-- Editor’s Note: ABCNEWS correspondent Sylvia Chase has been covering Esther Combs' case for more than two years. This report originally aired on PrimeTime Thursday on Nov. 2, 2000. The following are Chase's reflections on the emotional impact of the case.
There are story subjects that journalists hope they never have to revisit. We think that if we tell it right just one more time, it will never have to be told again. People will learn and things will change.
Child abuse is one of those subjects. How many times have I told this story?
Yet I could tell it every day and never exhaust the supply of small victims and unthinkable abusers.
I think, though, I will never tell a story quite like that of Esther Combs, whose earliest memory is of her mother tying her to a high chair and knocking it down the basement stairs. Some 410 physical scars and 19 years worth of soul-damaging violence later, Combs' life was actually saved when she attempted suicide.
The Preacher's Daughter
Very few people even knew of Combs' existence when, in February 1997, an ambulance delivered her to an emergency room in Bristol, Tenn. Paramedics reported that she raved deliriously during the ride, saying, "Don't hurt me. I'll make the coffee right this time."
That ride led to Combs' first encounter with a physician.
"Her physical appearance was shocking," recalls Dr. Jennifer Stiefel. "She had scars from her face to her back to her limbs. All parts of her body were covered."
Lab tests established that Combs had swallowed anti-freeze in an attempt to take her own life. She had to spend several days in the hospital, but now the doctors who saved her life knew the secret of her torture. Her assailants could be brought to justice — if only she would share the details.
But Combs refused to answer any questions about her scars, and her family denied any knowledge of how she obtained them.
It took the dedication of Bristol police Detective Debbie Richmond to crack the case, and it was a long, arduous journey.
Because Combs was 19 — no longer a minor — there was litle Richmond, the department's specialist in child abuse cases, could do without her cooperation. Combs would have to come forward in order to get help, and there seemed little hope of that.
Her father, Joe Combs, was a respected preacher at Emmanuel Baptist Church. His position in the community helped shield him and his wife, Evangeline, from public scrutiny.
For weeks, Richmond cruised by the church, sometimes getting a glimpse of Esther, who turned away, apparently frightened. Once, after Richmond had not spotted the young woman for some time, a plainclothes officer attended church services to see if she would appear.
Pastor Combs resented Richmond's attention and complained on a local religious radio station that he was being persecuted.
By that time, Esther's family had sent her to stay with an aunt and uncle in Georgia, apparently hoping to keep her away from the Bristol police. But the change of location had an unintended result. Living with her aunt, uncle and cousins, the young woman discovered family life could be peaceful and fun-loving.
At last she decided to share the secret of her torture, and after several months she called Richmond for help.
Chains, Whips — and Biblical Justification
The Combs family lived in almost total isolation. Their home was the vast gymnasium and fellowship hall near the church.
Esther, her three brothers and two sisters were home-schooled. No visitors were allowed into the home — not even parishioners.
Richmond says a later search of the property found it was filthy, garbage and rat-infested and inhabited by caged cats and dogs. The pungent odor was still faintly there last fall when the detective took me and our cameras on a tour of the place.
Richmond pointed out the basketball floor where, she says Esther Combs "was beaten with ropes, chains, whips, umbrellas, bats."
By the time I met Esther, she was living by herself. She told me of these horrors and more.
Beginning at age 11, she said, she was regularly sexually abused by her father. She said he told her that King David had concubines, so this behavior was condoned by the Bible.
"He said that … my gift, to help the family was … to be a servant,” she said, and she was punished when she failed to serve properly.
The verbal and physical abuse she related seemed unthinkable, but she told me of things even more striking.
Esther Combs had never consciously realized that what was being done to her was abnormal. Two attempts to run away and the attempted suicide were made only because the physical pain was so acute that she could not take it any more.
She later said she felt that her suicide attempt was an act of cowardice. She could not understand at all why I considered her a brave human being, a survivor.
Because I have done so many stories about abuse victims, I was prepared when she told me that she — like most people who had been abused as children — expressed longing, even love for the family that had so mistreated her. Just before Father's Day this last summer, she told me that she wanted very much to send her father a card, even though she felt she ought to hate him.
A New Beginning
In November 1998, Joe and Evangeline Combs were indicted on multiple charges of aggravated child abuse, assault and kidnapping; Joe was further charged with rape. Last spring, both were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms that will likely keep them behind bars for the rest of their lives.
Esther Combs has started a new life with a new name. She has earned a high school diploma and has a full-time job. Her devoted boyfriend is helping her to achieve a longtime dream: learning to drive.
Still, she has many bad days. She has nightmares and flashbacks, but she has survived and is building on her tenuous hold on life.
Though I tell myself it's not proper for a journalist to feel so involved, I worry about this young woman and so does Richmond, who is the only "family" Esther Combs has now. Richmond recently had a baby girl and I have a picture on my desk of Esther holding that child.
No one involved with this story — not producers David Perozzi and Howie Masters, nor editor Jack Pyle nor I — can get Esther Combs out of our minds. Although I keep wishing this could be the last word any journalist ever has to write about child abuse, I know it won't be.