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Emerging from a notorious hell of abuse to counsel others

Inside a stuffy Cleveland classroom, Tim Boehnlein explained the mechanics of domestic violence and then posed a question.

"So why do women stay?" he asked his class of would-be counselors.

Ignorance, low self-esteem, lack of education, they speculated. No one really knew.

PHOTOS: Survivors of abuse

Except maybe the silent woman in back — the one fidgeting and looking at the floor.

"I thought if I said something, it might frighten other people," she explained later. "You don't just blurt out, 'was held hostage in a garage' on the first day of class."

It's taken more than a decade for Laura Cowan to come up with an answer to the seemingly simple question of why women stay: "They are just trying to survive."

Cowan, now 53, survived one of the most notorious abuse cases in recent California history. Her encounter with the twisted logic of abuse began in 1995 outside a motel room in Riverside. That's when a spate of bad luck led her into a bizarre, four-year odyssey of polygamy, torture and psychological trauma.

The case, involving 19 victims, made national headlines, earning the abuser seven life terms in prison. As outrageous as it was, her story fits a typical pattern. It's a story of fear so intense it strips victims of everything but the will to survive.

Now a speaker, counselor and forceful advocate for abused women, Cowan still deals with the fallout of her ordeal. A warm, easy-going woman who can energize any crowd, she lapses into awkward silences when pressed about her own past. "I don't think I will ever get over it," she said.

Cowan went to that motel room to find help. Her husband had gone to prison, his San Bernardino restaurant had failed and she was broke and alone with two children, Ahmed, 3, and Maryam, 7 months.

"I was totally desperate and afraid, not knowing what was going to become of me and the kids," she said, telling the story from her living room in Avon, Ohio.

A few weeks before she went to the motel, a casual acquaintance from her mosque had begun coming around.

Mansa Musa Muhummed, an eccentric, charismatic figure who favored robes and turbans, made Cowan an offer — why not move in with his family until she could get on her feet? He invited her to the motel where he was living with his wife and 12 children.

It was quiet when she arrived, so she opened the door.

"They were all sitting on their knees staring at the wall," she said. "They were like little robots."

Her instincts told her to run, but her legs didn't move.

"When you are in a dependent situation, you will overlook anything," she says now.

Muhummed's kindness was a ruse. He was following the abuser's well-worn script of manipulation and control.

He was born Richard Boddie Jr. near Norfolk, Va. After converting to Islam, he dubbed himself Mansa Musa Muhummed. He home-schooled his children and required his wife and daughters to wear veils.

At first Cowan thought he was a good father who employed unorthodox methods to create a disciplined, religious family. Soon he asked her to be his second wife. "He told me I couldn't just live with him.... I would be looked down on as a lewd woman," she said.

He began isolating her from her children. "He told me that Ahmed shouldn't be sleeping in my room, so he put him in another room. My son's entire demeanor changed. He no longer smiled and just stared at his shoes," she said.

There is a favored illustration among those who counsel abused women known as the Domestic Violence Wheel. Its spokes contain phrases like: using coercion and threats, using isolation, using children and using intimidation. The spokes are arrayed around a central hub called 'power and control.'

Cowan had begun her lonely sojourn around the wheel. "The cycle often begins when someone starts yelling. Then there is a push or shove," said Linda Johanek, chief executive of the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center of Cleveland, where Cowan volunteers. "Pretty soon .... they allow you to do things rather than you wanting to do things."

The family moved around the Inland Empire. Wherever they went, they kept the curtains drawn and rooms dark. Beatings were meted out for the slightest infractions. Sleeping through morning prayers earned a bucket of water in the face.

A dark curtain had fallen over Cowan's life, a sequence of mind-numbing boredom punctuated by sudden, disconcerting terror.

Muhummed screamed at Ahmed so much that the mere sound of his voice caused the boy to soil himself. Cowan tried to make sense of it. Perhaps her son needed to be "toughened up."

Now, she sees her distorted thinking as a sign of how much Muhummed had manipulated her perceptions.

"You start thinking you are wrong and he is right," Cowan said. "Between fear and guilt, fear is the more powerful of the two."

Muhummed showed flashes of kindness. and Cowan hoped his abuse would stop if she didn't make trouble. "Victims are always thinking, 'How can I not get hurt today,' " Johanek said. "They are proactively working round-the-clock to keep him happy. The problem is the rules change every day."

Muhummed's abuse grew more severe and frequent. He used food as a weapon, padlocking the refrigerator and handing out half hot dogs for daily meals. The children stashed bits of bread behind ceiling tiles. Ahmed was a particular target of beatings. Cowan begged Muhummed to stop but was ignored.

The family lived on about $4,000 a month in welfare and Social Security benefits, which Muhummed spent mostly on himself. Once, Cowan stashed a chicken leg under a pillow for Ahmed. "I opened the pillow later and found the leg covered in ants. That was one of the worst days of my life," she said.

When she asked to leave, Muhummed delivered a vicious backhand that nearly knocked her out. In the months ahead, he would threaten her with a gun, hit her in the head with a VCR and stab her. When she tried to stop Muhummed from beating her son, he dropped her with a punch to the face.

When Cowan gave birth to a daughter, Muhummed gave the baby to his first wife.

To keep Cowan from running away, Muhummed usually kept one of her children with him. And if she did get out "he promised he would kill me and bury me in the backyard," she said.

Cowan's prison was now complete — she was afraid to stay and afraid to leave.

Sensing her "disloyalty," Muhummed enlisted his children to spy on her. The home felt like a concentration camp, with smuggled food, beatings and informants ratting each other out for better treatment.

Muhummed escalated his abuse of Ahmed, forcing him to stand naked in a bucket of water for hours.

"I saw my son standing in the corner of a room shivering, cold, lonely and full of fear," Cowan said. "Something snapped."

She began secretly audio-taping the beatings and writing a letter to police. It grew to 26 pages. "Please send help," she wrote. "Ask to look in both garages and see me alone."

She had no stamps, no way to get to a mailbox. If she was caught, death was a distinct possibility.

"I knew I had to become stronger, stronger than I have probably been my whole life," she said.

The family had settled in an isolated house in rural Aguanga, east of Temecula. Muhummed kept Cowan inside a dark garage with her son and nailed the door shut. They slept on thin mattresses and urinated in plastic jugs.

But Cowan had one advantage: She was articulate and Muhummed had her conduct business for him. Filling out paperwork for monthly benefits, she found a postage paid envelope addressed to the county welfare department. She crammed in her letter and waited.

One morning, Muhummed took her to the tiny Aguanga Post Office and struck up a conversation with someone in line. "I reached up under my garment and slipped the letter to the clerk," she said. Just then, Muhummed called her. "I nearly jumped out of my skin," she said.

Three days later on April 6, 1999, there was a knock on the front door. Riverside County Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Fogle stood outside holding the letter. Within minutes, deputies were swarming the place.

By that time, Muhummed had collected three wives and 16 emaciated children. The details made for lurid news coverage: Children hung upside down, victims forced to beat each other. Muhummed spent 10 years delaying trial with a stream of motions but was convicted in 2009 thanks largely to Cowan's tapes. He remains in Kern Valley State Prison in Delano.

His victims scattered. Many never seemed to recover. At least two of the older daughters and one wife became involved in polygamous marriages again.

At a shelter in Palm Desert, Cowan and her children began intensive counseling. She learned "how to take care of myself ... how to stop rescuing" others, she said.

Her husband died suddenly upon leaving prison, and she returned to her native Cleveland and found a job at the local housing authority. She met Johanek, who invited her to give talks about her experience, and Boehnlein, who trained her to be a domestic violence counselor.

Cowan is now a force of nature, albeit a gentle one. Helping victims in Cleveland and beyond, she gives speeches and attends rallies. She has become a confidant to scores of battered women, including Raj Roberson, now a partner in advocacy work.

"People make you feel ashamed," Roberson said. "They think you are weak for putting up with this, but you can't be weak and survive what we survived."

Cowan's advice to victims is brutally realistic. She doesn't tell them to improve their self-esteem. She tells them to get an escape plan.

"Stash some clothes and start separating yourself from him. Get some money together. You get out slowly, gradually," she said. "You don't make a scene and say, 'I'm leaving!' That's when bad things happen, when killings happen."

She sees now, clearly, the way she was "continually being programmed with fear" from that first meeting at the motel.

Even when her abuser was handcuffed in the back of a squad car, she had to summon the courage to press charges. But now the fear is finally lifting. Her daughters barely remember their days with Muhummed. Ahmed suffered severe depression, but today, at 19, is attending Cabrillo College in Aptos near Santa Cruz.

Cowan no longer hears Muhummed's voice in the dark. The nightmares are gone. She rises early each morning, sits on her porch and listens to the birds.

"I savor every moment now," she said, smiling. "I'm just happy to be alive."

PHOTOS: Survivors of abuse

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