Note: This article contains graphic content.

Although it happened over 40 years ago, Stephanie Freeman can still remember the first time her father raped her.

She was just 4-years-old, home alone in Pascagoula, Mississippi, with her father while her stepmother and stepsisters went to the grocery store, when:

Joseph Gable Wood Sr. shoved a sock in his young daughter’s mouth and violated her — the beginning of a vile, weekly ritual that would continue until she was 16 and resulted in the birth of one child.

As reported by The Times-Picayune, Freeman, now 46, remained quiet about her assault for decades before bravely stepping forward to testify against Wood. The 69-year-old was already a convicted sex offender and was being put away for life. When her father willingly pleaded guilty to “aggravated rape” on August 9, Freeman broke down:

“I lost it. I was just … I can’t even describe it. I couldn’t believe he accepted responsibility. This is a man that was an extreme master manipulator, and he’s never been willing to admit what he’s done.”

Screenshot/Florida Department of Law Enforcement

And now that she never has to face her father again, Freeman is speaking out in the hopes of inspiring other victims to come forward. She said:

“I want sexual abuse victims to know it’s never too late to report abuse. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Get it out.”

Although Wood was charged with 11 total counts of rape against Freeman, the father only agreed to plead guilty to one … the 1985 case wherein he “impregnated his daughter when she was 14.”

The baby girl, now 31, provided the court DNA as evidence, proving Wood’s guilt.

While Freeman was pregnant, Wood shipped her off to another state to live with relatives, telling others that her bulging belly was a result of her “being loose.” In reality, the only intercourse she’d had at the time was forced upon her.

When the baby was born, she was put up for adoption without discussion. Freeman recalled what her father told her the when she returned home:

“He told me I better not breathe a word. ‘You act like nothing has happened. You just went to visit family.'”

That wasn’t the only time her father threatened Freeman. On multiple occasions, he silenced her by saying if she reported the abuse, “she’d be responsible for the breakup of their family.”

Up until recently, she believed that no one knew what was going on behind closed doors. To her knowledge, Wood never touched any of her stepsiblings. Even if they could sense that something was off, if they noticed that Freeman was fed and treated differently, they knew better than to speak up. Freeman said:

“[D]ad used to beat us growing up, so we were petrified of him.”

At one point, a 12-year-old Freeman shared her secret with a relative, which resulted in her being removed from the home. However, the state allowed weekend visits, during which he intimidated Freeman into “recanting her story.” Freeman told The Times-Picayune that the state “failed to notice her pregnancy and her disappearance for nine months, despite being required to report monthly to court.”

While her social worker was extremely frustrated that she took back her confession, Freeman felt as though she had no choice.

At age 16, Freeman escaped her father by marrying. At first, she was relieved and surprised that he consented to this. It wasn’t until later that she realized:

“I was outside of his age of interest.”

Freeman is a “survivor, not a victim,” letting go of her past and becoming stronger because of it. She said:

“I treated [the assault] like you were to go to the library and read a horrible book. You read it and you take it back. You would never check that book back out again.”

Freeman has continued her life successfully, with a first marriage lasting 11 years, and her second going strong at five years. Her children know everything that happened to her growing up, and know “never to let anyone touch them inappropriately.”

Until 2013, Freeman lived blissfully, successfully working in management at numerous Wal-Mart stores, as well as in their corporate office for 16 years. But that November, she’d heard Wood had been arrested after being accused of molesting a teenage girl for multiple years.

Despite wanting to forget her past, Freeman knew she needed to speak out.

Therefore, after more than 30 years, detectives reopened Freeman’s case, wherein at least four other women came forward. Freeman was determined that her father would never touch another child. She said:

“This was not about me. This is about all of the people that he did this to, the potential people that he would have done this to.”

When her father walked into the courtroom, their eyes met. Freeman unflinchingly glared him down, refusing to break eye contact. She wanted to show him that she was no longer “that scared girl,” but “a woman.”

Wood never apologized to Freeman, but his lifelong prison sentence was enough for her. Judge Michael Clement of Plaquemines Parish District Court sentenced Wood to “life in prison without benefit of parole, probation or suspension of sentence.”

Jobs For Felons Hub/Flickr

Now that Wood is finally behind bars, Freeman can continue to live her life. She hopes to become a public speaker to help those struggling with similar abuse. She wants to inspire those who’ve been holding back to “seek justice.”

Freeman said, “I’m a survivor. I will scream it from the mountain if it will help one person.”

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