(NEWS CENTER) — I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down with Erica Cole. The former Miss Maine USA, who was normally in the spotlight for her work in the community, was now making headlines for something completely unexpected: domestic violence.
The accused, Alex Gray, one of Maine’s most popular concert promoters and the man Cole spent the last five years of her life with. From the outside, everything looked very cookie cutter, perfect if you will. Cole was a personal shopper and had done work for Gray and Waterfront Concerts. Months later the two connected again.
"It was really amazing," Cole said. "He would take me on really nice dates, we would travel together, we seemed to get along famously."
Cole says she fell fast and hard for the Old Town native and the two quickly moved in together. Over the years they both focused on their businesses, Cole growing her businesses clientele with the help of Gray and Waterfront Concerts.
However, over time, Cole told me the relationship began to fall apart. What looked like a picture-perfect relationship on the outside Cole says evolved into one of financial control, mental and emotional manipulation.
"I lost myself completely, I lost my voice, my self esteem and at a point I definitely lost my happiness," Cole said. "I loved him so I just wanted to believe that things would just get fixed."
The breaking point for her came after a night of birthday celebrations. Police reports show a night of celebration turned violent. Cole accused Gray of grabbing the side of her head and slamming it into the floor after the two fought in their Portland apartment over a set of keys.
"It's hard to find words to explain what it feels like to be overpowered by a man and fearful of what he may do to you," Cole told a judge in late October. "I will never forget the feeling of his hands grabbing the side of my head and slamming it into the floor."
The impact was so powerful, according to court documents, she saw white spots. Gray pleaded guilty to domestic violence assault. He has always maintained he did not put his hands on Erica in any way that was violent.
"I would first like to say to Erica that I'm very sorry for what occurred on the morning of March 12th," Alex Gray said to a judge in late October after pleading guilty. "Though she and I fundamentally disagree on everything in the police report, I accept responsibility for my faults on that night."
Cole says facing Gray in court for the charge was the hardest thing she has ever had to do. "I was up against a very influential powerful person," Cole said. "I'm proud of myself for getting up there and speaking but the process of getting up there and doing so was not easy."
She describes the time leading up to the plea agreement as seven months of silence, seven months of soul searching. At times she wanted to give up and says she can understand why many women choose to stay silent. "You feel lonely, you feel angry, you're tired -- but at one point in your life you did love that person and it's hard to wrap your head around it after the fact," Cole said. "It feels impossible at points to get to the other side."
Cole is slowly finding herself again. A big part of that comes from coaching young women. Cole was crowned Miss Maine USA in 2005 and now helps others prepare for the big day. Now more than ever, she wants to show them how to find their voice and how to use it.
"Them seeing the fact that I was have struggled and I was very open and honest with them about my mistakes, I hope that helps them," Cole said. "What do you want other woman to take away from what you're saying? At the end of the day you are still living your life and you have to choose you."
If you or someone you know may be affected by domestic violence you can call the Maine's 24/7 hotline -- 1-866-834-HELP. Or click here for more resources.
Click here to learn more about Partners for Peace.
Click here to learn more about Family Crisis Services.