Heather Thompson's blackened and bloodied face has served as a warning to battered women in North Carolina. On a billboard and in brochures, she tells them they can get help.
Since her ex-husband used pliers and a broom handle and a belt to abuse her 15 years ago, leaving her with permanent disabilities, she's shuffled to high schools to counsel students and taught law enforcement officers about domestic violence.
But always, in the back of her head, was the vow Thomas Howard Price Jr. made in a letter from prison. On Friday he was released, and she began waiting for him to make good on his promise to kill her and her daughters.
"Is he coming today, is it going to be tomorrow?" she said before he was released last week. "Just the always wondering, always having to watch your every move and never knowing when he's going to show up."
Price walked out of a federal prison in South Carolina after serving 4 1/2 years of a five-year sentence for sending the letter, which began with the words, "Dear Slut." He penned the message during the slightly more than 10 years he served for beating Thompson in 1994.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he plans to come after me and the kids. The death threat said all three of you will die by my hands," said Thompson, 38. "That's tough to know that I can't protect my kids right now."
'No concern of yours'
Price, through the federal prison system, declined an interview request from The Associated Press. When his mother was asked where he will live after his release, she said, "This is no concern of yours," and hung up the phone.
No matter where Price ends up, Thompson doesn't plan to move. She doesn't think she should have to and she doesn't have the money.
Price originally challenged restrictions for his three years of supervised release but relented just before a hearing was to be held Friday in U.S. District Court in Greensboro. He agreed to wear a location-monitoring device for six months and to have no contact with Thompson or their 19-year-old and 17-year-old daughters.
Price's attorney, Milton Shoaf of Salisbury, said Thompson had no reason to fear Price.
"He will not go around her. Period," he said. "He has no interest."
Still, said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Thompson's fear is reasonable.
"These guys are good," Smith said. "They find ways to get past firewalls and confidential names. There isn't any real protection. You can do your best to hide and disappear. But I've heard of cases of men finding women who thought they were invisible."
But for women like Thompson, she said, the question becomes: "Are you going to run and hide the rest of your life?"
Thompson met Price when she was 12 and he was 14; they married when she was 18. He shoved her to the ground once before they wed, but she brushed it off — thought everything would be OK "if I just loved him enough."
Then came the bruises she hid under clothes and the black eyes she had to explain away. Once, he left two bullets on a Harley-Davidson emblem above their bed. One was for her, he said, and one for her boyfriend if he ever caught her with another man.
"The biggest reason I stayed was fear," Thompson said. "Because he said to me, 'If you leave, it doesn't matter where you go and how far you go, I will find you, and I will kill you.'"
She was 23 the day in 1994 he beat her senseless, leaving her with back, neck and hand injuries — bone spurs, pinched nerves, osteoarthritis — that still require surgeries. He told Thompson he would kill her, bury her in the back yard and tell their daughters she had run away. He slapped her so hard that a ring on his right hand flew off and dented the wall.
The abuse continued for more than three hours. At his trial, she testified the pain was so severe when he squeezed her ears with pliers that she pleaded for him to kill her. Instead, he held her at gunpoint for another 15 hours before allowing her to go to a hospital.
Her injuries were so horrific that the lawyer who prosecuted the case, now in private practice in Monroe, still recalls the details.
"In all the years I've defended or prosecuted cases like that, she probably suffered the worst and had the most horrific injuries for somebody who survived," Donna Stepp said. "I do remember the case just because of that and because of how far she came since that."
These days, Thompson's pain is so severe she can't sit for more than an hour straight and can't work full time. Doctors tell her that CAT scans and MRIs make it look as if she had been in a severe car accident. Nerve damage makes pain in her right hand so sharp that some days she can't scrawl her signature.
"There are days that I am in pain 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the point that I can't function," she said.
Her daughters are terrified and more than anything, Thompson wants to get past.
"I'm just ready for me to be able to move on with my life and be able to not always have to be the ... face of domestic violence," she said. "There's a lot more to Heather than just that."