Marianna Mazzeo, then 14, was keeping a painful secret that was growing more and more difficult to hide.
“I wanted to die,” she says. “But I didn’t think it was normal for a person in middle school to want to die.”
Mazzeo, now 20, says she was sexually abused by her uncle from the ages of 6 to 11 and spent most of her childhood struggling with her emotions.
After a suicide attempt as a teenager, she was put into a residential mental health facility that ultimately changed her life, she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
One of the questions in the admissions paperwork asked: “Have you ever been touched in a way that you shouldn’t have?”
Seeing that, Mazzeo felt ready to open up about what happened to her as a child.
“It was split-second decision,” she says. “I said ‘yes’ because I wanted to be able to talk about it, to be able to finally heal from what was making me so upset all the time.”
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In 2014, detectives in Marblehead, Ohio, questioned her uncle, Richard Rose, but he refused to take a lie detector test, thus ending the investigation due to lack of evidence, according to a police report obtained by PEOPLE.
While Mazzeo focused on managing her mental health, she never gave up on someday getting the truth from her tormentor.
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“When I found out [the case was closed], I wrote in my journal, ‘He stole five years of my childhood that I’ll never get back,’ ” she says. “‘It’s not over. I’ll get a confession.’ “
Last year, Mazzeo was triggered when she saw a man who resembled Rose. She decided she could no longer live in the shadows and set out to expose the truth.
Eventually, after texting her uncle in an attempt to communicate, they scheduled a video chat on Facebook Messenger, and Mazzeo set up two cell phones: one for the call and another to record their exchange.
As soon as her uncle’s face appeared on her phone after eight years without seeing him, she hit record. He began to apologize and Mazzeo began to cry.
“I need to hear you say it,” she demanded. Finally, he did: “I’m sorry I molested you.”
With that crucial evidence in hand, Mazzeo went to the police.
On April 12, Rose, 57, was arrested in Port Clinton, Ohio, and awaits trial on five counts of rape, to which he has pleaded not guilty. He remains jailed with his trial scheduled for December.
His attorney did not return calls seeking comment.
Mazzeo, meanwhile, is living on her own for the first time, with support from her sensitive 2-year-old Labrador mix, Bane. She recently enrolled in college with hopes of becoming a psychiatric nurse.
“I know now it’s never too late to live your life,” she says. “To move forward. To be happy.”