NEW PORT RICHEY — Michelle Mollett had kept her secret for 11 years. The truth was too terrible to tell, and who would listen anyway?
And then, on May 28, it spilled out. Her grandmother and father were fighting, and she feared that if Grandma kicked Dad out, she'd have to leave with him.
She didn't want to go anywhere with him.
Grandma couldn't believe how irresponsible her son was. He spent money he didn't have, yelled at people and never listened.
After a long fight, Grandma walked outside to smoke a cigarette. Michelle, 17, followed her. They stood on the back porch.
"Is he mentally retarded or something?" Grandma asked Michelle.
"I think he is, Grandma," she said.
There was more, but Michelle said it could wait until later.
"You're not going anywhere, and I'm not going anywhere, until you tell me what you mean," Grandma said.
Michelle took a breath.
"It's about abuse," she said, "but you can't tell anybody."
Life wasn't easy
Michelle was just 6 when it started.
She walked in on her father using the bathroom. She was curious about what she saw, so he told her to touch him. Then he touched her.
"I had no idea it was inappropriate," she said.
She lived then in Davie with her father, Michael Mollett, and his adoptive parents. Michelle's mother had left three years after she was born. She wouldn't meet Grandma — Michael's birth mother — for another decade.
Living with Michael wasn't easy. He was prone to mood swings and long bouts of depression, brought on by a disorder that caused his body to fail to produce enough potassium.
Worst of all, he kept a .45-caliber gun on the top closet shelf. When he didn't get what he wanted, Michelle said, he'd threaten to use the gun on himself.
After her father touched her, Michelle went to Sherry Mollett, her adoptive grandmother. She asked why people touch each other's private parts.
Sherry talked to her husband, Tom.
"And my husband told him never to do that again, and he (Michael) was crying and saying he shouldn't," Sherry recalled in a phone interview from Ohio, where she now lives.
Michelle remembers Michael screaming as he went to his closet. He grabbed his gun and pointed it at himself.
After awhile, he calmed down, and everyone went to sleep. No one called the police. No one separated father from daughter.
"Nothing ever happened (again) that I knew of," Sherry says. "She never came to me and said, 'There is something wrong. If I would have known, believe me, it would have been stopped."
Trusting no one
The abuse only got worse.
When she turned 11, Michelle's father began to have sex with her in the bedroom they shared in Davie and then in Arizona, where they moved after Tom Mollett died.
Michelle would wrap her arm around her eyes and ears. She'd zone herself out, trying desperately to think about something else.
She didn't confide in anyone.
"I didn't like it, but I thought that's the way I'm going to have to live," she said. "Because otherwise, I'm going to get in trouble … that's it, I guess."
"If the person she discloses to in the first place plays it down, that affects the victim's thinking," said Scott Berkowitz, the founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. "Anyone in that situation would think, 'Well, if I know Grandmother's not going to help me, what's the point of going forward?' "
Incest victims, in particular, have trouble trusting others due to their relationship with the abuser, he said.
"It's probably the hardest type of sexual assault to recover from," Berkowitz said.
"He can't stop"
Michelle went to school every day, where she was expected to maintain high grades, and then she'd come straight home.
She had few friends outside school, and she didn't go on dates. She had one boyfriend, whom she saw in secret for two months until Michael found out. He screamed for hours, the gun in his hand, fully loaded.
She filled her spare time with EverQuest, an online role-playing game. For hours each day, Michelle became a character in a medieval world fighting evil. The other players became her friends. She'd talk about her life without letting on about her secret.
She learned when to expect the abuse. Sometimes her father would use codes like "Can I have my flower?"
For Michelle's 16th birthday, Michael took her to an Arizona mall, where he bought her a ring from Tiffany's. It was platinum with small diamonds that formed a flower.
"I just had a feeling by then. It was … he's not gonna stop," she said. "He can't stop."
Finally, an escape
Nancy Wilson was just 17 when she gave birth to Michael. She already had a 1-year-old son, and her parents told her she couldn't bring a second baby home. So she gave Michael up for adoption.
Nancy didn't hear from him until 40 years later, when Michael called her in March. A private investigator helped him find her.
The next month, Michael and Michelle came to visit Nancy at her New Port Richey home. They got along great, so Michael suggested they all live together.
"I said, 'Sure, we got a lot of years to catch up,' " Nancy said.
It didn't take long for Michael's moody, controlling side to come out. And Nancy, who worked nights bartending in Dunedin, couldn't handle Michael's spending, particularly when he refused to help with household expenses.
By the end of May, Nancy was ready to give up. Michael's latest purchase — three pairs of Levi's shorts, each $30 — had come just as she was struggling to pay an electric bill.
They yelled at each other for almost an hour before Michael stormed out of the house. And then, as Nancy smoked a cigarette out back and Michelle worried about being kicked out with her dad, she came out with the terrible truth.
Nancy stayed calm. She sent Michael to drop off Michelle at her job at a Port Richey Walgreen's. A friend moved Michelle's things out of the home.
And when Michael got back, an argument erupted — and sheriff's deputies arrested him on three counts of sexual battery.
The next morning, Michael told a detective that Michelle's claim that he'd been abusing her since age 6 wasn't true.
He said it started at age 7.
A knock at the door
In a half-hour taped interview with the detective, Michael said his sexual relationship with his daughter was loving, not forced. He noted that Michelle had grown up without a mother, and he had been without a spouse.
"All we had was each other," he said.
But he was alone in the Land O'Lakes jail now, tormented by the other inmates.
"All the inmates hate me because of the sex charges I have," he complained to a guard, according to a Sheriff's Office spokesman.
On Aug. 5, two days after he was moved to a single cell to shield him from the other inmates, Michael hanged himself with a pillowcase on a towel hook.
A deputy came to Nancy's home to give her the news. Her reaction: "Thank God."
One day at a time
After Michael's arrest, Nancy urged Michelle to go back to high school. But Michelle thought about how miserable her first three years had been, and she'd start crying. She couldn't go back.
Then, a few days after Michael's death, Michelle decided to enroll.
"I look at it now and think this whole thing is over with," she said. "He can't touch me anymore."
Michelle started her senior year at Gulf High School last month. She's taking honors classes and hopes to someday design computer games.
She still plays EverQuest almost every day, keeping in touch with the other players, but not as much as she used to. She's started to make friends at school and in the neighborhood.
And she talks about the abuse — perpetrated by the man she now calls "Michael" — with a calm voice.
"I just try and go day by day," said Michelle. "There's no real rule book on it or any kind of guideline that I follow."
Michelle says talking about her ordeal helps her move on.
"I don't want it to be a secret because it feels bottled up inside of me," she said.
What would she say to victims of abuse?
"I just want to let them now that once the abuse ends, it's a party compared to what it was before," she said.