It seemed no one took 16-year-old Cheryl Pierson seriously when, one morning in 1986, she mentioned a recent murder-for-hire plot during homeroom at her high school Selden, New York.
She wondered if any of her classmates would ever kill someone for money — and Sean Pica, a fellow junior, said he would do it for $1,000.
Not even three months later, as she was getting ready for school on Feb. 5, 1986, Pierson let her dog outside and saw her father lying face-down in the snow, bleeding in their driveway.
James Pierson, 42, a local electrician, had been fatally shot five times in the head and chest with a .22-caliber rifle.
“I was shocked and horrified,” Cheryl, now 47, tells PEOPLE in a interview from her home on Long Island in New York.
It didn’t take long for her — or the police — to realize what had really happened.
One week later, Pica, Cheryl and her boyfriend, Rob Cuccio, were behind bars for James’ murder.
During Cheryl’s first court hearing, her attorneys dropped another bombshell. They claimed she’d been repeatedly raped by her father and that she decided killing him was her only option when she thought he was going to start abusing her 8-year-old sister.
When Pica 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.
• 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.
In the end Pica, then 18, 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. And 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.
More than 30 years after her dad’s death, Cheryl is ready to tell the entire story of what happened and to help others who have been abused.
In a new book she wrote with Rob, now her husband — Incest, Murder and a Miracle: The True Story Behind the Cheryl Pierson Murder-for-Hire Headlines — they recount the abuse Cheryl endured and their life after the case, including raising two daughters.
• 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.
“It’s not an easy life to live when you’ve endured that pain,” Cheryl, now Cheryl Pierson Cuccio, tells PEOPLE. “I just want people who have gone through [sexual abuse] to know that it doesn’t ruin your life.”
Rob calls her “a survivor.”
Cheryl says she frequently talks to abused women, giving them advice and support. But she was only able to help others once she was able to help herself.
“I still fight my demons,” she says.
“I can live with everything I’ve been through if I can just help one person.”