Sacramento child-abuse survivor, now 19, builds a new life

Lilly Manning has finished a year at Sacramento City College, and is considering a career as a personal trainer or maybe the Army. "I didn't expect her to go to college - and look at this," says ex-foster mom Maria Gonzalez. "She's got a lot of dreams. She's a strong girl."
Lilly Manning has finished a year at Sacramento City College, and is considering a career as a personal trainer or maybe the Army. "I didn't expect her to go to college - and look at this," says ex-foster mom Maria Gonzalez. "She's got a lot of dreams. She's a strong girl."

"They were always threatening to kill me and bury me under the mobile home in the backyard. I never really believed them. But that one day – the last day I was locked in the closet – I did. I believed them."

– Lilly Manning, now 19

In so many ways, Lilly Manning is your typical teen. She fiddles constantly with her cellphone. She hoards shoes. She frets about having a bad hair day, then obsesses over a missing flat iron. When she laughs, the skin around her eyes crinkles, like a double wink.

Someone once told her she smiles with her eyes.

Behind those brown eyes is a mind straining to remember the events of her childhood and the violence that defined it. Before she escaped from a locked closet in south Sacramento at age 15, Lilly was abused, beaten and tortured by her adoptive mother and the woman's husband.

Her story is detailed in hundreds of pages of court documents and medical records, but her physical scars bear witness to the horrors: The hammer attacks. The death threats. The beatings, the burns, the instruments of torture used on a child – a pair of pliers, a rotting 2-by-4, a pink high heel, a steel-toed boot.

And all those hours, trapped in a dark closet measuring 20-by-26 inches.

This was the childhood of a Sacramento girl born with the name Rachel Cornist, changed upon adoption by her tormentor: Lillian Manning-Horvath.

On Friday, the older Lillian, now 72, is scheduled to be sentenced in Sacramento Superior Court for her part in what the prosecutor called the systematic and sadistic torture of her namesake, Lilly Manning. The woman's husband, Joseph Robert Horvath, who turned 54 in March, was tried and convicted in 2009.

Now it is Lillian Manning-Horvath's turn.

Unlike other shocking cases that have attracted media attention – the 2008 escape of the "shackled boy," for instance, who fled the torment of his Tracy home – Lilly's story has not been told.

Sacramento Sheriff's Detective Brian Shortz called Lilly's ordeal one of the "most extreme cases I've ever dealt with – by far.

"I didn't want her in the press back then," he said. "She was a 15-year-old girl."

Lilly is writing the script now, and she wants to tell her story – if nothing else, to figure out how this could ever happen to a child, she said. She has petitioned both the Juvenile Dependency Court and Child Protective Services for her records so she can trace her path, perhaps filling in the many blank spots.

"There's so much that I don't know that I should know," Lilly said.

She is 19 now, a slender and powerful 5-foot-3. On a recent morning, she sat outside a Subway shop on Arden Way, talking about her past in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. Wearing a hot pink tank top, and toying with the colorful bands that encircle her wrists, she felt no need to cover the scars that run the length of her muscular arms and legs, dappling her chest and back.

Despite her quest, she does not dwell on the past. In a series of interviews last month with The Bee, at her initiation, she talked less about being a victim and more about being a survivor. She has won the admiration of a prominent judge, a veteran detective, a child abuse expert and others who have witnessed her resilience firsthand.

"I want to conquer the world," she said, as traffic rumbled by the Subway shop. "I want to do something big."

None of this seemed possible on Halloween day in 2007, when Lilly's adoptive mother stabbed her in the upper left thigh inside their home in south Sacramento. Then Joseph Horvath shoved her once again into the pitch-black closet, stacked to the ceiling with old VCR movie tapes, according to court papers and Lilly's recollections.

Only this time, the girl said, she was pretty sure they were going to kill her.

The escape

"Dear Mama I'm writing you this note to tell you good bye. I don't like getting beat every day for something I didn't even do. I'm leaving and going somewhere far. You won't have to kill me or Joe won't have to kill me. "

– Lilly Manning, note left for her adoptive mother, October 2007

At age 15, Lilly Manning made a decision that would alter the course of her life – and that of her siblings.

On Oct. 31, 2007, she kicked open the door and escaped from the closet she had thought of for months as her "room."

After years of abuse, Lilly bolted. She left behind a note on the kitchen table, written in pencil, assuring her mom that she loved her and always would.

"I might die out in the world but it's better then (sic) any of my family killing me and going to jail," she wrote.

In hindsight, Lilly believes that the departure that day of her protective older sister, Natasha, being sent to Germany with the U.S. Army, made her escape imperative. Without Natasha to intervene, what would happen to her next?

Deputy District Attorney Thienvu Ho thought he knew the answer to that. In closing arguments before Joseph Horvath's jury, the prosecutor said that Horvath and his wife were "never going to let Lilly leave that house again, at least not alive.

"They couldn't let people at school, people at the post office, at the grocery store, or anybody in public see Lilly with all the wounds and scars on her body."

With her escape, the terrible secrets inside the Manning-Horvath home were laid bare.

Public records are vague on the family's history, except to say that Lilly and four of her siblings were removed from their biological mother in Sacramento in the early 1990s and placed in the care of Lillian Manning, their great-aunt. Lilly thinks she was formally adopted by Manning when she was about 4 or 5 – and was given Manning's name because, she said, "I was the favorite."

That didn't last.

Manning took the kids to live in Texas, returning to Sacramento in 2005.

By then, Lilly's adoptive mother had married Horvath, a man 18 years younger with a drug-peddling past in Oklahoma. Horvath ran a lawn business while his wife stayed home with the kids.

Lilly called him Joe.

"When he first came, he was nice. He was normal," she said. "Then everything went downhill. He started listening to Lilly and stuff."

They lived in a small 1940s bungalow with a spiked iron gate spanning the front on Dewey Boulevard. While court papers indicate that some of the other children were abused there, they also make clear that Lilly took the brunt of the couple's fury.

For everyone in the home the message was clear: Don't tell – or else.

"She always told us not to tell people what was going on," said Lilly.

Lilly did not go directly to authorities after kicking down the closet door, which had been secured with a metal pole under the doorknob. As she tells it, she hid for several days in a "homemade shed" behind the home, near Fruitridge Road and Stockton Boulevard.

When Lilly was certain that her mom and Joe had taken off for Texas – even with her still "missing" – she sneaked back into the house for food. After a few days in the shed, she said, a sister persuaded her to call CPS from a pay phone near McDonald's a few blocks away.

A CPS worker told her "there's nothing we can do," Lilly said, and then referred her to Diogenes Youth Services, a counseling and crisis intervention center for teens.

The court records of Joseph Horvath and Lillian Manning do not detail the degree of contact CPS had with the family, other than to note at least one visit from a social worker. A CPS spokeswoman said the agency legally could not comment on the case.

The documents do not mention a phone call to CPS after her escape, but do describe how a Diogenes worker drove to the corner of Fruitridge and Stockton Boulevard and picked up the girl.

Lilly's condition – the oozing stab wound, the multiple scars – was alarming. An ambulance rushed the teenager to UC Davis Medical Center.

"Honestly, I was scared," Lilly said, recalling the details of her first night of freedom – and her first medical treatment for the many injuries. "They were bringing all these needles and stuff."

Doctors and nurses descended on the girl. Detectives were not far behind.

The horrors revealed

"I felt horror, really. I was amazed that she was just sitting there with a blank expression on her face – and not crying She was just sitting there like a mannequin."

– Detective Shortz, Sacramento County Sheriff's child abuse unit.

If Lilly was afraid, she wasn't revealing any of that to law enforcement.

Shortz, an experienced child abuse investigator, interviewed the 15-year-old girl at the hospital a little past midnight on Nov. 6, 2007. He remembered that she was calm and tired and "seemed emotionless." She answered his questions promptly but with few words – almost "robotic," he recalled.

Given the severity of her injuries, he was stunned by how oblivious she seemed to pain.

"But I know she was feeling it," he said.

Inch by inch, Lilly's battered body was examined, X-rayed and photographed, often with rulers alongside the scar or injury. The medical team would document more than 100 scars and injuries in various stages of healing.

Besides the stab wound in her thigh, her face was a patchwork of trauma. Her upper lip had been split open in several places and, having gone untreated, had healed into a misshapen series of lumps. At least three teeth had been knocked out.

Lilly explained that her mother often smacked her in the mouth, and one time, Joseph Horvath had kicked her in the face with a black, steel-toe boot. Her mother used a pink high heel to pierce her scalp, she said.

Doctors found that the bone in her left elbow had been broken and the muscle and tendons had begun to calcify. Lilly's arm was stuck at a 45-degree angle.

The girl explained that the elbow injury occurred when the 6-foot, 200-pound Joseph Horvath wrapped his arms around her and body-slammed her to the ground.

Her ears also were disfigured and "resembled cauliflower," according to court papers. The ear cartilage was flattened and misshapen.

Lilly said that her ears had been a favorite target as both her mother and Joe struck her with a hammer, sticks, 2-by-4s and "pretty much anything they could find."

Her hands were favorites, too, as the exam revealed breaks in both of her hands and fingers. As punishment, Lilly said, her mom would squeeze her fingers with pliers or force her to spread her hands on a stool, then smash them with a hammer.

Medical reports also documented numerous burns, which Lilly said she received when her adoptive mother threw boiling water at her. She once used a hot iron to burn the girl's face below her left eye and on her left forearm, Lilly said.

The abuse apparently was rooted in a family lie.

Lilly recalled that the vicious attacks seemed to start when she was about 9. Her adoptive mom became suspicious that her much younger husband was molesting the girl. If Joe said she was pretty, Lilly said, her mom would savagely beat her until she admitted to having sexual contact with him – which wasn't true. Then Horvath would get furious and pile on.

"It seemed like she was jealous," Lilly said. "She thought everyone wanted Joe."

While doctors were piecing together the medical puzzle, detectives were gathering evidence of a different kind.

The sheriff's search of the house found graphic evidence of the brutality: the sticks and 2-by-4s, which appeared to be bloodstained; a 13-inch steel hammer; pliers; the pink high heel; and the steel-toe boot. One wooden stick with staples in the end, found behind a dresser, had red stains on one end and "black curly fiber or hair attached," court records show.

"Sticks and things like that were exactly where she said they were hidden," Shortz said.

Lillian Manning-Horvath was arrested on Nov. 28, 2007, and her husband two weeks later on Dec. 13. They were charged with multiple felony counts each, including torture, aggravated mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment, making death threats and child endangerment.

But Lilly's adopted mom was not out of her life yet.

Into the justice system

"They are sending me back to court. I want you and (your sister) to come to court and help me get out so I can go home. Please don't let me down. I don't want to die in hear (sic)."

– Jailhouse letter from Lillian Manning-Horvath to Lilly, 2010

After the arrests, Lilly and her siblings entered the foster care system and soon were split up.

But Lillian Manning-Horvath was taking no chances. Even from jail, she still tried to control her adopted daughter.

In a letter dated Sept. 15, 2010, Lillian specifically appealed to Lilly – the girl she had repeatedly locked in a closet, letting her out only to use the bathroom and eat canned food from a metal plate. "Please Lillian you can help me, if you don't I will never come home," the elder Lillian wrote. "Maybe you could come see me."

Lilly and her older sister actually did visit Manning-Horvath in jail, a reunion that degenerated into their mother "talking about herself a lot," Lilly recalled.

Even now, though, the young Lilly is loath to criticize her mom.

"She did raise me," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I don't hate her, but I don't like what she did."

After their arrests, the couple were set to be tried together, but Lillian's mental competency soon became an issue and their cases were split.

By the time Joseph Horvath came to trial in September 2009, facing 14 felony charges, young Lilly was bouncing among foster care homes. Before leaving the system in June 2010, she lived in four different homes.

Horvath testified on the fifth and final day of his trial, denied involvement in the abuse and blamed his wife, according to the transcript. He said he saw his wife attack the children – and particularly Lilly – with a hammer, pots, sticks, shoes, a curling iron and boiling water.

Horvath said his solution was to take the implements away from his wife. He was found guilty of 13 felony counts and was sentenced to 12 years, four months in state prison, plus consecutive life terms. He is appealing.

What is clear amid the jumble of court documents is that the children tried to get help – from the schools, police and Child Protective Services.

Lilly said she once called 911 when her twin brother found a cellphone, a story corroborated in the records. When her mother began beating her, she blurted out what she had done.

"I was getting hit, and it just slipped," she said.

Manning-Horvath hid the girl under the bed and, when police came, she was "too afraid to come out," she said.

Social workers also came, looked and left.

Lilly said a teacher referred her to a school nurse, who accused the girl of doing it to herself.

"We just gave up," Lilly said.

Moving on

"I don't want any plastic surgery. What's the point? My scars are, like, they're like souvenirs to me. It's proof I can get through anything, you know."

– Lilly Manning, June 2011

Detective Shortz always suspected that Lilly had the inner strength to rebound.

Not long after he met her at the hospital, he visited her high school with follow-up questions. Her adoptive mother had pulled her from school the previous spring and kept her isolated.

"Suddenly, here was this beautiful girl," Shortz said.

He saw her again in May at a hearing for Lillian Manning-Horvath. "She's become a fabulous, graceful, proud girl who stands up straight, looks you in the eye," he said. "And she's very warm and loving."

Dr. Deborah Stewart, who cataloged the scars and injuries on Lilly's body at the Medical Center, testified at Horvath's 2009 trial that Lilly "was amazingly resilient."

Even the judge was moved, describing Lilly and her sister as a "bright light" in the tragedy. Former Superior Court Judge Elena J. Duarte, who now is on the 3rd District Court of Appeal, said she was especially struck that the girls had come to Horvath's sentencing hearing to express support and ask for leniency, according to a transcript.

Lilly still isn't sure why she did it, but she does believe that Joe got swept into his wife's furious wake.

Lilly doesn't know whether she will speak at Friday's judgment and sentencing of her adoptive mom. Lillian Manning-Horvath entered a dual plea and will likely serve a few years first in a mental health facility for her plea to child endangerment of not guilty by reason of insanity. She pleaded guilty to the remaining 15 felony charges, for which she could receive two life terms plus about 25 years in state prison, according to the District Attorney's Office.

Meanwhile, the daughter who bears her name is busy making plans. Lilly graduated last year from Vista Nueva Career & Technology High School in Sacramento and has attended two semesters at Sacramento City College. She is considering a career as a personal trainer and works out regularly.

She now can almost fully extend the left arm that once was stuck at a 45-degree angle.

Lilly said she'd like to move to New York state next month to live with her sister Natasha, who is being restationed there from Germany. She wonders if an Army career might be right for her, too.

Money is tight. She relies on food stamps and "financial aid," but she's not quite sure of the source. While in Sacramento, she still wants to review her case files to help fill in the blanks of her childhood. She is taking her driving test Wednesday. She gets therapy.

And, like every teen, she wants to have fun.

"I want to go to an opera hecka bad!" she blurted out while talking about her love of music.

Lilly recently moved into a home in the south area with a friend, just around the corner from her first foster family, Maria and Domingo Gonzalez. They took her in after the arrests.

Maria, a 16-year foster mom whose orderly home is adorned with children's pictures, found Lilly to be angry and defiant after her arrival.

But the Gonzalezes told the children their door would always be open.

So Lilly stopped by the home last month and was greeted with warm hugs. She talked with them in Spanish, then raided their refrigerator.

"I didn't expect her to go to college – and look at this," Maria Gonzalez said. "She's got a lot of dreams. She's a strong girl."

"I want to leave this Earth remembered by something big, by me doing something big."

– Lilly Manning, June 2011

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