Earlier this week, Wendy Maldonado stood inside a metal cage, clutching her belongings in a paper bag at a prison in Wilsonville, Oregon, where she has spent the past decade for killing her abusive husband.
The rain had just let up, but it was cold and windy as she watched the guards slowly unlock the two gates that separated her from the outside world. She wondered if she was dreaming, she says.
"Everything felt like it wasn't happening," Maldonado tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview from a relative's home in Grants Pass, Oregon. "It didn't seem real. But as soon as they opened that gate and I stepped outside, I realized: 'This really is happening.'"
Maldonado has long contended that she had no choice but to kill her husband Aaron after enduring years of relentless, sadistic abuse that included regularly being strangled until she blacked out and having 17 teeth knocked out.
The judge who sentenced her described what she – and her four sons – had endured as "the worst case of domestic violence that any of us has seen."
'If I Hadn't Done This, I Know We'd All Be Dead By Now'The abuse allegedly started not long after her marriage to Aaron, who was her high school boyfriend. By the time Maldonado turned 17, she was pregnant and resigned to the idea that she was "never getting away" from her increasingly violent husband. Over the years, Aaron repeatedly threatened to kill her and their four sons if she ever tried leaving him, graphically detailing exactly how he would do it, she says.
Her oldest son Randy, who was 16 at the time, assisted his mother in the May 1, 2005 killing. The two slipped into Aaron's bedroom in the early morning hours and bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and a hatchet while he slept.
The case made national headlines and was the subject of the HBOdocumentary One Minute To Nine. The film moved one viewer to start a fundraising effort to help Maldonado get back on her feet after her release from prison.
As part of her plea agreement, she was sentenced to ten years in prison and Randy, who, along with his brothers, survived years of physical abuse from their father, received a 75-month sentence.
Maldonado believes she did the right thing under the circumstances: "If I hadn't done this," she told PEOPLE in an interview last year, "I know we'd all be dead by now."
She and her four sons are now focused on putting the horrors of their past behind them – and looking forward to "what's next," which she hopes will include plenty of hiking, camping, yoga and gardening.
Reunion With Her SonNearly two dozen of Maldonado's friends and family members gathered in the parking lot of Oregon's Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in March to await her release from prison. The first person she hugged after walking through the security gates was Randy, whom she hadn't been allowed to see for nearly a decade.
"It was weird," recalls Randy of that moment outside the prison. "It's gonna take some time to get used to. The last time I saw her I was a kid. I'm an adult now."
The reunion was emotional, but Maldonado says she was able to keep from tearing up. "What makes me cry is when other people cry," she says. "And since Randy didn't, I didn't either."
One of the first things she did after her release was drive to a nearby restaurant and get breakfast. "I had crispy hash browns – not soggy ones – eggs well done with cheese, eight pieces of bacon and some avocado slices with lemon," she says. "I can't wait to start cooking."
Educating Others on Domestic ViolenceMaldonado hopes to one day use her tragic story to educate other women about the warning signs of domestic abuse she says she ignored in the early stages of her relationship with Aaron.
"It's over for me," she told PEOPLE from prison several months ago. "But maybe if I could help one or two other women like me not have to go through this, then maybe all this was for a reason."
During her incarceration, Maldonado insists that she never once felt sorry for herself – although she still feels sorry for Aaron's family.
"Somebody died and his family is sad," she says. "Who am I to say, 'Oh, poor me?'"
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