As I sit on the floor and look up at our office wall I think, "I'm definitely gonna have to paint this before we move."
This is the third installment of Small Towns, Big Secrets. If you're asking yourself what in the world that means, click on my name to the right and it will bring you to the preceding articles. The central theme of the series is raising awareness about domestic violence in rural communities narrated through the experiences of Mae Matthews and Lynn Mitchell.
My wall has morphed into a timeline and storyboard. Details of Mae's and Lynn's cases are written in colored Sharpie and tacked up next to articles highlighting Cody Smith's abuse. Post-it notes with ideas and leads are scattered throughout.
When I started this investigation, I truly had no idea where it was going to go. All I knew was that Mae had endured an exceptional amount of hurt, and I wanted to share her story with anyone that I could. She introduced me to Lynn who shared eerily similar accounts of abuse by Cody.
But the story doesn't end with Mae and Lynn. There is a critical domestic violence issue happening in small towns across this country, and it's not being talked about. One study found that 22.9 percent of women in small rural areas reported being victims of IPV, intimate partner violence, compared to 15.5 percent of women in urban areas. The study also found that women living in rural communities reported significantly higher severity of physical abuse than women living in urban areas.
I take pride in being from a small town, but I refuse to sit back and watch that percentage rise and have our girls grow up thinking abuse is an accepted part of life.
It is a cycle, and the cycle needs to be broken.
My previous article detailed two incidents where Mae and Lynn's abuser, Cody Smith, was arrested. The second of which, left Mae with bald spots after he dragged her by the hair across the street and into their second-story apartment.
In between that incident and the next reported case, there was a 2-year break in news coverage of Cody's abuse.
His abuse didn't stop. He just got better at hiding it.
Cody and Mae had a hard relationship from the start. He had a wandering eye, he never could hold a steady job, and two months into their relationship Mae found out she was pregnant. Cody was ecstatic. He couldn't wait to be a Dad, marry her, and live happily ever after.
It was shortly after finding out they were pregnant, that Cody began to get violent. They had always fought, but insults and verbal abuse quickly turned physical. It started as punching his steering wheel or slamming on the brakes when the two would fight and progressed to punching, kicking, spitting, and choking Mae.
One night, when Mae was about three months pregnant, the two began fighting. She doesn't remember what it was about. But, what she does remember is being shoved in the bathtub with Cody holding her down and covering her face with a pillow as she gasped for breath. She can picture the rage filling his face as he drew his hand back to repeatedly strike her. Mae believed she was going to die. When his anger subsided, he broke down in tears, weeping at her feet, begging her forgiveness.
He didn't know what came over him. It would never happen again.
About a month later it was time to find out the baby's gender. Mae was so excited and had a feeling it was going to be a baby girl. Shortly after the sonogram wand was pressed against her belly, the technician left to find their doctor. They were told that their daughter Abigail had a severe form of spina bifida, her skull was not forming. The doctors informed Mae that she was the only thing keeping the baby alive and recommended the termination of her pregnancy. She was devastated, he was outraged.
Making a decision that no woman should ever have to face, Mae had an induced miscarriage.
After consulting her doctor following her escape from Cody's abuse, they came to the conclusion that it was very likely Abigail's birth defect was from the systematic beatings and stress that Cody inflicted on Mae as the genetic testing performed on her remains revealed there was nothing wrong with the combination of their genes.
Following the loss of Abigail, the two traveled down a darker path. They were fighting constantly, police would be called and bruises were explained away. One terrifying day, Cody brought Mae to an empty field and explained that he just couldn't do it anymore. She made him too crazy, he loved her too much, and she just had to go. He began to take out construction equipment out of the back of his truck. She pleaded for her life and begged him to think about what he was doing. He eventually relented, her life was spared and he promised he would change.
Mae and Cody broke up for a time shortly after this incident but eventually rekindled their relationship where the abuse continued.
It wasn't until their son, Giovanni, was born that Mae found the strength to leave.
Giovanni was born prematurely. Cody was unemployed, and she was working nearly 50 hours a week to keep them afloat. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy, but due to the prematurity of his birth, he was immediately transferred to a bigger hospital. Giovanni was in intensive care for three weeks. During that time, Cody made sure to appear to the doctors and nurses as the perfect doting dad. He explained that he took time off work to be able to stay and be with Mae and Giovanni in the hospital. He failed to mention that he had been unemployed for months. When it was just the three of them, he would unleash a steady stream of insults at her. Calling her a wh*re, a devil, a c**t. Mae ignored the verbal abuse and remained completely focused on her child.
When Giovanni was released from the hospital, Cody became more and more irrational. He was never home, was always out with his brother and friends. Mae's maternity leave was the only source of income the two had, but he wouldn't allow her to leave the house to get groceries or do laundry. After being home for two weeks, Mae confided in her mother that they didn't have any food. That he told her to eat some cream of wheat and suck it up. Her mother brought over groceries and took their laundry home to do. That night is when everything changed.
Cody came home late and was visibly angry, which was a usual occurrence. He started screaming and yelling at Mae. Calling her the usual names, wielding the usual accusations. But then, he picked up Giovanni - the 5-week old premie who had been released from the NICU two weeks earlier - and told her he was leaving and was taking Giovanni with him. He continued to scream at her when she tried to explain he couldn't leave with the baby as he needed her milk.
Mae called Cody's mom.
It is a long-standing tradition in the Smith household to "call mom, not the police" when Cody starts getting out of control.
Throughout the events of the evening, his mom remained on the phone. She heard everything.
At first, Cody denied that anything was happening. He told his mother that Mae was crazy, meanwhile, he was grinning and flipping her off as he kicked her and told his mom that there was nothing going on. Then suddenly, he ran up the stairs into their bedroom with Giovanni and locked the door. The baby was screaming, and Mae started pounding on the door pleading for him to come out. She was terrified, and to this day she has no idea what he was doing in there. He walked out, shoved Giovanni into her arms and said: "there, feed him, milkmaid." He stormed downstairs and began slamming things around.
Mae locked herself in the room and began to nurse. Not long after, Cody pounded on the door to say the cops were there (they weren't). She finished nursing, opened the door and he burst in, turned her purse upside down, and took her car keys. Speechless, she pulled her son tighter to her chest. Cody continued screaming at her telling her that he would be taking Giovanni and leave, but she wouldn't let go. He took her arm in one hand and her head in the other and began applying his full body weight as he pushed her into the wall. She cried out that he was hurting the baby and that if he stopped she would put him down.
As soon as she laid Giovanni on the bed, he scooped him up and tore down the stairs. Again, his mother heard all of this and as Mae ran down the stairs after him. She dropped her phone. He stomped on it repeatedly as he knew she had been collecting evidence of his abuse. His mom began screaming at him, telling him to put the baby down, that Giovanni needed Mae, and it wasn't safe for him to be with Cody.
He eventually left, leaving the baby with Mae. She deadbolted the doors and slept on the couch with a knife under the cushion.
She believed that if he came back that night that he would kill her.
He arrived home the next morning at 7 AM. He went right upstairs and passed out. When her mother dropped off their laundry, Mae told her, "Today's the day. Something is going to happen. I don't know what that is, but today's the day. I can feel it."
Cody, Mae, and Giovanni were supposed to go to the Smith house to visit with his family. It was time to go, and she couldn't wake Cody up. He was out cold. So, she started writing a note letting him know that that's where she was and to meet them there. Giovanni began crying, and Cody came flying down the stairs. "You're not taking my child," he said to Mae as he pushed her out the front door locking himself in alone with the baby - again.
Mae called his mother and said, "This is the last call like this you will ever be getting from me." She told her everything and instructed her to call her son. She did, and from the outside of her home she heard Cody screaming and yelling. Finally, he came out with Giovanni, slammed the car seat in her car and said: "Go to my parent's house, wh*re." Those were the last words he would say to Mae face-to-face, and that was the last time he would see Giovanni
She called her family and explained everything. "I felt terrified. Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I ruining Giovanni's life? Where will we live? How will I get our belongings?" But the doubt was overshadowed by the stunning realization that she didn't have to live this life.
"I said screw it and put the pedal to the floor and drove away from my past."
It's been two years since she closed that chapter of her life. Giovanni is a healthy, happy and handsome little 2-year-old. He is the spitting image of his mother and completely adores her. Mae and Gi live with her mom and have created a beautiful loving life. There is a 13-year order of protection against Cody for Mae and Giovanni. Neither he nor his family has access to him.
But this isn't where Mae's story ends. The case didn't go to trial, he pleaded guilty, and was imprisoned for 6 months.
Mae is thankful for her life every single day. I've never met someone who has gone through as much as she has and yet remains a ray of sunshine in this dreary world. She is an outspoken advocate for domestic violence issues and aims to help others, like Lynn Mitchell, get their life back.
What started as a conversation about her experiences, turned into something greater than I could have imagined. The information I have found on Cody and the statistics and facts mentioned in the series have made me realize I have to keep sharing these women's stories.
We have to face the reality that domestic violence is a local issue. We need to confront the facts, examine the statistics and share survivors' stories. Because small towns do have big secrets and it's time those secrets are revealed.