It was early Easter morning in 2006. Wendy Anderson lay in an Ocala field, bloody and battered, while paramedics pushed on her chest to get a heartbeat. Someone had heard her screams in the darkness and called 911. Police arrived to find a man on top of her naked body, raping her. She had been stabbed and hit in the head. Anderson had put herself in the path of danger with another round of crack cocaine and liquor. Home was a seedy motel room. She needed a ride, and got into a car with a strange man. That she survived his brutality is a miracle. That she is now getting her life back together is a testament to a special place many miles from that attack, in a peaceful, tree-shaded renovated farmhouse off Howell Avenue in Brooksville. A place called Mary's House. Anderson, 41, has been here since April. She's sober now and leaves no doubt how she feels about Hernando County's first and only women's shelter.
"I shouldn't be alive," she said. "But for some reason, I am. I know it's God's will that I'm at Mary's House."
Bibles and notebooks hit the table as the clock strikes 9 on Wednesday morning. Pastor Larry Brown soon will sashay into the living room.
The four current clients living at Mary's House await his arrival around a long table, sipping decaffeinated coffee. Their history is filled with drugs, death and mental illness.
Director Ann Topping sits at the end of the table, drinking her morning brew out of a cup that states "When in doubt … Pray." Topping oversees Mary's House, which Jericho Road Ministries opened in January.
Eight years ago, the nonprofit organization started the only men's shelter in the county. With the help of community volunteers, last year the group bought and renovated the old farmhouse on several acres.
Much like the men's faith-based rehab program, women must agree to live at Mary's House for 11 months. They must agree to counseling, anger management, working part time at the Jericho Road thrift stores, doing chores and Bible study.
Mary's House differs from the Dawn Center, which offers respite to abused women in a secret location. The shelter also offers limited stays for the homeless.
"Are we all ready this morning?" Topping asks, looking around to make sure everyone is at the table.
Minutes later, Brown glides through the door. He busts a few moves, noting that it's in honor of Michael Jackson.
"I taught him everything he knows," Brown says. The women howl with laughter.
As they settle in for the session, he begins to talk about what happened the night before. A fifth client, Amy, dropped out.
"It's taken great courage for you all to put yourself in this type of environment," Brown says. "You volunteered and made the commitment. But let's consider the word 'relapse.' Unfortunately, it happens a lot. When Amy left, what did that say to you about you? Are you going to make it? Are you going to be ready when the devil comes knocking at your door?"
• • •
At the Jericho Road Thrift Store, several miles west of town on Cortez Boulevard, a woman picks up a piece of glass, turning it over to see the price sticker.
Anderson, at 5 feet 11, towers over a rack of recently priced clothing that must be put on the sales floor. She points to the stacks of cassettes and the neat rows of videotapes next to them.
"I organize all of those, the used books, and basically anything else that needs to be done around here," she says, smiling. "I love it here."
But sometimes, on slower afternoons like this, her mind wanders to her children. Ages 15 and 7, they live in Ocala with her ex-husband.
She wonders if they understand what she's trying to do, why she didn't go home when she got out of jail this time.
As shelter rules go, she won't be allowed to see them until August, when she moves into the next phase of the program. But she writes to them all the time, hoping they will one day understand.
Her son, the 15-year-old, won't speak to her. Anderson describes a recent telephone call with her daughter: "Mommy, you've missed a lot of birthdays. If you miss the next one, and you go to jail, don't bother calling me."
With time to reflect, the pattern of misbehavior in her life hurts.
Anderson ran away from home when she was 16. She came to Florida, bouncing from Orlando to Daytona Beach to Ocala and running afoul of the law. Her record is long: possession of cocaine, prostitution, theft.
She was eventually diagnosed as bipolar. Occasionally she had periods of normalcy, when she took her prescribed medications and managed a successful painting business. She earned an associate's degree and was only a few credits shy of getting a bachelor's degree in psychology with a minor in criminology when she picked up a crack pipe again.
Her last arrest in 2007 landed her in jail in Marion County. She was later transferred to Hernando to finish her sentence. It was here she heard about Mary's House.
"I used to say that so and so did that to me, or they made me smoke crack," she said. "But really, I made all those bad choices. I sabotaged myself. Not even the man who did that to me didn't hurt me as bad as I hurt myself."
• • •
She struggled with her attacker in the field, trying to get loose.
But he kept her pinned to the ground. He ripped off her clothes. He tied her pants around her neck and used them to drag her through the grass.
They stopped and he covered her nose and mouth with his hands. She remembers losing air, not being able to scream. Then everything went black.
Anderson said she knew she was dead. But she could feel pain.
"I remember thinking why can I feel that if I'm dead?" she said. "Then I realized that it was my soul that hurt so bad."
She thought she was in hell.
Then Anderson heard a soft whisper in her ear. After five minutes of resuscitation, paramedics got her heart to beat.
"We found you," one of them said.
Anderson recovered physically, but she was still hooked. Soon after leaving the hospital, in yet another attempt to dull her mind, she smoked crack again. She got arrested, again.
Whether she has been led to salvation this time remains to be seen, but at least she feels it is a possibility. She believes in this rehabilitation; her faith has grown.
"God rose me from the dead," she said. "I am so lucky to be alive. I'm going to do it right this time. I'm going to make it."
Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at [email protected], or (352)848-1432.