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Crime

How Rape Survivor Uses Her Nightmare to Help Others — 30 Years After Having Abusive Dad Killed

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More than 30 years ago, when she was 16 years old, Cheryl Pierson Cuccio paid a classmate to shoot and kill her father — putting an end to what she says was years of his sexual abuse.

Now she is finally ready to tell the entire story of what happened, including the violence she survived, her fatal decision and how she wants to help others.

“It’s not your fault,” Cuccio says she wants other victims to know.

“Just because you feel dirty doesn’t mean that you are dirty,” she says. “You can be whatever you want to be in life.”

In December, Cuccio and her high school sweetheart-turned-husband, Rob Cuccio, published a book about the case: Incest, Murder and a Miracle: The True Story Behind the Cheryl Pierson Murder-for-Hire Headlines. In it, they recount Cheryl’s upbringing, her father’s death and their lives since, including raising two daughters.

“I need to try and turn part of this into something good,” she tells PEOPLE in a recent interview in her home on Long Island in New York.

“I want to find meaning in it. I have to.”

From left: Cheryl Pierson Cuccio, dad James Pierson and younger sister JoAnn Pierson in the 1980s.
Courtesy Cheryl Pierson

Escalating Abuse

After the death of Cheryl’s mother, Cathleen, who passed away at 38 from kidney failure, Cheryl says she took on the “wifely duties” in her family, which went beyond household tasks.

“There was more time for my father to have alone time with me,” she says. “It got to the point where the sex was happening two or three times a day.”

• For much more on Cheryl’s story of survival and violence, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

Cheryl says she endured her daily nightmare — but felt like she was out of options when her father threatened to start abusing her 8-year-old sister, JoAnn.

“I promised my mom in her coffin the day she died that I would always protect my sister, no matter what,” she recalls.

One morning in 1986, after hearing about a recent murder-for-hire plot in the news, Cheryl, then a high school cheerleader in Selden, New York, casually mentioned the case to her homeroom classmates.

She asked if any of them would be willing to kill someone for money. Sean Pica, a fellow junior, said he’d do it for $1,000.

Not even three months later, on Feb 5. 1986, Cheryl found her father, 42-year-old James Pierson, bleeding in the snow in their driveway. He’d been fatally shot five times in the head and chest by a .22-caliber rifle.

It was only when she learned that he’d been shot that Cheryl realized Pica, then 18, went through with the killing.

“I was shocked and horrified,” she says.

Cheryl Pierson Cuccio, then a high school cheerleader, in the 1980s.
Courtesy Cheryl Pierson Cuccio
Sean Pica (right), then 18, is led to jail in 1987 after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the death of Cheryl Pierson Cuccio’s father.
Kevin KennedyAP

She, Pica and Rob, then her boyfriend, were soon arrested in connection with James’ death. At her first court hearing, Cheryl’s attorneys revealed her father’s alleged abuse.

When Pica had said he’d serve as a hit man, Cheryl confessed her secret to him and discussed the possibility of killing her dad.

Although she insists she didn’t know Pica was going to go through with it, she says she and Rob pieced together $400 for him in partial payment.

• Watch the full episode of The Cheerleader and the Hitman, streaming now on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, Xfinity, iOS and Android devices.

Pica ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. (He was released in 2002.) Rob, then 20, pleaded guilty to criminal solicitation and was given probation.

Cheryl pleaded guilty to manslaughter was sentenced to six months in jail, serving about three and half months before she was released for good behavior.

Cheryl Pierson Cuccio
Photograph by Elinor Carucci

‘A Listening Ear’

Cheryl tells PEOPLE the reason she wanted to avoid being caught was not out of fear of prison time — but to avoid what she says was the embarrassment over her “dirty secret.”

“I always thought I was no good and wasn’t worthy of having a good life,” she says. “I thought I didn’t deserve it. I was disgusting. It was shameful. I thought I’d deserved a terrible life. I didn’t want anyone to find out.”

Her life has changed drastically in the years since.

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

“I found strength that I didn’t know I had,” Cheryl says — and it’s strength she wants to share.

“We hope that after they read this book, they know that they’re not alone,” she says. “If I can help one person, then everything I’ve been through was worth it.”

The effects of her abuse are still an everyday battle, Cheryl says, but she wants to speak out and be the person other people can turn to — something she didn’t have when she was a child.

“Me, knowing what another incest or rape victim experiences, I think means so much more than somebody who just went to school, studied it and has a degree,” she says. “I want to be a listening ear and give advice to people who need it.”