Torrace resident Pamela Michell survived a harrowing domestic violence ordeal where she was held captive, drugged, and beaten by a man focused on taking her family's money. He was sentenced in a Washington court last week to 30 years in prison. (Sean Hiller/Staff Photographer)

It was as if Torrance resident Pamela Hazlett Michell had a target painted on her back the night six years ago she strolled near a Hawaiian beach.

Still grieving from the loss of her father a few weeks before and saddled with stress from her mother's failing health, Michell's vulnerability was a tantalizing lure for an opportunistic and violent predator like Darren Woodley.

"What a beautiful evening it is for a walk," he said as they passed each other on a Waikiki street. "Would you like some company?"

Looking back, Michell, 50, believes it was a mixture of flattery - and her fragile emotional state - that prompted her to uncharacteristically let her guard down.

During their walk, she shared her turmoil, along with information about her family's plentiful financial resources.

It wasn't long before Woodley, 42, sequestered Michell and her mother in a Seattle-area home, where he held her captive, tortured her and plied her with morphine in an effort to get at her family's assets.

Woodley beat her using anything he could, from his fists to an iron to the television remote control. He burned her, stabbed her and choked her unconscious repeatedly.


the time she escaped, she had five broken ribs, a collapsed esophagus that resulted in a trachea tube, paralyzed vocal cords, a jaw broken in several places, broken facial bones, a detached retina, broken teeth, torn, ragged lips and both ears partially ripped from her head.

Woodley pleaded guilty to assault and domestic violence just after a jury was selected to hear his trial in November.

On April 2, he was sentenced by a King County Superior Court judge in Washington to 30 years in prison - an exceptional sentence beyond even the 20 years requested by prosecutors.

Not much is known about Woodley except that he has a minor criminal record for theft and drugs.

Even his attorney, Jennifer Cruz, said she doesn't know much about his client beyond that she believes he's mentally ill.

"He feels bad for the whole situation," Cruz said, calling what Michell endured "a tragedy."

Before Woodley was sentenced, Michell told the judge about the devastating impact Woodley had on her health, family and finances.

"I wrongly perceived his interest as compassion," she said.

Emily Elting, a domestic violence advocate with the King County District Attorney's Office, called Woodley the "worst of the worst" of domestic violence perpetrators.

"He's the only defendant I've ever had a physical reaction to in the courtroom," Elting said.

In a recent interview, Michell, a fund-raiser whose former clients include various domestic violence shelters, began her story by saying: "It's gonna sound strange "

An adopted, only child, Michell was raised in a happy and healthy home. A divorcee with two grown daughters, her previous work gave her knowledge of domestic violence and its symptoms - making her, she thought, an unlikely victim.

But during that tropical island walk in October 2003, she shared her personal strife with Woodley, including how she did not know how to handle the task of managing her parents' estate, which included $1.25 million in property.

Woodley told her he was a practical nurse who ran adult family homes in Washington, and he could assist in bringing her mother to the mainland and making arrangements for appropriate care while living with Michell.

"He presented as someone who was going to offer a solution to me," Michell said.

Michell left her job as a fund-raiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Venice and moved her and her mother to Federal Way, Wash.

It wasn't long before Woodley's controlling ways began to surface.

He secretly drugged her with morphine prescribed to her mother, then isolated her by refusing her her phone and purse. He cut up her clothes when she tried to escape.

In her drug-induced, foggy state, he got her to sign papers turning over control and ownership of her finances to him. He tricked her into marrying him, then further liquidated her assets for himself.

Meanwhile, he beat her so badly she began to willingly take the morphine for the pain.

Elizabeth Cowdrick, a licensed caregiver hired for Michell's mother, said Woodley showed her the pills and said, "The bitch is going to sleep as long as I want her to sleep. I made sure of that."

Cowdrick stayed, she said, because she felt an obligation to look after Michell and her mother. She didn't report Woodley to the police because she feared the repercussions.

"It was truly a very dangerous situation," Cowdrick said. "I couldn't just run and tell somebody."

Woodley fired Cowdrick often. One time, he told her to leave after she fed his cat wet food while he was away for a few days. Cowdrick said she was afraid to go because she thought Woodley would take his anger out on Michell.

She was right.

When Woodley summoned her back the next day, she said she saw Michell - cloaked in a hood and big sunglasses - try to eat by soaking bits of bread in water and smashing it into her broken mouth.

Cowdrick was fired permanently before Michell's escape.

Michell said she was always afraid to leave because her mother was stuck there. But on May 1, 2005, she decided she had to go, or die.

Unable to eat, she was losing weight. She was having difficulty breathing - Woodley had just choked her nearly unconscious again.

Even though Woodley would check her mouth to ensure she swallowed the morphine, she managed to fool him into believing she did.

When he fell asleep, she took one of her mother's housecoats, and snuck out in her bare feet. She drove to a thrift store, waited for it to open, then bought some pants, a shirt and flip-flops with spare change she found in the car.

"I was scared to death," she said. "I thought as soon as he wakes up he's gonna be looking for me - what will happen to my mother?"

Because she didn't have her identification, Michell went to her doctor, who referred her to the hospital. She spent a month there.

However, the police were not called for weeks - partly because Michell was afraid of what would happen to her mother and also because, unlike California, medical professionals in Washington are not required to report suspected domestic violence.

After the hospital, she moved into a rehabilitation facility for about five months.

The beatings left her face severely deformed. Through the Smile Program, under which cosmetic surgeons help domestic violence victims for free, Dr. Andrew Frankel, who practices in Beverly Hills, rebuilt her face.

Now living in an apartment with her 23-year-old daughter, Michell has her life back on track. She remains active in the business community, including the Manhattan Beach and LAX Coastal chambers of commerce. Her mother is now living in a nursing home.

She hopes to write a book about her ordeal so that others can learn from her harrowing experience and give victims hope.

"Even when it looks like there's no way out," she said, "don't give up, because there is a way out."