She says Henri Piette, her former stepfather and the man she claims abducted her from school when she was in the sixth grade, was determined to make sure no one was looking for her.
There was only one way to do that: She needed to be removed from the national missing-persons registry.
“He parked three blocks down the road from the Phoenix Police Department and he had three of my children,” she tells PEOPLE now. “He told me what to tell them. He said that if I didn’t come back within two hours, I would never see my children again.”
Nervous and scared, McGinnis lied to the police and was removed from the list.
“I told them that I had run away when I was 12 and that my parents and family were no good,” she says. She told them her parents were dug addicts and that she was raised by some “nice people.”
Robert Lowery, the vice president for missing children at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), says this particular case was complicated because the victim showed up in front of law enforcement.
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“We should be very careful about passing judgment because they were dealing with [someone] who was assuring them this was a circumstance that wasn’t what they thought,” Lowery says. “As sad as it is, and as much as we wish we had other facts back then, [law enforcement] may have had little choice when it came to whether or not to cancel the report.”
McGinnis says she had no choice but to convince the police that she was fine, and she succeeded. She walked out of the police department and continued to be held against her will for 13 more years, during which time she gave birth to six more children.
“She was under his control,” Lowery says. “[Abducted children] have been subjected to unconscionable and unthinkable levels of abuse that none of us can imagine. They live under constant fear for their lives each and every day.”
Miraculously, in June 2016, McGinnis managed to flee with eight of her nine kids from a remote village in Mexico where she’d been held for most of her life. (Her eldest child, a son, had run away before her escape; they have since been reunited.)
As the FBI conducts an “ongoing investigation” into what happened, Piette, 62, remains at-large and has not been charged with any crime.
After McGinnis contacted NCMEC, the organization and several other agencies helped her obtain emergency passports for her family to get across the border into the U.S. A GoFundMe page has also been created to help financially support them.
As she recovers in the Midwest, McGinnis, now 33, says she wants to study criminal law and work on missing-persons cases similar to her own, so something like this doesn’t happen again. And she says she wants safeguards to detect whether the person is in danger.
“My experience in [removing myself from the list] was all too simple,” she says. “If only someone had taken the time to question the situation.”