"I ask the court to see that I'm able to go home and give these children the love they not only need but that they deserve."
-- Laura Rogers, Nov. 9, 2004, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court
On April 24, 2004, Laura Rogers aimed a 20-gauge shotgun one foot from the left eye of her sleeping husband. She had never fired a weapon, so she followed the instructions. The gun proved easier to load than she thought.
At 6 a.m., streetlights shone through their bedroom window on Walter Rogers. Laura hesitated, then didn't.
The shotgun worked.
Laura and Walter: They met at a Clint Black concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1992. Love at first sight, he told people. A charmer, she thought. They married and had a son. Laura's son and daughter from a previous marriage also lived with them. They moved around the South before finally settling in an apartment in an Anne Arundel County industrial park. Three years into the marriage, things had gone bad, then went beyond worse.
Laura's story is one of crime and punishment, fear and forgiveness. A wife kills her sadistic husband for sexually preying on her daughter. The daughter, who wears a ring that says "Mom," needs to see her stepfather's autopsy photographs. "Kind of gross. But then, I knew it. He really is dead," she says. A videotape, finally discovered, exposes the truth about Walter Rogers.
"He should have been awake when she put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger," says Laura's attorney, Clarke Ahlers of Columbia. "It was a homicide without a victim."
Six months after her release from jail in November, 36-year-old Laura Rogers sits in the garage of her boyfriend's rented house in Westminster. Bronzy from a tanning-bed stint, she has a smoke and plans a karaoke party for her daughter's 18th birthday this summer. She might even take her family to Ocean City. Birthday parties and vacations -- Laura can do things like that now.
"For the first time in 12 years, I feel free," she says. "It's scary, exciting, different, but I feel free."
"When we went in to clean the house," says Laura's father, Roy Robey, "I noticed the keyed deadbolt on the inside of her room."
In late April 2004, Laura and her children -- not identified because they are minors -- were gone from the squalid, three-bedroom apartment, which was attached to a scaffolding business in Annapolis Junction where Walter had worked as a laborer. Laura was in jail, and her children would be placed in her parents' custody in Mount Airy. His daughter would soon be indicted on first-degree murder charges and face life in prison.
"Not once was I sorry that she did it," Robey says. "A long time ago, Walter broke my daughter's spirit."
For the last six years of their nine-year marriage, Laura says she lived in terror. Walter was quick to anger, quick to threaten to kill her -- sometimes with a knife. After one minor disagreement, she recalls, he swung a baseball bat at her head but missed, hitting the refrigerator instead. He occasionally struck her, but more often chose to intimidate and demean her, she says. But if she left, where would she go? She had no money, no authority, no control. "Learned helplessness," as described by psychiatrists of battered spouses.
"I guess I got used to it," Laura says.
When the family moved to Annapolis Junction, Walter gave his stepdaughter the bedroom with the deadbolt. Behind her locked door, evidence would show, Rogers repeatedly raped her. She would say later that he had been abusing her since she was 7. He had videotaped the sexual abuse, then forced his stepdaughter to watch the videos. He threatened to hurt her if she told her mother or police.
She tried on at least two occasions to stop him. In Mississippi in 2000, she told authorities Rogers had molested her. But he convinced police and his wife that he was innocent and charges were dropped.
In May 2003 in Maryland, a friend of Laura's daughter contacted an official at the high school they attended. The girl told Anne Arundel County's Department of Social Services that her friend was being sexually abused by her stepfather. (Due to confidentiality laws involving juveniles, the Department of Social Services declined comment.)
Records show the friend also repeated to police something Laura's daughter had told her: "The suspect had also set up a video through the television to tape the incidents." According to attorney Ahlers, police apparently did not ask Laura or any other family member about possible videotapes, nor did they apply for a warrant to search for any.
"The detectives believed they didn't have enough evidence or information to obtain a search warrant for that item," says Sgt. Shawn Urbas of the Anne Arundel County Police Department. Walter's video would not be discovered for another year.
When police interviewed Laura's daughter about the sexual abuse allegations, Ahlers says she gave "a somewhat inconsistent statement" to authorities.
"She flat-out told police she was lying," Laura says. "She said she was trying to get him in trouble."
Ahlers and Laura maintain police still should have searched the home. Had they discovered the videotape in 2003, the sexual abuse would have ended, they say. Conceivably, Walter would have been arrested. There would have been no pregnancy, no murder, no jail.
Instead, Walter convincingly played the role of the falsely accused stepfather. He could sell gasoline to a burning gas station, his brother Robert says. Walter Rogers had again sold his wife on his innocence.
Her daughter would be convicted of filing a false police report.
"None of this," Laura says, "would have happened if I would have believed her."
By the spring of 2004, Walter had decided it was time for his family to move again, this time to North Carolina. He had no job lined up, no place to live. He just told Laura they were leaving. Typical Walter, she says.
At the time, his stepdaughter was seven months pregnant; he'd told her to say the father was a boy from school. He also continued to have sexual relations with her, which caused her to experience false labor.
While they were packing the day before the shooting, Laura's daughter told her mother she didn't want to move. She told her again that Walter was sexually abusing her. Laura told her she'd better be "convincing" this time. At 8:30 p.m., her daughter offered proof.
While Walter was outside, she told Laura where to find his videotape, hidden in an armoire behind his Playboy magazines. Laura slipped the tape into a VCR and watched for maybe a minute. She saw her daughter's face on the video. She saw Walter having intercourse with her visibly pregnant daughter. Never again, Laura decided.
Around 6 the next morning, she steadied the shotgun on a night table near Walter's head. Squatting near him, she looked at his face. She hesitated. "This isn't me," she recalls thinking. But her daughter was on the videotape. For years, she had not believed her, had not protected her.
"It was like the dawn of time. The world cracking open in front of her -- the cracking of her denial," says Dr. Christiane Tellefsen, a psychiatrist who evaluated Laura. "There was immense denial, guilt, anger and regret."
Laura pulled the trigger. She called police to say she had heard a shot, then told them her husband had committed suicide. For most of two days, that was her story. Roy Robey heard the news from his other daughter. "No tears shed," he says.
But on April 25, "forensic evidence from the autopsy and evidence recovered at the scene deemed Walter Rogers' death suspicious," records say.
Laura's daughter tried to confess to his murder. But she had never held a gun before and couldn't manage a decent lie. Her mother asked her why she would risk prison for her. "Because the boys need you," her daughter said.
On April 26, Laura Rogers confessed to killing her husband. Walter Rogers was 43. The state charged her with first-degree murder and sought a punishment of life in prison without parole. If convicted, she would never live with her children again. Meanwhile, the state "maintained [Walter] Rogers' blood for DNA paternity testing." Laura's family contacted attorney Ahlers.
He would build a defense for Laura based on "battered spouse syndrome," on the paternity of her daughter's child -- and on a 40-minute videotape that revealed the serial rapes of the teenage girl.
Laura Ann Rogers wears makeup and jeans these days -- for a change. Walter had never let her wear either, she says. He told her no other man would ever want her, and she came to believe him.
Raised in rural Woodbine, tomboyish Laura was a country girl. The middle child of Roy and Kathy Robey, Laura was more comfortable playing outside amid the cows, pigs and dogs on the homestead. She married right out of high school in 1986. "Young and dumb," she says. She left her first husband after two years -- and two children -- and moved back with her parents.
Throughout her adult life, Laura has never lived on her own. "She needs to figure out how to be responsible for herself," says Dr. Tellefsen. "She doesn't need to be half of someone else."
Through a mutual friend, Laura met Walter in 1992. At their wedding, Laura's daughter was the flower girl. Laura came to discover she had chosen a husband not unlike her first; both were abusive. Laura doesn't know why she had a pattern of marrying such men.
"That's what I'm working on in therapy."
Since her release from jail in November, Laura's life has been restricted in new ways. She's not sure if she can vote. She knows her probation means she can't leave the state without permission. And there were not many promising job opportunities for felons with three children and no special skills. Last December, Laura began working at a McDonald's restaurant in Howard County. She took a shift starting at 4:30 a.m. so she could get home to pick up her three children from school.
Her 15-year-old son works at a restaurant in Mount Airy, where at lunch one day in late winter she introduces her family. Her daughter has just been dropped off by her boyfriend. She's wearing a Navy sweat shirt he gave her. She's always been interested in the Navy, in the idea of big ships and exciting travel.
For years, they had all lived under Walter's thumb. He tightly controlled their private lives, isolating them from friends, often moving the family because he couldn't hold a job. Inside their homes, he would repeatedly sexually abuse her daughter. After his death, she would learn from her oldest son that Walter had abused him, too.
At the son's workplace, the family of four looks new at being at a restaurant, new at being a family. The night before, they'd been to the Moose Lodge in Westminster to sing karaoke. Laura sang "Mr. Sandman." Her daughter balked, so Laura waited until she went to the restroom, then signed her up. The girl stepped up and sang "Redneck Woman."
Karaoke night would become a new family ritual.
The older son says he's thinking about moving to Florida this summer to live with relatives. Her daughter wants to join the Navy. Just a few months after Laura regained her freedom, her two older children are talking about leaving. Soon it will be just the two of us, she says to her 11-year-old son, her youngest.
"No," she corrects herself, "it will always be the four of us."
Outside in the parking lot after dinner, the younger boy nails his sister in the back with a snowball. His sister returns fire. Laura finds herself in the center of things, laughing, as her children take turns ducking behind her for protection.
"Things are better," she says.
Even Christmas, just a month after her release, was better than she expected. Employees at the credit union where her mother works surprised the children with $50 each to buy Christmas gifts. The children themselves received hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards and presents from family and from strangers. As for Laura, the unexpected happened.
"I did meet a gentleman," she says.
They met at karaoke night at Memories Charcoal House in Mount Airy. They went out to dinner. He heard her story. He met her children. He held her hand. "I had butterflies," she says. He's 54 and has grown children. Her children have teased her about the age difference.
She says she wants to take things slowly. "I'm scared," she says, "scared that they all are going to be like Walter." Her children had told her they must approve of anyone she dates. They also say they have never seen her so happy. Apparently, another man does want Laura Rogers.
"I proved Walter wrong," she says.
Walter Gray Rogers Jr. grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he was raised by a foster father. The oldest of four children, he was, by one family account, an angry and abusive young man.
"He would beat me and our younger sisters," says his younger brother, Robert Rogers. "Did he sexually molest me? I'm not going to comment on that -- and I think that answers your question."
As adults, the brothers were estranged. But once, in 1995, Walter's family visited Robert in North Carolina. During the visit, Robert says, Walter verbally abused Laura's children and made his 13-year-old stepdaughter sit in his lap and hold his hand. While Walter was out, one of the boys asked "Uncle Bobby" if he could come live with him. He decided to confront his brother.
"What you are doing is destroying minds," he told him, and threatened to have him arrested. Walter dared him, then abruptly took his family and left. Robert never called the police. "I didn't want to cause Laura any trouble," he says. "After they left, I sat down in my living room and cried."
Laura was his brother's third wife; Robert had met all the women he had married. "If you want to control someone, you pick the weaker ones in society," he says of them. In 1987, Walter spent six months in a North Carolina jail for assaulting his first wife, Teena Wall.
"When I found out he had been killed, that's the first night I slept very good in 17 years," says Wall, 46, of Walkertown, N.C. The two were married for nine years and had three children together. But after years of physical and verbal abuse, she divorced Rogers in 1988. Among other injuries, he had knocked her front tooth out.
"If I'd had a gun that night," Wall says, "I would have killed him."
"Walter," Clarke Ahlers says, "underestimated his wife."
He might also have outsmarted himself, the attorney says.
With his felony conviction for assault, Walter could not legally purchase a gun. Laura says he told her to buy a shotgun, saying he wanted it for protection in their neighborhood. Ahlers has another theory: Walter might have been plotting to kill Laura and her daughter before she could give birth to his child.
The day before shooting her husband, Laura purchased a shotgun at a Wal-Mart near their home.
"Laura had bought his possible murder weapon," Ahlers says, "but this was the weapon used by her to kill him."
A month after Walter's death, Laura's daughter gave birth to a blue-eyed boy. She named him Shawn before giving him up for adoption. The state's paternity test confirmed that Shawn's father was Walter Rogers. Once convicted of filing a false police report, his stepdaughter was vindicated.
"I thought she was the real victim in this whole thing," says Laura Kiessling, the Anne Arundel County assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Laura and then agreed to the reduced plea of manslaughter.
Kiessling, Ahlers and other court officials viewed the videotape Walter had made. The judge in the case, Circuit Court Judge Paul Hackner, did not, instead saying he was comfortable with the assessment of those who had, Kiessling says. In suspending Laura's 10-year sentence for manslaughter, Hackner said he was convinced she had suffered from battered wife syndrome, as diagnosed by Tellefsen.
"We came to the right conclusion," Kiessling says.
At the Nov. 9, 2004 hearing, Laura was set free after being held for 198 days in jail. No one in court objected to her release. With no previous criminal record, Laura Rogers was now a convicted felon. But she was going home to "give these children the love they not only need but that they deserve," she told the court.
Laura's daughter heard about her release on her grandparents' answering machine. "Your mother is coming home tonight," Roy Robey said into the machine. But it was hard to make out what he was saying, she remembers. Her grandfather was crying.
After her release, Laura joined her children at her aunt's property in Mount Airy, where Laura's parents had temporarily parked their 36-foot recreational vehicle. Laura and her daughter shared a bed in the RV; they were cramped but safe. By spring, though, she knew they couldn't stay much longer. Her parents had their own lives, and had plans to move to Texas. Laura talked it over with her boyfriend -- he asked not to be identified for this story -- and they agreed that she and the children would move in with him.
She found herself falling in love again. "I think I've finally broke the chain of bad men," Laura says. "He's been wonderful."
Things, though, were not always wonderful with her daughter. The anniversaries of Walter's death and Shawn's birth were painful milestones. You don't know what it feels like to lose your child, the girl told her mother. True, Laura replied, but I lost my kids for six months and never thought I'd spend another holiday with you.
In other moments, Laura was overcome with gratitude. After a church service on Easter Sunday, she stepped out into the churchyard and wept. "You know," she said, "you take a person who was told she was facing life in prison, then give them all this happiness and these three great kids. It just doesn't feel real."
What was real, still, was the death of her husband.
"Did he deserve to die? That's a tough word," Laura says. "To pay for what he did, he had to die."
Does every life have value?
Has she forgiven herself for killing him?
"Not to this day."
Still, Laura hopes her story will help other mothers and children. "Or if I could scare the Walters of the world."
She has kept his tool chest but has shredded her pictures of him. One permanent memento remained, however. With money from her tax refund this year, Laura had a butterfly tattooed over his name on her right shoulder; it hurt, but she didn't shed a tear.
Laura wants to lose some weight and find a better job. She's learning, the hard way, to drive her boyfriend's motorcycle; a recent spill landed her in the emergency room. And, as always, she is spending as much time as she can with her children.
Her youngest son, 11, is finally talking about his father. "He hates Walter," Laura says. She sometimes worries about the boy's temper and his behavior. He was suspended for bringing Playboy pictures to school, earning a lecture from his mother about appropriate conduct.
Her older son is not moving to Florida, after all. He, too, had been sexually abused by Walter. As with his stepdaughter, Walter would tell him to "choose the time" and then molest him, attorney Ahlers says. "It was so unspeakably horrible," he says. "The man was a sociopath."
Laura's daughter, meanwhile, has been spending a lot of time with her boyfriend, her mother says. Maybe too much time. Kids need rules, she says. One day, her daughter's high school called. She had used a safety pin to cut lines into her forearm.
"Will she ever be able to cope?" Laura wonders.
At a neighborhood Friendly's in May, the 17-year-old girl excavates a massive sundae. Her boyfriend's high school ring hangs on a chain around her neck. She likes talking about him. She is quick to laugh, maybe too quick. She shows the self-inflicted scars on her arm. "When I cut myself," she says, "I don't feel anything."
She has changed therapists. She likes the new one, but doesn't like it when she pushes her to talk in detail about the sexual abuse. "Would you?" she asks. But she has learned from her therapist. "All my life I had to -- what does she call it? -- separate." That is, disassociate herself from her emotions. She had learned to shut down when Walter forced himself on her.
"I still feel guilty," she says. "I should have killed him."
She does have moments of peace: swimming in a creek near their home with her brothers; listening to songs by Gretchen Wilson or Alan Jackson; watching the Legally Blonde movies; getting new pictures of Shawn from his adoptive parents; hanging out with her boyfriend, who, as her mother says, treats her right.
She occasionally visits Shawn and his parents. Her scrapbook, titled "A Child's Love and a Mother's Love," holds Shawn's sonograms, his hospital ID bracelet, and pages of photographs. In June, she wrote him a letter:
How I wish that I could be there with you to watch you grow up. Be there for your first words you say, your first steps you take, your first day of school and the first dance you go to.
With me being only sixteen I could never be able to support you and give you what you needed, so I am letting someone else do it for me ...
Understand why I did it, and that it was very hard to let you go ...
I love you.
Forgive me for putting you in another family...
Uncle Bobby is caught in Beltway traffic. Laura and her daughter are waiting for him in the lobby of the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor. It's early summer, and they haven't seen Walter's brother in three years.
Laura has left her job at McDonald's and enrolled in cosmetology school. It's a practical and symbolic move; she is planning her future. "I have options," she says. "I won't let myself be dependent on a man again." If she completes the year-long program, she will be licensed to do hair, nails and makeup.
"I can do your nails," she tells her daughter, who returned from their recent Ocean City vacation with her hair done in cornrows. She has brought her Shawn scrapbook to show her uncle.
Finally, a tan and fit Robert Rogers comes into the lobby. Less weight and hair on him, they both notice. The three of them take a seat in the restaurant. He orders a beer, salts it, and looks at pictures of his niece's son.
"Your nephew, I should say," Laura says. "Do you see the resemblance to Walter?"
"No," Robert says.
Laura insists it's there.
More pictures. Silence. The subject is changed.
"It's so good to see you all," Robert says.
When his niece leaves the restaurant for a smoke, Robert tells Laura: "I feel numb. I don't want to see the resemblance. I don't want the child growing up looking like him."
Laura's daughter returns. She had forgotten the sound of a Southern accent, and smiles when Uncle Bobby talks. He tells her that her cornrows are cute. They begin to talk more easily, to open up. He tells them about a recurring dream he's had about Walter, who never says anything in the dream, never atones for his crimes. Robert talks about getting therapy.
"I don't need therapy anymore," Laura's daughter says.
"Honey," her mother says, "you need it for a while."
Robert says he thinks about their visit in 1995, says he wishes he had called the police on his brother. Then none of this would have happened, he says. No, Laura says, reaching for his hand. You weren't to blame, she tells him.
"If I would have only believed her," Laura says.
Online: To view a gallery of photos from this story or to listen to a podcast of reporter Rob Hiaasen discussing this story, go online to baltimoresun.com / rogers.