Oct. 16, 2009— -- Experts say most children don't have memories before they're at least two or three years old. But if your earliest memories were anything like Carmina Salcido's, you might not want them at all.
At age 3, Carmina survived the shocking massacre of her entire family. Her father, Ramon Salcido, then a 28-year-old hard-drinking and hot-tempered vineyard worker, ambushed his co-workers, murdered his wife, several in-laws, and slashed the throats of his three young daughters, leaving them for dead in a garbage dump. Miraculously, she survived.
CLICK HERE to read an excerpt of Carmina's book, "Not Lost Forever."
On April 14, 1989, detectives traced the trail of the killer who had left seven people dead, across 30 miles of wine country; from the vineyard, to his home where he shot his wife and ultimately to the dump, where he left his daughters before he fled to Mexico. Ramon was moving faster than either the cops or the press could comprehend.
Ramon's killing spree upended life as Carmina knew it. She said she remembers details from that traumatizing day vividly: her father picked her up out of bed, put her and her sisters in the car and drove away.
"I remember actually him carrying me out of the house that morning," she told ABC's "20/20." "Probably about 15 minutes into driving I lean up over the front seat and go, 'Papa where are we going?' He turned around. He was mad. He turned around and gave me such an evil look and he's like, 'Shut up and sit down.'"
She said that before her father slit her sisters' throats, the air was filled with a "dark energy."
"I look over at my sister Sofia, and she has this look of terror on her face. She knows something's terribly wrong. The atmosphere is just thick," she told "20/20." "I'm looking up at him, [and said] 'Papa, please don't cut me.'"
Carmina said that the girls didn't cry when their father first took her sister Teresa, threw her on the ground and slashed her across the belly and throat.
"There's no crying," she said. "It was silent -- like lambs led to a slaughter."
Crime scene photos confirm Carmina's account.
"[He] grabs my hair, pulls my head back and I put my hands up … protecting, so he cut open my fingers and I moved them." And then, she told "20/20", her father slashed her throat." I move my hands out of the way, [in] one clean cut. It was just like a razor. You almost don't feel anything. And I just went out."
36 Hours Later: Carmina's Stunning Survival
Mike Brown -- at the time a Sonoma County Sgt. Detective supervising the investigation -- was deeply concerned for the girls' safety. "I asked God to keep his hand on them," he told "20/20."
Some 36 hours after the massacre, Carmina was discovered by a transient about 20 feet from the road. He described seeing three doll-like figures in an open field; then one of the "dolls" suddenly moved.
"I hear this jump. I hear, 'Oh my God!' And I believe it's my dad coming back," Carmina explained. "I froze up. I was like, 'If I play dead, he won't have to do anything else to me.'"
That a three-year-old survived for 36 hours in an open field with a slit throat, stunned doctors.
"When she arrived there was no question that there was something about her character and grit that allowed her to survive," said Dr. Dennis McLeod, who was in the ER at the Petaluma Valley Hospital. "She shouldn't have survived the injuries that she had."
Inadvertently, Carmina had kept her head down, covering her neck wound, doctors said. Helped by the heroics of the Petaluma Valley Hospital staff, she gained strength over the next three weeks and broke the hearts of the nurses with a picture of a puppy in a coloring book.
"And, she took a red crayon, and she cut the dog and put a line on the dog's paw and on the dog's neck. And she said, 'My daddy did this,'" Petaluma Valley nurse Nancy Corda.
Carmina's father was captured 800 miles away in Los Mochis, Mexico. His five day reign of terror was put to an end, and when in police custody, he admitted to the murders of his wife and daughters. Ramon then told reporters he was "not really" remorseful for his actions.
Details of the horrific killing had spread across Sonoma County and Ramon was a despised man. Protesters gathered awaiting his return from Mexico, chanting: "Kill Him! Kill Him!"
Ramon Salcido went on trial for the murder of seven people in July 1990. After 12 weeks, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Salcido is currently on death row in San Quentin prison.
While there was great hostility for Ramon, local residents embraced Carmina, the lone survivor of the rampage. By the time she left the hospital, there was hardly a person in Sonoma County who did not know her name, who did not wonder, what was next for the little-survivor-without-a-family?
With no relatives able to care for her, Carmina was adopted by an ultra-conservative Catholic family in Missouri, who she said proceeded to erase her identity -- right down to her name.
Carmina Salcido Reborn as 'Cecilia'
"To them, Carmina Salcido died April 14, 1989. And Cecilia lived. She was the miracle. She was the rebirth. She was a new person," she told "20/20."
Living in what she called a 19th century cultural time warp, Carmina said that "Cecilia" had limited contact with the outside world. At 15, she discovered a hidden box of newspaper clippings, which contained horror stories from her past life.
Carmina said that when she confronted her adoptive parents they told her in their minds, her past was a taboo trail, leading directly to hell.
"I was being told I was no better than my dad, that I had demon blood running in me, that I was, you know, I might as well have a cell next to him and live with him," she said.
To escape her adoptive family's home, Carmina joined a Nebraska convent at 17, becoming a cloistered nun at Sister Mariam of Jesus Crucified. After less than a year, she quit the convent and looked for a new home at a ranch for troubled teenage girls in Idaho.
"I am determined to be everything opposite of the kind of bad people that have been in my life," she said. "I'm gonna be strong."
Ultimately, Carmina felt compelled to return to Sonoma County, in part to write a book that was just released, "Not Lost Forever: My Story of Survival" (William Morrow). She was also drawn to see her father for the first time since he left her for dead.
Memories of her father from her upbringing had been terror-filled -- even before the massacre.
"I was very intimidated and scared of my dad. He would come home and you know, be drunk, obliterated," she said. "And I remember fights going on between him and my mom. ...probably a week before everything went crazy, or maybe even, it might have been the night before. And he just started, you know, slapping and punching her. Sofia was holding baby Teresa in the hallway, just terrified watching this. We just all stand back there with you know big eyes and just watch, terrified."
In hopes of moving forward, Carmina arranged a meeting with her father at the San Quentin prison in February 2006. It was the first time she had seen him since that day nearly 20 years ago when he slashed her throat and left her for dead.
"I went there with a very, very, very, very positive attitude with high hopes," she said. "But he came in like a joker, like a clown, you know. ...He came smiling in. You know, I thought it would be at least -- walk up and be serious, and just start crying when he saw me. But, no emotion."
Like many inmates sentenced to die, Ramon claimed to have had a stunning religious conversion. After completing a mail-in seminary class, he began ministering to inmates, signing his name "Reverend" and posing for pictures with children.
While "Reverend" Ramon tended to his flock from Death Row, he left his very own daughter living in a kind of purgatory. Carmina said that her father was unable to give her an apology or an explanation.
"He looked me right in the eye the second he saw me -- like he had the right to call me his daughter," she said, "like this is some big happy reunion. It's not a big happy reunion. It isn't.
Carmina said that Ramon told her he had seen pictures of her on MySpace and had friends outside of prison looking out for her.
California state law forbids death row inmates from having access to the Internet, but "20/20's" investigation suggests friends of Ramon's may have legally brought pictures of Carmina and hard copies of the Web sites into prison.
Revulsion for Ramon Runs Deep
The revulsion toward Ramon and his crime runs deep in Sonoma -- especially for his daughter who he so brutally betrayed.
"I don't ever want to see him again," Carmina said. "And I would breathe a great sigh of relief when justice has been dealt."
Brown, who Carmina said has become like a father-figure to her, told 20/20 that he would put an end to Ramon's life if he could.
"I literally could go back to work and do one more job. And, that would be to go to San Quentin prison and execute Ramon Salcido," Brown said.
Ramon has been on death row at San Quentin since his 1990 conviction. Carmina now lives in Sonoma -- a place of enormous loss for the 23-year-old -- but she doesn't see it that way.
"I'm very open with who I am and what my story is and what my history is … I don't know if I will always stay in Sonoma," she said, "But I know I'll definitely always a have a place here."
She makes frequent visits to the cemetery and the graves of her mother, two sisters, two aunts and grandmother.
Learning more about the family she lost and closing a painful chapter in her life, the 23-year-old pushes on -- day by day. She works 30 hours a week as a dog groomer. Scarred by a lifetime of loss and betrayal, the only things she trusts are the animals
"I don't have my family, but there's nothing I can do to change that," she said. "I know one day I will be with them, so I have to live my life."
Watch "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET to hear her story of her survival and CLICK HERE to read an excerpt of her book, "Not Lost Forever: My Story."