“We Were Prisoners in a House of Torture, but We Survived”

By Liz Brody, Glamour magazine

This past June, America watched as Phillip Garrido-the man who'd kidnapped California preteen Jaycee Dugard, raped her and became the father of her children-was sentenced to 431 years to life in prison. More details of Dugard's harrowing time trapped in Garrido's squalid backyard compound are sure to be revealed in her memoir this summer, but as troubling as her story is, we've all taken some comfort in the belief that a case like hers happens only once in a lifetime.

If only it were so.

Kristen and Will Stillman's story hasn't made national headlines or magazine covers, partly because, while Dugard's parents searched frantically and vocally for her, no one was looking for the Stillman twins. With no family and no place to run to, they could rely only on each other to withstand more than a decade of abuse and torture.

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Theirs is a story of sibling love and survival. But it also raises tough questions for the rest of us: How could this happen to children living in plain sight? To a boy and a girl who were going to school? And how do you even begin to tell such a story? Perhaps in the words that Kristen, now 23, etched, cut or tattooed onto her body as cries for help that nobody seemed to notice, starting with the simple question:

"Why?"
(scar Kristen dug into her left thigh with pencil at age 11)

KRISTEN: We were eight and had gotten kicked out of our fourth shelter. Karen [the twins' mom] was always lying in bed or just not around. Maybe she was doing drugs-I don't know.
WILL: We were walking in a pretty nice neighborhood, and Karen knocked on the door of a white house with blue trim. It looked OK, at least on the outside.

KRISTEN: She told us to wait while she went in. When she came back, she said, "You can stay here." We met Eric, a big guy with a ponytail; his wife, Linda; and their daughter. After that, we saw Karen only a few more times. Basically she dumped us there. But that day I just figured, Hey, there are other kids here. I'm sure there's food.

WILL: For the first couple of months, it wasn't that bad. It was just another place with lots of people, like everywhere we'd been. Eric was clearly in charge.

KRISTEN: I'd always wanted a sister, and their daughter-she was around 12-and I were friends in the beginning. They also had a son, Patrick, who was nine, and a two-year-old boy. The house was really small. Linda's mom and dad lived there too, and her brother, and Eric's dad-everyone called him Apple. I remember Linda's mom, who moved out later, cutting my hair and telling me stories of being a nurse in the war. But things started to change a month into fourth grade, when Eric made me stand in the corner with my hands in the air for, like, 12 hours. Will, too.

WILL: If I dropped my arms, he'd take my head and smack it into the corner.

KRISTEN: We started looking at each other, thinking, What's going on?

WILL: It all went downhill pretty drastically.

"KILLER"
(faded scar Kristen scratched into her right arm with pencil)

Eric Torrez's violence toward the twins quickly escalated. Listed as their uncle on school records (Karen later wrote a letter giving the Torrezes guardianship), he made Kristen stand with a backpack full of bricks for hours on end. Or Will would be ordered to do hundreds of pushups. Soon Torrez was punishing them for almost anything-from not washing a dish perfectly to whispering to each other. His abuse ranged from whipping the bottoms of their feet to blistering their hands in scalding water. Early on it became obvious that Kristen would never run away without her brother, and Eric Torrez made Will sleep on the bare floor by the front door with his arms handcuffed behind his back, often secured to a piece of furniture and shivering in the Colorado cold.

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KRISTEN: At one point Eric started punishing me by filling a bucket with water and ice and holding my head down until I almost drowned.

WILL: For years he did it to me every day after school. It got to the point that sometimes I'd just bring him the bucket. It was like, I might as well get this over with. And I'd have to get on my hands and knees and eat my dinner out of a dog bowl. One time he made me go to school wearing a diaper. In sixth grade I told the principal that I was getting choked and hit. Then I sat on a bench outside his office and waited, and the next thing I knew, Eric and a cop came out, and I remember they were laughing. When I got home, Eric held me by the hair and beat the living s-t out of me. I just thought, F-k that, and never said anything to anyone again.

NEIGHBOR MELANIE TEM (a novelist who lives two doors down from the Torrez home): There was a lot of chitchat [on the block] about what might be going on. At first we thought, Maybe they're just an out-of-the-box family. But there was something very sinister about Eric. I never had anything conclusive, but I called the authorities about a dozen times over the years, leaving messages on the social services hotline saying, "Something's happening to those kids, but I don't know what."

KRISTEN: Social services came. They usually called ahead, so we cleaned the house. Whenever they or the police showed up, Eric and Linda always spoke for us. I don't remember ever being alone with those people. Not once.

The Denver Department of Human Services declined to comment on the Stillman case, but spokeswoman Revekka Balancier told Glamour that it's their policy to interview children outside the presence of an alleged perpetrator whenever possible and, with charges of sexual abuse and neglect, to make every attempt to visit the home without an appointment. She also added that there have been improvements in the process in recent years.

KRISTEN: I still have nightmares about the bags. Eric would put plastic trash bags over our heads until we passed out. I remember him covering Will's head in a whole bunch of Saran Wrap….

WILL: Suffocating is the worst feeling ever. All you want is air, and you have nothing.

KRISTEN: That time, I was screaming inside my head…. I don't know what I would have done if I'd lost Will.

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WILL: After something like this, we would hug each other and cry and say, "Someday we're going to get out of here. It's going to get better." But it was hard because we were barely allowed to be alone together; they'd even follow us to the bathroom.

KRISTEN: People ask why we didn't run away. We tried but were sure if one of us ever left, Eric would kill the other. And if we told anybody what was going on? We'd both be dead. He made that very clear. I even started thinking about how to kill Eric by messing with his insulin shots because he was diabetic. I especially had those thoughts when he would make me and Will abuse each other. Like Will would have to hit me with a paddle until my butt bled. Or there was a big yellow tub outside he'd push Will into; then he'd put a Plexiglas sheet over it and make me stand on top of it. To see my brother underneath me drowning, asking for help, and I couldn't help him…. It was like I was killing myself.

WILL: [Barely audible] I can't talk about it. I don't want to cry.

"Family. First."
(tattoos on each of Kristen's forearms)

As the twins became teens, Melanie Tem wasn't the only neighbor to suspect terrible things were going on at 2514 Irving Street, with its front door boarded up, blankets over windows and junk spilling out into the yard. Eric Torrez made his living buying abandoned storage lockers and reselling the contents, and several of the architects, writers and attorneys on the block say they found him hostile and avoided him. Meanwhile, inside his human kennel, his depraved sexual appetites were taking over: He started sodomizing Will with a brush handle; with Kristen, he turned to rape.

FORMER NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR DANIELLE HARABURDA (now a defense attorney): I called the cops multiple times. Once, I saw Patrick hit Will in the face. I ran out barefoot in the snow and screamed, "You motherf--ker-what are you?" The cops were like, "It's teenage brother stuff." Kristen was quiet and kept in the house. We rarely saw her. I remember going over to talk to her, and they basically slammed the door in my face. But you could hear the constant yelling.

KRISTEN: I was 12 the first time Eric raped me. He had me take a nap in his bed, and I woke to him kissing me; he'd undone my overalls. Eric is a scary man and really fat-he could just smash me. So I just lay there and tried to get through it. After that, when he started doing it regularly, sometimes I would try to run. He'd hold a pillow over my face or hit me so hard I literally saw stars, then black. Or he'd grab my hair and drag me back to his room. Sometimes I had to have sex with Linda, too-give her oral sex. It was like they had an agreement.

DANIELLE HARABURDA: I still remember the afternoon I saw Kristen standing in the front yard, and she had a baby in her arms. And I said, "Wow! You have a little girl." And she said, "Yeah, it's my boyfriend's." Every neighbor knew she didn't leave the house! We'd never seen a boyfriend. Never.

KRISTEN: When I got pregnant at 14 from Eric raping me, I was so ashamed that all I wanted to do was disappear. At school I stopped talking and raising my hand. When people asked, I wouldn't say who the dad was, and no one pressed me. The one good thing was that Eric didn't hit me or rape me as often while I was pregnant. Then I had Maddie,* and even though I hated the situation, I automatically loved her. She gave me a reason to live.

MELANIE TEM: Somewhere in there, Kristen started coming over and pulling weeds for me, and I remember saying, "Are you OK? Are you safe over there? Are you afraid?" She never answered; she just looked away. I thought she was probably developmentally disabled; she was very shut-down…. Now it's clear she's very bright.

KRISTEN: Melanie did ask me a few times. But I was too terrified to say anything; I knew if I did, Eric would kill my daughter. I tried to run away with Maddie once. He grabbed her and held a knife to her. He said, "If you try to go, I will slit her throat."

DANIELLE HARABURDA: When I heard Kristen was pregnant again, I thought, Not consensually.

KRISTEN: I got pregnant the second time during my sophomore year. I just couldn't face anybody. And it was so depressing because when I came home from school, I could hear Maddie crying all the way down the street. Someone was supposed to be watching her, but I'd find her in her bouncy seat with food all over her and a dirty diaper-no one was even there. I didn't want that to happen to another child, so I dropped out. At the hospital, social workers would ask to talk to me alone, but Eric or Linda was always there, and they'd say, "No, she is underage and needs us. We're her parents." They put Patrick [their teenage son] as the father on both of my kids' birth certificates as a cover.

I had contacted a couple of teen centers and shelters, but they said either they could only take me with one child or they needed my parents' consent. I started to feel like no matter what I did, I couldn't find a safe way to leave. I was able to sneak to my kids' doctor to get Depo-Provera [birth control] shots, but only three times, and by 19, I'd had another baby and was pregnant with my fourth. I just gave up, and I told myself, This is where I'll be for the rest of my life.

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WILL: We stopped thinking anyone would believe us.

"Freedom"
(scar etched into Kristen's right wrist with pencil)

Yet somehow, the twins found a way to go on. Kristen diligently got her GED, paying for the tests with some of her earnings from Melanie Tem's yard work, which she'd squirreled away without Eric Torrez noticing. And she planted a tiny fruit and vegetable garden outside the Torrez place; one of her happiest memories is of picking strawberries and tomatoes there with her kids. Eventually Torrez allowed her to work at Taco Bell, but he drove her there and back every single day and made her give him her paychecks. Meanwhile, Will began dating a girl named Megan, whom he told everything, and the three started plotting an escape.

WILL: In June of '08, Megan and I were on the porch, and Maddie came over to me and said, "I have to tell you something." I told her, "Go on, I'm listening." She said, "Apple put his fingers in my vagina."

KRISTEN: I was in the hospital having my fourth child when I found out. Everything changed. I remember holding Maddie and crying and asking her how many times, and she couldn't answer. I wanted it so badly to all be erased. There was no way in hell Eric could keep me now. I could handle being abused, but when my daughter was raped? No. I had to protect her. I was determined to get out of there.

KRISTEN'S BOSS, OMAR MORENO (manager at the Taco Bell where she worked): Kristen always showed up on time and did her work. Her family was dirty and really creepy. One time they came in [yelling], "Where is she? We need to find her." But she seemed to handle it. She was about to get promoted when she quit to go to Kansas.

KRISTEN: One day I found a leather bag hidden in a closet-it had a bunch of paychecks from Taco Bell. Eric hadn't cashed them, so we did, and then had Megan buy a used Jeep. That night I said, "Hey, let's take a ride," and for some reason, Eric said OK. So that was it. Will, me, and the kids all piled into that '95 Jeep Grand Cherokee-and we drove to Paola, Kansas, where Megan knew a church we could stay at.

You might have thought it was the best day of my life, but I hardly slept. I was always looking behind me to see if Eric was following me. Two months later, the sheriff knocked on the door with a court order to take my kids back to the Torrezes.

I dropped to my knees. The kids are crying. I'm crying. I looked through the window and saw Eric and Patrick in a green minivan. All I could think was, Somebody has to help me get my babies away from those people. So I called Melanie, and I told her everything. She said, "Come back to Denver and go to the police."

MELANIE TEM: When Kristen called, all I could think was, I wish I weren't having this conversation now, after all those years of abuse. I know I made the calls to social services, but it wasn't nearly enough.

DETECTIVE PHIL STANFORD, DENVER POLICE (officer who investigated the case): It was a Sunday morning, and I was the only one on the floor at the Sex Crimes Unit when the main desk clerk called me, so I went down to the lobby and saw the three of them sitting there: Kristen, William and his girlfriend. The story they told me was so horrific, it was like, can this really be true? But their versions matched. And during a lengthy investigation, every time I picked up a rock, I found the truth-they had never embellished any of it.

KRISTEN: After everything we'd been through, to have someone actually believe us? It felt so good. It was amazing.

DET. STANFORD One of the first things I did after talking to them was to go find the Torrezes. The house was disgusting. It was heated with flames from the stove. The bathroom had stains-probably urine and fecal matter-all over the floor, on the walls. After they were arrested, I went to their mother Karen Stillman's apartment. I asked her if she had any children, and she said, "Unfortunately." I said, "What do you mean?" And she goes, "If I'd have known what kind of monsters they'd be, I would have aborted them."

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I'm a dad, and what floored me most is, how did these children get to be so positive? So resilient? At eight years old, they're supposed to be learning right from wrong, and what they're being taught is evil. The fact that Kristen innately knew she had to treat her kids differently just stuns me. She's so incredibly smart. And Will, he's amazingly loyal. He never gave up on her.

Childhood Innocence
(meaning of the stars etched on Kristen's wrist, elbow and calf)

CHIEF DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY KERRI LOMBARDI (who prosecuted the case): When I first talked to Kristen and William, they were so matter-of-fact about the abuse that it was startling. He would say, "Oh, when I got handcuffed," as if it were normal. They were both numb. But on the stand, Kristen was remarkable. She testified for two long days. We had to go through years of pictures and details. That takes courage.

KRISTEN: During the whole trial, my heart was beating so hard! When I was up on the stand, Eric was right there. Or I'd be sitting outside the courtroom, and he'd flip me off or he'd walk by in chains and mouth, "I'm going to kill you." But he wasn't going to stop me now.

After jurors heard Kristen's testimony, defense attorneys proposed a deal: Eric Torrez would plead guilty to 14 counts of sexual assault in exchange for Linda Torrez's avoiding prison time. The twins agreed. (Apple-Andres Torrez-died at 82, before his trial started, and Patrick Torrez pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to eight years of probation.) When it came time to sentence the Torrezes, the judge did not hold back: He gave Linda Torrez 20 years of probation and Eric Torrez 300 years to life in prison. Karen Stillman, the mother who Kristen says never uttered a single word of apology to her children, pleaded guilty to attempted child abuse and is now serving a 16-year sentence. The defense attorney for the Torrezes and Karen Stillman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

KRISTEN: When Eric pleaded guilty to every single charge, the fear and difficulty of testifying was totally worth it.

WILL: I heard "300 years," and I wanted to give a standing ovation.

KERRI LOMBARDI: This is one of the worst cases I've ever seen. These kids were at school. She had babies in hospitals. There were so many red flags.

KRISTEN: Only a deaf, dumb and blind person would not have noticed we needed help. Maybe "I am being abused" didn't come out of my mouth, but I was speaking in code. I gave everyone hints.

DANIELLE HARABURDA: As a community, I think, we all dropped the ball. These children lived in subhuman conditions for years-I will always carry that around.

"My Will Shall Keep Me Alive"
(words tattooed on Kristen's chest like a necklace)

Today the twins live near each other in Denver and see each other every other day. Will works as a housepainter; Kristen as a hostess at a restaurant. She's taken two courses in criminology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, with ambitions of eventually working in social services. And for the first time in her life, she has a boyfriend.

There is a deep sadness, though. As the trial was getting under way, Kristen suddenly found herself, at 22, a mother of four with no money, parents or friends to help care for her children. More than anything else, she wanted them to have a stable home. It was a wrenching decision, but this past September, she gave them all up for adoption-the oldest was seven, and the youngest, two.

KRISTEN: Of everything I've been through, giving up my children is the hardest thing for me to talk about. I hear the parents are wonderful, that the boys are with two kindergarten teachers. But part of me has died.

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REPORTER PATRICIA CALHOUN (editor of the local weekly Westword): I was [covering] the hearing where Kristen terminated her parental rights. The whole thing was incredibly moving. The children's court representative called her decision "one of the greatest acts of love I've seen." The judge agreed, saying, "I would echo that times 10."

KRISTEN'S BOYFRIEND, TRAVIS MEININGER: I really didn't understand what she'd been through until I saw her testify-and I just started crying. For her to get through that is amazing. She's my life.

KRISTEN: And now we have Kaylee, who was born in February. But I know there are so many children out there who need help. When I read about Jaycee Dugard, I felt like at least she had somebody who loved her; it wasn't her family who betrayed her. But it makes me even more determined to protect all the other abused kids living in plain sight while everyone walks by. Whatever it takes-a law degree, working within social services-I want to be in a position of power to change the system.

ATTORNEY JOHN CLUNE (cofounder of Victim Justice, who worked on Kristen's case): [She has] such a full spirit, and it could have been totally crushed by all of this abuse. Now you can see it's really emerging.
WILL: Kristen kept herself together through all of this. And she helps me keep myself together. She's the only reason I made it through, the only reason I fought. I admire her. I adore her. She's my hero.

KRISTEN: If I didn't have him to help me cope, I don't see myself having lived past 11. That's why I tattooed "My Will shall keep me alive" around my neck. It's not just about my inner will; it's my brother.

*Name has been changed.

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