Autumn Lee doesn’t hold back her tears as she describes how she went from cheerleader to convict.
She was just 19 when a friend’s sister introduced her to meth, recommending it as a way to stay thin. From then on, Lee cycled in and out of addiction and was arrested the first time for drug possession when she was 23. Jail time and treatment helped her stay clean for a span of years, but when she was 29, she was back on drugs — and her addiction worsened after she got involved with a physically abusive boyfriend.
She believed that "if I just loved him, he’d be okay."
But he wasn’t, and neither was she. She was arrested again and, at some point during the 21 days she spent in jail, Lee decided she was done — done with drugs, done with the boyfriend.
He didn’t take the news well. Fearful that he might try to kill her, Lee sought a protective order.
"Here I am, sober, trying to do what’s right but I had this fear inside me [that] he’s going to kill me," said Lee, who was staying, as ordered by a judge, in a residential treatment center. "He threatened it a lot."
It wasn’t a misplaced worry. He’d shot and injured another guy she’d dated and police were searching for him.
On June 24, 2006, Lee received a frantic call from the former boyfriend’s sister, who told her he was again threatening suicide. Lee went to meet him, believing she might be able to talk him into turning himself into police.
Instead, the man forced her at gunpoint to drive into a local canyon, all the while threatening to kill Lee and then himself. At one point, Lee was able to send a text message to a friend, who knew about the former boyfriend’s threats to kill her, that said one word: "canyon."
Law enforcement was alerted and soon pulled over Lee’s car, starting a standoff that would last 2 1/2 hours. Lee said she felt paralyzed as she sat in the car, while police urged the man to toss the gun out a window and surrender. But she also felt a tremendous peace.
"I just felt surrounded by angels," she said, "the faith of thousands sitting in that car."
As a police negotiator made a third attempt to get the man to toss the weapon, he instead put it to his head and fired, killing himself instantly. The bullet went through Lee’s neck, nicking her jugular vein and exiting her back. She remembers not being able to breathe, law officers pulling her from the vehicle, and — in an out-of-body experience — seeing herself lying on the ground.
After week in the hospital, she was back in court for violating probation when she left the treatment center without approval. And once again a vicious cycle began: jail, treatment, relapsing with alcohol, arrest, treatment, a felony theft arrest. In 2009, an Ogden judge revoked Lee’s probation and sent her to prison on what turned out to be a 13 1/2-month sentence.
Lee said she felt "petrified" as she walked down the long hall that inmates must pass through to reach the women’s section. "I just felt abandoned. I wrote my mom and family saying, ‘Please don’t leave me here, don’t forget me.’ "
Lee served all but a week of that time in the ExCell substance abuse program at the Timpanogos Women’s Correctional Facility before being paroled in November 2010 and, truth be told, she initially resisted the help.
But she found it was a "good place. It was safe. At times I hated it, of course, but for the majority of the time ... I got my head clear. I stopped having nightmares." Her family’s unyielding support and the prison program finally offered the life line she desperately needed, Lee said.
What she learned there — among other things, what’s in her control and what’s not — has so far kept her from returning, she said.
"It hasn’t been easy," said Lee, now 36, who finished probation on Monday and is working part time and going to school. "A few months ago, I wanted to give up, but I don’t. I can fight."
Yes, she’s encountered stumbling blocks, but now Lee has a script to counter negative thoughts and knows how to get herself back on track.
"It was amazing, that program, what it can do if you want it to," said Lee.
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