That’s how Camden County Assistant Prosecutor Lauren Pratter described the tale of two sisters who survived years of sexual abuse and assaults in a Lindenwold apartment detailed in court records as a “den of horrors.”
She noted the victims, Shakira Chi, 36, and her 23-year-old sister, Felicia, who that asked her last name be withheld, not only found the strength to testify against their abuser, but continue to thrive after his conviction.
A jury found 51-year-old Howard Gregory guilty in May of assaulting and sexually abusing Chi, his stepdaughter; and Felicia, his biological daughter, in a home they shared in the crime-ridden Arborwood complex.
Gregory was able to perpetuate his crimes by keeping the women isolated, with little expose to the outside world, accomplished through years of physical and psychological torment.
The sisters shared their story Friday with the Courier-Post in the hopes of inspiring other victims of abuse to seek help.
Chi said she was first sexually abused by Gregory at age 9 while her family was living in Richmond, Virginia, where she was born and raised. She recalled her mother, Janet A. Robinson, and stepfather having an tumultuous relationship and fighting often.
Two years later, she summoned the courage to tell her mother, but when her mother later used the information to threaten Gregory, he intimidated Chi into saying it wasn’t true.
“After that point, I just kind of felt like I didn’t have anyone,” Chi said, explaining she had been estranged from her extended family.
At 14, she became pregnant with the first of her five children Gregory would father.
He later started abusing Felicia when she was a teen.
Chi described her stepfather as a “master manipulator” who controlled every facet of their lives, putting cans on the doors to alert him if they tried to leave and nailing the windows shut. They even had to get permission to open the refrigerator.
“It literally was a prison,” Chi said. “It really was hell.”
Gregory, who legally changed his name to Seven Moon, also managed to keep the sisters separated despite 10 people — including Chi’s children and her younger brother — living in the cramped apartment. (The sisters explained that Gregory told them he had to change his name after three Druids came to him in a dream.)
Felicia recalled the fuse box was in the front room, and her father would turn off the electricity if he heard them laughing or talking.
“Anything that made you happy, he took from you,” Chi said.
Gregory forced Chi to drop out of school in the ninth grade and work mostly factory jobs with her mother. He made Felicia quit school after her junior year.
As Chi got older, she said instances of violence became more common, explaining Gregory would punch her in the face and burn her.
In one incident, Chi received 75 stitches above an eye after he threw a rocking horse at her.
He preyed on Chi’s fear of losing her children, telling her they’d be taken away if she went to a shelter or tried to get help.
Robinson didn’t make it any easier on her daughters.
“At one point she would act like she didn’t believe it; another point she would believe it,” Chi said. “It’s like she would manipulate it to suit what she wanted.”
Hard to leave
Pratter said it’s hard to convey to outsiders why victims in cases like this don’t just pack up and leave.
“The reason usually is because they have nowhere to go,” she said bluntly.
Another reason, the assistant prosecutor noted, is that when victims grow up in an abusive environment and it’s all they’ve known, they may not realize it’s wrong.
Victims also may have children or other loved ones to protect.
“Shakira is a perfect example of that,” Pratter said. “She has children to think about, so she can’t just get up and go leave somewhere.”
Victims also may be isolated by their abusers and have no one else to turn to.
Mary Kay Baker, an advocate with the prosecutor’s victim witness unit, said the problem is further compounded when the abuser is a family member: “All of a sudden you’re the one that steps into the spotlight and says this person did this to me.”
In many cases, Baker said, victims need to put an immediate end to the abuse by calling the police, but they can’t make the final jump.
“Often times there needs to be something that is a breaking point,” Pratter said.
For Chi, that point finally came in August 2011.
Gregory had been fighting with her oldest son and bit her when she intervened. The boy ran out the door, and Chi followed him into the night. Gregory then came out, armed with a knife, she recalled.
Chi and her son ran to another building in the complex and called Lindenwold police from a neighbor’s cellphone. Gregory was arrested and charged with simple assault.
Chi, her siblings and the children then returned electronics Gregory recently had purchased and used the money to get a hotel room.
Pratter noted victims aren’t completely on their own: The victim witness unit can provide financial assistance as well as counseling and other services.
Days after the incident, Chi and Felicia came forward and told police about the sexual abuse.
Up until the day of trial, Gregory didn’t believe the women would take the witness stand and testify against him, according to Pratter.
“I know I had to do it because he doesn’t need to be on the streets,” Chi said.
“He is a monster. He is a devil.”
Robinson tried to convince her daughters not proceed with the case and was charged with witness tampering. She pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 364 days in jail and five years’ probation, according to court records. She also was ordered to have no contact with the victims.
“Seeing my mother try to intimate me, it made me feel really, really sad,” said Felicia, who explained Robinson peered at her through a courtroom door while she was on the stand.
Pratter said she’s found the once victims take the stand, they gain a sense of empowerment.
“They’ve taken control of their lives,” she said. “They’ve taken control of the situation and they’ve taken the power back from their abuser.”
Gregory ultimately was convicted on multiple counts of sexual assault, kidnapping and aggravated assault for crimes committed over a four-year period from 2007 to 2011. He also was found guilty of multiple weapons offenses and making terroristic threats. (Pratter explained her office cannot prosecute him for offenses allegedly committed against Chi in Virginia.)
Gregory faces a mandatory sentence of 15 to 30 years for the kidnapping charge alone. Pratter said he’ll likely receive consecutive terms when he is sentenced in August because there are two victims.
With Gregory behind bars, Chi, Felicia and the others have made strides.
Felicia got her GED went on to study fashion design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. She graduated with honors in December and showed her work earlier this year at Atlantic City Fashion Week.
Chi also received her GED as well as her driver’s license. She works with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), wrote a memoir about her experiences and blogs at www.shakirazchi.com.
Chi said her children — ages 21, 20, 17, 13 and 11 — are all flourishing, noting her youngest son is playing football and her youngest daughter is on the honor roll.
“Not only did she take them out of a horrible situation, but she’s helped everyone build this life where they’re moving forward and up,” Pratter said.
“It’s incredible,” she insisted. “It’s the most inspirational story I’ve ever seen.”
Reach Andy McNeil at firstname.lastname@example.org or (856) 486-2458.
• Visit www.camdencountypros.org and select ‘Victim Witness’ from the unit list to learn more about how the Prosecutor’s Office can help victims of abuse.