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Laurie Kuykendall Kepner stayed quiet for three decades about life with her husband, not even telling her little sister about how he physically abused her, threatened her, mistrusted her, denigrated her and blamed her for everything that went wrong in his life.

"She was afraid of what he would do to her for talking," said that sister, Karen Kuykendall Nordsick. "She would never tell anyone anything."

But in the months before she left Martin Kepner at 2 p.m. Dec. 21, Laurie could no longer bottle up her yearning to trade the yoke of domestic abuse for a life of freedom and dignity.

Diary entries, notes and letters chronicle Laurie's growing anger and fear, her resolve to live a fulfilling life after moving into her own apartment, her delight at experiencing new things — and even her futile attempts to find a law-enforcement officer to accompany her when she went to her former home to get her belongings.

"I can't begin to tell you how much freedom I feel," she wrote to an uncle 10 days before her murder. "Like a bird that just got out of the cage. I am finally learning who I am. A friendly, warm person who (doesn't) have any problem connecting with people. I go dancing every Saturday night and I love it."

Ambushed in driveway: Laurie, 53, and her Saturday-night dance partner and friend, 55-year-old Barb Schrum, were fatally shot in the head by Kepner on May 29 as they were retrieving some of Laurie's property at Kepner's home, 1615 Lisburn Road in Warrington Township, just outside Wellsville.

He also stabbed Schrum in the neck as she sat — seat-belted — in a vehicle waiting to leave, according to the York County Coroner's Office. After murdering the women, Kepner fatally shot himself in the head, Coroner Pam Gay has said.

Kepner lay down in the driveway next to Laurie's body before committing suicide, according to Nordsick.

Nordsick invited a reporter to Kepner's home last week, where she shared Laurie's letters and diary, and grappled with her own pain and disillusionment as she prepares the property for public auction.

"I don't think she realized she was being abused and was in that much danger until (the months before) she left," Nordsick said. "She said he was very jealous, very controlling and always blaming her. Everything that ever went wrong was always her fault."

Blamed wife: Laurie's Dec. 11 diary entry recounts Kepner screaming at her: "He let me have it this morning. ... His manhood not working is my fault."

The couple had gone to marriage counseling about Kepner's erectile dysfunction, according to the diary, and Laurie wrote that he told her, "I should have spent $100 a week on a hooker and kept my mouth shut."

Things degenerated as December progressed, and Laurie secretly made plans to flee, her diary revealed.

On Dec. 18 she wrote: "Martin tells me how miserable his life is. He wishes he was dead."

Around that time, Kepner told Nordsick he would "blow his head off" if Laurie left him, according to Nordsick.

Even scarier were incidents Laurie recounted when she finally opened up to her family in November, Nordsick said.

"She told me his favorite thing to do was choke her," Nordsick said. "He also threw her down a flight of stairs and thought he broke her back."

Laurie confided her husband once choked her so violently in their driveway that she passed out, her sister said.

On Dec. 19 Laurie wrote: "I told him I don't love him anymore and he's smothering me."

'Very angry': On Dec. 20, after Laurie spent the whole day with Nordsick, she wrote: "Martin was very angry."

She left Kepner the next day and hid at a local motel, her sister said, but tried to remain friendly with him and wrote him a number of letters — missives in which she tried to reason with him and in which her boldness grew in calling him out as an abuser.

In one post-breakup letter, Laurie reminded Kepner of "all the times I was slammed against the wall by the throat" by him.

"I felt like I was being suffocated," she also wrote. "You told me I was your possession. ... When you said you wanted to shoot yourself, you would leave the room and I would look around the corner to see if you were getting a gun."

Nordsick said Kepner was always within easy reach of a firearm when at home — a fact not lost on Laurie.

"She was scared to death. This place was full of guns," Nordsick said. "And every one of them was loaded."

Not ready to die: Kepner wrote to her estranged husband that she was terrified of him: "I was warned that people who want to shoot themselves usually take someone with them and I didn't want to go."

Laurie's Feb. 17 diary entry suggests Kepner was still trying to emotionally manipulate her nearly two months after they separated: "Martin said he thought about shooting the cats but couldn't bring himself to do that."

Laurie was devoted to her seven house cats but was able to take just one of them, Susie, with her to her new apartment, according to her sister.

"Her cats were her kids, and he threw them out in the middle of winter (after Laurie left him)," Nordsick said.

After the double murder-suicide, Nordsick and several of Laurie's longtime friends trapped the cats; all seven are now living with Laurie's friends, Nordsick said.

In the May 19 letter to her uncle, Laurie said she missed her home and her cats.

"But it got to the point where I had to leave," she wrote. "I feared for my life."

'Always afraid': Also in that letter, Laurie wished she'd "had the strength to leave him years ago. But I was always afraid."

Laurie made the most of her five months of freedom, according to Nordsick.

She found an apartment, spent time with friends and made new ones, went to counseling, focused on her seamstress work and art projects and, accompanied by a niece, drove to Midland, Texas, for a work trip.

The April cross- country adventure — detailed in her diary — made Laurie realize she loved traveling and wanted to do much more of it, according to her sister.

Family members say it was her first and only trip outside Pennsylvania.

In the letter to her uncle, Laurie made it clear she was relishing her new life.

"This sure sounds self-centered," she wrote, "but after all the years of doing what I was told ... the freedom of choice is amazing."

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com.

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