CHANGING a flat tyre at the side of the road as her little boy slept in the car, Charise Thompson was abducted by thugs who tortured, beat and gang-raped her in an act of unimaginable brutality – even drilling into her ankles in an attempt to hang her upside down 'like an animal'.
Left for dead in a ditch, the brave mum fought to survive, crawling two-and-a-half miles to get back to four-year-old James.
Finally, after desperately crawling on her elbows for hours, dragging her broken legs and with devastating internal injuries, she found help. Mercifully her son was discovered unhurt and still sleeping in the back of the car in Texas, US.
Incredibly, Charise, then 23, also survived after being pumped with 31 units of blood.
Now, nearly 40 years on, she has bravely waived her anonymity to speak exclusively about her ordeal for the first time to The Sun Online in a bid to tackle the "stigma" surrounding sex attacks.
She says she had to undergo emergency operations, spent four months in hospital and needed a hysterectomy following the sadistic gang-rape in November 1981.
In a heartbreaking twist, her son spent years quietly believing his own dad – her ex-husband – was to blame after he found a Polaroid snap of his mum's battered and bloodied face in her jewellery box.
James, now 42, was later told about the real culprits. However, 38 years on, the sex beasts who nearly killed Charise have yet to be tracked down and brought to justice.
"They beat and tortured me with their fists, their boots and a tire iron, tied me to the bumper of the truck and dragged me, then ran over me with the truck," Charise, now 61, recalls.
'They tied me to the truck's bumper then dragged me'
"They tried to drill holes in my ankles and had a gambrel [a rod or hook used to suspend animal carcasses] they were apparently going to hang me on, like a slaughtered animal, but they couldn't get the drill all the way through either ankle.
"They stabbed me with a knife, repeatedly raped me and used the tire iron, telling me that they were the last thing I would ever see.
"I was left torn open, my insides were partly exposed, and I had multiple stab wounds."
Charise, now married to husband, Chris, 73, had been driving back home with James after spending the Thanksgiving holiday with her mum when she stopped to change a tyre.
But standing on the side of Highway 59, between Freer and Laredo in Texas, she was suddenly surrounded by the gang of six, bundled into a truck and driven away from the scene.
"We drove quite a way, I was being hit and shoved down on the back floor," she tells us.
"All I could think about was my son. When I got out to change the flat tyre, he was sound asleep in the back seat and I was terrified that he was being left alone on the side of the highway."
'My son was alone on the side of the highway'
Looking back, Charise is grateful to have been taken away from the scene – it meant her little boy didn't witness her being brutally beaten, assaulted and left for dead.
"After the last time I was hit in the head with the tire iron, I was perfectly still and tried to not even breathe," recalls the mum, who has since moved to Wyoming.
"I didn't understand much Spanish but heard one of them say 'ella esta muerta', or 'she's dead'. They picked me up and threw me into a drainage ditch, like trash.
"I laid there a long time after I heard the truck drive away, in fear they might return. Then I knew I had to get help to my son because I feared they'd go back to my car."
With no idea where she was, Charise began crawling across the ground. She came across what looked like a dirt path – and despite her injuries, desperately tried to follow it.
"I'd crawl a little and then, sure I couldn't go on, I'd close my eyes and pray for death to come.
"But then I'd see my son's face and have to get back up and crawl some more," she says.
Hours later, the courageous mum found what she'd been looking for.
Fourteen broken bones
"The first person I came across was a ranch hand at a small outbuilding," she tells us.
"He didn't have a phone and had to go up to the main house to call for help. The ranch owner and his wife came down to where I was and waited with me until the police and ambulance got there."
When she arrived at hospital, bleeding heavily with 14 broken bones and more than half of her teeth knocked out, Charise says doctors told police that she likely wouldn't make it.
She has 'very little memory' of her first few weeks in hospital, as she received more than 30 units of blood and underwent emergency procedures on her face and to repair her devastating internal injuries.
But as medics worked to save her, there was one bit of positive news – James was safe.
"When the police got to my car, it was still locked and my son was asleep in the back seat," Charise says.
"Once I knew he was safe, I knew relief I'd never known before.
"I had really good friends that took him in and took really good care of him."
The mum spent more than four months in hospital before being transferred to a physical rehabilitation centre and, eventually, treated with outpatient therapy.
"I ended up having to have a complete hysterectomy due to complications with the reconstructive surgery, and female organs that could not work properly," she says.
"The police called it a 'sadistic gang-rape'.
But despite Charise getting "clear views" of all her attackers and even the licence plate of the truck, which she says was from Mexico, only one suspect was ever tracked down.
"I heard that one was arrested a few months after the attack, but because of a clerical error he was released on an own recognisance [no-cost bail] and never seen again," she claims.
"I heard that there were other victims of this gang in Mexico but no other survivors."
In the weeks after returning home, Charise lived in fear, seeing the thugs' faces in every crowd.
Soon after, she moved away from the area, taking with her a single picture of her injuries – the only one she has of the aftermath of the attack, which was taken by authorities.
She kept the Polaroid image in the bottom of her jewellery box – where unbeknown to her, it was discovered by James years later as he looked for something in her bedroom.
"He never said a word to me, but spent all those years thinking that is was his birth father that had done that," says the mum, who waited till her son was an adult to tell him about the attack.
"I can't imagine what that must have been like for him."
After moving to another part of Texas, Charise started attending the Crisis Center – which helps people who have suffered sexual violence – and realised she didn't have to be a victim.
Instead, she discovered, she could become a survivor.
"It wasn't long before I knew I had done just that," she says.
"You don't forget, but you do learn to move on."
The mum volunteered for the centre, then, after moving to Wyoming, began working as a victim advocate with the protection service Safehouse, helping other rape and violence victims.
"It was in helping others to make that transition from victim to survivor that I found the very best help for me and my true healing," she tells us.
Today, she is determined to bring the subject of sex attacks "out of the darkness" and to "remove the stigma from women", who she says may be made to feel guilty for what happened to them.
"When I was in the ambulance, I remember the police officer that rode in there with me ask me, 'What I had done to make them so mad'? Like it was my fault," she says.
"I overheard a doctor tell another police officer at the hospital that I probably wouldn't make it and the police officer said, 'It's just as well … who would want her now'? Like it lessened the person that I was."
But despite having survived her ordeal, Charise is still suffering from its effects on her health – including painful bones, and problems with both her thyroid and intestines.
She also contracted Hepatitis C from her blood transfusions, leaving her with liver damage.
However, she tells us, there is "life after rape".
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"There's happy, fulfilling, beautiful life," she says.
"But that you have to tell someone – a parent, police, counsellor, friend. You have to talk about it and bring it out into the open before you can start to deal with what happened to you and to heal."
She adds: "I am on morphine for the constant pain, but this life is amazing and worth every bit we have to go through to keep it."
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