Anya’s memories of being a little girl in Bend, Oregon, where she lived until moving to Charlotte when she was 7, are like the memories most of us have of being that young — they’re not clear.
“I remember being in bed with her, all the time, being best friends, and her being naked, and things like that,” Anya says, upon being asked about her earliest recollections of the sexual abuse she says her mother subjected her to. “But details are obviously a little bit more fuzzy.”
There’s one that is strikingly vivid, however: When she was perhaps 5 or 6 years old, Anya recalls, her mother sat her down to show her a pornographic film, which featured an actor tied to a chair playing a character drugged and forced to perform a sex act.
The abuse would get exponentially worse, and today the brutal memories Anya says she has from her girlhood and early teenage years all swirl together, churning in a vast ocean of lurid images inside her head.
Memories of being crippled by fear of a supposedly maniacal father, who Anya alleges her mother said was trying to hunt down and kill Anya’s family; of allegedly being coaxed by her mother into relationships with older men beginning when she was just 7 years old; of being made to think that it was normal to spend countless nights with her mother in bed naked.
But after years of suffering in silence, though having long since broken free of her control, Anya last year had a revelation and decided to notify police about her alleged abuser: 53-year-old Sandra Lucille Hiler, better known in Charlotte by her alias, Keiko Aloe, a respected piano teacher operating out of a Pineville home under the business name Allegro Studios.
Hiler was arrested late last month by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police on six counts of indecent liberties with a child and two counts of second-degree sex offense. All are felony charges, and all stem from an investigation initiated by police after a criminal complaint was filed by her now-21-year-old daughter Anya — who agreed to speak to the Observer under the condition that her last name not be used — and was bolstered by statements from other family members.
Sandra Hiler did not respond to multiple emails and phone messages from the Observer seeking comment for this story; her attorney, Susan Weigand, didn’t immediately respond to an email or phone message on Friday.
Anya says the Jan. 28 arrest was a potentially significant step toward ensuring that her mother can never hurt another child.
Yet she worries Hiler might decide to disappear and change her name again.
After all, her mom is currently out on bond as she awaits her March 16 court date. And, Anya and other family members allege, Sandra Hiler has run and hidden before.
‘You believe anything your mother says’
“Grab whatever you can. We gotta go now. They’re after us.”
Anya says those are the frantic words her mother barked at her and her older brother after waking them up in the middle of the night when they abruptly fled their home in Oregon, never to return.
The “they” who were after them, she says her mother would explain, were their father along with the people who were helping him hunt them down. Leading up to this point, their mother had gradually been telling them worse and worse things about their father — a man named Ray Brunett III, to whom she was not married — and Anya had always had a hard time understanding. When she had been with him, all he’d ever shown her was love.
But as they drove east, her mother relentlessly hammered the idea into their heads:
“Your father has raped me. He has hit me. He has done awful things. He is a very bad man. Now he wants to kill us. So we have to take care that he doesn’t find us.”
Anya says her mother picked Charlotte because it’s where an old friend of hers lived, and they moved in with this old friend almost immediately. Sandra Hiler — who is half-German and half-Japanese — assumed the name of Keiko Aloe; after telling the kids they needed to pick fake names, Anya chose Kana and her brother settled on Hero (his real name is being withheld).
None of them ever changed their names legally.
Anya should have been in second grade at the time, and her brother should have been in third. But in this new city, Anya says, they were no longer allowed to attend school. In fact, they weren’t really permitted to be out in public much at all in the first several years here.
“We have to be safe,” Anya remembers their mother telling them. “Don’t ever get hurt, because we can’t go to the hospital. We can’t even go to the store because there are security cameras, and everyone’s in on it. Even the government. And if they find us, your father will kill us.”
Says Anya now: “When you’re 7, you believe anything your mother says. So I was just terrified.”
Shortly after moving the kids into a rented home, Anya’s mother started a piano-teaching business with her old friend. Anya was allowed to interact with children who were taking lessons, as well as their parents, but she had to use her made-up name and was instructed to lie about being home-schooled. To lie about everything.
The truth, she says, is that her mother barely ever opened a textbook for Anya and her brother.
The truth, she says, is that she spent day after day after day doing basically nothing while her mother amassed a stable of young students by going around Charlotte talking up her credentials — classical training at Julliard, playing with Barbra Streisand, playing for the White House — all of which were lies, Anya says.
And the truth, Anya says, is that she spent night after night after night being sexually abused.
‘She’d have me take oil and massage her’
When she was young, it seemed like perfectly normal behavior.
Anya says she never questioned the fact that her mother continued to breastfeed her until she was 7 years old, finally stopping only because of the logistical challenges created by traveling across the country by car. She never thought it strange that the whole family was always naked when it was just them alone in the house; “Japanese families,” Anya says their mother told them, “have to be naked with each other.”
So, too, Anya says, was it customary for her to climb into bed with her mother at night, unclothed, to perform what was a frequent ritual: “She’d have me take oil and massage her across her whole body,” Anya says. “That’s as much as I’ll say toward that regard: Massage her across her entire body. ... All of it.”
More often than not, Anya would be the one doing the work. But, she says, “Sometimes it wouldn’t be me massaging her.”
Asked if she meant that sometimes Hiler would touch her in a way she knows now is inappropriate, Anya replies, simply, “Yeah.” Then she pauses, before repeating herself. “Yeah.”
She says this ritual started when she was very young — as far back as she can remember. It continued into her teens.
And that, perhaps, wasn’t even the worst thing she says her mother did to her.
The men who Anya says were complicit
During that same period of time, Anya says, her mother introduced a parade of men into her life.
Among them, three stand out as longer-term associations, and these are her accounts of those:
The first was a man about 20 years old, who briefly moved in with them when she was 7 or 8. One day, he complained about his back hurting, and Sandra Hiler decided that a solution was to move him into the bed with Anya, who had a mattress designed to relieve back pain because she was born with hemihypertrophy (a condition that causes one side of her body to be larger than the other).
On multiple occasions during the short period of time the young man lived with her family, Anya climbed into bed naked with him, and did as her mother instructed — which was to “cuddle” with him.
Anya is fuzzy on what exactly happened when they were together in bed. “I remember like what his legs would feel like,” she recalls, “and his skin and stuff like that.”
The second was a 28-year-old man who was a piano student of his mother’s when Anya was 13.
Although they still lived in relative fear of much of the outside world, she had been starting to leave the house more, finally, on her own. So she was given a phone.
Then one day, her mother gave her this adult student’s number and encouraged Anya to start texting with him.
Hesitant at first, Anya struck up a conversation one night out of boredom while doing a babysitting job. Before long, she and the man were engaging in flirtatious exchanges via instant-messaging apps; then drinking wine together at dinner parties with her mother and her mother’s partner; and eventually he would come to the house for sleepovers that included “cuddling.”
By this point, Anya already had been given her own bedroom, in part because she and her mother agreed that it was better for appearance’s sake — other children were finding it weird that Anya slept in the same room as her mom at 13. After that, Anya was routinely rejecting her mother’s invitations to come join her in bed, as she had started seeing signs that this wasn’t right.
And the more Anya rejected her mother, the more her mother pushed her toward this older man, she said.
When he ultimately asked her to run away with him, she says, “to a country where it’s legal to be together,” her mother encouraged her to go. Anya didn’t want to, and began pulling back. He and her mother pushed harder.
So Anya finally drew a line in the sand, like she had with her mother. She reported the man’s behavior (but not her mother’s behavior) to an adult she trusted; that adult reported the man to her mother. Her mother pretended to be shocked, Anya says, but did at that point kick him out of the house — and out of Anya’s life.
The third man, she says, was equally significant, though she’s less forthcoming about that relationship. She says it’s the one she’s most ashamed of. Because she says today that she wishes she had known better back then.
He was a musician friend of her mother’s, introduced to Anya when she was 7. He was 10 years older.
Like with the other men, her mother facilitated “sleepovers” and encouraged Anya to “cuddle” with him naked. Over the next seven years, she says, the man groomed her, building a relationship, trust and an emotional connection. When she was 9 or 10 years old, they were going out to dinners and movies just the two of them.
Starting when she was 14, Anya and the man were performing oral sex on one another on a routine basis. He ended the relationship the day she turned 16.
Her mother knew about it all along, Anya says.
Not long after that, Anya says, she became fully awakened from the nightmare that was her youth.
Working her way toward a new life
It hadn’t been calculated, but over the course of all those years she was being abused, Anya was setting the stage for an escape, she says.
As long as she can remember, she had been squirreling away money. Spare change she’d asked students’ parents for when she was very young. Earnings from piano lessons she started teaching when she was just 12. On top of that, money from babysitting jobs, and from swim and art lessons she taught as a teen, and from custom cakes she baked and sold, often to students and their parents.
At 15, she began walking to Barnes & Noble at Carolina Place and spending entire days losing herself in books. She also discovered Khan Academy, a free education website, and became obsessed with its practice exercises and instructional videos. She’d had no formal schooling since finishing first grade in Oregon in 2006, but she did everything she could to make up for lost time.
At 16, she researched how to get a birth certificate and a Social Security number, two documents that she came to find out her mother had never bothered with.
Her mother had to sign off on her requests for those documents, and she did, Anya says — grudgingly.
They had been drifting apart gradually ever since Anya started rejecting her invitations to return to sleeping in the same bed together. “I should have never given birth to you” became a familiar refrain. Although they were still living under the same roof, her mother was barely talking to her, she says.
Her mother wanted her gone.
So, shortly after she turned 18, Anya went to inquire about buying a house. At first, the loan officer practically laughed at her. He encouraged her to rent. She countered that no one would rent to a teenager. Then she showed him the considerable pile of money she had amassed over the past decade, and because her credit was so good, he helped her obtain the loan.
In March 2018, she closed on a small Cape Cod-style home barely a mile and a half away from her mom’s.
She realizes it might be hard for some people to understand why she wouldn’t have wanted to be further removed from her past, both in terms of distance and in terms of her trade. But she explains that she continued working as a piano teacher, like her mom, because she truly loves teaching, and that she stayed in south Charlotte because many of her students are there.
This was a life she could live with. A life she was ready to make the best of.
Then, last year, her life took a sharp and unexpected turn.
A reunion with her long-lost father
It started with Anya finding her half-sister from her father’s side on Facebook. Soon after, she got reconnected with her half-brother.
Even at 21 years old, because it had been woven into the very fabric of her being, she was still afraid of her father — of what might happen if he knew how to find her. As she collected answers from her long-lost siblings to questions about the man, now 70 and living in Moab, Utah, Anya became open to the idea of connecting with him.
But she needed reassurance directly from him that he wasn’t the monster, but rather, it was her mother.
And Anya got it.
Ray Brunett III recently told the Observer he spent years sick with fear about what had happened to his children, and tried tracking them for years until finally giving up in 2015. And he told the Observer what he had told Anya when they reunited:
He met Sandra Hiler in 1995, shortly after an amicable divorce from a woman with whom he shared three children. At the time, however, she was going by the name Seori Hiler. She was teaching piano, mostly to kids, out of a studio she’d named Quan Yin. Brunett was a musician, too, and recalls her as “the greatest piano player I have ever, ever run into. I was totally enamored.
“One thing led to the next,” he says, “and I moved into her house.”
Soon after, when Brunett’s son, Ray IV, was about 10 years old, she asked and received permission to start teaching the boy piano.
Teacher and student became close quickly, and Brunett III was thrilled that his son was hitting it off with the new woman in his life. So after they agreed to move to Hawaii to try to start a new studio, he didn’t have any serious qualms about the two of them going on ahead to get his son set up in school while he closed out some professional projects.
But when he joined them a few months later, he could immediately sense a negative change in his son’s relationship with Hiler. His son refused to talk to him about it.
On life went. They returned to Oregon. They didn’t marry, but in 1998, Ray Brunett III and Hiler had a son; a year later, Anya was born.
At the same time, Brunett had a growing sense that something bad had happened between Hiler and his older son. He also started suspecting that Hiler was behaving inappropriately with their daughter.
And he says his suspicions were confirmed when, one night, he played an audio track in another room to make it sound like he was practicing one of his instruments, then sneaked into the bedroom to find something horrible:
Hiler, he says, was massaging their 3-year-old daughter’s genitals.
Brunett was outraged. He reported her, but he says when he went to the authorities, it turned out she’d already reported him.
This touched off an ugly back-and-forth that culminated in 2003 with her accusing him of an assault that he says was a lie. But he and his lawyer also saw an opportunity to turn the tables on her. As part of the case they made in his defense before a judge in Deschutes County Circuit Court, Ray IV was called to testify to what had happened between him and Sandra Hiler.
It was the first time his father had ever heard the shocking story.
‘You don’t know what’s right or wrong’
The Observer obtained an audio recording of his 2003 testimony, but Ray Brunett IV also recounted to the Observer his experience with Hiler in a phone call last week from his home in Bend.
He says he recalls Hiler immediately making him feel comfortable when he started taking lessons, and that “she’d kind of get close to you when we were playing piano. ... She’d get really, really touchy.”
His father and she were living together at the time, and when he was in the house but his dad was away, she introduced him to marijuana and alcohol, and convinced him to take baths with her. “And then it escalated,” he says. Eventually, he says, she seduced him into having oral sex.
“I mean, when you’re that young, you don’t know what’s right or wrong,” says Brunett IV, who is now 36. “If that’s what you’re learning (and) you don’t know that that’s a taboo ... (especially) if somebody’s supposed to be your teacher,” then you trust that person, he says.
The activity continued after they moved to Hawaii together ahead of his father, but he says she started up a relationship with someone else there — and that he also came to the realization that what they were doing was inappropriate.
In Brunett III’s 2003 trial, the multiple felony assault charges brought against him ultimately were unsuccessful, though he was found guilty of menacing and first-degree criminal mischief, both misdemeanors. Meanwhile, Brunett III says police in Bend conducted only a brief investigation into his son’s claims before closing it without bringing any charges against her, much to his disbelief.
He says he spent the next few years trying to obtain parental rights to the children, but contends that Hiler made things difficult for him at every turn.
Then in 2006 — just as he was about to finally take a paternity test, he says — she and the children vanished.
It would be 14 years before he would have another conversation with his youngest daughter. And by the time they were through talking, Anya knew what she had to do.
An arrest is made, but uncertainty remains
She’d been taught by her mother not to trust the police, but on the morning of Oct. 8, 2020, she walked up to a CMPD precinct in Charlotte to report her mother’s alleged crimes.
Later that fall, Anya says she lured her mother to a lunch meeting and confronted her about the things she had done to her, and the men she had exposed her to. Whatever her mother said in response was apparently incriminating: Anya says she was participating in a sting operation in coordination with Charlotte police. When asked to confirm her account, CMPD said that “a critical element of the case involved the suspect making statements that were recorded.”
On Jan. 28, Sandra Lucille Hiler — who as recently as last May guided a young piano student to a first-prize finish at the N.C. Federation of Music Clubs state finals scholarship competition — was arrested and booked into the Mecklenburg County Jail.
According to the criminal complaint, which does not include Anya’s name, the victim stated that she was sexually assaulted by Hiler over a nine-year period. Charlotte police said the arrest was made based on statements by that single victim, and that in this case there is no information indicating other suspects or other children were involved in the assaults.
But while she had hoped her other abusers would be charged, the arrest still was immensely validating and freeing for Anya — as well as for her father, and for her half-brother. Each has been suffering for years, they say, from their traumatic experiences, as well as harboring fears that she might be abusing others.
Her goal, Anya says, was simple: to try to keep her mother away from children, in an effort to ensure her mother couldn’t abuse anyone else.
But Hiler’s arrest may not be keeping her from continuing to teach piano to kids.
Hiler is out on an unsecured bond, which means she didn’t have to pay anything to make bail while awaiting her probable cause hearing on March 16. Although “Keiko Aloe” is not currently named as a teacher on Allegro’s website, the voice mail message that plays when you call one of the two phone numbers listed on the site belongs to “Keiko.” (Calls to both numbers were not returned, nor were messages sent through Allegro’s site.)
And according to the Mecklenburg County Clerk of Superior Court Criminal Department, there is no order preventing Hiler from being around children — only one that prevents her from being around Anya.
It’s something that still keeps Anya up at night.
“I limited her resources in teaching, she’s scared about the authorities ... but now she’s out on bond,” Anya says. “So is she just going to go to another place where she’s changed her name again? ... There’s that worry. Yeah, it’s become harder. But still not impossible.”
“Just like with anything,” she starts to say, before pausing just for a second. Then she says something that could be true for either the villain or the hero, in any story:
“If you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way.”