06/06/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
The May 8 assault that landed country singer Mindy McCready in the hospital and her ex-boyfriend behind bars, facing charges of attempted murder and aggravated burglary, began just after 7 a.m. By McCready's account and as she testified at a preliminary hearing on May 12, she had just pulled into the garage of her Nashville condo, having spent the night with her friend Leigh Rowan after a party at the home of John Rich, half of the duo Big & Rich. As the garage door descended, her ex-boyfriend, aspiring singer William Patrick McKnight, slipped inside and grabbed her. "He said, 'You're not going to make a fool of me. I'm going to kill you.'" McCready, 29, ran upstairs to her bedroom, but McKnight followed. "He proceeded to beat my head against the headboard and hit me in the face and choke me," she alleges. "My face just exploded. It started bleeding everywhere." McCready fell off the bed and ran. "He caught me on the bottom step and tackled me and he hit me several more times in the face," she says. "I was choking, gurgling blood in my throat." Suddenly, McKnight, 38, seemed to come to his senses. He placed her on a couch, brought her an ice-filled towel and said, "I'm sorry, I love you." Then, ignoring her pleas to phone for help, he left. (Through his lawyer, McKnight denies the legal charges.)
McCready's body has mended quickly. "A lot of the eye injuries were because of the choking," she says. But to combat the emotional toll, she is speaking out about what she says was her abusive relationship in hopes that it may help people in similar circumstances. "For my own sanity, I have to talk about this," she says. "I want to make something good from this situation, save some woman's life who is in this situation." Buoyed by an outpouring of goodwill, McCready says, "after my relationship with Billy, I had forgotten that I mattered to anybody.... I think that the bad times are behind me now."
That is, if she's lucky. Talented, brash and beautiful, McCready was heralded as Nashville's next Shania Twain when, at age 20, she made her CD debut. Ten Thousand Angels sold more than 2 million copies. But after a string of high-profile romances, including a relationship with a Saudi prince and an engagement to actor Dean Cain, record executives say McCready was distracted. Sales of her next two CDs slid so sharply that her label dropped her.
Then McCready's free fall accelerated. Last November she pleaded guilty to prescription drug fraud (though she insists her purchase of the painkiller OxyContin was for a friend). "It was a stupid thing to do, but I am not a drug addict," she says. Her plea yielded a suspended sentence and three years of supervised probation. On May 6, two days before McKnight's alleged assault, she was arrested for DUI and driving with a suspended license, which could result in jail time if a judge orders her to serve her suspended sentence. "I was not drunk," says McCready, who declined a breath test at the scene. "I had not had a drink for four or five hours prior." The alcohol the officers smelled, she says, was from a friend in the car. "I was driving home a drunk driver."
Meanwhile, she says, her relationship with McKnight was growing increasingly violent. "The first time it was just knocking me down," she says. "The second time I got really hurt. My face hit a wall." During their 18 months together, she repeatedly kicked McKnight out—the most recent and final breakup coming two weeks before the attack. "But I missed him so terribly that we ended up back together," she says of the previous breakups. "I kept making excuses for him. When you love someone, no matter how they abuse you, you feel less and less worth."
Now McCready is hoping to get her life back on track. "I feel embarrassed about a lot of the decisions I have made," she says. "Now I can concentrate on doing the things I love: music and singing." Says her brother Josh McCready: "She just keeps looking at the positive." As for McKnight, who plans to plead not guilty to charges, McCready testified at his preliminary hearing and plans to testify when he stands trial. "I feel sorry for him," she says. "I hope he gets help, I hope he gets better. But he is going to have to pay the price for what he has done."
Jill Smolowe. Beverly Keel in Nashville