Scene: In the darkened bedroom of a small Beverly Hills home, a man sits smoking a cigarette, a shotgun clenched in his hand. A petite woman, beautiful but visibly drained, pushes open the door. She senses she is not alone. She smells smoke in the air, then sees the glow of the cigarette and, in its dim light, the outline of the man—and the gun. "What are you doing with that gun?" she screams. He walks toward her and points it at her face. He orders her to strip, and as she stands there terrified, naked, he begins to insult her. He tells her she is ugly. He cocks the shotgun, puts it against her head. "I ought to kill you for trying to leave me, "he says. He demands that she say, "I am a whore. I am a baby killer. "For half an hour the standoff continues, he poised to shoot, she expecting to die. Then suddenly the man drops to his knees, puts the gun on the bed and begins sobbing. "My God, what have I done?" he cries. His tears burn on her flesh. Weeping, she takes him in her arms and whispers, "I won't leave you."

THOUGH IT SOUNDS LIKE THE SCRIPT from a movie thriller, the victim was real—Sarah Owen, 28—and she insists it was instead one act in what she calls the horrifying drama of her four-year relationship with actor James Woods. Owen alleges that Woods, 44, a charismatic actor celebrated for his riveting portrayals of misfits and murderers in movies like The Onion Field and Against All Odds, lived constantly on the hair-trigger of frightening rages. When he snapped, she claims, he subjected her to outbursts of physical and psychological abuse, sometimes beating and choking her. She says she decided to tell her story, after the TV show Hard Copy approached her, with the hope she could help other women who are involved in abusive relationships.

Not for the first time, Hollywood is wondering where the truth regarding Woods may lie. Since he first gained fame in the late '70s, the volatile actor, who attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology on scholarship, has been regarded as something of an enigma. While brilliant, he is also crude—wont to toss out words like tits and f—-over dinner—and sexist, recently remarking to a reporter, for instance, "What a looker that one is. I wonder how many guys she had to sleep with before she got her BMW." Nor has anyone forgotten his alleged affair with—and subsequent $2 million-plus harassment lawsuit against—actress Sean Young in 1987, in which he accused her of sending him a butchered doll and photographs of mutilated animals.

Though he has refused repeated requests for an interview with PEOPLE, Woods has vehemently denied, through his lawyer, all of Owen's charges (see box, page 138). In the meantime, friends and acquaintances of Woods and Owen are quickly taking sides. In Owen's camp are those who say they witnessed signs of abuse, both emotional and physical. "I saw bruises and scratches and heard him threaten to kill her," says Owen's friend, food importer Michael Shuman, 32. Others say Owen is a publicity-savvy gold digger—her divorce settlement request that Woods return her engagement ring and pay her legal fees went to court the week after her Hard Copy interview—as well as a vindictive liar. "She sits at home and schemes and plots," says Woods's current girlfriend, Julie Tesh, ex-wife of Entertainment Tonight's John Tesh. "She doesn't have a grip on reality."

Though the backlash stings, Owen says she expected it. In her Beverly Hills home, which she shares with her boyfriend of two years, CEO of the motion-picture equipment company Panavision, John Farrand, 46, she says she feels even more sharply now the pain of her memories of violence—none of which she has spoken of until recently. "My experiences have been private and embarrassing for me," she says softly. "This is news to most of my friends and family."

Owen met Woods in 1985 at a Sunset Strip Chevron station when she pulled her Chevy pickup truck in to get gas. Owen, then 22, was a horse trainer with a grueling dawn-to-dusk work schedule. Though she'd lived in Los Angeles for a year, she knew little of the Hollywood scene—and nothing of actor James Woods. "Jim came over to tell me my lights were still on," she says. "He was flirtatious in an awkward way. He seemed bashful and very sweet."

The next day they had lunch. "We fell head over heels in love with each other," says Owen. "I ended up moving in with him in Beverly Hills 10 days after we met." At first, the couple basked in domestic bliss. Woods's friends saw a new ease in the high-strung actor. "Jimmy was ready to slow down," said his longtime pal, writer Percy Granger. "Sarah was very level-headed, not impressed by his fame." The two of them spent happy, sun-filled days relaxing by his pool and romantic nights snuggling down to talk of marriage and kids.

It wasn't long, though, before the bickering started. Shortly after she met Woods, Sarah took a position at a farm near Santa Barbara that kept her away from home much of the week. But Woods, she says, resented her being away and began to pick fights. "He would say things like, 'It's a shame you're not here for this big premiere, but don't worry about it, I'll ask my ex-wife,' " says Owen. Sarah took his anger as a cry for help. "I didn't think it was directed at me," she explains. "He would always say that women were whores, liars and couldn't be trusted—but that I was different. I kept thinking, 'This poor man, he feels this way because he's had such bad experiences with women. I'm going to give him all the love in the world. I'm going to save him.' "

To please him, she says, Owen stopped working, but her devotion to the relationship apparently was not enough. "He'd always be looking for ways to terrorize Sarah," says Shuman. "Once we were at Prego and he ordered a Coke. He always had to have two cherries in his Coke, and this time he just got one. He turned to Sarah and said, 'I know you did that on purpose, you lousy c—-.' "

For more than a year, says Owen, the outbursts continued. Still, she defended him to incredulous family members and friends. "I thought he was testing me," says Owen, "to see if I really did love him."

By their second year together, the verbal lashings had turned physical. At the slightest provocation, she says—unfounded jealousies, affronts to what he called his "movie star" status—he kicked, hit, pinched and spat at her. "One morning I was making him breakfast, fried eggs and toast," recalls Sarah. "When I put the plate in front of him, one of the egg yolks was broken. He said, 'Did you do this on purpose? Why do you do this s—-to me?' He threw the plate at me, and I ducked and it hit the wall." Their maid, Ana Turcios, watched in astonishment. "I didn't think that [broken egg yolk] was reason for such anger," she says. Embarrassed to argue in front of Ana, Sarah went into the bedroom, and Woods angrily stormed out of the house.

Each time Sarah packed her bags to leave, she says, Woods would beg her to stay, swearing he would never hurt her again. "He was so convincing," says Sarah, "and he promised to get into couples therapy." But he quit after three sessions, and his behavior, says Owen, remained disturbing.

Woods's sexual habits particularly troubled Owen. Often, she says, he played pornographic videos or called sex hotlines to arouse himself. "I would say, 'Gee, Jim, do you think maybe we could make love without a film in the VCR or making these stupid sex calls?' He made me feel like I didn't even have to be in the room." Worse, he seemed to delight in coming on to other women—including her friends—in front of Owen. "Once, a couple of years after I moved in with Jim, my girlfriend, whom I hadn't seen in a long time, came over, and when Jim came home, I introduced them. We were standing by the window, and my friend said, 'What a beautiful view,' and Jim said, 'If you think that's beautiful, what do you think of this?' When we turned around, he had his penis in his hand," says Owen. "I was mortified." Her friend, who asks that her name not be disclosed, confirms the story. "I was embarrassed," she says. "I felt very sorry for Sarah, having to be around that type of humiliation all the time."

In the fall of 1987, when Woods was shooting The Boost, Sarah became pregnant. But by then Woods had begun his now notorious association with costar Sean Young (PEOPLE, March 20, 1989) and pressured her to have an abortion, says Owen. "Then I got all this abortion literature," recalls Owen with a shudder. "They were both insane people. I wanted to die."

Instead, in October she had an abortion, and the next day kicked Woods out of the house. For five days, she says, he begged her to take him back, but she refused. It was then that Owen, exhausted, emaciated (she had dropped from 110 lbs. to 89 lbs.) and confused, walked into their home to find Woods waiting in the dark with a shotgun in his hand. "I was so frightened," she says. "It was awful. I didn't know him anymore."

Woods left that night, remorseful as always, Owen says, but days later the terror started again. Woods harassed Sarah's family and friends, threatening their safety and hers. According to Michael Shuman, Woods told him, "I don't need to pull a trigger on Sarah. I'll make her kill herself." Another friend, horse trainer Randy Shelton, was so distressed by Woods's repeated phone calls, he eventually filed for a restraining order against Woods. The Nov. 20 declaration with Shelton's account of one of Woods's threats reads: "Randy... you are a dead man. I've hired two niggers... who will be by to rape your mother and put a blanket over your head and kill you." When Woods tracked down Sarah in Germany, where she was staying with friends, she says he tormented her too. "He told me he had hired 'two niggers from Watts' to cut my horses' throats," she recalls.

Owen immediately returned to Los Angeles. Woods, who had checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for exhaustion, once again begged her forgiveness, she says. "I fell into his arms," says Owen, who explains that "at that time, it never occurred to me that I could have somebody else. Still, when he surprised her by proposing, she hesitated, and Woods, she says, went crazy. "He threw me to the floor, picked up one of those wooden hospital chairs and threatened me." When a security guard, alarmed by her screams (or help, arrived at the door, says Owen, "Woods said, 'Get this girl out of here. She's a crazy fan, after my drugs.' "

Owen went straight to West Los Angeles police headquarters, where she reported both the shotgun and hospital incidents. She filed for a restraining order against Woods. But he was not to be dissuaded. Woods convinced her to talk with him once more, and "boom," says Owen, "we were back together."

In January 1988, at Mortons restaurant, Woods dropped a three-carat diamond engagement ring into a glass of champagne and once again proposed. This time, Sarah accepted. "Leaving him was my biggest fear," she explains. "It was like letting go of the tiger's tail; if you let go, it can reach around and kill you." For a year and a half Owen procrastinated, hoping to find the strength to get out—but to no avail.

Sarah's decision to let the wedding proceed did not spare her Woods's fury. Daniel James Cantu, the clothing designer who tailored Sarah's wedding dress, noticed bruises when she came in for fittings. "There were visible black-and-blue marks on her back," he says. "It looked like she'd been beaten pretty badly." When the apprehensive Owen showed signs of backing out of the wedding, says Michael Shuman, Woods got nasty. "If that c—-friend of yours screws up my wedding," Shuman says Woods said to him about Sarah, "I'll kill you, Sarah and Sarah's family." On June 2, 1989, despite her fear and his anger, Woods and Owen became husband and wife. "As I walked down the aisle," says Sarah, "my veil was trembling. I realized I was vowing to take this abuse for the rest of my life."

She found the strength to break away a few months later when her mother, Emma, who had just been diagnosed with colon cancer, was visiting. Sarah awoke one night to find Woods gone from their bed. "I tiptoed down the hall to the guest room where my mother was staying," says Owen, "and found Jim masturbating in front of the door where she was sleeping." Finally, his behavior fell into chilling perspective. "I had a real crisis to deal with—my mother's illness," says Owen, "instead of the make-believe one he had been creating all those years."

With her anger and disgust came a new resolve. A few days later, says Owen, "I woke up and said to Jim, 'You have a very serious problem with women.' I took off my wedding ring, my engagement ring and my wedding present from him, a diamond necklace. I said, 'I don't want anything.' " Four months after she married Woods, Sarah walked out of the house—and Woods's life—for good.

It has been a year since her divorce from Woods was finalized, but Owen has yet to shake completely free from her past. Her accusations against Woods have stirred angry denials and counteraccusations, not only from Woods but also from his friends. "She just told me she was unhappy and they were not getting along," concedes Woods's friend Scott Sandler, "but she never said, 'Gee, Scott, he hit me last night.' She just wants to hurt Jimmy. That's what she wants to do." Indeed both Woods's first wife (from 1980 to 1983), costume designer Kathryn Morrison-Pahoa, who often works on films Woods is in, and Julie Tesh, his girlfriend of more than a year, say Woods is incapable of violence. "I have known Jimmy for 13 years, and he never laid a finger on me," claims Morrison-Pahoa. (She did, however, say of Woods in a 1984 Esquire magazine article, "He wanted to control me....Jim thinks his way is the only way....If Jim found out I was going out with someone else....I mean, do you want me to get killed?" After nervously laughing, she added, "That was a joke. Really.") Says Tesh: "He doesn't have a hot temper at all. He's very logical. He doesn't have to hit." Though Tesh has never met Owen, she says she is certain that Sarah fabricated the battery story to get money from Woods. "There is no question in my mind," says Tesh, "because that's the type of thing these kind of women do."

Curled up on a couch next to John Farrand, Sarah shrugs at such suggestions. "I walked out of my marriage with nothing," she says. That Woods be made to give back her engagement ring and to pay her legal fees is, to Owen, a matter of principle. Though a divorce settlement has yet to be reached, Owen is eager to move forward. "I am with the most normal man anyone could wish for," she says. "My future is very bright." She and Farrand have a new home together and plan to many. Now, nuzzling up to her terrier, Tucker, Owen gives one final nod to her painful past. "The only advice I can give Jim is to admit he has a serious problem and seek help," she says, "but I am not responsible for keeping his secrets anymore."

KAREN SCHNEIDER
VICKI SHEFF and NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Vicki Sheff,
  • Nancy Matsumoto.