Regan Martin fixed her gaze on the video camera and took a deep breath.
She sat outside a strip mall in Matteson. Trucks sped by on the highway, as shop workers on break took drags from cigarettes.
Martin wished she was in the comfort of her living room. But six days earlier, on May 23, she had fled her Crete home.
Her ex-husband, John Samolis, 32, was released from prison that day after serving 19 months for brutally assaulting her. Now that he was out, Martin feared he would kill her.
She had been trying to escape him for two years. But, like so many women before her, Martin found that there is no witness protection program for victims of domestic violence. Disappearing is lonely, expensive and almost impossible.
She had tried to move out of state with their children, only to learn that abusers—even convicted felons—rarely lose visitation rights. If she left Illinois without permission, Martin would be considered a child abductor.
She changed her Social Security number, but that often carries a host of problems, too.
Increasingly desperate, Martin, 33, agreed when a victims' advocate suggested she make a video to serve as testimony if Samolis did take her life. That's what led her to the noisy, wind-blown parking lot of the mall.
The record button clicked, and Martin started to talk. Her story was long, complicated. As she recounted her harrowing experiences with Samolis, her face reddened with frustration.
"If they can't find me," she said, looking directly at the camera, "I guarantee it's because John has come after me."
♦ ♦ ♦
On Memorial Day weekend, 2006, Martin lay in bed at St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights. Bruises covered most of her body. Her wrists were bloody, her lower lip split and swollen.
Nurses had given her morphine and tended to her wounds. Now, a police officer hovered over her bed.
He wanted her to sign a complaint that would allow Will County to prosecute her husband for criminal sexual assault, aggravated domestic battery and unlawful restraint. Wincing in pain, Martin reached out her hand.
Seven years had passed since she met Samolis on the dance floor of a bar in Chicago Heights.
The night ended with him writing his name and phone number on one half of a dollar bill, her name on the other. He ripped the bill down the middle, slapped his half on Martin's hand and stuffed the part with her name in his pocket.
Six months later the two were married, the ripped bill taped back together and tucked behind a framed photo on the wall of their Steger home.
Though Samolis denies it, Martin said the abuse started while they were dating. After each blow or shove, she convinced herself that he was telling the truth when he promised never to do it again.
Then a 24-year-old college dropout, she was eager to provide her young daughter from a previous marriage, Deaven, with a family environment.
"I was ready to settle down," she said. "I wanted to make it work."
It wasn't until 2006—following the births of their sons, Johnny and Chase—that Martin started to assert herself. After years of being a stay-at-home mother, she enrolled in massage therapy school over Samolis' objections. The taste of independence emboldened her.
In May of that year, she gave him an ultimatum. Regan recalled telling Samolis that he had seven days to prove he could refrain from emotionally or physically abusing her and the boys. She wanted him to look into medication for his mood swings. Finally, she said, he would have to prove that he could control his need for sex, which was sometimes multiple times a day. If he did not comply, she would divorce him.
On the sixth night of the trial period, they returned home from a friend's wedding, where both drank heavily. Samolis began pressuring her to have sex.
"Chill out," Martin snapped at him, according a police report. She had made herself clear: No sexual relations until he got help controlling his anger.
"If you don't give it to me, I'll take it," Samolis replied, according to the report.
He threw Martin onto the bed and ripped off her underwear, the report stated: "She told him to stop, that it was rape. He stated that he was her husband and that he could do whatever he wants."
Binding her wrists behind her back with handcuffs from a bag of sex toys, he then beat and raped her, she told police.
When she later fled the house, it felt like a narrow escape.
"I could tell he was going to kill me," Martin recalled. "I could see it in his eyes."
Hours later in the hospital, that look in his eyes remained vivid. She put her pen to the police complaint.
Less than two months later, though, Martin made one of the most common mistakes a victim of domestic violence can make: She took Samolis back, dropped an order of protection against him and told the Will County state's attorney's office that she would not testify about the assault.
"It was devastating to see her take him back," said her sister, Rachel Martin, who lived next to their Monee home at the time. "He kept attacking her, but she wouldn't leave."
Soon after, Deaven's father—Regan's ex-husband—called with stunning news. He told her he had obtained an order of protection that would prohibit her and Samolis from having contact with Deaven.
He said he couldn't have her exposed to Samolis. The girl would live with him in Indiana as long as the order of protection was in effect.
Martin's hands shook as she hung up the phone.
She had to give up Deaven for two months.
The order of protection eventually was dismissed, but the experience convinced Martin that she had to escape from Samolis once and for all. "I realized I had put my children in the position of possibly being taken away," she said.
She kicked Samolis out of the house and kept reporting his harassment of her to police until he was arrested and jailed in October 2006. The court granted her a new order of protection. She told prosecutors she would, in fact, testify about the attack.
By the time Samolis pleaded guilty to aggravated domestic battery a couple of months later, Martin was preparing to flee.
The clock was ticking. He could be out of prison in 19 months. She expected that Samolis would challenge her efforts to remove their two boys from the state.
"Don't ever try and hold my family from me," he wrote her on Feb. 3, 2007, shortly after he entered prison. "I have rights as a father and a husband to see you all."
On the run
Wearing dark jeans and a crisply ironed shirt, Martin stepped onto a witness stand in the Will County courthouse in May 2008. A crease lined her forehead. Her lips trembled.
Samolis sat 20 feet away, in a yellow jumpsuit and shackles. He stared at her from across the cramped room.
At Martin's urging, the county was prosecuting Samolis for calling and writing to her in violation of the new order of protection.
But because the prosecutor had allowed the case to drag on for nearly a year, the bail hearing occurred the same day Samolis was scheduled to be released from prison.
Martin prayed that the bail would be high enough to keep him locked up. She did not want him back on the streets before a judge gave her permission to move out of Illinois with their children.
She planned to take the kids and stay with her mother out of state before moving to an undisclosed place.
For now, Martin and the children were staying at her brother's house in Crete, while she struggled through one legal obstacle after another. There was no one place for her to turn, no person who could walk her through all the necessary steps. With every victory, she encountered a new challenge.
First, she had to divorce Samolis and secure sole custody of their sons. That took more than eight months, she said, and cost nearly $10,000.
With the family's main breadwinner behind bars and credit-card debt mounting, Martin didn't make the mortgage payments on their home in Monee. As part of their divorce, the court split the money from the sale of the house, but Martin's share wasn't enough to wipe out her debt.
She got new Social Security numbers for her and her sons in April of this year under a federal program begun a decade ago to help victims of domestic violence escape their abusers. But without records of their past, many victims have been unable to get housing, land a job, start a new life. Even if they succeed, advances in computer technology have made it easier for abusers to track them down.
Martin hesitated to use the new numbers until the move to her mother's. And who knew when that would be?
Samolis had not yet responded to Martin's petition to allow her to move their sons out of Illinois. She suspected he would put up a fight, especially if he were released from prison.
Rising from his seat in the courtroom, Samolis' attorney, Jeff Aprati, walked toward Martin. An imposing man, he began to question her. Slowly at first, then rapidly.
If she felt so threatened by Samolis, he asked, why did she reunite with him the summer after the attack?
Aprati's booming voice made the courtroom go still.
Martin tried to explain that she felt alone and unprotected by the law, but Aprati cut her off. He shook his finger in her face, called her a liar.
Steven Platek, a Will County prosecutor, tried to object, but seemed tongue-tied.
"He's not a threat," Aprati said of Samolis, his voice rising. "He's supposed to get out today. . . . He needs to get out there and work."
In the end, the judge ruled that Samolis would have to come up with $3,500 for bail instead of the $6,000 the prosecution initially sought.
Back out in the hallway, Platek delivered the news: Within four hours, Samolis would be out of prison.
Martin broke into tears and sprinted for her car. She sped to her brother's house, leaving the vehicle running as she frantically filled the back seat with boxes of her belongings.
She had sent Johnny and Chase to stay with her mother earlier in the week under the guise of a vacation. Then she packed Deaven off to the girl's father's family in Indiana.
Now, she had to find a place to stay, somewhere Samolis couldn't find her.
She climbed behind the wheel and peeled out of the driveway. "I've got to get out of here."
Ties that bind
Two months later, in mid-July, Martin won an unexpected victory.
Many victims of domestic violence who share children with an abuser are not permitted to leave the state. Judges are unwilling to strip abusers of regular visits with their children, no matter how much the abuser has attacked their mother.
But Will County Circuit Court Judge Robert Brumund ruled that Martin could move out of Illinois with her sons, saying she had sufficient reason to fear bodily harm at the hands of Samolis if she stayed.
Martin remained scared even though the state Department of Corrections had placed Samolis on GPS monitoring—he was required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet—as part of his two-year parole. She had quit her job as a massage therapist and was staying with a friend in an undisclosed location to prevent Samolis from finding her.
"I'm going to grant the removal," Brumund said, explaining the move would "enhance her life and hopefully the lives of the children."
Sitting in the courtroom, Martin exhaled. Finally, the turning point she had been waiting for. All three of her children were at her mother'splace. Now she could join them and begin planning the next step: disappearing.
But just as Martin allowed herself to smile, the judge delivered a follow-up condition.
"Do you have a cell phone number?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Martin, fear returning to her face.
The judge said he would modify her order of protection against Samolis to allow him to phone his sons several times a week and occasionally visit them in a supervised setting in Illinois. To make that happen, Martin had to provide Samolis with her new out-of-state address and phone number.
"Add that right now," he told the courtroom.
The next day, Martin was getting ready to go out to dinner with a friend when she checked her voice mail.
It was John. He wanted her to call him back. He wanted to talk about the kids.
She did, as the court required. They spoke at length about the children's lives during the time he was in prison.
Then came a second message. And a third. And a fourth. In all, she said Samolis called her nearly 30 times and sent 15 text messages over the next five days.
He told Martin he had changed, that he wanted her back. If she moved to another state, he said, he would move there, too, after getting off parole.
"I sure miss u and regret everyday without u. I miss what we have together. Don't be so cold . . . How bout dinner or ?" one text message read.
She was devastated. Through tears, in a later interview, she said, "I feel like I'm back at square one."
The circumstances were familiar, but Martin had changed. She didn't take Samolis back. She called the police, and he was locked up again for violating the order of protection by sending the text messages and making phone calls to her.
He remained in jail until mid-August, when he returned to court to face earlier charges of violating the order. This time, dressed in a blue jail uniform, Samolis pleaded guilty.
The judge told him to return to jail until his sentencing hearing Nov. 17. He faces up to 6 years in prison.
But as Martin's family attorney, Dorothy Styx, explained, the sentence would not allow Martin to completely sever contact with Samolis.
"Whenever John gets out, a judge will grant him the right to see his boys again, and Regan will have to provide him with a phone number and address of where they can be reached," Styx said. "It's a travesty of the system."
As Martin packed her bags to rejoin her children, she could glimpse a sliver of freedom. But once again she was forced to wonder: Will she ever truly escape?
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