Felicia Villegas triumphed over
evil and emerged a fighter.
"The first time I remember something happening was right after my fourth birthday. I was wearing blue jean overalls, Mary Jane shoes and a pink shirt. He took me in a room and touched me.
"It wasn’t anything major until I was 9. I was on the bed. He was like 300 pounds. I screamed because it hurt. He choked me until I passed out. When I woke up he showed me a knife and said he would murder my whole family if I ever said anything.
"He would tell me, 'This is God’s will.' He would tell me he owned me.
"It caused me to not believe in God. I was like, I’m being abused. There can’t be a God if this is happening.
"It was wrong of me to say that about God. It wasn’t fair. God chooses His strongest warriors to fight His biggest battles."
A young woman enters a busy banquet room. All around her, loud and happy women shake the air with their laughter. Felicia Villegas sits in silence, alone with her truth.
The event is the YWCA of Northwest Georgia’s annual Tribute to Women of Achievement luncheon. The Cobb County organization runs an emergency shelter and offers counseling and other services to victims of domestic violence. The February luncheon features a panel of past Tribute honorees.
Marietta High School Principal (and 1983 graduate) Leigh Colburn, a civic leader beloved by students and community members alike, is on the panel and has invited Felicia to share her story. It’s OK if we get there and you decide you don’t want to talk, Colburn has told her.
"I’m going to look at you," she tells her former student on the drive over. "Give me a thumbs up or thumbs down."
"I would think about my homework to try to take myself away from what was happening. If I couldn’t, if it was too painful, I would just think, it’s almost over.
"When I was 7 or 8 I remember watching ‘Nancy Grace.’ Somebody was arrested for doing something with a small child. I realized, that’s what’s happening to me.
"I asked him about it. He grabbed the gun and said, ‘If you ever tell anybody I will kill you.’
"Even though I had never talked about it to anyone before, I knew I could never talk about it now. My life was at stake.
"I kind of accepted this was my fate. My job in life was to please a man who was going to hurt me."
The panel discussion starts and Felicia gives a thumbs-up.
"What impact has your involvement with the YWCA had on you?" the moderator asks. Colburn says Felicia will answer in her place and hands over the microphone.
In seconds, the room is hushed. Tears stream down cheeks. Everyone is still for a heartbeat, then stands to applaud.
Felicia is a little overwhelmed.
Afterward, people line up to meet her. When the crowd thins I introduce myself and we make plans to meet. It’s an act of bravery that I don’t fully appreciate at the moment.
Over the next several months she will more fully reveal the dark dungeon that was her childhood. I will comb through court documents that sting my eyes and bruise my heart. I will come to believe that God sends angels to walk among us. Some work in homeless shelters. Some work in high schools. Some wear badges and blue uniforms.
At 20, Felicia has spent much of her life at the intersection of good and evil.
"I’m not a victim," she says. "I’m a survivor."
'Called me his favorite'
Born in Cobb County, Felicia was 2 when she was taken to live with family members in Austin, Texas, after her parents divorced. It was a temporary arrangement that became permanent.
A number of relatives lived in the house in Austin, including her father's half-brother, David Saldana. In her earliest memories, he was lavishing her with attention and gifts.
"I would sit on his lap. He would caress my hair or rub my thigh," she said. "He always called me his favorite niece in front of everybody. It made me feel so special. He bought me a ring once. It was really pretty, a pink stone with diamonds. It wasn't real, but I thought it was the best thing ever."
The house was full of people but Saldana found ways to get Felicia alone. When the sexual abuse started he would alternate between gifts and threats, she said.
"Every morning I got a biscuit if I would do things," she said. "If he was angry, I would know it was going to be violent. I would tell him, 'That hurts.' He would do it more. I can almost feel the burn against my face of him backhanding me."
Family members, school employees and even child protective services workers would periodically ask if anything was wrong. Felicia would wear sweaters even on hot days to hide bruises. For a time she started cutting herself, her scarred hands giving silent testimony to the only pain she had the power to control. She would drink bottles of perfume, a secret cry for help.
"I was hoping it would lead to someone taking me to the hospital," she said. "I always thought if a doctor looked at me, he would be able to figure it out."
She was afraid to speak up, even when someone asked.
Then in August 2008, when she was 13, and had suddenly gained weight, a trip to the doctor found she was pregnant. Due to her age, physicians contacted authorities. At first too scared to say what happened, she suggested that she'd gotten pregnant from a dip in a swimming pool.
Austin Police Department Sgt. Carl Satterlee, whose own kids were about 2 and 8 then, finally won her trust.
"It took us about three and a half hours," he said. "Normally interviews don't take that long. She kept holding to she's not sure how it happened, that she had gotten pregnant through 'miraculous conception.' Nobody was identifying any boys that she was dating. I was thinking, something is not right."
His gentle patience gave Felicia a key out of her secret prison. As they built a rapport, the truth trickled out.
"He changed everything," Felicia said of the soft-spoken lawman. "He said, 'I know you're scared but it's OK. I'm here to help you.' He made me feel like I was in a safe place. I hadn't felt safe in so long."
Within hours of meeting Felicia, Satterlee had Saldana in handcuffs. About a week later, Felicia's mother arrived to take her back to Marietta.
"I didn't have a clue," Alicia Villegas said. "I didn't have any details as to what the situation was."
'My God-sent blessing'
Felicia never considered not keeping the baby. She believes the pregnancy, even though it was the product of underage rape and incest, was her salvation. Had she not become pregnant, there would have been no police investigation, no arrest and no end to her suffering.
The baby was born in November 2008 at WellStar Kennestone Hospital and a detective visited the hospital room to obtain a DNA sample. In January 2009, Saldana was indicted. In April 2010, he was found guilty of continuous sexual abuse of a young child and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"The trial took a week," Felicia said. "I testified twice. I couldn't look at the jury. I was terrified."
Her abuser behind bars for good, she returned to Georgia and her sophomore year at Marietta High School. Despite teen motherhood and the trial in Texas, she maintained excellent grades, performed well on standardized tests and was accepted into the high school's selective International Baccalaureate program.
But new struggles awaited. She, her mother and her daughter were living with extended family here, a situation that became volatile. After a fight one night, Felicia packed her and her daughter's things and announced she was leaving. Her mother left with them. But they had nowhere to go.
Just as she had long kept her abuse a secret from authorities in Austin, Felicia had a new secret to keep from her school in Marietta.
'Somewhere to go'
Marietta High School's magnificent $70 million campus is so striking that Georgia's booming film industry often shoots movie scenes there. The school is home to about 2,000 students hailing from more than 40 countries, and a vast range of issues march into the principal's office. On the same day an anxious country-club member helicopters in to discuss Ivy League aspirations, a parole officer might show up with a teenage charge ready to resume classes.
Yet Leigh Colburn was never too busy for Felicia, who'd come to her attention as a middle school International Baccalaureate applicant. As part of the entry process, students have to write an essay about a trait they have and one they aspire to.
"I wrote about being a risk taker," Felicia recalled. "At one point in my life I didn't take risks because I didn't tell anybody about my abuse."
Her biggest risk, she wrote, was keeping her baby.
Colburn was moved by the essay.
"I went and read her test scores," Colburn said. "She made almost a perfect score on her standardized testing the week before she went into labor."
With the baby in day care, Felicia's freshman year was successful. But in her sophomore year, Colburn suspected something was amiss. Felicia's grades started slipping. She piled her unwashed hair into a bun and wore a jacket all the time to hide that she wasn't changing clothes.
Colburn called her into the office. What's going on? she asked.
Nothing, Felicia answered.
Colburn cocked her head to the side and lifted an eyebrow.
We're living in a car, Felicia finally admitted.
While her mother worked the overnight shift at a Kennesaw Waffle House, Felicia and the baby would sleep in the car, with her jacket and the child's baby blanket to keep them warm. In the morning, Felicia would freshen up in the bathroom and her mother would drive her to school and keep the baby during the day.
Once she knew the truth, Colburn called her friend Holly Tuchman, executive director of the YWCA of Northwest Georgia.
If she doesn't get her diploma we're going to lose her, Colburn said.
The YWCA's emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence is at an undisclosed location in Cobb County. Felicia, her mom and baby moved into one room with bunk beds and a crib, sharing a living room, bathroom and kitchen with other shelter residents.
"Felicia was very angry, very frustrated," said Steffani Salter, the YWCA's transitional housing and outreach advocate, who served as their case manager. "There were a lot of people in her life telling her what to do. She didn't feel like she had a voice."
Once again, it took time for Felicia to trust those trying to help her.
"I had my guard up," she said. "I was like, 'I don't want your sympathy. My life is fine.'"
After three months in the shelter, the trio moved into a two-bedroom apartment provided by the YWCA's transitional housing program. The electricity was turned on two days after they moved in, but Felicia didn't mind. At last, she felt at home.
"Even in the dark, it was great," she said. "That was one of the highlights of high school, knowing I had somewhere to go."
By Felicia's senior year Colburn had encouraged her to assume a leadership position in the school's mentoring program and looked forward to helping her apply to colleges. Then just a few months before the end of the year, Felicia disappeared.
Frantic, Colburn started texting her. Felicia responded, saying the pressure of raising a child, working part-time and keeping up with her studies was just too much. She had decided to drop out.
Colburn sensed there was more to the story.
'I want to know why'
Alicia Villegas is disarmingly candid about how her bad decisions have harmed her daughter.
"I got hooked on crack," she said, explaining why she took Felicia to Austin in the first place. "I thought it would be better for her to be there. I thought I was doing the right thing."
Her poor choices caused more problems after Felicia returned to Marietta. Women living in the YWCA's housing program must follow rules including a pledge not to allow men into the home. Villegas broke that rule, and as a result they were evicted.
"It was my stupid choice, my stupid decision," she said. "I was a very selfish person."
By the time Colburn realized Felicia had left school, the teen mom was living in an extended-stay motel on Cobb Parkway. Her child, then 3, was thriving in day care. Felicia was falling apart.
"I was drinking all the time. I was taking antidepressants," Felicia said. At her lowest point, she swallowed a bottle of painkillers and chased it with vodka. A friend showed up at just the right moment and propelled her to the bathroom to kneel in front of the toilet.
"As much stuff as I had gone through, to want to die at that moment, I don't know what I was thinking," she said.
Felicia told her principal where she was and Colburn arrived at 6 the next morning to find her looking gaunt and disheveled.
We're going to school today, Colburn said, keeping her voice steady and bright. She started packing while Felicia went to the bathroom. Her child, as 3-year-olds will do, blurted out a news bulletin: Mommy has a baby in her tummy!
Felicia shuffled out of the bathroom in tears. Colburn's tone was gentle.
Do you want to talk about your options? she asked.
Of course I have to have this baby, Felicia responded.
Unlike the abusive circumstances of her first pregnancy, her second happened the way lots of teenage pregnancies happen. With the help of Colburn and YWCA director Tuchman, Felicia and her daughter moved back into the emergency shelter.
"The second time she came into the shelter was a turning point," said Salter, the YWCA case manager. "She would say, 'I'm angry.' I would, say, 'I'm angry with you. Now where do we go?' We talked a lot about pain. Your pain, your trauma, everything you go through is like a brick. You can use that brick to pound things and destroy or you can use it to build."
Felicia gathered up those metaphorical bricks and marched across them on May 25, 2013, the day she graduated.
"That day was bittersweet," Felicia said. "It was so fulfilling to know my daughter was in the stands watching me, but I just thought, 'I'm 18, I'm pregnant with a second kid.' I sort of felt bad about myself."
By the time her second child was born, Felicia was living in a rented room in a friend's house. The following spring she and her boyfriend Alvaro Echeverria, who restores cars, moved into a house in a quiet northeast Cobb County cul-de-sac, where they live today.
"My daughter is the bravest person I know," Alicia Villegas said. "I made so many mistakes and my kid suffered. I wish I would have done a lot better by her."
Felicia doesn't blame either parent for her childhood plight. Her father didn't want to be interviewed. For months, her mother didn't either.
"I can be strong for her now when I couldn't be strong for her then," Alicia Villegas said, explaining why she changed her mind. "I'm putting her first. I should have done that before."
Eventually, Felicia will tell her children the story of her life, but she is not sure how.
"I wish someone would give me a handbook," she said.
She and Alvaro have discussed marriage. Someday, when she has the money, she'd like to go to college, study criminal psychology and work with law enforcement. It would be a way to help other young victims and possibly understand what happened to her.
"I want to know why people do what they do," she said. "I never got a chance to ask David. A big part of me wants to hate him. I'm not supposed to hate anybody, but I need to know. I have to know. Why?"
The answers, such as they are, reside behind barbed wire and prison walls.
The Allan B. Polunsky Unit near Livingston, Texas, 90 minutes northeast of Houston, houses about 2,500 prisoners, including 255 death-row inmates. John William King, sentenced to die in 1999 after James Byrd was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck, is among the offenders there.
Interviewing an inmate involves some paperwork and an equipment scan not unlike airport security. Visitors temporarily trade their drivers licenses for prison-issued ID placards that you wear on a chain around your neck. On the April day I interviewed David Saldana, I handed over my identity to become Visitor #20.
I was ready for a wild-eyed maniac with Satanic tattoos. What I saw on the other side of the glass was a pleasant looking man with neatly trimmed gray hair and stylish glasses. He is serving a life sentence without parole after a jury heard about the horrors he visited upon his young niece. But he had the countenance of someone who might like to sell you an insurance policy.
"Tell me about your case," I said.
"I made love to my niece," he said, in the tone you'd use to discuss the weather.
Saldana, 58, does not deny he is the biological father of Felicia's first baby and in fact spoke with pride about the child. He insisted his relationship with Felicia was a loving one.
"As far as I'm concerned we were married, spiritually," he said. "She was betrothed to me. To me she was my kindred soul."
He cited a bizarre interpretation of Scripture to justify what he did: In the days of Noah, he said, men would take multiple wives, even young relatives, to repopulate the earth after the flood.
"I took it upon myself to take her as David did," he continued, referring to the relationship between King David and Bathsheba that began as illicit adultery but ultimately produced King Solomon. He believes God sanctioned what he did.
"He gave me a miracle baby," Saldana said. He sounded irritated, but not indignant or angry. It was like talking to someone aggravated about the parking ticket he got when there was time left on the meter.
Toward the end of our interview, a thought occurred to me.
"Did anyone do anything to you when you were a child?" I asked.
For the first time Saldana showed emotion. Tears filled his eyes and he took off his glasses to wipe them away.
"When I was little," he said. "I was in diapers. I had this woman who was supposed to take care of me. She would fondle me."
"Did you tell anyone?" I asked.
"I think I told my mom," he said.
There's no way to independently verify his claims, but reams of research links abusers to their own past abuse.
Saldana sees no connection between what he says happened to him and the crime that sent him to prison for life. And he does not regret what he did to Felicia.
"What we had is special," he said.
'I'm a fighter'
Felicia never wants to see her abuser again. She considered writing him a letter once, but didn't.
"Sometimes I want to tell him how he hurt me," she said.
Instead, she is focused on her future. Her youngest child, an adorable son, is toddling around and learning to talk. Her bright and outgoing daughter loves horses and twirling like a ballerina. She and Felicia practice penmanship and vocabulary by writing stories together.
"I feel like my life is finally settling down," Felicia said. "I'm a fighter. I know I'm worth fighting for."
She has worked as a telemarketer and house cleaner and in fast-food. She was in between jobs when I visited the other day to deliver a meal for her family. The central air had gone out and they couldn't afford the repair. A little air conditioning unit chugged away in one window, landing limp punches against the heat. If you stood still and in the right place, there was a little relief. Take one step away and the heat was all around you, a giant hand ready to re-tighten its grip.
But Felicia seemed at peace.
"If I hadn't gone through what I went through I wouldn't be who I am," she said. "It made me stronger."
We get together every few weeks and we are working on a book about her life. She hopes it will help other young victims who feel afraid and helpless.
"When you finally have a voice, you might as well use it," she said. "I want to be that voice for others."
The book doesn't have a title yet. She's going to take some time to decide.
"I don't know," she said. "My story's not over."
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
I have served on the board of the YWCA of Northwest Georgia and remain a supporter. I was on the YWCA panel with then-Marietta High School principal Leigh Colburn (now director of the new Graduate Marietta Success Center) the day she introduced Felicia Villegas at the Salute to Women of Achievement luncheon. I’ve spent hours with Felicia and her family over the past five months and traveled to Texas to interview her abuser in prison and Austin Police Sgt. Carl Satterlee, who helped put him there. I’ve never met anyone more inspiring and courageous as Felicia. It has been my greatest honor to know her and help her share her story. The Y’s 24-hour crisis line is 770-427-3390.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jennifer Brett has been a reporter at the AJC since 1998, covering politics, education, business and the 2008 Beijing Olympics before moving to the celebrity/entertainment beat. A North Carolina native and graduate of the University of North Carolina, she is a member of the Junior League of Cobb-Marietta, Cobb Landmarks and Historical Society and Marietta First United Methodist Church. She and her husband, Charles Gay, live in historic Marietta.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Brant Sanderlin has more than 20 years’ experience as a photojournalist, including 15 at the AJC. He shoots a variety of assignments, including front-line action during the Iraq war, sporting events, breaking news and human interest stories. He grew up on the family farm in eastern North Carolina.