Growing up, Stacey Lannert seemed to have the perfect family. Her father, Tom, was a financial consultant, and Deb, his wife, was a stay-at-home mom. But as Stacey and her sister, Christy, got older, their picture-perfect life began to unravel.
Stacey says she was especially close with her father when she was young. "I was daddy's little girl. ... He was like Superman to me because if there was ever a problem, he fixed it," she says. "I always felt like everything was right in the world when he was there."
When Stacey turned 8 years old, she says her father started molesting her. It started with a game called "touch tongues," and quickly progressed to genital touching and oral sex, she says.
Stacey says her father raped her for the first time when she was only 9 years old. "I felt like he was just tearing me apart," she says. "It felt like I was literally being ripped in half, and he was saying such hateful things to me. I didn't know what to do."
Stacey says she didn't tell her mother, because her father said she already knew. "Somehow in my mind I blamed her immediately," she says. "Like it was her fault."
When she was 12, Stacey's parents got divorced. "I became resentful even more so of my mother for leaving my dad and almost even took his side in the whole divorce," she says.
Despite the abuse, Stacey decided to live with her father when her parents got divorced. "At some point, I separated my dad into two different people," she says. "My dad, and then Tom, the man who would abuse me. Sometimes it would be anywhere from three times a week [to] all five days of the week."
Years later, Stacey moved in with her mother, but Christy stayed with their dad. One day, Christy called for help and Stacey decided to return home. "I walked in the door, and there he was," she says. "He wound up throwing me down and he raped me right there."
The day Stacey went to help her sister was the last straw, she says. "When he got done raping me, he kicked me, and I got smart probably for the first time ever," she says. "I was going to fight."
One month later, Christy sneaked into her father's house. Stacey says she grabbed his gun while he was passed out and shot him in the the collarbone. Stacey says he then sat up. "All of a sudden, he just started yelling," she says. "I remember thinking, 'He can't get up, because if he gets up he'll kill us.' So I picked the gun back up and just closed my eyes and pulled the trigger."
Stacey and Christy waited hours before they called the police, but when they finally arrived, Stacey confessed immediately.
Prosecutors said they didn't believe Stacey's claims of abuse. Instead, they thought she murdered her father for money. They said she had been forging his checks, using his credit cards and stood to inherit nearly $100,000 from his estate.
Stacey was found guilty of murder in the first degree and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Christy pled guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and spent two and a half years in prison.
In January 2009, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt commuted Stacey's life sentence from life without parole to 20 years. After 18 years in prison, she was set free. Stacey says she has a lot of people to thank for her release. "[I was released] by the grace of God and the perseverance of two wonderful attorneys, a police detective who never gave up and a governor who had a lot of courage," she says.
Her own faith and patience helped her survive the past 18 years, she says, but her attitude couldn't always be positive. "There were times I gave up," she says. "I really believed I would spend the rest of my life in prison.
While it may seem strange that Stacey chose to live with her father after her parents' divorce, she says it made sense to her when she was 12 years old. "We got sent back and forth between the two of them a lot, and there were times that he didn't hurt me," she says. "My father loved me, not the abuser who would rape me. They weren't [the same person] in my mind."
Stacey says she is often judged by the decision she made to live with her dad. "A lot of times we wind up seeing more victimization because of the choices we make," she says. "My life was hell, and I was struggling just to be able to survive every day, and then after the fact I have to face answers of why I didn't do this or that—it's harsh."
Stacey says her father only physically abused her sister. "I felt like I was protecting her by taking the sexual abuse," she says. "If he'd hit her, I'd just thank God that's all it was."
On the day that Stacey shot her father, she says she was determined to scare him into stopping the abuse. "I had this mind-set, 'This is going to end,'" she says. "I wanted him to stop. I wanted him to know we're leaving and I can stand up to [him]. I didn't ever really make a conscious choice. I guess somewhere in my mind I did, but I wanted him to know that I could fight against him."
Stacey says she believes it was right that she served time in prison. "I did break one of society's rules," she says.
Still, Stacey says she didn't feel she had any other options at the time. "There was nowhere to run to. I didn't feel like there was anywhere I could go that he couldn't find me," she says. "He would tell us how he would find us—the car was registered in his name, he could track me through the social security card number, and he would tell me how he would find me and I believed him."
Stacey is telling her story in hopes of empowering other abuse victims. "Secrets lose their power when they're shared," she says. "I think that every woman who's been abused thinks at one point in time, 'I'm going to kill you.' There's power in the thought but not in the actual act itself, and I don't think people understand that. Now not only do I have the shame and guilt of what he did to me, I also have the shame and guilt of my actions."
After years of learning to deal with what happened to her, Stacey says she's finally felt some closure. "I finally have been able to fuse [my father and the abuser]. I had to in order to forgive myself for the action that I took, because there were moments that I missed my father," she says. "I had to forgive him in order to be able to forgive myself, but there's a difference between forgiving and forgetting."
Stacey says she forgave her father because she didn't want to face the alternative. "If I don't forgive him, then I'm in prison—it might not be a physical prison, but it's a psychological prison. You know, I was incarcerated and I was free in my heart. The rest was geography."
Though she's thrilled to be free, Stacey says prison was one of the best things that happened to her. "It made me face myself. I couldn't run away from my past at all," she says. "The compassion and encouragement and support that I have been met with from other women who went through the same thing just really made me feel like I wasn't alone."
Stacey recognizes that prosecutors believe she killed her father for money, but she says it's untrue. "I had his permission to use the account. I wasn't working at the time, and he didn't want me working," she says. "It was a way of him isolating me."
Stacey doesn't hold it against people who don't believe her story, she says. "Every person in America is entitled to their own opinion," she says. "I can't judge them."
One of the hardest things to adjust to in her new life is having the freedom to do what she wants, when she wants, Stacey says. "I ask for permission all the time," she says. "I need to learn how to break that. It doesn't seem real to me yet. But I'm working on it, and I'm so happy. I can't believe I got this second chance at life, so I'm just excited."
After spending 18 years in prison, Stacey says she wants to work with fellow abuse victims. "I want to help end sexual abuse in America by putting a voice to it and talking about what happened to me, so I make it okay for others to talk about what happened to them," she says. "I've been pretty busy, and hopefully we can make a change."