MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — While her husband returned a rototiller to a West Virginia rental shop, a limping woman sneaked into another part of the building seeking help. Soon, she was at a shelter with a horrifying tale: She had been held hostage for the better part of a decade — beaten, burned and even shackled during childbirth.
Investigators have 45 photographs showing burns on her back and breasts from irons and frying pans, and scars on her wrists and ankles. Now her husband is in jail and authorities are investigating what Jackson County Chief Sheriff's Deputy Tony Boggs called one of the most terrible cases he's seen.
"This appears to go beyond abuse to what I would consider torture," he said Wednesday.
Peter Lizon, 37, was in jail on $300,000 bond. He is scheduled for a preliminary hearing Friday on a malicious wounding charge.
The criminal complaint says 43-year-old Stephanie Lizon told another woman at a Parkersburg shelter that her husband smashed her foot with a piece of farm equipment, among other things.
But Shawn Bayliss, Peter Lizon's attorney, said the allegations are "the fabrication of a fertile imagination or a feeble mind, one of the two."
"The alleged victim didn't make these accusations. It was a third party," Bayliss said. " ... Stephanie would say this story is absolutely untrue, and the charges levied against her husband are blatantly false."
He compared it to the childhood game of "telephone," where something whispered from one person to another ultimately bears no resemblance to reality.
"This is a situation where a person has taken a nugget of information, taken an acorn and tried to turn it into a tree," he said. "And the tree won't support this story."
The details of the alleged abuse came out after the wife fled July 2. Stephanie Lizon entered another part of the building while her husband was inside Bosley Rental & Supply in Parkersburg and told the staff, "I'm trying to get away from my husband. I just need to hide for a few minutes," one employee said.
The employee declined to give her name, citing concern for her safety and that of her co-workers.
In an office, the wife "seemed pretty calm but kept looking out the window to see if he was looking for her," the employee said.
Stephanie Lizon told the staff she didn't want to involve police, but she accepted the number for the domestic violence shelter and called it. She also called family to ask for money, and the employees gave her cash and called a cab to take her to a Western Union office and the shelter.
The woman was limping and had appeared to have some sort of injury, the employee said. And while her clothing was clean, she smelled bad. The husband did not come inside looking for his wife and police didn't come until several days later.
At the shelter, however, Stephanie Lizon told another woman about the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her husband, a native of the Czech Republic. The wife said her family was from Alexandria, Va.
Stephanie Lizon's father declined to discuss the case when contacted by The Associated Press. Relatives of her husband didn't immediately return messages.
The witness at the shelter described Stephanie Lizon as "gaunt and filthy," and covered in scars, bruises and burns. She had "mutilated and swollen" feet, a scar in the shape of a clothes iron on one breast, and burns on her back that the victim said came from a hot frying pan.
The witness said the wife was called a "slave" and ordered to kneel before her husband every time she entered a room. The wife also said she had delivered a fully developed, stillborn child while in shackles, and her husband buried the corpse on their farm.
Another child survived a similar delivery, but Stephanie Lizon said it had never received medical attention.
Boggs said state child-welfare authorities have been notified, but Peter Lizon's attorney said the child — a 1-year-old boy — remains with his mother.
The complaint says investigators confirmed that the wife was treated in the emergency room of St. Joseph's Hospital in June and that photographs were taken at the shelter to document her injuries. A Sunbeam iron was among the items seized during a July 5 search of the couple's home. Lizon was arrested that day.
Both Peter and Stephanie Lizon were arrested in Maryland in 2004, accused of cutting up Bush-Cheney campaign signs with a bayonet. The couple was apparently living in Randallstown, Md., at the time.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Peter Lizon was sentenced to a year of probation and 32 hours of community service, and ordered to pay $328 in restitution to the Howard County Republican Party.
Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for the Howard County state's attorney's office, said Stephanie Lizon entered a plea agreement that resulted in 40 hours of community service, plus restitution and fines.
Kirwan said Maryland court records also show that Stephanie Lizon was arrested on drug charges a few months later in Baltimore County, in December 2004. She pleaded guilty to a drug manufacturing and distribution charge in May 2005 and got probation.
The West Virginia Division of Corrections said it had no history of criminal actions by either spouse, and Boggs said the sheriff's department had no previous contact with them, either.
Boggs said he hoped that the wife's escape would give courage to other people who may be trapped in abusive relationships.
"There's all kinds of people out there who are willing to help," he said.