Shattered: Reclaiming a Life Torn Apart by Violence

Shattered: Reclaiming a Life Torn Apart by Violence

by Debra Puglisi Sharp


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In April 1998, Debra Puglisi Sharp — wife, nurse, and mother of teenage twins — was tending the roses in her garden when a factory worker with a cocaine habit slipped in through an open door and waited for her to come in. Nino, her husband of twenty-five years, got in the way and was shot. The man then attacked and raped Debra, placed her in the trunk of his car, and drove away. Kept hog-tied in her abductor's house, Debra finally learned of her husband's murder from a newscast on a radio that the man blared to muffle her screams while he was out. After five excruciating days, Debra's mounting rage at her captor — and the wrenching thought of her children burying their father alone — gave her the courage and strength she desperately needed. She loosened her ties, groped her way to the phone...and dialed 911.
Shattered is an indelible portrait of hope, determination, and the agonizing journey back to life. Struggling to heal from her horrendous ordeal and the devastating loss of her husband, Debra also had to endure an agonizing court trial, the raw grief of her children, and her own crippling fear. But through her work in hospice care and as an advocate for victims of violence and trauma, she has slowly discovered the measure of her own strength. A compelling survival story — tragic and ultimately heroic — Shattered represents one woman's attempts to make sense of a senseless crime.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743444569
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 08/17/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,269,413
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Debra Puglisi Sharp has appeared on Oprah, 20/20, The John Walsh Show, and other national and regional talk shows. Now remarried, and having resumed her nursing career and work in victim advocacy, she lives in Delaware.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Mondays always seem more hectic than other weekdays. It shouldn't be true for Nino and me. His work schedule isn't your typical nine-to-five, nor is mine. But Mondays are Mondays are Mondays.

Though as routine as ever, this Monday is busy from the start. I've had a decent night's sleep — an extraordinary seven hours — so I'm up. But for some reason, I'm a little out of sorts. Nino's grumpy, but that's how he greets every day till he gets his quota of caffeine. I'm relieved when he heads out for his morning cup of coffee from the Wawa, a chain convenience store in our area. I used to make coffee at home, but home-brewed doesn't suit him — only Wawa's will do, and he stops there every morning for a big sixteen-ouncer, cream, and sugar, along with his daily pack of Winston Lights.

I feed our four cats, then feed Fish, a single massive grommie who reigns in solitude in his big tank. Fish belonged to my mom. I inherited him when she died, and since then we've developed a strange intraspecies relationship.

Nino and the kids don't believe me, but I'm convinced there's affection for me behind those big fish eyes; in fact, when I walk through the dining room, his eyes follow me everywhere with what seems like lively interest. This morning I pause by his tank, and as usual he lifts his big pink head for a pinch of food.

I have to smile.

"Hey, Fishie," I say this day. "Morning, buddy."

The first minute I get, I pour a strong cup of tea and call Michael, bent on continuing a discussion that began over last night's dinner. Of course we end up bickering.

On Tuesday there's a school dinner, where our son is supposed to receive an academic award. But he's being typically balky. Modesty is a commendable trait, but Michael is almost too retiring; he never wants to flaunt his accomplishments before the world, even the little world of his classmates and teachers.

Michael has strong principles about this sort of thing. To him, there's no contest but the contest with himself. He shuns the idea of being judged "better" than someone else. It's a very pure way of thinking, noble even. I respect it. But Nino and I are proud parents, and we wish just once he would change his mind.

We talked about it at the table on Sunday, where he put forth his usual arguments: he didn't compete against other people, academically or in sports. All that mattered to him was doing his personal best, and he didn't know why this stuff was so important to us.

"Well, soon you'll be out there interviewing for jobs, Michael. It'll look so impressive if you've won all these awards...."

"Mom," he said, with exaggerated patience, staring down at his meat loaf and peas, "if they want to know about me, they can just look at my GPA."

At that, Nino sighed — a big, deep sigh that meant he was starting to get ticked off. "Michael, please," he said, biting off the words. "It's one night of your life. Do it for your mother."

Good move, Nino — if at first you don't succeed, there's still the old guilt trip. I'd tried it myself, earlier in the day: "Michael, honey, come on. Just do it for your dad." Michael will not be persuaded.

Up till now, all his awards have ended up at the bottom of his bedroom closet, buried under a pile of track shoes. It's become a tug-of-war between us — I'll display the running trophies or plaques on the hearth, and when I'm not looking he'll turn them face down or lock them away altogether.

This morning around eleven I give it another shot — "Come on, honey" — and I hear him groan on the other end of the line.

"Mom, what's the big deal with this?"

"The big deal is it means a lot to your dad." I hear the edge creep into my voice; I'm getting impatient, too. "If it doesn't mean anything to you, do it to please him. How much effort does it take?"

From there it's all downhill. One or the other of us, I can't remember which, hangs up.

Stubborn kid. I stand with the receiver in my hand, fuming. Then I decide to shrug it off. No use fretting this into something bigger than it should be.

Stubborn kid. Stubborn parents.

I'll talk to him again later, when we've both cooled off.

Nino stops home for lunch, and I do the fried baloney thing.

Fried baloney is a kind of family joke, and the kids still snicker when their dad demands what is for him a childhood tradition: four thick slices hot off the grill, piled high on two pieces of bread with mustard. It's comfort food for Nino, just as tomato soup with grilled cheese (we called them "cheese-and-cook-it" sandwiches) put me right back in the kitchen of my girlhood home in Burlington, New Jersey.

After lunch he girds himself to make a phone call that could have an appreciable impact on our money situation. It's to Melissa's financial aid office, and he's calling to inquire about one of her loans.

By choice, Nino has always handled money management for our family, including those damned college loan applications. But he hates every contentious second of it. He constantly reminds me how frustrating it is to fill out the endless forms, year after year, trying to convince the ruling boards that we're not too well-off to qualify for aid and going into battle with the dense, multiple levels of bureaucracies that hold the keys to the kingdom.

Worst of all, he says, is doing this by phone, where he has to listen to prerecorded messages directing him to make one of a dozen menu choices then listen to Muzak for minutes at a time while praying for a live (and hopefully responsive) human being.

He's doing that now: waiting, his ear pressed to the receiver, growing more flushed with each passing minute. He shakes his head. "You know, Debbie, I don't know what you'd do if you had to handle this on your own."

It's not the first time he's expressed this sentiment. All our married life he's chafed about being the one who has to balance the checkbook and get everything paid on time. His refrain: "Debbie, I'm glad you don't have to deal with this. You'd never be able to figure it all out." According to Nino, I remain the tender, hapless little woman who can't cope with the important things of life, things like mortgages and tax returns and car repairs. Those are man's work.

Today, though, wrangling with the loan people, he's reached the end of his tether. When he crashes the phone down, I know it hasn't been a successful call.

He grabs his jacket and storms toward the door. "You know what?" he says. "I might as well just take my car and drive off the Delaware Memorial Bridge."

And he's gone.

Two down. Both Nino and Michael are mad.

Well, okay. Everybody's at cross-purposes today, but I don't have to let it wreck my own day. It's still early, and it's beautiful out: sunny and breezy, not too cold, perfectly April. I'm free until 4 P.M., when I call in for my assignment. I've got just enough time to accomplish something, so at about two in the afternoon, I lug the four rosebushes out to the side yard, where I've already dug four deep holes and filled them with the good organic soil recommended by Gene.

With trowel and spade in hand, I start to dig. I feel clumsy and inexpert. Homey, one of our four cats — the only outside one — curls beside me in a square of sunlight.

About 3 P.M., Nino comes home from work. He parks his Jeep in the driveway and ambles over. By now he seems okay. The lines have eased out of his forehead, and his shoulders are down, relaxed. Thank God.

I'm surprised he doesn't offer to join me; Nino loves yard work. The joke in our family is, "When Dad gets out the weed whacker, stand back." He couldn't be bothered with edging and raking, but if it involves a tool that makes noise, he's all for it. Gene Nygaard's always telling him he trims the grass too short: "Hey, you really need to bring the blade up on your mower." Nino just laughs and, heedless, roars on.

But today, he's not interested. Must be tired. "Better you than me," he says, then smiles at Homey. "Hey, looks like you've got a helper there."


He heads inside, where he typically grabs a snack after work.

"Do me a favor, Nino," I call after him, "tell me when it's 3:45. I need to report in to work."

I labor on, packing loose earth around the balled roots of the rosebushes. After a while it seems like it must be getting close to four. But Nino hasn't called. As a nurse, I need to be on time; he knows that.

Maybe he's asleep, I think; he sometimes takes a nap after work. I brush the caked dirt from my knees and walk toward the open garage, where a staircase leads to the kitchen.

As I approach the house, Homey at my heels, I see kids scrambling from a school bus at the corner and construction workers swarming over a building site across the street.

Our neighbor Joe Strykalski is walking his dog.

Gene Nygaard waves from his front lawn, where he's on the cell phone with Karen. She's in North Dakota for the funeral of her father.

As I walk into the garage, I hear nothing but the distant buzz of a sod cutter somewhere out in the April afternoon. I open the door and walk into the kitchen.

It's so fast. A blow catches me from the left, my glasses fly off, and instantly I'm in a blurred world; my eyesight is so poor that without glasses or contacts I can scarcely count the fingers on my hand.

I fall forward through space, almost in slow motion, though the floor seems to rush up at me. I crack my head against the cat food bowl, and water splashes out, and blood splashes out.

My first reaction — a thought, not quite a thought — is confusion. What was that? What fell?

I fell. Through the distorted lens of my vision I see someone moving around me. I lift my head and stare up at the dark silhouette of a man. Tan jacket, baseball cap — I can't see much more. The sunshine in the kitchen creates a weird backlight, glowing from behind him so his big shape looks haloed.

"Where's your money?" he says. This is no voice I've ever heard; the sound of it is deep and quiet, but there's another quality in there, too, something like excitement. Like he's about to tell me a secret.

Fear doesn't happen yet; it's two beats away, or three. I'm stunned, still trying to decide and accept that someone is in the room with me, a stranger who has struck me. Why did he do that? Oh, yes. Money. Hurry. Give it to him.

"My purse. My wallet's in my purse. On the counter by the sink." I don't keep lots of cash on hand. For the first time in my life I'm hoping there's lots of it in there. I know my rings — my diamond anniversary ring and a diamond pinky ring — are there, too, along with my watch, where I took them off before gardening.

Take them.

I watch to see him move away. I wait, all my senses tuned up, for the sight and sound of him walking out of the room. But he doesn't go. Blood spreads across the floor, and my head hurts.

"Where's your husband?" he says.

"I don't know." It comes out a whisper.

Nino's an orderly man, a creature of habit whose activities and location can almost always be charted by the calendar and the clock. When he comes home from work most afternoons, he has a snack, lies down for a half hour or so, then goes outside to walk and chat up the neighbors, pacing off the frustrations of his day.

If he went out today, he must have taken the front door leading out onto Oklahoma, the broad drive that leads from the street into our development. Otherwise we would have passed each other in the side yard.

The blow was so strong that I'm senseless on the tile floor, with an odd buzzing inside my head. I feel stupid. I can't put thoughts together so they mean anything.

Something inside says, Move. Run. Do something. I can't. I'm just hunched into myself, arms up around my head where he struck me.

Just go away, I think, and in that instant I am gathered up in his arms.

The basement door opens. Somehow I'm on my feet again. He's prodding at the small of my back, propelling me down the narrow wooden stairs. I'm wobbly, but I manage to stumble down them without tripping.

I notice for the first time that my right hand, held tight against my stomach, is shaking. For a second this surprises me. Then I recognize in a strangely detached way that I must be really scared. This may be the first thing I clearly articulate in my mind: I must be really scared.

At the bottom of the stairs he gives a big shove. I land face first on the concrete floor, so hard that I wonder if I've broken my nose. Whatever fear that was kept at bay by that first stunned feeling now just opens up inside, blossoms, explodes, rushes to every part of me like electricity.

"Now," he says, with that same tense excited voice, "let's do this."

With rough hands he's pulling my sweatpants down, then my panties. Oh, Jesus. Jesus Christ. Not this.

My eyes are wide open and staring. Though very little light comes in — the basement windows are dusty and set up high — I can look from side to side and see things. The basement is heaped up with lots of old musical equipment, boxes of old tax records, boxes I marked "summer clothes" and "holiday decorations" and "Mom's dishes" — twenty-five years' worth of pack rat stuff. The dehumidifier whirs in a corner.

I get intermittent flashes of clarity, lucid thoughts spooling out in front of me like old home movies. We have been here so briefly — just one Halloween, one Thanksgiving, one Christmas. Improbably, I'm thinking of last Christmas, when, for the first time ever, Nino didn't argue when we got a real tree to fit the fourteen-foot foyer.

Most years he lobbied for an artificial tree ("So clean, so economical"), a notion I resisted with all my might. And on this at least, I always prevailed. No pipe cleaner Christmas tree in my house, no plastic greens and garland. I wanted that good sweet fresh tree smell all around, and though Nino grumbled, he let me have my way.

On that first Academy Hill Christmas, my sister Darlene and her husband, Bill, bought the tree at the local firehouse. When they lugged it in, we all just gaped. It was massive. We made hot cider and ate spice cookies and loaded that tree down with all the decorations we'd collected over the years. My mom's fragile glass ornaments hung alongside things the kids had made at school over the years, gingerbread men made of felt and Popsicle sticks and Elmer's glue. No tinsel, though. Not after the time one of our cats, Kiki, ate a few strands, then walked around the house with most of it hanging out the other end.

Now he is beginning. He is brutal. He's all over me from behind, making low noises as he does it. It goes fast, which is no mercy. I'm so tense I tighten up, and it hurts. When he's through, I'm wet from him and dirty and ashamed of my degradation.

I hear a sound like a little girl's, the kind of sound my Melissa used to make when she was small and scared of something in the night.

"Shut up, bitch," he says, so I know the sound must be coming from me. "Shut up."

Melissa was always afraid of storms, especially the sound of the wind and the sight of everything tossing all around. It made her feel the world was falling down around us. But I reveled in it — the rain, the wind, the lightning, and the majesty and energy of it all. And when she'd run to me, whimpering, I'd bundle her up on my lap and we'd watch together out the window. "See? It can't hurt you, honey. So hush."

"Shut up, bitch," he says.

Back to the kitchen. We have moved there somehow, and now everything's going fast. The phone rings. Must be four o'clock. I get my daily work assignment at four precisely, no deviation, every single day I'm on call. If I don't call them, they call me. The phone stops, rings again, stops.

Back to the floor. I take another hard landing, smash my nose again, then he's got my arms pulled up behind me. He loops some kind of thin cord around my wrists, over and over. Then something falls over me. It's the flowered quilt from Nino's and my bedroom, which is on the first floor off the dining room.

I'm worried for my husband. I know Nino. If he walks in on this, he'll do anything to defend me and our home, and I don't know if he can win a fight with this man, who is bigger and probably a lot younger.

A part of me is willing him away. Another part is helplessly angry, wondering why he hasn't come to rescue me.

Nino, for God's sake, stay away.

Nino, for God's sake. Come home.

The man walks away. Long minutes pass, ticking off on the kitchen clock. Five minutes. Ten. I listen for anything at all and hear nothing. My breath, which had been coming in short sharp bursts, starts to calm. It's over.

The littlest of our cats, who's old but so tiny and round he still looks like a kitten, comes sniffing around. Paddington sticks his nose under the quilt, and I'm comforted. He's there. The intruder is gone. And now the front door opens, and I know my husband's back.


But no. The tread of these steps is heavy and slow. Not like Nino's steps.

Kitchen drawers open and slam shut, one after the other. What's he looking for? He's going through the cutlery, it sounds like. There is clatter, and it sounds big and violent in my ears. What's he looking for?

When he lifts me, it's like he's carrying something disposable, not a person at all. He takes me into the foyer, and I can hear things from the outside — construction sounds, traffic — so I know our front door is open.

"Oh, no. No, no, Jesus. Don't do this."

"Shut the fuck up."

I'm on the floor, on my back this time, and there is a flash of brightness and I see the knife: long sleek blade, fat black handle. He brandishes it so I can see — like he's going, Look at this! — then presses the sharp end to my neck, so hard I can feel the point of it piercing my skin.

"Do you want to just shut your fucking mouth?" Then I hear the rip of duct tape.

For nine years, I've worked with people on the cusp of death. Sometimes I'd wonder, couldn't help wondering, how I'd die. With a little prayer going up, I'd think, Please, nothing devastating, none of the cancers. It's so hard on everybody, especially if dying comes too early or lasts too long. I wanted that good death where you live out all your seasons, do most of the things you have planned, last long enough to hold the grandchildren and maybe even the great-grandchildren, then pass softly, like a sheaf of wheat falling before the wind. I have been so idealistic about this, and arrogant, too, thinking I could choose. I believed if I concentrated hard enough, I could create that graceful, good death for myself.

Now I know how the story really ends. I'm going to be murdered.

More than anything else, it's surprise I feel. I never thought of this.

But wait. I need time to prepare. Let me get used to this. Let me figure out a way to do it.

He carries me lightly, effortlessly. Three things are before me, like the snapshots that always crowded the front of our refrigerator, stuck on with smiley-face magnets and cow magnets: Melissa. Michael. Nino.

Still wrapped in my favorite quilt — it's brand new, I think, in that odd detached way, hoping it doesn't get damaged or dirty — I'm tossed into the back of his car. I hear every sound as a distinct thing, a warning bell, a death knell, and with every sound I am flooded with disbelief. The hatchback slams. The driver's side door opens and closes. The key turns in the ignition. The engine starts.

I have heard this many times on TV over the years: if you're being attacked, never let yourself be taken to a "secondary crime scene." I remember it now so distinctly, seeing the detective, J. J. Bittenbinder with the big mustache, talking about this on Oprah. "Do anything you can to keep from being taken from your own environment. Take any risk, do anything you can."

I'd shuddered to hear it, especially when he said it's better to struggle and run and be shot at than to be forced into a car and driven off.

The man eases his car from the front door into the street then pulls slowly away.

Copyright © 2003 by Debra Puglisi Sharp

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