this for free,” as he dragged her to the back door of the house.
He stood her up, clicked a pair of prison-style shackles onto her ankles, and opened the back door. She was still struggling to free herself when he got her into the kitchen. He picked up a wooden rolling pin off the kitchen counter—it had been her mother’s—and hit Pearson on the left side of her head. When she didn’t go down, he swung again, even harder this time, and hit her on the right side. This one sent her to the ground. Later, she would say that on a scale of one to 10, the hit on the left side of her face was a 10 and the hit on the right side was a 15.
She could feel her eyes swelling shut almost immediately. But she didn’t stop trying to run away until he picked up her large butcher’s knife. She sat still, dizzy and bleeding onto her kitchen floor. He asked her where she kept the duct tape. She was silent. He asked again, and again she was quiet. He pulled the long extension cord off of her lamp and began cutting it into sections.
He walked her into the living room and used the strips of extension cord to tie her to a doorknob. She watched him as he went back through the kitchen and out the back door. She heard him walking toward the cars. He’d been gone only a few seconds when she was able to slip her wrists out of the ties—she’s always had very small wrists. She stood up and ran out the door in the opposite direction.
By the time he’d gone back into the house, noticed she was gone, and gotten into his truck to chase her down, she’d already made it several hundred yards down the road, even with the shackles on her ankles. He sped after her, pulling the truck off the road in front of her, cutting her off. Then he stepped out with a pistol in his hand.
“Now we’re going into plan B,” he said.
The look on his face terrified Pearson. He opened the cargo gate at the back of the truck and pushed her in. He leaned in over her and put handcuffs around her wrists. Then he slid a piece of duct tape over her mouth. She shook her head violently.
“Air!” she yelled, though it was muffled by the duct tape. “Air!”
He looked down at her, finally in control, and grinned.
“Are you a virgin?” he asked.
She began to cry. He mimicked her cries, mocking her. Then he closed the door and climbed behind the wheel. As he drove away, he told her he’d have to come back and burn her house down.
“Please don’t,” she pleaded through the tape. “Please don’t burn my house.”
She felt the truck pull onto the highway. He watched her in the rearview mirror and told her to lie down flat in the back. It was still daylight, though, and she hoped that maybe if she could lift her legs and passing drivers could see her shackles, they might be able to help her. Every time she raised her legs, he screamed at her and told her he’d pull over and kill her. She noticed that the windows seemed to have an especially dark tint, and as she heard car after car go by without seeing her, she felt helpless. She imagined throwing the spare tire and hitting Maxwell but figured that would only make him angrier. She thought about opening the back gate and rolling onto the highway, but she couldn’t find the release. He heard her praying aloud, asking God for help over and over, and he scoffed.
“When I’m through with you,” he said, “you won’t believe in God.”
Pearson felt the truck turn off the highway. She didn’t recognize any of the roads or buildings she could see. She felt Maxwell stopping, turning the truck around, and backing in somewhere. He got her out and into the garage of a house she’d never seen before. He closed the door behind her.
She looked around the cluttered room. There was lawn furniture, a mower, a workbench full of tools, a washer and dryer in the corner. Maxwell took off her shackles. He began peeling off her clothing, everything but her bra. That he cut off with a knife. Then he cuffed each of her hands to the ends of a thick steel bar attached to the ceiling with chains.
Confused, she watched him flip a switch on a yellow control box attached by a cable to the same spot in the ceiling as the chains. She felt her arms lifted first. Then she felt her shoulders pulled forcefully upward. The motor in the ceiling hummed as she moved higher and higher. When he flipped the switch again, it stopped, and she could feel her naked legs dangling in the air.
Detectives who have known Jeffrey Maxwell for decades say he has always been able to get himself out of trouble. Whether it was burning down his house for the insurance money or shooting his animals to get out of feeding them or much, much worse, Maxwell has always, one way or another, evaded punishment. He once bragged to police that he started stealing women’s underwear when he was a teenager and had taken between 30 and 40 pairs in his lifetime, without ever getting caught. Sometimes he’d break in when nobody was home. Other times he’d excuse himself to use the restroom during dinner and slip his hand into the dirty clothes hamper.
He had lots of jobs over the years. He worked as an airline mechanic, as a feed salesman, and as a prison guard. For the last few years, he had been living off Social Security disability benefits.
He married when he was 18, when his girlfriend, Rita, got pregnant. After a few years, they divorced, and in 1981, Maxwell met someone else through a mail matchmaking service. Martha Martinez lived with her parents in Mexico. Apart from a few trips to see her, their relationship consisted primarily of loving letters back and forth. When he finally came to Mexico to propose, Martha’s family was very upset.
“We just didn’t like him,” says Carole Martinez, who is married to Martha’s brother Javier. “Everyone tried to be nice to him, but he gave people such a creepy feeling.” Though they begged Martha not to marry him, she was 29 and worried this would be her last chance to become a wife and mother. “She was insecure,” Carole says. “And he preyed upon that.”
When Carole married Javier, Martha brought Maxwell to the celebration. Carole remembers Maxwell approaching her at the reception. “He looked at me, and he said, ‘I guess since we’re family now, I get to kiss you,’ and he jammed his tongue down my throat.” A few months later, he did the same thing to the bride at another family wedding.
Martha began telling friends about some more troubling behavior. She would show up with bruises on her wrists and ankles. She mostly kept it from her family, though. By then, Martha and Maxwell had a son together.
In 1987, Martha was found bound and beaten alongside I-35, about 10 miles outside Ardmore, Oklahoma. Her throat was slit, and she was barely alive. When she awoke in the hospital, she told police that Maxwell had drugged her, tied her up, tortured her, and left her to die. When detectives searched their Watauga home, they found stashed next to the air-conditioning unit a brown paper bag full of books about bondage. One was Bound, Whipped, and Caged School Girls. Another was Bondage for Three Wives. Below that they found another bag containing handcuffs, cords, and clothespins. Maxwell was arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping.
Martha took her son with her to Mexico to stay with her family. She told them some of the stories she’d kept secret for so long, about Maxwell binding her and locking her alone in a small room for days. But when it came time to testify about what she’d suffered, she felt like the judge and the police didn’t believe her. Authorities stopped contacting her, and eventually the charges were dropped.
Maxwell started writing Martha letters again, apologizing for what he’d done. Martha shared them with her family as they pleaded with her not to go back to him. “The letters were really more manipulative than anything,” Carole says. He appealed to Martha’s Catholic upbringing. “He kept telling her that God wanted them to be together and basically blamed her for everything that had happened.”
Her family was livid when she announced that she was moving back to Fort Worth to live with him. “She felt like she didn’t have any options,” Carole says.
At first, things seemed to get better. She went to college and got an associate degree. Their son seemed happy, and Martha adored Maxwell’s son from his previous marriage. When Martha brought Maxwell to a family reunion, some people even forced themselves to make small talk with him. But they still weren’t completely surprised when, in 1993, Martha went missing.
Two people received letters that looked like they were in Martha’s handwriting, saying she was leaving her husband and son and wouldn’t be in touch for a while. The letters were alarming.
“She almost always just picked up the phone and called,” Carole says. “It was strange.”
The letters were in English, even though anytime she’d written anything to anyone in her family, it had been in Spanish. The outsides of both envelopes had been addressed in a different hand. Convinced something horrible had happened, Martha’s friends and parents contacted the Fort Worth police. But it wasn’t until her brother flew to Texas to talk to them in person that there was a report filed. And though the family felt strongly that Maxwell was involved—“There was no doubt,” Carole says—the investigation went nowhere. Years later, when police asked him if he had done anything that might have resulted in his wife’s death, Maxwell replied, “Not intentionally.”
In 1995, he petitioned the court for a divorce, citing Martha’s disappearance. Soon after, he remarried Rita, who by then had three young daughters from another marriage. But two days before his second wedding to Rita, police reports would later show, her best friend said Maxwell raped her. That woman, who was renting part of a duplex from Maxwell, said he came over one night to fix a broken sink and forced himself on her. When he was done, he put his clothes on, warned her not to tell anyone, and left her crying on the bed.Not long after he moved in with Rita and her girls, the middle daughter complained to school officials that her stepfather was touching her inappropriately. The girl said it happened most often while she was playing Nintendo. He would lie next to her and put his tongue in her mouth. She would try to block him with her teeth, she said.
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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