Twenty-one years ago, Shanna Widner’s world came crashing down when her mother was implicated in a bizarre murder-for-hire plot against the mom of Shanna’s cheerleading rival.
Now a grown-up and a mother of two, Widner, 34, is finally sharing her side.
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Widner says her mother’s 1991 arrest, trial, conviction and brief jail sentence for a crime that inspired two TV movies, including one starring Holly Hunter, left her with scars she still carries.
Then just 14, Widner would rock herself to sleep at night, sobbing and cursing God: “I kept thinking, ‘Why are you doing this to us?'” she remembers. “‘I hate you!’ ”
Her mother Wanda Holloway was facing charges for allegedly hiring a man to kill Verna Heath, a former neighbor whose daughter, Amber, competed with Shanna in junior high for spots on the cheerleading squads.
At school, where Shanna remarkably remained and attended classes with Amber during the ordeal, Shanna recalls, “I felt like I had a flashing neon sign on my forehead that said, ‘Pom-Pom Mom’s Daughter’,” she says.
“I felt,” she adds, “very alone.”
But over the years, the eighth-grade teacher and mother of sons, ages 9 and 11, managed to find joy again, and some closure with her mother.
For more on Widner’s moving story of healing and forgiveness, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday