Polly Mitchell was getting ready for work last Tuesday when she turned on the TV and heard Amanda Berry.
“Help me,” the plaintive voice was saying in the recorded 911 call from Cleveland that was being played on the news. “I've been kidnapped. I've been missing for 10 years. I'm here now. I'm free now.”
In this quavering voice, Polly heard anxiety. Polly heard fear. Polly heard urgency and strength and emotion and ...
Polly heard herself.
She burst into tears. She thought of a phone call she herself had made, after being imprisoned for 10 years.
She thought of her captor — her former husband.
Then she thought of her own improbable rescue, a journey from a hell of abuse and terror into the light of safety and promise.
And it's that thought Polly clings to now, even as her anxiety rises in these days leading up to her ex-husband's pending release next month from prison.
“There is life!” she said. “Just because you're captured for that long doesn't mean there isn't hope and there isn't life. Because there is. There is.”
Details are emerging in the days after Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were finally freed from a house of horror in Cleveland on May 6. Snatched by a stranger off the street, the women are telling investigators they were bound, raped and tortured in their 10 years trapped inside Ariel Castro's ramshackle house.
For a host of reasons, the Cleveland women and Polly Mitchell's stories are different. But the women share this experience: being held captive and terrorized by a man.
Polly wasn't kidnapped by a stranger. She didn't go missing. At least, not officially.
In 1993, the 17-year-old Taco Bell worker in Omaha was wooed by a charming customer, a man nine years older, who would leave her money and gifts in the drive-up window. They met in June and married in September.
Polly didn't even have a driver's license. Soon after they were married, she didn't have a job. David Mitchell made her quit. Within six months, he locked her inside the house and ordered her not to call anyone or go anywhere without him.
Over the years, he hurt her with his hands — including the time he nearly caused her to lose a baby when she was five months pregnant. And he hurt her with words, calling her “bitch” more than he ever called her “Polly.”
Jealous of any other man — from new people at family get-togethers to actors on TV — he locked her up wherever they lived.
By the time they moved to a house at 2518 Miami St., she was accustomed to the locked doors and the nailed-shut windows, accustomed to almost never being allowed out of the house and having him always accompanying her, accustomed to the way he'd listen in on her phone calls.
She couldn't go in the yard, and she couldn't take the oldest of their four children to school. David did that. She couldn't even crack a window or let the sun in. He had covered the windows with aluminum foil. He duct-taped their bedroom door shut at night.
He kept the family cellphone, and later, when he installed a phone line for the Internet, he ordered her not to use it.
David kept the front door locked with a deadbolt that was secured with a key — and only he carried the key. The back door was padlocked with a combination lock. Two boards were nailed across the basement door.
The only time Polly could leave was with David. They'd go to the grocery store, where Polly had to keep her head down and never make eye contact with anyone. Or they'd go — rarely — to a family event.
Never did Polly feel safe enough to whisper what was happening at home. David had told her he'd cut her up in tiny pieces and scatter her remains if she tried to leave.
And she believed him.
This is why she stayed. Why she was trapped. Why she couldn't escape.
“I felt like he had people watching me,” she said, “and watching the house.”
Polly was never counted as officially missing for those 10 years. But she was missing. Their own landlord didn't remember her. No employer would have known about her. Not even her own family guessed the extent of how bad things were.
The breaking point came in 2003, when Polly walked into a room and saw her 6-year-old son with his hands around the neck of his 3-year-old sister, her face purple.
“That's when I knew,” she said. “It was affecting them.”
At that moment, she knew she would leave. But how?
Polly built up the nerve to make a phone call.
“I gotta get out of here,” she told her mom, Toni Slatten.
Then Polly made a second phone call. To the YWCA.
Together, Polly, her mother and the YWCA counselor planned the family's escape. It wouldn't occur right away. Polly was too frightened. She needed time.
She chose a day in June when David was at work.
For the next few weeks, Polly stewed and fretted and second-guessed the plan. Was it right? Would he find out? Could they truly be safe? So many times she lost nerve, nearly backed out.
But then the time came. David left that morning and locked them all in as usual. Polly began trying to pry out nails in the window.
Then she called the police.
Her mother got there first and called Polly from her cellphone.
Polly looked through a tear in the foil covering a living room window and told her mom she could see her car.
“And I'll never forget this,” Slatten would later tell CNN's Larry King. “I said 'Polly, go ahead and tear the foil off.' She said 'No, I can't.' I said 'Tear it off, Polly.' I said 'You'll be out of there in a few minutes. He'll never know.' And she said 'I can't!' She said 'I'm too scared.'”
But Polly did push a window open. She lifted her children out first. Then, like Amanda Berry of Cleveland, she climbed out of her prison into freedom.
David Mitchell was arrested and charged with false imprisonment and making terroristic threats, both felonies. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced in June 2003 to 14 to 20 years in prison, which is cut in half under sentencing guidelines. This makes him eligible for release in June.
David's parting words to Polly on his sentencing day: “You're gonna go to hell.”
He was wrong, though. She had left hell.
She began to take steps toward rebuilding her life, and wasted little time.
Polly got her driver's license. She went to college, got her nursing degree and now works as a community nurse. She met someone who asked her to marry him. She said yes five years ago, but she hasn't been able yet to make it official.
Her children are now 18, 16, 13 and 12. The younger two hardly remember their early years with David, who has relinquished his rights. The older two remember all too well and are especially anxious about their father's release, scheduled for June 7.
Polly is on guard. She describes herself as “hyper-protective” of her children. The family has a safety plan if David decides to re-enter their lives.
But at 38, she also feels strong and secure enough to remain in Omaha.
If her own experience has taught her anything, it's that she's resilient.
This gives her hope for the three women from Cleveland and for women anywhere who are trapped.
“There is life,” she said, “after.”
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