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A victim of abuse no longer

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The honeymoon was over just a few hours after it began.

Married after midnight in a little chapel on the Las Vegas Strip, Sarah Southerland knew she'd made a mistake by sunrise when her new husband, William, started yelling at her for no reason.

A few days later, when the couple returned to Provo, the yelling rapidly escalated to physical violence, with William slapping Sarah, throwing dishes at her and, ultimately, punching her and beating her with his prized golf clubs.

Four and a half months later, when she finally fled the marriage and went to police, an officer told her it was the worst case of domestic violence he had ever seen.

So, why didn't Sarah Southerland seek help right away? It's a question that people often ask the 27-year-old, who is now remarried and living in Kirtland, N.M., where she speaks often about domestic violence and has written a book about her experience, "Not Another Sarah."

If you haven't been there, it's not easy to understand, says Sarah, who wanted to meet for a Free Lunch of fish tacos during a trip to Salt Lake City to visit her parents.

"I stayed with William out of fear of what he'd do if I left," she says. "But there was also fear that I'd have no one. He was better than nothing. That's why a lot of women stay. The sad thing is, this is pretty common."

We certainly read the headlines more often than we'd like: "Clinton Woman Shot to Death by Boyfriend." "West Valley Man Charged in Killings of Wife, Child."

Sarah knows that her headline in 1996 could very well have read, "Provo Woman Found Dead in Apartment" instead of "Man Sentenced in Domestic Abuse Case."

"I know that I'm lucky to be alive," she says. "I was kicked, punched and hit with everything from a baseball bat to a broom. If I hadn't run away when I did, I know I wouldn't be sitting here now."

When Sarah met William, a 26-year-old law student, in a religion class at Brigham Young University, he seemed anything but a tyrant. Well-mannered and sensitive, his eyes filled with tears after class one day while thanking the teacher for a powerful lesson. Sarah, normally shy, piped up, "You look like you could use a hug."

The next day, she was sitting next to William in his new sports car, on a first date to Bridal Veil Falls. Four months later, William talked Sarah into eloping to Las Vegas, even though she had always dreamed of a wedding in front of family and friends.

"The first thing he did was isolate me from my family," she says. "He was very manipulative, but I couldn't see that then. I honestly thought I'd found 'Mr. Right.' "

She and William had barely moved into their apartment when he began a torrent of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Even the smallest detail, such as the way Sarah arranged his books on the coffee table, would set him off.

"Afterward, he would cry for forgiveness," she says. "But any time I threatened to leave, he said he would kill me."

One weekend, after William threw her beloved cat, Austin, out the window during a drive, Sarah finally snapped. When her husband — who watched her every minute — turned his head while she was taking out the trash, she bolted.

Covered with bite marks and bruises, Sarah pounded on a stranger's door and called the police, who eventually arrested William in his home state of Texas. Unbelievably, he ended up serving only 21 days in jail.

"As bad as it was, I'm OK now," says Sarah. "I'm moving on. That's what I'd like to tell other women. Your life can be different. You don't have to be a victim again."

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.