More than two decades ago, Mary Vincent first tried to tell her story. During a speech at a high school, she remembers, one student shouted, "You deserved to get your hands cut off."
Her reception was much different Monday night at the Port Hueneme Community Center when she gave her first speech in her new role as a victim's rights advocate and chairwoman of a foundation for victims of abuse.
About 200 people gathered, some driving for hours, to hear Vincent speak. The audience cried and laughed with her as she told how Lawrence Singleton raped her, hacked off her arms and left her for dead 21 years ago.
"From the bottom of my heart I do want to make a difference," Vincent, 36, said, crying and dabbing her nose with a tissue she held between the metal hooks that now serve as her hands.
"Listen and watch for the signs. There are people around you who need your help," she said.
Her message was general and unpolished.
"Let's take back our streets. Build more prisons. Lock up our prisoners," she said.
But the response was tremendous.
After a standing ovation, the audience passed around hats, collecting cash and checks. Several members of the audience stood before microphones to share their own reasons for coming.
"I just wanted to apologize that I didn't actually call you and reach out to help," said one woman, adding that she had been wanting to talk to Vincent since the 1978 incident.
One man, W.W. Miller of Ojai, approached the microphone and yodeled, saying he wanted to "wake up the world" to her message.
Between sobs, a 9-year-old girl told Vincent she had been sexually abused by her father.
"I wouldn't have the courage to do what you did and stand up and tell all these people what happened," the girl said.
Crying, Vincent replied: "You just did."
Vincent's speech kicked off what she hopes will be a nationwide tour and fund-raising drive for the Mary Vincent Foundation.
Established this month, the foundation's goal is to raise money for the treatment and medical care of victims of violent attacks such as the one she survived 21 years ago.
Vincent was 15 and had run away from an unhappy home life in Las Vegas. She was hitchhiking near Berkeley in 1978 when Singleton, a one-time seaman, picked her up, hit her in the head with a hammer, bound her and raped her repeatedly. When she begged him to let her go, he cut off her forearms with a hatchet and tossed her into a ditch.
Vincent survived, but was plagued by fear for years. Singleton had been sentenced to 14 years in prison and she was afraid he would again try to kill her.
Vincent had moved to Washington state and married, but the marriage fell apart after she learned of Singleton's release for good behavior after only eight years. She developed an eating disorder. She couldn't work. She and her two sons took shelter in an abandoned gas station.
It wasn't until Singleton was locked up again--he has been sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of a Tampa, Fla., prostitute and remains on death row--that Vincent began to put her life back together.
She moved to Orange County and got a clerical position in the district attorney's office, where she met Tom Wilson, an investigator she later married.
She had testified at Singleton's Florida trial and thought she was finally strong enough to begin trying to help other people. Her testimony had brought her enough exposure to raise money to start a foundation. With her husband's support, she decided to begin speaking publicly.
Although Vincent lives in Anaheim, she chose Port Hueneme for her first speech because of a friendship she developed with Maggie Federico, a spokeswoman for the city's Police Department.
Federico remembers Vincent's attack, saying it persuaded her never to hitchhike again. Federico helps organize monthly town hall meetings in Port Hueneme and thought Vincent would be a great speaker.
Linda Finnerty, a victim advocate for the Ventura County district attorney's office, said she hoped Monday's speech would help other victims come to terms with their own fear and anger.
Last year, Finnerty's office assisted 357 sexual assault victims, 341 sexual child abuse victims and 5,245 victims of domestic violence.
Those interested in donating to the Mary Vincent Foundation can call (714) 281-7660 or send an e-mail to email@example.com.