Woman kept in captivity for 19 years and gave birth to 9 children

14/05/2018 - 1:36 778 Views

Kidnappings aren’t unusual in the US. The FBI report more than 2000 cases every year and, whilst many of them involve a parent who didn’t gain custody taking their child, the rest of them are more complicated. Consider, if you will, the case of Rosalynn McGinnis, who was kidnapped as a child by her step-father, and subsequently kept prisoner and abused for 19 years. Luckily, in the end she managed to escape and tell her story to the world. When it comes to kidnappings, if the missing person isn’t found within two years there’s little chance to find them alive – or to find them at all. In Rosalynn’s case, however, she managed to escape despite the years of physical and mental abuse inflicted on her. The details of her story are unnerving, but they give a deep insight into the case.

The overview

Rosalynn’s ordeal started in 1997, at the age of 12, when her stepfather took her away from her family. He took her to a remote area in Mexico, where no one knew her. He kept her segregated there and proceeded to abuse her for nearly 20 years. She was forced to give birth to 9 children during that time.

Married in a van

It turns out that her stepfather, Henri Michelle Piette, was supposedly in love with her and didn’t want to share her with anyone else. He went as far as to celebrate a mock-marriage in his van, with his teenage son acting as a priest. He even gave her a ring. Remember that this was before he kidnapped her – and he was supposed to marry her mother the day after. It’s hard to tell if he was joking or if he truly believed in that “union”. Perhaps if Rosalynn had told her mother what had happened things would have gone differently.

The family life

Henri and Rosalynn’s mother’s marriage seemed to be going well initially. He was present in her life but not suffocating, as he was probably hiding his feelings for her. Rosalynn couldn’t understand what was going on. Was he in love with her? Had she just imagined the ceremony in the van? If she told her mother she probably wouldn’t believe her, thinking that she was simply acting up because she didn’t approve of her marriage. Whatever the case, she kept silent. When she was kidnapped five months later, nobody had any idea what might have happened. Both the police and journalists were involved, but after some time things quieted down.

The warning signs

There had been signs before, though. When she was 11 Henri used to sneak in her bed and abuse her, telling her that it was their secret and that her mother could never find out about them, or she would get angry. Rosalynn’s mother was being abused as well. They even went to a women’s shelter for some time, but Henri was able to win her back by telling her that he had changed. Of course, nothing had changed. He probably used this time to plan the kidnapping and the subsequent escape out of the United States.

In Mexico

As unlikely as it might seem, Henri managed to get away with her and cross the border with Mexico. How he was able to do this is anyone’s guess, but he had grown up there and knew the land and language very well. They settled into a small village, where people took them for husband and wife. Rosalynn didn’t know Spanish and had to rely on Henri for everything. She eventually developed Stockholm’s Syndrome and came to sympathise with her kidnapper. However, things were about to get ugly.

The hunt

As soon as she discovered that Rosalynn was missing, her mother told the police everything she knew. It became clear at that point that Henri was involved in her disappearance. Whilst she still couldn’t believe him capable of something like that, all hints pointed in that direction. The police came to the conclusion that he had escaped to Mexico, and asked the Mexican police to investigate. The problem with that was that Mexican officials in small towns and in the countryside are often corrupt, likely to close an eye or two in exchange for a good amount of money. For Rosalynn things got worse and worse.

They had nine children

Eventually things quieted down. Henri worked part-time jobs in addition to the money he had saved, and there was no chance he could be discovered. Rosalynn had nine children in the course of the years and, thinking Henri might take it out on them if she didn’t obey, she became very submissive, accepting all the abuse he inflicted on her. She never told her children about the true nature of her relationship with him. Only after she escaped did she tell them the truth.

The gallbladder surgery

What made Rosalynn finally fight back? A surgery, specifically a gallbladder surgery. A common operation around the world turned out difficult and painful as it was performed by an untrained medic in a tent. Afterwards she was left aching and in need of rest, but Henri put her back to work immediately. It was at that moment that she realised that she was going to die there, leaving her kids in the hands of a madman. She decided it was time to make her escape.

The escape

Planning the escape wasn’t easy, as Henri rarely left the house. The perfect occasion arose one day of June 2016 when he was on a business trip. She mustered her courage and left the house with her children, never to return. When the police found her, she told them her incredible story. She was eventually able to get back to the United States with her children. Her eldest son, who had escaped on his own some time before, reunited with them as soon as he learned what had happened. That wasn’t the end of her story, though. Henri had to pay for what he had done, and the police immediately went after him.

On the run

It took the police more than a year to finally catch Henri. He went into hiding and travelled around the countryside for months, bribing anyone who saw him and generally outrunning the police. He was eventually arrested in September 2017 in Mexico City, where he was trying to get a US passport. Further investigations discovered that he was involved in many more crimes, and that he had contacts with many big criminals both in the US and in Mexico, something that probably helped him stay undercover for so many years.

The charges

It turned out that Henri was involved in a lot of crimes in Mexico and the whole of Central America. He had connections with some of the most dangerous criminal organisations in the area, including the infamous drug cartels. He had been making money on the side by smuggling drugs, and acted like a mobster in the area where he and Rosalynn were living. If she hadn’t carefully planned her escape, she would probably have been catched by some of his lackeys. But he had finally been caught and was charged with molestation, rape, and child abuse.

Surviving as best as she could

Whilst escaping from Henri, Rosalynn had no money and resorted to begging to get some food for her and her children. She ended up trading and selling all sorts of things in order to scrape some money. Eventually she managed to collect enough to get to Oaxaca City. There she called the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children and told them her whole story. They in turn contacted some agencies in Mexico that helped Rosalynn and her children. After a while she was granted a passport by the American consulate and was able to get back to the US. With her help the police were able to start investigating and finally arrest Henri.

Back to a normal life

Rosalynn’s life had not been easy. Her whole childhood and teenage years had been spent in the hands of a monster who abused her. But she was determined to get back to a normal life. Not only that, she wanted to help those who went through a similar ordeal. She wanted to make sure that victims of rape and abuse everywhere had an opportunity to start again. Since her return she’s been working with several non-profit organisations, including the JAYC Foundation, and she’s planning to study criminal law. Rosalynn had told numerous times that, despite all the pain and difficulties, what had made her keep going were her children.

Gone missing

Despite all the laws and the years of prison that await kidnappers, thousands of people go missing every year. Rosalynn thinks it’s up to the communities to make sure that such cases don’t present themselves again. People need to be better neighbours and care about each other, preventing situations like that of Rosalynn.  More often than not, nobody speaks out until it’s too late.

A manipulative man

Henri was manipulative alright, but nobody knew the extent of his power until the day Rosalynn was found. He wanted to make sure no one would look for her, so he managed to get her off the missing persons list. When she 18 she was brought before the police and was forced to tell them that she wasn’t missing or being kept prisoner. Henri used her children as leverage in order to convince her.

Her strange teen years

Rosalynn’s teenage years were the strangest and most horrible of all. Since she looked older than the other girls Henri was able to pass for her husband without anyone asking questions. But he also wanted to make sure his story had no flaws. So, when she was 13, Rosalynn had a quincenhera, the traditional Mexican celebration for girls who turn 15 and are officially considered women. Reliant on Henri for everything, she had no choice but to go along with it.

Why she stayed so long

It’s not always easy to understand kidnapped people. Many of us boast that, in such a situation, they would brave enough to escape or fight back. Truth is, in one of those situations, especially if you’re a child, you just do whatever you have to do to survive. Rosalynn didn’t speak Spanish and knew nobody in town. She had no means of escaping. When her children were born, all her energy went into taking  care of them and making sure they survived.

A life unknown

An issue many former kidnapped children face when going back to normal life is that they often have spent many years away. In the case of Rosalynn, she had lived longer with her kidnapper than with her actual family. It definitely took a toll on her mental health and ability to overcome difficulties. To make things worse, she was taken when she was 12 and didn’t really have a full education. When she escaped she didn’t know whether she would succeed in finding a job afterwards.

Finding friendship

After escaping Rosalynn went under therapy for a lot of time. So many years of abuse meant that she had a lot of work in front of her. Luckily for her, she found a good friend and companion in Jaycee Dugard, who had been kidnapped when she was 11 and kept prisoner for 18 years with her two children. Their situations had a lot in common. Having someone she could talk to was of great help to Rosalynn. Even after she came out of therapy, Jaycee kept helping her.

Help of a non-profit

When her therapy was over, Jaycee founded a non-profit organisation called JAYC Foundation. They help victims of kidnappings get back to a normal life. The Foundation actually helped Rosalynn and her family a lot during this period. She is extremely grateful for everything they have done for her, not only in terms of psychological support. As they were able to meet other survivors, good friendships developed as well.

Her bravery

Despite all she has done, Rosalynn has never considered herself brave. Most people however are of a different opinion. Her therapist has said numerous times that she’s incredibly brave. After so many years, no one was expecting her to react and escape. One of things that gave her courage were her children. She just couldn’t stand the idea of seeing them grow up and live in such an abusive environment. She’s indeed one of the bravest people in the world.

Raising money

When Rosalynn came back she had to face material problems as well. Raising 9 kids is not an easy task if you’re unemployed and lack a proper education. She couldn’t hope to support her family alone, so they set up a GoFundMe account. This way people could donate and help her with taxes and medical expenses. The account has been running for a while now and has raised more than 20000$, showing that people still care about each other.

The Fritzl case

Josef and Rosemarie Fritzl were a couple living in Austria in the early 50s. They had seven children and seemed happy for a while, until one day Josef started abusing their 11-year-old daughter Elisabeth. When she turned 17, Elisabeth couldn’t stand it anymore. She ran away to Vienna, where she lived with a friend of hers for a while. Sadly though, the police found her and brought her back to her parents. With no other choice left, she decided to endure the remaining months of abuse until she turned 18 and could legally get away from her parents, working as a waitress to raise some money in the meanwhile.

Elisabeth was a marked woman

Whilst Elisabeth was waiting to graduate, her father kept on abusing her. Nobody in the family did anything to stop him, or even acknowledged what was going on. It’s likely they didn’t want to be the subject of abuse as well. Meanwhile she had taken a job in another city and was planning to move there as soon as she graduated. In 1984 Elisabeth graduated with the best score, and was ready to leave. However, her father knew that something was up and decided to intervene.

Held captive

One day Josef asked her to help him with a door he wanted to place in the basement. He told her to hold the door in the frame, whilst he would fix it in place. She complied, and at that moment her father put a rag that reeked of chloroform in her face. She struggled as much as she could, but there was no way she could get free. When she was passed out, Josef fixed the door in the frame and locked it on his way out. Elisabeth was now his captive.

Scared stiff

When Elisabeth woke up, it took her a moment to realise where she was. She rushed to the door and tried to open it, to no avail. She banged, but no one answered. Her father’s plan was clear: she would be kept down there for as much as he liked to. There was a bathroom, bed, and chairs in the basement, so that could even mean forever. She started panicking. What were her family doing?

Hatching a plan

Meanwhile Josef acted as if nothing had happened. When nobody saw Elisabeth for a whole day, he asked Rosemarie to file a missing person report to the police. She had no idea what was going on, so when the authorities came she told them what she knew: that she had run away before without telling anyone. Not having many clues apart from what the couple told them, the police thought Elisabeth might have run away to start anew somewhere else, as were her true intentions after all. It goes without saying that they never searched the house.

A dark existence

After that Josef made sure that no one was going down in the basement. He would visit Elisabeth every few days to bring her food and abuse her. Not knowing how to react and realising escape was impossible, Elisabeth closed herself to the world. Days and nights became meaningless. Her father also made her write letters, telling her family that she did run away and she was never going to come back.

Believing Josef

When Josef handed those letters to the police, they believed him. The story checked out and they soon closed the case. When he told his wife that she had run away, she believed him too. He made sure no one ever got to the basement and visited Elisabeth only when there was nobody around. Elisabeth spent twenty years as a prisoner. She first gave birth to a baby that died soon afterward. When three more were born, Josef took them away and explained to his wife that Elisabeth had asked him to take care of them. Not suspecting a thing, the woman raised them as her own.

Expanding the dungeon

When a fourth kid was born, Josef decided it was time to expand the basement, and he made her daughter to do it with her bare hands. This was one of the ways he exerted control over her. He would also kept her in the dark or refuse to give her food for days. Elisabeth had three children with her in the basement. Just like Rosalynn, she knew thatif she ever tried to get away Josef would kill them. She taught them to read and write, and made sure they grew up as best as they could.

A blessing in disguise

It was 2004 when one of her daughter got a fever so bad they had to take her to the hospital. Josef agreed to take her, but kept Elisabeth in the basement. When the doctors asked about the mother, he told them she had asked him to take care of her daughter. Since the child also had a kidney failure and was at risk, the doctors couldn’t believe that the mother wouldn’t want to see her and called the police. Josef told the officials the same story he had kept up for years: that his daughter was in a cult and wasn’t going to see anyone anytime soon.

Begging for mercy

When she knew that her daughter was suffering, Elisabeth begged him to let her see her child. He finally consented, on the condition that she talked to nobody and kept close to him. At the hospital the personnel became suspicious and called the police once more. The authorities prevented the two from leaving and interrogated them singularly. Alone with someone who wasn’t her father after so many years, Elisabeth told the police that she would tell the truth once she knew her children weren’t in danger anymore and that she would never see her father again. Over the next hours she told them her whole story. Josef was arrested immediately afterwards.

Rushed to safety

Elisabeth was immediately taken to safety, along with her children and her mother. The woman told them she didn’t know her daughter had been kept prisoner the whole time. When the police went down into the basement, they went pale in discovering the conditions in which Elisabeth and her babies had lived up to that point. Four years later, at the age of 78, Josef was going to stand trial for what he did. He was charged with abuse, kidnapping, and many more crimes, including the death of Elisabeth’s child. News of the story shocked the entire world.

Take him away

As everyone expected, Josef’s trial was extremely quick. He sentenced to life imprisonment, with no chance of parole for fifteen years. Elisabeth felt relieved once she heard the sentence. Josef was taken to a prison that harbours inmates thought to be criminally insane. He changed his surname to Mayrhoff to avoid more attention from the media. The Austrian government has since been trying to find new laws to prevent something like this from happening again.

A private life

As soon as she was discovered, Elisabeth asked for privacy. She didn’t want to be put on display in the media like some sort of show. She and her children will need time to heal, and the government has provided both a house and therapy for them. Elisabeth hasn’t made peace with her mother. Rosemarie has always claimed that she had no idea about what was going on in the basement, but still Elisabeth can’t forgive her for having turned the other way when her father was abusing her as a child. It will take time for the two women to properly reunite.

Rosalynn today


Rosalynn McGinnis is now 33 and she conducts a private existence in the US. She and her children are under treatment to recover from their trauma. She says her cousin Dana Archuleta has been of immense help during this time. She often visits them and gives them the strength to go on. Her stepfather is still awaiting trial, and she knows it could take months or years before they see the end of it. But she’s still determined to fight for justice and her family.