2017-04-30 / Insight

Elsa’s story

Attica Twp. woman shares harrowing tale to help other victims of abuse
810-452-2609 • adietderich@mihomepaper.com

Elsa Rachel Garcia was abused throughout her childhood by a couple ultimately sentenced to a total of 179 years in prison. Garcia says she is finally ready to talk about her experiences publicly with hopes to raise awareness of child abuse. 
Photo by Andrew Dietderich Elsa Rachel Garcia was abused throughout her childhood by a couple ultimately sentenced to a total of 179 years in prison. Garcia says she is finally ready to talk about her experiences publicly with hopes to raise awareness of child abuse. Photo by Andrew Dietderich ATTICA TWP. — Recounting the horrific physical and mental abuse endured during her first 18 years isn’t what makes Elsa Rachel Garcia cry anymore

— it’s remembering the first time anyone believed her.

Until then, the 39-yearold Attica Township resident believed abuse would always be part of her life until she died.

She believed that she deserved the abuse.

She believed if anyone were to get in trouble for abusing her, it would be her fault.

It’s taken her 20 years to realize she was wrong in those beliefs.

And now she’s telling her story wherever and whenever she can with hopes at least one person will be moved to take some kind of action to prevent abuse, and also to help her cope with what she went through.

Photos provided by Elsa Garcia to The County Press reflect various levels of physical abuse she endured throughout her childhood. Photos provided by Elsa Garcia to The County Press reflect various levels of physical abuse she endured throughout her childhood. “I always wanted to tell my story,” she said. “I just wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t ready. Now that I’ve healed, and feel better about it, I need something good to come of this.

“This is something I’m finally ready to do.”

Lauren Broiha, clinical coordinator and therapist at the Child Advocacy Center of Lapeer, said that Elsa’s story “is just so inspiring.”

“It’s just incredible to hear what she’s endured, what’s she’s been through, and where she is now,” Broiha said. “Her strength and story is extremely inspiring.”

Elsa’s story begins when a preacher named Joe Combs and his wife, Evangeline, adopted Elsa when she was about five months old. (Court documents show the adoption was never legally completed.) They ultimately wound up living in Bristol, Tennessee. Elsa had five siblings.

She was given the name “Esther Combs” though is quick to point out the name change was never legal and prefers Elsa.

Elsa says her earliest memories are what she now knows to be mental abuse.

“I remember her threatening me that if I wasn’t good she was going to send me back,” Elsa says. “And how much she didn’t want me.”

It would be tame compared with what was to come.

Elsa recalled for The County Press her first memory of physical abuse.

Evangeline Combs was mad because Elsa, who was 3 years old at the time, woke up late.

“She took me by the hair and drug me to the bedroom and put me in the high chair and tied me to it,” Elsa says.

“I sat in that chair for hours crying,” Elsa said. “She was even more furious when she came in.”

Evangeline dragged the high chair of the room, down a hall, to the top of a stairwell.

A terrified Elsa could only look down.

“I knew what she was going to do and I was praying that she wouldn’t,” Elsa says. “But she shoved me down the stairs and I went tumbling down, tied to it still.”

The tumbling was stopped by a landing part of the way down the stairs.

“So she got me at the landing and shoved me down the rest of the stairs,” Elsa says.

Evangeline then dragged her out to another cold room and left her there, still tied to the chair, and screamed at Elsa, “If you could only just be good!”

For the next 15 years, Elsa says she was trained to be the family “servant” and ultimately became brainwashed.

Court records detail extreme levels of abuse, everything from being beat with a hose for falling asleep in church to being raped by Joseph Combs.

“I thought it was all because I was being bad,” she says.

In 1997, at age 19, Elsa says she had enough.

She waited until she finished her chores for the day at about 3 a.m. and gulped down a 24-ounce cup of antifreeze. Elsa says she got the idea when Evangeline deviated from allowing the children in the family to only watch shows like “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie” (with the “sinful commercials” edited out), and showed them that people had been feeding anti-freeze to cats and killing them.

Elsa hoped she would end up like one of the cats.

“I just wanted it all to stop. I wanted to stop being such a disappointment. I just wanted to die and she was always saying she would be so much better off if I did and after years of hearing that you believe it.”

Elsa woke the morning after drinking the anti-freeze.

She felt sick and groggy, and had to crawl to the bathroom where she hit her head on the toilet and had a seizure.

One of her siblings called 911 and Elsa was rushed to the hospital.

It was there that doctors documented 410 scars and wounds on Elsa’s body.

Detectives talked to Elsa for days, and took pictures of her scars. Because the Combs’ house didn’t have full mirrors, the pictures they showed her marked the first time she had seen the physical damage done to her.

Still, she tried to protect the preacher and his wife, insisting to the detectives that the abuse was “because I was bad, and I had gotten in trouble.”

“I just kept telling them I didn’t know, I didn’t remember,” she says.

When the preacher and his wife were asked about the scars, the story was that she was “clumsy.”

Because police couldn’t get Elsa to say anything about her abuse, they had no choice but to release her. She went back to living with the Combs.

But Elsa says the Bristol police didn’t give up. Among other things, they kept trying to get Elsa to talk to them about what had happened to her.

Feeling the heat, Elsa says the Combses sent her to several different homes during 1997 before she ended up in Georgia with Roger and Susan Combs (Joseph Combs’s brother and sister-in-law).

Roger (now deceased) and Susan Combs ultimately convinced Elsa to reveal the truth.

“They pulled out some napkins and put them on the table,” she said. “They said this is the island you’re on, and the boat’s coming by, and you’re going to have to get on it if you want to get off of this island.”

“I finally broke down and told them,” she said.

She remembers telling Roger Combs about what happened like it was yesterday.

He sat down in front of her, cross-legged, and Elsa told Roger everything.

“I started crying and it all came out,” she said.

In recounting the story, this is the point at which Elsa gets the most choked up and emotional.

“His response still kills me to this day because he just fell forward and sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed,” she says. “But he believed me. He didn’t question it. He knew.”

At the time, Joseph Combs was still calling Elsa via telephone. Roger cut him off, informing his brother what Elsa had revealed.

The preacher accused Elsa of lying, she says.

“Roger and Susan said ‘no, we believe her,’” she said.

Not only did they believe her, but they encouraged Elsa to call local detectives.

Joe and Evangeline Combs were indicted in November 1998 on multiple charges of aggravated child abuse, assault and kidnapping. Joe Combs faced additional charges of rape.

They were sentenced to a combined total of 179 years in prison. Joe Combs, sentenced to 106 years, died in prison in 2015. Evangeline remains behind bars.

The sentencing isn’t the end of the story, though.

Elsa said that she wasn’t exactly happy when the Combses were sent to prison.

“I felt responsible for them going to prison,” she said. “I lost my family. I lost everything I had ever known. It wasn’t a happy day.”

For years, she struggled to acclimate. She started drinking and doing drugs.

She fell in with the “bad people,” as she puts it, including a female roommate who continued abusing her in a way to which she had become accustomed.

While engaged at age 24, she gave birth to her daughter.

And she just couldn’t seem to stop crying.

“I remember thinking seven years after it happened, ‘God, it’s been seven years, why isn’t it any better yet?’ ”

It all came to a head when she once again tried to commit suicide, this time by driving her car off the road and smashing into a tree.

“I thought I was ending the pain and helping (my daughter) have a better life than I could give her,” she says.

Elsa ended up being committed to a psychiatric ward as a result of the incident. She lost custody of her daughter for nine months.

It was then that counselors finally got through to Elsa, she says.

They helped her understand that she was giving the wrong people too much control over her life, and that her daughter would only end up resenting her if she killed herself.

In short, she learned the value of empowerment and a whole new appreciation for the life she and her daughter still had.

After the accident, she came to Lapeer County to be close to members of her biological family.

Today, Elsa is hardly recognizable from when she was featured in a 2000 story on ABCTV’s Primetime news program.

She smiles and laughs when asked if she smokes, or needs a smoke break.

She jokes about how a woman should never be asked her age.

The proud mother also talks about how smart her daughter is, and that she’s already trying to decide what college she will attend.

And she hopes that telling her story now is just the beginning of what she envisions as a mission to spread awareness about child abuse.

She may even write a book about it one day.

But there’s a chance none of it would be happening, she said, if two people (Roger and Susan Combs) hadn’t taken action on what she said, and what they saw.

By telling her story now, she hopes others realize the importance of saying something when they see something.

“I want to be the change that is needed for people to finally stop acting like it’s none of their business,” Elsa said. “If you see it, it is your business.”

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