Esther Combs
Esther Combs

Woman says years spent with Bristol family marked by servitude, abuse and rape

Associated Press

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. (AP) - She has scars from scissors, pliers, glass and a hot curling iron. Four fingers on her right hand have been broken over the years, as has one of her elbows.

Esther Alice Combs, 21, has marks of abuse all over her body. She claims a Bristol, Tenn., family used her as a servant and maltreated her from the time she was a little girl. Among the charges pending against former Baptist preacher Joseph Combs , 50, is that he repeatedly raped Esther beginning when she was 12 years old.

Interviewed by The Tennessean in a story published Sunday, Esther, now living in Michigan and using another name, took a deep breath before proceeding.

"Well, you know I've never counted all the things up," she said. "I've got this scar here on my top lip, there's a lot on my shins, all over my legs, on my stomach, here on my arms, my chest and my back. ... Oh, there's been so many scars and broken bones, I don't know how many there are, all together."

Joseph Combs and his wife, 49-year-old Evangeline, face charges of kidnapping, child abuse and aggravated assault. They were arrested three weeks ago and are being held at the Sullivan County jail on bonds of $250,000 each.

The Combs' deny any mistreatment of Esther, and are supported by friends and their five other children, one of them adopted. "Esther was accident prone, that's all there is to it," said Jimmy Combs, 21, the adopted child.

"I'm very surprised at her allegations about mom and dad. They would never do anything so bizarre. It's not the truth, and I'm angry that Esther would tell such lies."

Family friend Aaron P. Welch says he's known Joseph Combs for 20 years, and calls the charges "completely false."

"These are not abusive people," Welch said. "As for Esther, as a young girl she was always very sweet and well-behaved. But I know that in the last couple of years, she turned rebellious against any kind of authority, especially her parents, like many children do. And they told me when she got mad, she would scratch herself or hurt herself in some other way. "Most of her scars are self-inflicted. Esther is a very emotionally disturbed young lady."

Esther's version of the story begins when she was four, and was turned over to the Combs' by the Baptist Children's Home and Family Ministry in Valparaiso, Ind. She is suing the home for damages. The family never completed the adoption process.

"They would call me `slave' or `Cinderella,"' Esther said. She started out making sandwiches for her mother, and says by the time she was "7, 8 or 9, I was already doing everything a servant or slave would do."

She cooked for the family, washed their clothes and dishes, scrubbed the bathroom and made the beds, Esther said. She never attended school, and wasn't allowed to leave the home without Joseph or Evangeline. When she was 9, she says she was given the additional task of caring for the Combs' newborn baby girl, who she said slept in a crib beside her bed.

"Even though she was a fussy baby and would cry like about every 30 minutes, I really enjoyed having her in there with me. The problem was that I was so short, I could barely get her out of the high crib every time to hold her when she cried."

If something went wrong, she says she was punished. "Oh, it really could be anything ... they'd say I gave somebody a dirty look, or that I said something sassy. I never did anything right." Esther says she tried to run away in 1992 and 1996, but each time was caught and punished severely. On Feb. 18, 1997, she tried to commit suicide by drinking a glass of antifreeze.

She was found by one of her siblings, who called 911. She was rushed to Bristol Regional Medical Center, where she lay in a coma for a week before starting to recover. But nurses and doctors saw the scars, leading to the charges against Joseph and Evangeline Combs.

When brought to the hospital, the 5-foot-1-inch woman weighed 80 pounds. She says she had never been to a doctor or dentist, even though three of her front teeth had been knocked out.

Today, Esther has a new name and is living with a Michigan couple she met through a home for troubled youth. She is getting medical care and counseling, has gained weight and works at a grocery store.

"I don't know where I'll go from here," she said. "I'm glad to be free, but lots of times, I really don't know what to think or how to act. "Life is pretty scary sometimes. But no matter what, I just never, never ever want to go back."

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. Published November 29, 1998

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