Sean Pica still clearly remembers the fateful moment more than 30 years ago when Cheryl Pierson, then a 16-year-old cheerleader in Selden, New York, asked her homeroom classmates if they’d heard about a recent murder-for-hire case.
“‘Who would be nuts enough to do something like this?’ ” Pica, then 17, recalls her saying one morning in 1986. “My comment back was, ‘People will do anything for money.’ ”
That brief conversation, Pica says, “turned into someone dying.”
Not even three months later, on Feb. 5, 1986, Cheryl found her 42-year-old electrician father, James Pierson, lying in the snow in their driveway, bleeding.
Pica — who agreed to commit the killing for $1,000 — had fatally shot James five times, in the head and chest, with a .22-caliber rifle.
He was arrested within the week, and he didn’t walk free again until 2002.
Pica is now sharing his journey with PEOPLE, how he went from a teenage prisoner to a college graduate and married man, at the same time that Cheryl, now Cheryl Pierson Cuccio, has decided to finally tell her story.
So how did the former Boy Scout and son of a New York City police officer become a killer?
As Cheryl’s attorneys later argued in court, she had been repeatedly sexually abused by her father — and, after James threatened to begin abusing her little sister, she revealed her secret to Pica and discussed possibly killing him, feeling it was her only option.
Cheryl insists she didn’t know Pica was going to go through with the shooting. But she says she and Rob Cuccio, then her boyfriend and now her husband, ultimately pieced together $400 for him in partial payment.
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Rob, then 20, eventually pleaded guilty to criminal solicitation and was given probation. Cheryl pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in jail — serving about three and a half months before she was released early for good behavior.
But it was Pica, then 18, who stayed behind bars: He was sentenced to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter.
“I was willing to help a friend, and in the process someone died,” Pica, now 47, tells PEOPLE. “I know it must sound nuts, but there was never any doubt in my mind that if I helped her I was going to jail. … I think that’s what made it a bigger commitment.”
Pica says he believed he was helping Cheryl, and that made him feel “like a champion.”
What’s more, Pica says he was fine sacrificing own future because he didn’t see what life had to offer.
“I had no idea what value I brought and I was willing to throw it away, even in the course of helping a friend, which was sad,” he says.
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As he headed to prison in 1987, Pica says he knew that he had at least helped Cheryl.
While the two wrote each other letters during their time in the county jail, their relationship faded as Pica faced his long sentence and Cheryl prepared for her freedom.
“I had to separate these worlds to be in a mindset to survive my situation and for her to move onto the new life she was about to enter to,” he says. “It meant that we weren’t going to be writing, and that was the last time we talked.”
‘Surviving Each Day’
Since their time together in jail, Cheryl and Pica have not spoken, although they have thought about each other over the years.
“For me, a lot of my life has been moving forward only. I don’t look back. I don’t have the luxury to,” he says. “I never had time for regrets. It was about surviving each day, each week and checking those days off the calendar.”
That wasn’t easy: Isolated from friends and family, Pica acted out for the first three years of his prison term and ended up in solitary confinement twice.
Over the 16 years he would ultimately serve, he was transferred to nine prisons across New York state. It was only when a prison guard asked him to help other inmates learn to read and write that he started to focus on his education — and his future.
Through Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, an organization that provides college education, life skills and re-entry to the incarcerated, Pica was able to get his GED and then a bachelor’s degree in organizational management, from Nyack College.
But he didn’t stop there. Pica was then asked if he would become a liaison between the next group of student prisoners and the warden’s office.
“It was a really cool moment where I shifted and I was actually running a college program in prison for the last year that was there,” he tells PEOPLE.
While his friends and family couldn’t have been more excited when he was released, on Dec. 13, 2002, Pica says he was “very scared.”
“Everyone else I knew who had gone home [was] returning to prison in the first six or eight months,” he says. “How was I going to be any different? How was I going to get out, navigate the re-entry craziness, deal with parole, find employment and reconnect with my family? It was terrifying.”
His Life Now
Pica soon found his answers, and success, in life outside the prison walls.
He met his wife, Lori, on a train just a year after being released and eventually became Hudson Link’s executive director.
“For me to be part of the program that really gave me a second chance at life is amazing,” he says.
Pica also speaks around the country to high school students, works at numerous prisons in New York and helps inmates after they’re released get back on their feet.
When it comes to thinking about the deadly crime that changed his entire life, Pica says, “I absolutely know that I am judged by the single worst act of my life.”
“I did something that I can never change,” he says. “That’s a horrible act and absolutely something I should not have done.”
“But on the same token,” he adds, “I did it because I was helping a friend and I know that skewed the way I was thinking at the time. I don’t think I would have done anything differently. She was looking to survive and she was looking to change the situation — not just for herself, but for her family. I’m okay with that.”
As for Cheryl, who has been married to high school boyfriend Rob for 28 years, she tells PEOPLE she feels “responsible” for involving Pica.
“I know that hiring somebody to murder my father was not the right decision,” she says. “If I had to do it again, I would not make the same decision — mainly because, No. 1, I would not have ruined Sean’s life.”
“I feel terrible that I did ask him to begin with,” she continues, “but I heard that he’s doing well and I wish him nothing but the best.”