Peggy Hanley thought, when she married James Schneider (nicknamed Wax) in 1989, that things would work out better than they had in her first marriage. But Wax’s troubles with drugs and money began piling up, as well as difficulties between the couple, and on the 15th of July 1996, Peggy talked to a lawyer about a divorce.
The lawyer suggested that she get a restraining order against her angry, violent husband as soon as possible. Peggy didn’t know (how could she, nobody ever told her) that women who leave violent men are at sharply increased risk during the breakup, and that a restraining order can sometimes trigger a rage in a man who suddenly realizes that his world is about to change because he can’t completely control “his woman” any more.
Peggy got the restraining order on the afternoon of July 16, a Tuesday. She went home that evening, and, called the Woburn, Mass Police Dept. at 10:30 pm to be sure that her husband had been served with the papers. Upon getting that confirmation, she phoned a girlfriend to talk for a while, and finally felt ready, at around 1 am, to get some sleep.
Peggy was a young-looking 47 year old woman with straight long blonde hair that she wore pulled back from her face. She was short, buxom, voluble, and vivacious, with a lot of strength in her 150 lb body from swimming and other exercise. She had worked at a variety of jobs, including home health aide.
It was a hot summer evening at her home in North Reading, Massachusetts. Open windows and fans did little to make the muggy atmosphere bearable. In her second floor bedroom, Peggy slept on her queen-sized bed in the nude, on her back with a sheet draped up to her waist, surrounded by pillows and a sense of security. “I honestly and truly felt that I was finally safe for one night,” Peggy said in her sworn statement about that night. “I actually turned out to be almost DEAD wrong.”
In the middle of the night, she became aware that the lights in the bedroom had been turned on. Peggy opened her eyes to see her husband standing in the room with one hand on the light switch. He came toward his startled wife yelling, “I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you with the screwdriver!”
Peggy says that at this moment “I was telling myself how this most definitely wasn’t a dream; that this was definitely happening, and that ‘kill’ was not only in his face and in his eyes, but also in the air . . . ‘KILL’ filled up the whole bedroom instantly. I was telling myself, ‘You’re going to die. He’s going to kill you. You’re dead!’ while the other voice inside of my mind kept on saying ‘This isn’t how you’re supposed to die. You’re not supposed to die like this. You’re not supposed to die!’ From the very beginning, I immediately kept on saying ‘Please, Dear Lord, please Saint Jude, please everyone up there help me, and please give me the strength I will need to save myself.'”
Shouting that he was going to kill her, Wax jumped on top of Peggy with his legs straddled against her chest, pinning her arms, with his body weight (about 160 pounds) pressed down on her neck and face.
That’s when she saw the roll of 2″ clear plastic tape in his other hand. He unrolled a strip, and began to tape her mouth.
Peggy, as you will see, is nothing if not a fighter. She managed to wiggle enough so that his weight moved off her neck onto her chest, and yanked her left arm free from under him. Desperately, she reached for the phone on the nightstand. Predictably, Wax ripped the phone wires free and tossed the phone on the floor.
“This is when I knew that I was really in trouble . . . now my possible connection with the police had been cut off. I knew now that it was just he and I to the bitter end. No one else in this world knew what was happening to me, so help would not be able to come to me.”
Her efforts had turned Wax’s attention away from trying to tape her mouth. Instead, he started taping her hands together, while still yelling, “I’m gong to kill you! I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you with the screwdriver!”
He continued that killing chant while he began to suffocate Peggy with a bed pillow. She ripped her hands free of the tape and evaded the pillow. Again he managed to tape her hands, and again she broke free before he could suffocate her. A third time he got tape around her hands, and again she managed to struggle into a semi-sitting position, but before she could get the tape off again, he started slamming the back of her head into the oak headboard.
The desperate struggle continued. At one point, Peggy felt Wax’s right hand around her throat, with his thumb pressing dangerously hard. Again, her fierce struggles caused him to lose his grip.
The fight went on and on and on. When he wasn’t smashing her against the headboard, he was grabbing her left breast and twisting it viciously, as if he was trying to tear it off her chest. When he wasn’t twisting her breast, he was trying to choke her or smother her. And all the time he kept repeating “I’m gong to kill you! I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you with the screwdriver!”
Peggy discovered that she could move his body weight in small increments. Like an inch worm, she slowly moved both of them from the side of the big bed where she had been sleeping to the other side, near the wall where a window was open.
“I knew that I most definitely needed air. My goal was not to be killed. My goal was to get free from him. My goal was to be able to breathe fresh air once again. My goal was to live! My goal was to get to the window and scream for help, and, if need be, my goal was to dive out of our second floor window!”
How long did the fight go on? Peggy thinks it was 30 to 45 minutes. People undergoing traumatic experiences typically experience time distortion, usually time seems to slow down, so it is impossible to know for sure.
At one point he suddenly said “Lay still! Be quiet! Let’s talk.” but Peggy thought he was just trying to catch his breath and regroup for the kill, so she continued to fight for her life.
Finally, her inch-worming technique brought them to the edge of the bed, and she managed to push both of them off the bed together. Peggy was entangled in sheets, squashed against the nightstand, and still partially pinned under his weight, but she managed to move toward the wall. But at what cost? Still shouting his killing chant, Wax tried to wedge her into the small area between the nightstand and the wall. Peggy’s neck and shoulder were forced into positions nature never intended. Her right wrist fractured.
Still, she kept the window as her goal. Somehow, she was able to twist around and, despite his weight, she reached up with her left hand for the window sill. Immediately, he grabbed her arm away, and smashed her to the floor. “You can just imagine my utter disappointment and complete dismay, in being prevented from escaping from him. My only consolation was that I could feel some air finally blowing on part of my exposed face and body! I knew that even though I was so close to escaping, but yet so far away, that I would have to just continually try and try and try again until I would hopefully succeed!”
Again, this brave woman, fueled with the strength of the adrenaline coursing through her body, managed to drag herself, and Wax, up to the window. She screamed for the police, but nobody heard, and again he overpowered her and dragged her away from the window. He grabbed a piece of thin leather strapping, rather like a bootlace, that was hanging on a chest of drawers, and tried to tie her left wrist to the oak ball that ornamented the footboard of the bed. Peggy was able to break free once, but he soon bound her wrist more firmly with the leather, and continued his efforts to savage her breast and to tape her mouth shut.
When a couple of his fingers got into her mouth along with the tape, she bit down hard to try to bit them off. That’s when he started punching her repeatedly all over her head and face, and ribs, and abdomen. Peggy let go of his fingers and made her third attempt at the window, desperately twisting and yanking to try to get her left arm free of the leather binding.
When the leather miraculously let go, the momentum impelled her toward the window. She achieved an awkward standing position, and dived head first through the screen!!
As her legs came off the floor, Wax managed to grab her ankles before she was completely out the window. He held her virtually upside down, but was unable to pull her back in. She twisted her left ankle free and placed her left foot flat against the outside wall of the house. “I propelled off the front…, just as if I were pushing off underwater from the side of an indoor swimming pool. He had no other choice but to release the hold he had of my right ankle, as I propelled my body, head first, through the air and down to the bricks two stories below! ”
“This was the most perfect high rise racing dive I’ve ever done in my whole life!”
Her dive caused Peggy to slam into the bricks at an angle, and that may have helped save her life. She heard the crack that her forehead made when it hit the bricks, and she knew she was badly hurt, but she also knew that she was alive and she could still move, so she pushed herself into a kneeling, then a standing position, and raced to the nearest house, across the street.
Fortunately, those neighbors were home, and opened their door to the naked, distraught, bloody woman pounding on their doorbell and screaming “He’s coming! He’s coming to get me. He’s going to kill me!”
The Medical Aftermath
At Winchester Hospital, where Peggy was taken, she met Dr. Michele Crage, the attending physician who was to become her doctor. Several years after the event, Dr. Crage admits that “What I saw left me profoundly shocked and disturbed for a long time”. She saw an attractive young woman who had sustained a lot of damage “obviously inflicted by someone.”
She described Peggy’s broken forearm, abrasions on her wrist that looked like they came from rope, the bite on her breast, lots of bruising, the laceration on her forehead, and massive blunt trauma. To the doctor, “It looked like he targeted areas that would make her feel most wounded and vulnerable – her breasts and face.” Peggy was admitted to the hospital where she stayed for several days, but injuries like hers take years to heal, if ever.
The scar on her forehead is permanent. Dr. Crage referred her to a plastic surgeon, who said that nothing can be done. It took “a long, long time” for the deep breast bruises to resolve. Neck and upper back pain persisted for many, many months. Peggy’s feet, which slammed into the bricks hard enough to be severely damaged, required multiple operations to restore to near normalcy.
Sleep became a major problem. Sleep disturbance, including fearing to go to sleep, is very common after almost any traumatic incident, but a being attacked while asleep in bed made for a particularly difficult recovery. Beds, pillows and sheets all frightened her, because she associated them with her horrible experience.
The Social and Emotional Aftermath
In the hospital, Peggy met Ann Foley, her first Victim Witness Advocate from the District Attorney’s office. Ann, who deals frequently with abused spouses, says that Peggy’s case was “extreme”. In the hospital, she had scrapes, cuts, and gouges all over, with deep bruising under the skin of her arms all the way up to her elbow. “I particularly remember the deep mark on her hand from the leather he used to bind her,” Ann recalled.
Ann helped Peggy get through the immediate aftermath, and to deal with the court system and various agencies that might help her. “It was very difficult for Peggy,” Ann says, because her nearest relatives (a grown son and daughter from her first marriage) were far away in Pennsylvania, and Wax’s family was very persistent in causing her anxiety and expense. It can’t be proved that his family repeatedly superglued her locks, forcing her to make expensive repairs, but who else would have done it?
Once discharged from the hospital, Peggy looked for a shelter to go to so she could begin to figure out what to do next. She looked and looked and looked, making nearly a hundred phone calls over a period of many days. It turns out that in her state, shelters are extremely crowded and women with children are always given preference, so a woman without small children has virtually no chance of finding an opening.
So, she went back to her home where it all happened, until she was eventually forced to leave by Wax’s family. No shelter, no money, no lawyer. Peggy Hanly Schneider was about to find out that her fight wasn’t over, merely changed in character.
The Legal Aftermath
Wax was quickly arrested. The prosecutor, David Losier, brought 6 serious charges against him: attempted murder by strangulation, kidnapping (for tying her to the bedpost), violating the restraining order, breaking and entering in the night with intent to commit a felony by assault, assault and battery, and finally assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (the tape or leather tie).
Losier, too, had visited Peggy in the hospital and had seen the extent of her injuries. At the trial, he did his best to convince the jury that this was not just an angry husband trying merely to frighten his wife, but an out-of-control man who had truly been trying to kill her.
Wax’s defense was to deny that he had anything to do with Peggy’s condition. He claimed that she inflicted the injuries on herself in an attempt to frame him. (“Ludicrous!” said Dr. Crage, “No woman could do that to herself!”)
Dr. Crage says, “I remember in court they showed the textured bootlaces he used to tie her up. I remember how it was a jolt to see them, so obviously a match to the marks I saw on her arm. It sent a shiver up my spine!”
The ways of juries are sometimes mysterious. This jury found Wax guilty of three counts (assault and battery, violating the restraining order, and kidnapping) and not guilty on the others, including attempted murder.
Losier was glad that the jury realized that Wax, not someone else or Peggy herself, inflicted those injuries, but was not willing to speculate on why the attempted murder charge failed, except that some jury members might have thought “If he had _really_ wanted to kill her, he would have.”
So, if Wax had used a knife or a gun, it might have been easier for the jury to understand that he was trying to kill her? If Peggy hadn’t been so strong and so determined to fight, and if Wax _had_ killed her, then the jury would probably have found him guilty of murder. But since she had the courage and good fortune to escape, that proves that she wasn’t really in mortal danger??? It doesn’t make sense to me, but that was the verdict. Wax was sentenced to prison, and the countdown to his release began.
Now for the kicker. Wax may be out on parole soon. That’s right; by the time you read this, he may have come after her again.
Peggy has been dealing with her situation in a variety of ways, including getting a firearms license and taking self-defense training from Massad Ayoob, Michael DeBethencourt, and AWARE. She calls these folks her “earthly angels” for helping her. She has purchased a Smith&Wesson 640 .38 Special revolver; it is never far from her hand.
A psychologist that she visited briefly to help her deal with the traumatic aftermath told her “Don’t ever let your guard down. Look over your shoulder constantly, or it will be all over.” She takes this advice to heart.
The conclusion to this story has not been determined yet. By the time you get this magazine, either Wax will be out on parole, or his normal release date will be rapidly approaching. Will he continue to come after Peggy? Will she be able to keep him from finding out where she is? This time, she won’t count on a restraining order to have any effect on him.
Even if he doesn’t come after her as soon as he is released, that doesn’t mean that she is safe forever. The gun she never thought she would own is probably going to be her companion for the rest of her life. Never have I seen a better argument for a woman having a gun for self-protection.
Peggy still has trouble sleeping, trouble trusting people, much pain, and many physical difficulties that are remnants of her ordeal. “I go on a wing and a prayer,” she says, “but sometimes, the wings get tired.”