Bette Midler, Celine Dion, Diana Ross and Barry White all have something in common other than famous artist; its something that will probably never happen again in history.
This is a timeless story about a hero. Her name is Laura Cowan.
When Laura came upon hardship while her two children were small, she went where people are known to seek help. She went to her house of worship. It was there that Mansa Musa Muhummed had the answers she needed; a place to live until she was able to acquire a home of her own again. “He said we could live with him, his wife and children,” Cowan said. It was then that she moved herself and children into Muhummed’s home in California. While there, Cowan realized that the man who seemed caring was hiding dark secrets. “When I went to move out, he threatened to harm me and my children,” Cowan remarked. Social Services had been to the house to take a glance in which they concluded there was no wrongdoing by Muhummed.
"We were being starved, psychologically and physically tortured and beaten. Muhummed kept moving us, so it didn’t matter how many times the neighbors called Social Services over a four year period when they heard the screams and witnessed odd things happening. He had a system in place which included putting layers of clothing on the young adult children to hide that some of them only weighed in the forty pound range. He was charming his way out of everything and was smooth. Our rescue was bleak.”
"What about the food?” I asked.
"At a glance, you would think the cabinets were full of food, like the Social Services workers thought. However, if you picked up the box of crackers, cereal or canned food, you would have found they were empty.”
"So, Social Services thought there was nothing to report?” I inquired.
"Yes, that’s correct. If they were hands on, say lifting the children’s clothes to examine them or opening a box, they would have known. He impregnated me and gave my baby to his first wife. I can’t tell you what that did to me. He told me I was his wife under Quran law and that I didn’t understand the laws. He said the first wife is in charge, but he was misguiding me. He also took a third wife who had more children.”
"So, no one believed that anything was wrong? And that would make someone afraid to keep speaking up.”
"No one believed the complaints. Social Services kept responding with visits, but he was never arrested. We were all terrified to say anything against him fearing for our lives. If he wasn’t in jail, there wasn’t anything stopping him from harming us.”
"That must have empowered him. At times when you felt like giving up; did something bring you hope?”
"Yes, I knew one day we would be rescued. I had to make a plan, a well thought-out plan because at any moment he could have snapped and killed all of us. He moved us into the last house to an Indian-like reservation. No one could hear our screams there because we didn’t have close vicinity neighbors. I think he might have done it so that neighbors wouldn’t contact Social Services again. We were locked inside the garage without heating or cooling, facilities or water. I decided to write a letter and try to mail it. I didn’t realize when I started it that it would be 23 pages of documentation. I kept it hidden on my person under my clothing.”
“You tape recorded screaming, torture and beatings?”
“Yes, I always had my tape recorder on me playing music.” “Which songs were you listening too?” I felt compelled to ask this and I’ll explain why at the end.
“Wind Beneath My Wings, by Bette Midler is my favorite song. That was one of them. I listened to other favorites, Barry White, Diana Ross, Chicago and Celine Dion. I taped the torture and beatings over them.”
“How did you get your documentation of the terror mailed?”
“We didn’t have stamps. There wasn’t a way to use the phone to call for help because he monitored it by listening in on all calls. I was on food-stamps which he sold and kept the money. C7 State of CA paperwork came monthly by mail to update for food stamps with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Social Services. One day, when we were driving past the department, I said I have the papers filled out. Why don’t we drop them off? Fortunately, he agreed. I kept the envelope and handed him the papers. I then had to wait for an opportunity to get to the post office. The day came when a certified return receipt slip was left on the front door. It required my signature for food stamps, but Muhummed took it to the post office and tried to pick it up without me. When they wouldn’t allow it, he returned to the house and picked me up. It was then that I knew, I had to get the letter mailed. I had to end his reign of terror. He made some of us eat our own feces and vomit. Those were only a couple of the many things we endured.”
“Once inside the post office, we stood in line. I was terrified, desperate for help, but afraid he would kill me, if he caught me mailing the envelope. Then a man behind us engaged him in conversation talking about guy things. It was our turn, so I stepped up to the postal clerk, while slightly looking over my shoulder afraid he’d see me and get suspicious. I found him still engaged. I pulled my clothing up and pulled out the letter, my heart was racing as I shoved the letter towards the clerk. I was terrified. She quickly grabbed the letter and thrust it under her counter. At that exact moment Muhummed yelled, “Aren’t’ you ready?” My body shuddered. I told him I just needed to get the letter. Two days later, sheriffs showed up at the house and arrested him. What the sheriffs did for us, I can’t thank them enough. There were 22 people captive in the house and one of them was pregnant. The children’s ages ranged from 20 years old to 8 months. We were taken to the hospital to be evaluated, some of us stayed overnight. I was brought to an undisclosed address with my children. It was a domestic violence shelter. Amongst the security put in place was barbed-wire fencing that encompassed the premises. It had been four years since I moved into Muhummed’s home.”
“Did you get your youngest back that day, who he took from you when she was a baby?”
“Yes, I did.
I could hear happiness in Laura’s voice while she spoke. “What was the shelter like?”
“It was wonderful; you have your own room, a classroom where the children are schooled, a pharmacy, resource room, and all the things you need such as toiletries and clothing. There was also a breakout room, therapy, and a huge kitchen. The women all have chores to help out. We would end up being in therapy for a long time.”
“When someone goes through what you’ve been through there are psychological triggers. Can you tell me about one that has gone away?”
“Oh, yes. The sound of Muhummed’s voice was a trigger. The first night at the shelter, I was terrified when I heard what sounded like Muhummed’s voice. Come to find out, it was the maintenance man. I no longer have that trigger and some others have faded as well. The children have made progress. I don’t know that we will ever heal from our ordeal.”
“Muhummed wasn’t sentenced for many years?”
“Yes. Somehow Muhummed had his sentencing delayed, but it may have helped our case because the children who wouldn’t talk where now telling strangers about what he did to them. Prosecutor, Julie Baldwin called me in Ohio to tell me he was found guilty of each of the twenty five charges brought against him. Several months later, he received seven consecutive life sentences and afterward, Muhummed told the judge that we were lying about him.”
“I’m so glad you found the courage through all of this to become a sleuth and create a plan. Through talking with you, you always included the children when speaking. And you’ve been reunited with the postal clerk?” I asked.
“The LA Times photographer connected her and the sheriff by phone. It was a treat talking to them. I had no idea that would happen. We had beautiful conversations. The postal worker said she sensed something was wrong and was glad she was able to help.” Tears welled in Cowan’s eyes.
When I learned of Cowan’s story, I wanted to get an update, and I didn’t know what to expect when interviewing her. The first thing she said to me was, “I’m holding a vigil for a 33 yr. old single mother of three. She died Friday from head trauma at Metro hospital in Cleveland. Her boyfriend beat her and left her to die. I need to inform and gather supporters.” She had an urgency in her voice.
Cowan is a powerful voice for domestic violence. She expressed her gratitude numerous times for those who assisted in her rescue and for the endless hours domestic violence volunteers spent with her and her children during our discussion. She is a volunteer, advocate, and works on her local homicide committee, besides her technical position for the housing authority. During this interview, Cowan said she experiences triggers when counseling victims. Sometimes when they’re telling their story, she has flashbacks because of similarities. And yet, she has forged on devoted to helping others as she periodically relives the reign of terror. Her offender was sentenced in 2009.
“Tell me about evaluating people who call the domestic violence hotline for help.”
“We give advice and can’t make them do anything. We find out what their situation is, if they’re in dire straits, we call 911, if they need to be involved. If there is time, or they want to try to get away later, first we have them make a safety plan with a trusted family member or neighbor… Then, we have them gather clothing, and documents, such as children’s birth certificates. Once they leave, they can’t come back, so a lot of those things are lost.” Cowan says.
Speaking of things lost, I asked what the songs were because music is at times related to aspects of people’s lives and you never know what someone will tell you. When she mentioned Wind Beneath My Wings was her favorite song, my heart went out to her once again. You’ll want to listen to the words, if you don’t know them already. Its about losing someone you love. Laura cautiously orchestrated their escape which helped to ensure 22 people, including herself, didn’t lose a loved one.
Whether you reside in Connecticut, Ohio or California, domestic violence isn’t prejudice. It can impact any race, color, religion, creed, or social status. Even places like Westport, CT where the affluent and well-known live, there are reports of domestic violence; its not just “in the hood.” You never know when you or a loved one will be in a time of need.
While speaking with Cowan, I thought, I would like to see a Social Services/Domestic Violence database tracking complaints nationwide. Will Social Services/Department of Children & Families, Domestic Violence CrisisCenters and police municipalities correlate a national database system on reported violence to track possible victims? Elizabeth Smart was also moved many times to keep her capture hidden. Domestic violence calls are responded to with “a glance.” Will the future response be with a “hands-on approach,” to keep victims from years of torture, abuse and beatings? Will new protocol be implemented after numerous calls?
Events are hosted nationally. Westport, CT business and artists supporting their local Domestic Violence Crisis Center: http://www.acorn-online.com/joomla15/arts/features/112132-artists-support-domestic-violence-crisis-center.html
In Cleveland where Cowan now works, the Cleveland Cavaliers are holding a domestic violence awareness event and its Respect Month, in recognition of National Teen Dating Violence Awareness & Prevention. www.dvcac.org/
For events near you, search Domestic Violence Centers in your area.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is: 1−800−799−SAFE(7233)or TTY 1−800−787−3224.) http://www.thehotline.org/ For resources nationally, you may dial 211. A 24 hour, 7 day a week hotline open to men, women and children. You never know when you or a loved one will be in need.
Laura Cowan’s video story: http://framework.latimes.com/2011/11/10/laura-cowan/ and her son’s video story http://framework.latimes.com/2011/11/09/ahmed-shabazz/
RJ Grand is the author of The Painting of Deceit – The Fortier Series