Mary Vincent Speaks Out: 'He Destroyed Everything About Me.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawrence Singleton, say his Florida prosecutors, killed a prostitute with a dozen enraged stabs of a boning knife.

Mary Vincent is not surprised. He took her life 19 years ago.

"He really did," she says with a slight shudder, with awful pain in her words. "He destroyed everything about me. My way of thinking. My way of life. Holding on to innocence . . . and I'm still doing everything I can to hold on."

Singleton also devastated a young dream.

"I'd have been lead dancer at the Lido de Paris in Las Vegas," Vincent continues. "Then Hawaii and Australia. I'm serious. I was really good on my feet and my dance instructor had it all worked out.

"But when this happened, they had to take some parts out of my leg, just to save my right arm. After that, I wasn't able to dance any more."

Lawrence Singleton. Mary Vincent. Mutilator and victim. Names made indelible by an old, horrible crime that rewrote California laws, saw towns and states rise against the release and relocation of sex offender Singleton--and created incessant echoes that have unbalanced Vincent's privacy, schooling, marriage and countless restarts.

In 1978, Singleton, then a 50-year-old ex-merchant mariner, picked up Vincent, then a 15-year-old hitchhiker running from Las Vegas and her parents' divorce, and raped her. He hacked off her forearms with five swings of a hatchet and stuffed her, unconscious, to die in a concrete culvert near Sacramento.

A court document described the indescribable: "The next morning, two individuals found Mary Vincent wandering nude . . . she was holding up her arms so that the muscles and blood would not fall out."

Under the lenient laws of that time, Singleton received concurrent sentences totaling 14 years for rape, attempted murder and sex offenses--the maximum allowed. Singleton, to the anguish of activists and the anger of communities where he was headed, served just eight years and four months.

Had the rapist been sentenced under today's tougher statutes--ironically stiffened in large part by his early release--he would have drawn multiple, consecutive 15-years-to-life sentences. The burly, balding alcoholic would still be in San Quentin. Roxanne Hayes, a 31-year-old mother of three and the prostitute Singleton was recently charged with murdering, might still be alive.

And Mary Vincent would have the seclusion she has nurtured; the protective friendships of her neighbors in the trailer park where she lives; and days of normalcy without besieging media and the beseeching of Oprah and "Hard Copy" and their checkbooks.

She is hesitant about any public exposure because she is confused, afraid again, regressing. When she is able to sleep, old nightmares return. She lost seven pounds to the stresses of last week.

"I'm starting to come out of it," she said Sunday. "But for those first three days [following Singleton's arrest], I was a big bag of emotions. I was grieving for the woman [he is charged with killing]. I couldn't stop thinking about it."

She described the replay effect: "It was only recently I stopped having my nightmares. Now they're back again. It starts off with my attack, and then I end up seeing all these other people and worse things happening to them."

Her boyfriend and live-in bodyguard of five years, Bob Clayton, 56, breeder of Neapolitan mastiffs and practitioner of the sometimes illegal and marginally ignoble art of bare-knuckle fighting, knows her screams. The nightmares are so violent, he says, Vincent is thrown out of bed.

Vincent, 34, is the mother of two boys she calls her "little men"--Luke, 10, and Alan, 8--the children of one failed relationship and one bad marriage. She will only meet with selected writers with whom she has dealt before and trusts.

Sunday she talked at length for the first time, accompanied by Mark Edwards, the Santa Ana attorney who, pro bono, has represented Vincent in a damage suit against Singleton.

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For once, the quick-witted Vincent isn't quite so confident. She always used to say that by never talking about past horrors, she could concentrate on future happiness. Yet, suddenly, she can't see too far ahead: "For the first time I'm drawing a blank. Too many hopes have been raised, only to fall. I feel I'm in the bottom of the barrel again."

Coping with the past pulled her family apart. Her marriage failed because the new husband couldn't tolerate public intrusions. There were book deals that failed and movie offers that went nowhere. Vincent tried the catharsis of assisting others, visiting high schools with an intensely personal message: "It doesn't matter what you think. You're not 10 feet tall and bulletproof. I used to think that. . . . But look what happened to me. Because there's always somebody who can take you down if you don't stay aware."

Even that inspirational campaign failed. A boy in one audience yelled obscenities at Vincent. It was a personal, dark attack she no longer risks by continuing school appearances.

Thanks to Edwards, Vincent did receive $13,000--long since spent--from the California victims fund. And she did win a $2.5-million judgment against Singleton, but has yet to collect her first nickel from the unemployed, impoverished ex-convict.

After her divorce, Vincent over-borrowed for a down payment on a home, which was repossessed in months. Home for her and the boys for one cold winter was an unheated, abandoned Arco station.

"I'm struggling, I'm fighting, but it's always a losing battle," she says. It is a mature statement of fact, not a victim's whine. "I've tried so hard, and been turned back so often, my stride is totally different now. All my energy is focusing on my two boys. I'm desperately trying to do everything I can to make the life that I promised to them, to make the life I had all these hopes for in my own mind."

Yet that stride, she knows, has been broken by Singleton's arrest.

"It's like, again, everything is falling apart," she continues. "I keep telling myself: Hang in there. Think positive. Think about your kids."

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But recently, a small settlement as the result of a 1990 auto accident was ruled income by the federal government, and Vincent's disability checks stopped--just as her 15-year-old hooks broke. A local handyman has kept them barely functioning; a new set costs an unattainable $15,000.

Enter attorney Edwards, again. He is contacting the federal government for reinstatement of Vincent's disability payments, and is hoping that this month's renewed exposure will bring public donations and any talk-show fees to a trust fund (c / o Edwards & Hayden, 1800 E. 17th St., No. 101, Santa Ana, CA 92705) established for Vincent's two boys.

But that's tomorrow.

Today, Vincent and Clayton's only income comes from his small bicycle parts business. It is protected by chain-link fence, padlocks, barbed wire and two huge, irritable, flesh-eating mastiffs. Because, Vincent says, since Singleton's release from a California prison, she has lived with the fear he would find and kill her.

"Whenever I hear his name, I go into a panic," Vincent explains. "So to anyone who is ever around me, I say: 'Don't say that name.' I don't watch this on television, because if I ever see a picture of him, I just start shaking."

Scars are etched so deep, the memories vivid for so long, Vincent will never be free.

Then just where is Mary Vincent?

She is concentrating on the skills of a proven survivor; schooling herself to accept human weaknesses and the grays of individual relationships. She has faith in prayer, her sons, Clayton and reading J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."

"I'm a Hobbit at home," she says. "Always wanting to serve, looking after everybody, cooking things, that's my therapy. As well as knowing everything has a way of working itself out."

She also disappears for hours within the writings of science-fiction author Piers Anthony.

"They're uplifting books," she says. "They make me feel like I'm one of the characters and not some mutant outcast."

For when lost in that alternative universe, Vincent admits, she still has arms.

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