As a teenager Cheryl Pierson says she endured years of sexual abuse by her father, she told no one - not even her boyfriend, Rob Cuccio - because she was so afraid.
“My father used to threaten me on a daily basis,” she tells PEOPLE at her home on Long Island in New York. “He would say he’d kill me and kill anybody that I told. I believed him.”
As her situation worsened, her boyfriend’s suspicions grew.
“I was afraid to confront Cheryl about it,” he says. “We were having a little argument and it came out. I said, I know what your dad is doing to you.’ I remember Cheryl’s face getting red.”
She initially denied it but ultimately confessed.
“Cheryl started to cry, and she said, You’re right Rob, but you can’t tell anybody.’ ” he recalls. “I knew in that moment that there was no way I could leave her.”
Now 49 and an oncology nurse, he never has.
Cheryl and Rob, married for 28 years, have weathered health struggles, raising children - and a fatal decision more than 30 years ago that ended with her dad dead in his driveway and the couple behind bars.
For much more on Cheryl’s story of survival and violence, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.
Why She Had Her Father Killed
As Cheryl’s attorneys later argued in court, she believed she had no other option than homicide when her father, a 42-year-old local electrician named James Pierson, threatened to begin abusing her 8-year-old sister, JoAnn.
Neighbors and friends testified that they had their suspicions about what was going on between Cheryl and James, but no one ever came forward to report it.
One morning at her high school in 1986, Cheryl, then a 16-year-old cheerleader, mentioned a recent murder-for-hire plot she had seen in the news. She asked her classmates if anyone would kill someone for money.
Sean Pica, a fellow junior, said he’d do it for $1,000. By February of that year, Cheryl’s dad was dead - shot five times in the head and chest in his driveway.
Cheryl, Rob and Pica were soon arrested for James’ murder. It was at Cheryl’s first court hearing that her attorneys revealed her claims of repeated sexual abuse.
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When Pica said he’d serve as a hit man, Cheryl told him her secret and discussed the possibility of killing her dad. Although she insists she didn’t know Pica was going to go through with it, she says she and Rob pieced together $400 for him in partial payment.
In the end Pica, then 18, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Rob, then 20, pleaded guilty to criminal solicitation and was given probation. And Cheryl pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in jail - serving about three and a half months before she was released early for good behavior.
A Brand New Chapter’
On Jan. 19, 1998, when Cheryl walked free from the Suffolk County Jail, in Riverhead, New York, there were three people waiting for her: Rob, her brother, James Jr., and their friend Craig. They had a white stretch limo.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” she says. “The music was blaring. We popped open the sun roof.”
“There were still going to be many hard things that were going to happen to us,” she continues, “but it was still going to be one of the good days.”
That same night, Rob proposed to Cheryl and they soon began “the start of a brand new chapter.”
The couple waited three years after marrying to have their first child, Samantha, and three years after that they had Casey, another girl.
Cheryl made sure she worked jobs that would allow her to always be present in her daughters’ lives. She was there for every school play, dance recital and class trip.
“We were very protective of them,” she says. “I wasn’t going to let anyone hurt them. I’ve raised two beautiful, intelligent, caring and loving children, whom I’m very proud of.”
We Want to Save Other People’
As a family, they could get through everything, Cheryl says. But it was in 2012 that their strength was once again tested when Rob, then 45, went into cardiac arrest on Cheryl’s birthday.
Cheryl remembers pacing back and forth at the hospital, thinking she might lose him.
“I needed him to help me,” she says. “The doctors were asking me so many questions, and I had to make all of these decisions. I didn’t know what to do.”
Then a doctor told her that her husband had no pulse.
“I said, Absolutely no,’ ” Cheryl recalls. “There was no way he would die on me. He would never leave me. Not after everything we’ve been through.”
With Casey and Samantha, they all stayed by Rob’s side, praying for him to pull through and “cheering him on” - and his heart began to beat.
Looking back on the health scare, Rob says that he spent 30 years trying to build up Cheryl’s confidence and that this experience showed her she could stand up for herself when she told the doctors “no.”
“Rob saved me, then I saved him,” Cheryl says. “And now we want to save other people.”
Between the abuse she endured, her father’s killing and Rob’s near-death experience, Cheryl says she found the courage and the strength to write a book with her husband about their life. It was released last year and it’s called Incest, Murder and a Miracle: The True Story Behind the Cheryl Pierson Murder-for-Hire Headlines.
While Cheryl says her “emotional scars will never go away,” she wants to work with other sexual abuse survivors, trying to turn part of what happened with her dad “into something good.”
“That to me is almost a full circle,” Rob tells PEOPLE. “Going from that beaten-down, abused person to being this strong survivor that she is.”
“Cheryl’s meant to help people,” he adds. “She has already helped so many, but this is what she’s meant to do.
“She’s always been so caring. It’s like she doesn’t even have to try. I look up to her every day.”