Last year, Rosalynn McGinnis was lying in a tent in rural Mexico, wracked with pain as she tried to recover from a primitive surgery to remove her gallbladder. But instead of resting, like the doctor ordered, she was forced to get up and work around the house.
That command came from Henri Piette, her former stepfather and the man who she says allegedly kidnapped her from school 19 years earlier when she was 12 years old.
In their tent, despite her condition after her procedure, Piette began screaming and getting violent — once again.
For nearly two decades, McGinnis says, he had raped, beaten and tortured her.
But at that moment, she knew she had a choice to make. “I knew that if I didn’t get out of there,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, “I’d either go insane or I would end up dying and leaving my kids with that man.”
In June 2016, McGinnis managed to flee — with eight of her nine children — from the remote village in Mexico where she had been held captive. (Her eldest child, a son, had run away before her escape; they have since been reunited.)
Now the FBI is conducting an “ongoing investigation” into what happened as Piette, 62, remains at-large and has not been charged with any crime.
McGinnis, 33, recently sat down with PEOPLE at an undisclosed location in the Midwest and shared the chilling details of her years-long ordeal and flight to freedom.
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Tired of begging for money and food on the streets of Mexico, McGinnis says she’d been supporting her family by selling coffee, honey or homemade ice cream. She grabbed what few funds she had earned and, that June, paid for a taxi to take her and her children to Oaxaca City, Mexico, where she made a call that would change her life.
That’s when she was able to contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and tell them what had happened to her.
After years of being abused, threatened and forced to lie, “it was so nice to be able to tell somebody the truth,” McGinnis says. “I was still scared, but it was wonderful not to have to lie anymore.”
She and her family spent two months in hiding while multiple agencies, including NCMEC and the American consulate in Mexico, arranged emergency passports for them to return to the U.S.
Since she returned, McGinnis has been working with the JAYC Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit founded by Jaycee Dugard.
A fellow abduction survivor, Dugard was 11 years old when she was taken from South Lake Tahoe, California, by Phillip Garrido and held captive for 18 years before being rescued along with her two children. She has become a source of strength and comfort for McGinnis.
A GoFundMe page has also been created to help financially support McGinnis and her children.
“It took a lot of courage. It took a lot of bravery,” says Robert Lowery, the vice president for missing children at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of McGinnis’ escape.
“She wasn’t only concerned for herself,” Lowery says, “but for her children.”