KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Most people can remember where they lived and what they were doing when they were 12 — likely dealing with the drama of middle school, participating in sports and playing with friends.
Rosalynn McGinnis didn’t have that luxury.
Kidnapped at age 12, her days were filled with lies, threats, beatings and rapes. Her captor evaded detection primarily by moving her to various small towns in the United States and eventually to Mexico.
But thanks to an alert couple who helped her escape after nearly two decades of torment, McGinnis was reunited with family in Kansas City, Missouri.
McGinnis is now 34 and the mother of nine children fathered by her kidnapper. Life is better, but it remains far from normal as she and her family struggle to heal from an unimaginable nightmare.
Torn from childhood
McGinnis grew up in Springfield, Missouri, in a house just blocks from a park where she'd play with her siblings and friends. She took violin lessons. She was an honor roll student. She felt safe.
“I wanted to grow up and be a veterinarian and to teach violin,” McGinnis said in an interview with 41 Action News anchor Christa Dubill. “I had goals as a very young child.”
McGinnis and her family visited Kansas City often to see relatives. Dana Archuleta, her cousin, fondly remembers those visits.
“We lived in different cities growing up so there wasn’t a lot of closeness,” Archuleta said. “But of course, there were get-togethers and whatever family updates that came in between.”
Nobody could have predicted what would come next.
When she was 10 years old, with her biological father no longer in the picture, a man named Henri Piette moved the McGinnis family to Wagoner, Oklahoma, to isolate them from their extended family members. There, he sexually abused McGinnis.
Piette had lived on a nearby street as the McGinnis family in Springfield. McGinnis said her mother, Gayla, met him while handing out flyers as part of a neighborhood watch group. She said the two quickly became friends.
“He was like my mom’s best friend,” McGinnis said. “He took advantage of an opportunity.”
Piette would soon marry McGinnis’ mother, but to this day she refuses to use the word “stepfather” to describe him. McGinnis only refers to Piette as a child predator.
“He knew exactly who to target and how to get what he wanted,” McGinnis said. “He was never a stepfather. He was a child predator who moved into my neighborhood and targeted my family.”
McGinnis’ new life in Oklahoma quickly took a sinister turn. During an interview with the Kansas City division of the FBI in 2016, she recounted in vivid detail how Piette began to abuse her when she was just 10 years old in Springfield.
It’s a day so traumatic her mind won’t allow her to forget it.
“It’s like life stops the moment you are [sexually] abused,” McGinnis said. “You can remember every detail. Everything like where you were. The sun was shining. It’s kind of hard to explain to someone that hasn’t been through that. But it’s like imprinted on your mind.”
The day McGinnis vanished
McGinnis was in sixth-grade at Pansy Kidd Middle School in Poteau, Oklahoma, when she was called to the school office on January 31, 1997.
According to documents obtained by 41 Action News from the Poteau Police Department, a man picked up McGinnis from school that Friday afternoon and drove away with her in a small gray pickup.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” McGinnis said. “The next thing I know, my mother’s not there, my brothers are not there and none of my family is there and I am by myself with this man.”
McGinnis said Piette took her to a hotel room in Tulsa and told her she couldn’t return to her family. He convinced her that if they were caught she would be locked up in a mental institution because she had allowed him to abuse her.
“Even after everything that happened to me, my whole world crashed, but that was the last thing that made me feel helpless,” McGinnis said.
According to McGinnis, the day Piette picked her up at school, he dyed her hair black and made her wear fake glasses to disguise her appearance. He also said she would no longer go by Rosalynn McGinnis, and changed her name multiple times over the years.
Her mother reached out to the media and Child Search Ministries soon circulated a missing person flyer with her photo, age, and the date she disappeared. It said she may be in the company of her non-custodial stepfather, using the last name Piette.
“Please help find this child”, the flyer read.
Archuleta said she remembers the frantic search for her cousin.
“I remember stacks of flyers,” Archuleta said. “You know, there’s so much space to cover when looking for one person, it can be overwhelming.”
Weeks passed and searchers failed to locate McGinnis and Piette. The searches eventually stopped shortly before McGinnis’ 13th birthday, but the horror she would endure was only beginning.
“All I wanted to do was just cry,” McGinnis said. “I wanted to run.”
McGinnis said the physical and sexual abuse continued, and within a few months she was pregnant. She didn’t realize what was happening and later suffered a miscarriage. Piette told her to flush the fetus down the toilet of the apartment they had been staying in at the time.
“I was scared, and I was so confused and didn’t even know what was happening,” McGinnis said, shaking her head and staring at the floor as she recounted the memories. “Looking back on what happened to me I don’t even know how any human can do that to a child — what he did to me.”
Isolated across the border
Piette moved from hotel room to hotel room with McGinnis in those first few months and eventually took her across the border into Mexico. The daily verbal, physical and sexual abuse continued.
McGinnis was 15 when she gave birth to the first of nine children while in captivity with Piette – a baby boy born in the back of a van. At the time, they were living in a small, run-down mobile home with a rotted-out floor and no utilities.
McGinnis said she was forced to beg on the streets for food to feed the family because Piette squandered any money they collected on alcohol and drugs.
She said she sold homemade ice cream, but Piette instructed her to keep conversations to a minimum and made her check in with him hourly.
McGinnis said she tried to escape multiple times but, “when I was caught, the consequences were great,” she said. “Eventually at one point in time, it didn’t affect me anymore, because I was used to it.”
McGinnis pointed out scars from wounds she suffered at the hands of her kidnapper, from her head to her toes.
She said Piette would frequently beat her with an assault rifle, baseball bat, wooden boards and beer bottles. He shot her several times and she suffered multiple broken bones.
She has 21 scars on her scalp alone.
Living in constant fear, McGinnis said the day she gave birth to her now 13-year-old child, Piette attacked her for speaking out of turn.
“He picked up a stainless steel frying pan and tried to hit me in the stomach,” McGinnis said. “I put my arm in front of it and it cut me all the way to the bone.”
Good Samaritans rekindle hope
While the family’s desperate circumstances went mostly ignored for nearly two decades, McGinnis’ grim fate soon changed. In early 2016, 19 years after she was kidnapped from an Oklahoma middle school, McGinnis and her children met a married couple while living in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Lisa is a U.S. citizen. Ian is British. 41 Action News is not revealing their last names due to concerns for their safety.
McGinnis told them her name was Stephanie. Piette was going by Bill at the time, just one of many aliases he would adopt over the years.
Speaking with 41 Action News from an undisclosed location in Mexico, Lisa described the first day she met the family at the local supermarket.
“We were in line and they were in front of us,” Lisa said. “They had two giant carts of groceries. One was entirely filled with meat, which the children told us later was only for him, and they couldn't pay the bill. They were short on money so Ian and I just gave them money. And she was grateful.”
Lisa said the kids were almost always barefoot and that “they were just desperate to talk. Not the very youngest ones, because they wouldn't say anything until they got to know us, but they just wanted anybody to talk to because it was not something they were allowed to do."
Just as Lisa and Ian were becoming friends with McGinnis and her children, Piette packed up the family and moved to a small village isolated in the mountains in Oaxaca.
Lisa and Ian stayed in touch, and one visit with the family left them troubled.
“When we pulled up in a car, there were kids hanging off the front of the balcony,” Lisa said. “[McGinnis] was so desperate to see anyone, and I realized how isolated they were as a family. That they were just all alone.”
“And that's when the tide turned,” Lisa said. “That's when I said, ‘Something's wrong. We've got to help them because there’s something not right about this situation.’”
The children’s apparent sleeping arrangements bothered the couple.
“There were three stalls, for lack of a better word, there all in a line with a raw cement floor,” Lisa said. “And they had holes in the walls for doors and windows but no doors and windows. And on the floor of each of the cubicles were very, very thin — maybe a quarter of an inch thin — foam exercise mats and that was the kids' beds. I don’t remember seeing pillows, but they might have had them.”
“You had eight children living in three cubicles that were little more than walk-in closet size.”
During one visit to bring the family a birthday cake, Ian noticed one of the girls lying on a pad.
“She was in like a fetal position,” Ian said. “It was as though if she could disappear she would have been happy.”
“[The children] were all skinny as rakes. And the children said that he said he didn't love any of them,” Lisa said. “We knew there was a desperation. You could just feel it. Both in the children and her.”
“We knew we needed to do something to help them,” Ian said. “But the question was how, what, why and when?"
Stunned by the family’s deplorable living conditions, Lisa and Ian kept visiting the family and one day Piette slipped up by revealing he was 62 years old.
“We went home, and I said, ‘Ian she's 32 years old,’” Lisa said. “Her oldest kid would be turning — I think at that point he was to be turning 17 — and I said, ‘That's wrong.’ You take 17 from 32 that's 15. He's 62.”
“She could have been 14 when she got pregnant. This is wrong. There's something seriously wrong."
Lisa called McGinnis, and after confirming Piette was not around, told her, “We know there's something wrong. If you can get your husband either in jail or in rehab jail, which is something they do with drug addicts and alcoholics, we'll help you. And at that point, Bill came home and we hung up. And that's all I ever said."
Initially, McGinnis was too shocked to respond.
“I just kind of inside started trembling because I was afraid because she knows something,” she said. “She’s the first person that had ever said anything.”
Just knowing that someone cared and wanted to help spurred McGinnis to make her dream of escape a reality again. Weeks went by and one day when Piette passed out from drinking McGinnis told the children to grab some clothes and put them in a bag. They needed to get away.
McGinnis and eight of her children – the oldest son had already escaped and returned to the U.S. by then – got in a taxi and set out to find Lisa and Ian. The couple had moved, but fortunately, McGinnis and Ian crossed paths while he was walking the dog.
Lisa and Ian knew they had to take in the family.
“She knew,” McGinnis said. “And I had the kids and I was by myself, which I’m never by myself with all those kids, so she knew.”
McGinnis managed to get Piette temporarily thrown in jail, buying time to gather money and everything she’d need to return to the U.S. Lisa and Ian took care of the children and discovered most of them could not read or write. They were also extremely hungry.
“I've never made so much oatmeal in my entire life,” Lisa said. “We had two boxes of cereal the first day and that was... forget it. I mean two boxes of cereal didn't even cut it. Thank God they loved peanut butter and jelly.”
The couple was grateful to help but wished it hadn’t taken almost two decades for someone to take an interest in McGinnis’ situation.
“In a sense what really upsets me is the number of people who basically turned a blind eye to the whole thing,” Ian said. “People have passed judgment on the situation they really know nothing about and they basically have just cursed them off. And that's gone on for 20 years. I can't believe that nobody could be bothered to do anything.”
With Piette out of the picture, McGinnis slowly started to trust Lisa and open up about her ordeal.
“She had told me at that point that there wasn't a day that went by that she didn't get beaten or raped or both,” Lisa said. “And it wasn't until two weeks in when she finally looked at me and goes, ‘Look, I have to tell you something. Stephanie isn't my real name. And Bill isn't his real name.’ And I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she said, ‘Well, he is my stepfather and his name is Henri Piette. My real name is Rosalynn McGinnis. He molested me starting at 10 and he stole me from school when I was 12.’”
Stunned, Lisa typed the name Rosalynn McGinnis into a search engine on her computer and McGinnis’ missing persons poster popped up.
“I remember sitting there in her house and she turns the computer over to me and there's my missing poster and she says, ‘Is this you?’” McGinnis said.
“And there she was looking almost identical to when she was twelve,” Lisa said. “It looked like one of her children on this poster. And there she was from Missouri. She turned to me and said, ‘I've been waiting 20 years for somebody to do the math and figure out that a 15-year-old or 16-year-old shouldn't have babies like this, and that at 20 I shouldn't have grown children. I've been waiting all this time and I couldn't say anything. You're the first person who ever noticed that things were wrong and did something and I'm so grateful.’”
Lisa and Ian told McGinnis what she did next was her own decision.
Finally free & heading home
Concerned that Piette would come looking for her and the children, McGinnis contacted the U.S. Consulate in Oaxaca, which agreed to help. After a few days, McGinnis and the children piled into the back of a fruit truck to make the hours-long trip.
“I was very happy for them,” Ian said. “All of them. I was very sad to see them go but I knew basically they had to go.”
When the family arrived in Oaxaca, the U.S. Consulate was unable to help.
Frantic and with nowhere to go, McGinnis again contacted Lisa, who called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Washington, D.C. That organization looked up McGinnis’ name and saw she was still registered as missing.
NCMEC urged the family to travel north by bus to Nogales, near the U.S.-Mexico border. The family made the long journey, and once their travel documents came through from D.C., flew through Tucson and Dallas and to be reunited with McGinnis’ family in Kansas City.
“Me and my kids rode an airplane together for the first time,” McGinnis said. “I was scared. They were scared. But they were so excited too."
The news of McGinnis’ return stunned Archuleta, her cousin.
“When I received the call informing me of her escape, I was in disbelief and remember saying, ‘What’s going on?’ and having them repeat everything again,” Archuleta said.
While she was happy about her newfound freedom, it wasn’t an easy transition for McGinnis and the children in 2016. The family has very little money and is still adjusting to U.S. culture. Even the little things, such as adjusting to American foods, are a struggle.
It didn’t help that Piette remained at large. His whereabouts weighed heavily on McGinnis’ mind.
“Growing up for 20 years hiding from everybody and living such an intense life… always having to look over your shoulder,” McGinnis said.
McGinnis confided in Lisa that she has difficulty sleeping.
“She would tell me about the nightmares,” Lisa said. “’Every single night. I swear to God he was standing over me.’”
McGinnis, whose older children corroborated her story in interviews with FBI investigators, was nervous about going public with her story, but her urge for Piette to be held accountable for what he did was stronger.
After McGinnis’ story appeared in People Magazine in September 2017, law enforcement arrested Piette as he tried to re-enter the U.S.
Piette is scheduled for a competency hearing Nov. 19, but no trial date has been set.
He also faces multiple state charges in Wagoner County, Oklahoma.
Piette proclaimed his innocence when he was led in handcuffs through an Oklahoma courthouse, to a reporter from FOX23.
“Most of them are lies. Ninety-nine percent of them are lies. I’m telling the truth,” he said.
Lisa said she remains fearful and won’t be satisfied until Piette is convicted.
“He’s a dangerous man.”
Two decades after her childhood was taken from her and with a trial looming, McGinnis is doing her best to move forward. Her oldest son now lives out-of-state, but McGinnis’ other eight children still live with her. They attend school, but daily life is not easy.
It’s not something McGinnis is comfortable sharing, but Archuleta sees their daily struggles.
“She does have a very tiny income that does not cover much… it barely covers rent,” Archuleta said. “There are so many basic needs and wants of these eight kids that it can be difficult in meeting them, but somehow she does it. Rosalynn has this ‘loaves to fishes’ effect about her and I have seen it happen many times.”
The family has one vehicle, mounting health care needs, and struggles to afford food and clothing. The children require additional tutoring to catch up to their peers. One of the children loves to read but has few books. Another would like to be a gymnast, while another has a passion for helping animals.
Fortunately, there is help and much-needed emotional support for McGinnis from a young woman who experienced similar trauma. Jaycee Dugard spent 18 years in captivity in California before being rescued in 2009. She started the JAYC Foundation, which provides assistance to victims of long-term abuse.
“Rosalynn is going to accomplish everything she sets her mind to,” Dugard told People Magazine.
It’s a message McGinnis has taken to heart. The family plans to move into a house in the area which they will eventually own. It needs a lot of work and the family already has spent several weeks cleaning it out and picking up the garbage thrown in the backyard.
“I want my children to have the life I never had, and this includes a place to call home,” McGinnis said.
Lisa and Ian remain a part of the family’s life, too. They still talk with Rosalynn and the children weekly about their days and plans for the future.
“I'd like to see each and every one to at least complete high school and certainly Rosalynn,” Lisa said. “I'd like to see Rosalynn get her GED because if she could get her GED the world opens up. And I know the oldest girl wants to go to college.”
"I hope that people don't judge them and think that this is some kind of a self-inflicted wound. They basically are victims of a circumstance they never asked for,” Ian said.
McGinnis said she is just thankful to be alive.
“It’s a miracle I’m sitting here today.”
How you can help
If you would like to help McGinnis and her family, she has partnered with a local bank and opened an account to obtain and maintain funds received from a GoFundMe page.
The account has also been placed in a living will. The funds have been designated appropriately and in the best interest of the children per its directions.