October 08, 2012 12:00 PM

Why didn’t she leave? Tanya Nicole Kach has been asked that question countless times since she emerged from a suburban Pittsburgh home where she was held captive for 10 years. Her photographs were plastered on flyers across Pennsylvania, but her disappearance remained an enduring mystery. “I stayed because he told me he’d kill me and my family if I tried to escape,” says Kach of Thomas Hose, the school security guard who kept her at his home until police rescued her on March 21, 2006. Now pursuing an associate degree in business management, Kach-who has written a book, Memoir of a Milk Carton Kid, with her former attorney Lawrence Fisher-talks to PEOPLE’s Nicole Weisensee Egan about her lost years.

I still remember the first time I met Tom. I was just 13 years old and going through a terrible time. My parents split up when I was 11, and my mother wasn’t in my life at that point. My father moved in with his girlfriend, and we didn’t get along. One day I had to get out of class early to pick up a project for my wood-shop class. Tom, who was a security guard at my school, asked for my hall pass. He was so nice, cracking jokes. After that he became my confidant, talking to me about my home life. He was a lot older, 37, but the age difference didn’t matter. He was a good listener. He bought me candy and cigarettes, gave me money. A few months later, we kissed under the school’s stairwell. I was in love.

Tom convinced me to run away, a situation that quickly grew into one where I was imprisoned in his bedroom so his parents, whom he lived with, wouldn’t know I was there.

I soon became terrified of him. I cried a lot. I did whatever Tom told me to do. He was the only person I saw for four years. I was only allowed out of the bedroom if his parents were asleep or away. He put a bucket in with me in case I had to go to the bathroom. I passed the time reading the Goosebumps books and Cat Fancy magazine, watching TV or listening to the radio with headphones. I’d eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He’d sometimes give me his leftovers from his dinner. The worst parts were the holidays I spent in the closet. I thought about what my family was doing, if they were thinking of me. I thought, “Am I the only person in the world right now sitting in a closet on Christmas Eve?”

After I turned 18, Tom let me out of his room but still kept me hidden from his parents. For the next five years, he allowed me to leave the house occasionally to run errands, eventually introducing me to his parents as Nikki Diane Allen, his live-in girlfriend. The last 10 months he let me go to JJ’s Deli Mart, a nearby store where I became friends with the owner Joe Sparico. He knew how much older Tom was and how completely controlled I was by him. He also knew how scared I was of him. He’d say to me, “There’s something odd about this. I can’t put my finger on it.” One day I put my head down and started to cry. I told Sparico, “I’m not who you think I am. I’m Tanya Nicole Kach. If you go to a website for missing children, you’ll see me there.” He was stunned. I grabbed him by his arm and said, “Please don’t let me down. If you do, I’m dead because I told you who I am.”

A few hours later I looked outside and saw a man in a suit wearing a badge walking up the steps. There were five or six police cars outside. I opened the door, and the cop said, “Are you Tanya Nicole Kach?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I have to hug you because your picture has been hanging in my office for 10 years.” I’ll never forget how it felt to step out of that house that day. I got into the cop car, took a deep breath and thought, “It’s over. I’m free.” After I got to the police station, the cop said, “Your dad is here.” I heard my dad say, “I’m here to pick up my daughter.” He took me to his house, which was soon surrounded by media. Worse yet was the public’s reaction to my story. I was at the grocery store one day, and this woman walked up to me and said, “I ought to slap you.” I said, “What?” She said, “You tramp.” I said, “You don’t know what I went through.”

The nightmares have faded. I now have a fiancé and two future stepchildren I adore. I am a stronger person because of what I went through.

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