03/27/2006 at 01:00 AM EST
Patrick and Ingrid Van Cleemput often thought about Jane Doe, the anonymous witness who surfaced at the 11th hour in 2002, prompting Richard Stone—the neighbor accused of molesting their daughter Sarah and driving her to suicide at age 14—to plead guilty. "We knew all along, whoever it was that came forward was extremely courageous," Patrick told PEOPLE. But it wasn't until March 6 that they received a stunning e-mail from Santa Clara County supervising deputy district attorney Chuck Gillingham, disclosing that the woman responsible for putting Stone behind bars was Desperate Housewives
star Teri Hatcher
Within days, the rest of the world had learned the news. During a tearful interview in April's Vanity Fair
, the actress, 41, revealed that she had been sexually abused by Stone, who was then her aunt's husband, between the ages of 5 and 9. "This is something I've tried to hide my whole life," she said. Only after learning of Sarah's death in 2002, and her suicide note implicating Stone, did Hatcher finally—and painfully—share her story with investigators. "Without Teri Hatcher
, a stone-cold predator would be a free man today," says Gillingham. "She is a damn good person, gutsy and courageous, for having come forward, with so much at stake for her personally, in such a selfless act."
Hatcher's revelation caught even her fellow Housewives off guard. "Teri's not one to talk about her private life, so all of us were really surprised and supportive," says Eva Longoria
. "I'm proud of her. It took a lot of courage to do what she did." No one felt that more than the Van Cleemputs, who "were surprised to hear it was Teri Hatcher
," Patrick says. The family, who moved from the San Jose, Calif., suburb of Sunnyvale and settled in France after Sarah's death, has spoken with the actress, "and she told us she was moved and inspired by Sarah's story," says Patrick. "We are extremely grateful for that."
Hatcher's abuse occurred during her childhood in Sunnyvale. She told Vanity Fair
that even if her dad, Owen, an electrical engineer, and mom, Esther, a computer programmer, suspected something had occurred between her and Stone (who was married to Esther's sister) "nobody wanted to talk about it. But all I did was blame myself." In 2002, when Esther passed along newspaper reports about Sarah's suicide and Stone's arrest, Hatcher wavered about going to the authorities, concerned that her revelation would be viewed as a ploy to resurrect her then-floundering career. However, "there was no way," she said, "I was not going to put this girl first."
Gillingham's case—without physical evidence or witness testimony to prove abuse had occurred—was on the verge of collapse. "All of us had resigned ourselves that Stone was going to go free," he says. Two days before a scheduled fall 2002 hearing to dismiss the case, he received a surprise phone call from Hatcher and flew to L.A. the next day to interview her. "It was an extraordinarily difficult thing for her to do, to relive one of the most heinous experiences [that could] happen to a child, in graphic detail, in front of two complete strangers," he says. Invigorated, Gillingham passed the new evidence to the defense. Within weeks, Stone, then 64, pleaded guilty to four counts of molestation. Gillingham called Hatcher immediately. "She was relieved it was all over," he says. That December, Stone was sentenced to 14 years.
Hatcher remained silent until, she says, a recent relationship with a man who romanced, then abruptly rejected her, helped prompt her public confession. "It's time for me to accept all the complicated things about me," she told Vanity Fair
, "and if I do that, maybe I'll find somebody who wants that whole package, instead of continuing to hide and finding somebody who doesn't."
Gillingham, meanwhile, hopes that Hatcher's revelation will prompt others to follow her lead. "Less than 10 percent of these cases are reported, so hopefully Teri's coming forward as a survivor will inspire others," he says. "She re-fused to let herself be defined by abuse and still became successful. Perhaps that message might save the next child from what happened to Sarah."