A terrified Rosalynn McGinnis knew she had to escape. Her stepfather had kidnapped her and raped and beat her over a period of 20 years. If she couldn’t get away, she knew she was imperiling the lives of the eight children she bore him who were being held captive in Mexico with her.
All the while, she tried to hide her horrific past from the kids.
“They didn’t know,” she said of the children. “I kept the truth from them until I escaped from Mexico,” she said on a Tuesday broadcast of The Dr. Oz Show, during which she opens up about how she got away from stepfather Henri Piette in 2016.
“They were really shocked,” McGinnis said. (A ninth child, her eldest son, had run away earlier, although mother and son later reunited.) “The reason I didn’t tell them, of course, was because what I knew inside was, how much it’s damaged me. I didn’t want them to grow up knowing that.”
Still, she says, Piette — who was found guilty last June of kidnapping and travel with intent to engage in a sexual act with a juvenile — “would treat them like animals, [saying] that the only reason they’re alive is because ‘your mother’s here. Otherwise, if she wasn’t, I’d kill all of you.'”
“He would hit them and then I would step in, and it would just be horrible,” said McGinnis. “Any kind of abuse that you can think of, he did to me.”
Evidence at Piette’s trial showed he kidnapped a 12-year-old McGinnis in 1997 from Poteau, Oklahoma, where Piette had been in a relationship with the victim’s mother, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.
For nearly the next 20 years, he “repeatedly raped and inflicted physical and emotional abuse” on McGinnis, who gave birth to the first of the nine children in 2000 when she was 15 years old, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
During that time Piette “moved with the victim and children dozens of times within the United States and Mexico. He used numerous aliases and forced the victim to use aliases and dye her hair black and wear glasses to change her appearance. He controlled the victim by violence, threats of violence, and sexual abuse against her and her children,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
On The Dr. Oz Show, McGinnis said she was befriended in Mexico by a couple who saw her and Piette in a grocery store with several of the children, and sensed something amiss.
“They asked … where we lived. It started like that,” she said. “Henri was the type that always kept people away. But they knew something wasn’t right. So, they decided to do something about it.”
Later, “we moved and they found out where we were and she’s like, ‘I know there’s something wrong. If you can ever get away, I’ll help you.'”
In June 2016, McGinnis managed to flee — with the eight children — from the remote village where she and they were being held. Tired of begging for money and food on the streets, she told PEOPLE in 2017 that she’d been supporting her family by selling coffee, honey or homemade ice cream. With what she saved, she paid for a taxi to ferry her and her children to Oaxaca City, Mexico, where she placed a call to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
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“I knew that if I didn’t get out of there,” McGinnis told PEOPLE then, “I’d either go insane or I would end up dying and leaving my kids with that man.”
She and her family spent two months in hiding while multiple agencies, including NCMEC and the American consulate in Mexico, arranged emergency passports for them to return to the U.S.
Piette, 63, was indicted in December 2017 and convicted by a federal jury after a seven-day trial.
After his October 2018 arrest, McGinnis said in a statement to PEOPLE: “‘Relief’ is such a small word in comparison to how I feel about the capture of Henri Piette. … Knowing that the man who physically took 22 years from me, leaving me with a lifetime of painful challenges, has been captured makes today one of the most pivotal times of my life.”
“My children and I suffer daily as a result of this predator’s abuse,” she said then. “Now, we look forward to continuing our newfound life of freedom and moving forward, having a lifetime of happiness and success.”