Escaping a Serial Killer: What Science Says About Victim Strategy

Escaping a serial killer

Photo by Antonio Guillem; via Shutterstock.

Someone pounding on the car windows tore her out of her sleep.

Angie* had tired out and left the pub early. She and her buddies had driven there in her friend’s car, but Angie didn’t want them all to leave just because of her. So her friend gave Angie the car keys and told her she could sleep on the back seat until the rest of them were ready. Angie walked out of the pub out onto the downtown Seattle streets, got in the car, locked the doors, and fell asleep.

Now a man was banging on the window.

Can you lend me your jumper cable? he asked. I’m parked right behind you and my car won’t start.

No, she said. It’s not my car.

He walked back to his car, fiddled with the engine, and came back, this time with panic in his voice.

Can’t you please help me? Please?!

She refused again.

With a look of disgust, he turned and stomped back to his car. Angie watched as he got in, pulled out of his parking space, and drove away. He didn’t have any problems starting his bronze VW bug. Not at all.

When Angie’s friends returned to the car and heard her story, they urged her to call the police. She didn’t want to. Technically, the man had done nothing illegal. It was just her intuition that told her the man could be dangerous. What crime could the police investigate?

Because it’s suspicious, her friends said. Maybe the police can use your description to connect him to other crimes.

Angie thought that was a long shot and didn’t report the man. She had no reason to doubt her decision until a year later, in 1975, when the police in Utah arrested a certain Ted Bundy, suspected of serial killings in Utah and Washington. When they showed his photograph on the news, Angie’s stomach dropped two floors down. He was the man who’d demanded the jumper cable.

Rhonda Stapley may have been saved by her hiking boots.

Rhonda Stapley may have been saved by her hiking boots. Pixabay.

            Other stories of escaping a serial killer

Angie was able to get out of the situation without coming under Bundy’s control. Other women were unfortunate enough to experience an attack by Bundy, but still managed to escape. Carol DaRonch entered Bundy’s car because he persuaded her he was a police officer investigating a break-in of her car and said he would transport her to the police station. When Bundy slipped a handcuff onto her wrist, she fought him ferociously enough she could get out of his car and flag down help.

One of the most interesting stories of escaping a serial killer is Rhonda Stapley’s recently published book, I Survived Ted Bundy. Bundy offered Stapley, a fellow University of Utah student, a ride home in his car, but instead drove her up into the mountains, where he attacked her. She escaped by leaping into a fast-flowing mountain river. If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil the tale of what Bundy did to her and what happened afterwards, except to say that she might owe her life to the fact that she wore hiking boots that day and laced them a certain way.

Some victims are able to flee.

Some victims are able to flee. Photo by Daxiao Productions, via Shutterstock.

            What science says about escaping a serial killer

Stephan Harbort, a German criminologist and former police commissioner, conducted a study to find out what factors contribute to escaping a serial killer. He looked at 155 German serial killers and their 674 individual crimes – both murders and assaults that did not result in the victims’ deaths. He examined the police records and where possible, interviewed both the murderers and their 107 surviving victims.

Based on his research, victims have only a 15.9% chance of surviving once a serial killer begins an assault or abducts them. Harbort’s admits, however, that his statistics don’t include people like Angie, who managed to avoid the killer’s ploy. If you count them, the percentages of survival are much higher. His statistics show that serial killers, on average, initiate 31 contacts with potential victims for every victim they get under their control.

What factors play a role in escaping a serial killer? Harbort found that 43% of the surviving victims escaped because the killer’s attack didn’t result in fatal injuries, 36% because the victims fought back physically or verbally, 15% because the killer took the victim for dead, 15% because a third person scared the killer away, 8.4% because the victim had a chance to flee, and 4.7% because the victim outwitted the killer (in some cases, more than one factor applied).

If a victim engages in self-defense, Harbort discovered, it only works if it is massive. Mild resistance never helps. In 73.3% of the cases, mild resistance had no effect on the serial killer, and in the other 26.7%, it led to increased violence and continuation of the crime. But massive resistance isn’t always the key either. In most of the cases it made the killer even more violent, but 17.6% of the cases, the victim could escape. In some cases, serial killers admitted that they let their victims go because they were submissive. Had the victims fought, they would have killed them.

Trust your intuition.

Trust your intuition. Photo by Straight 8 Photography, via Shutterstock.

            The role of intuition

What can victims do to increase their chances of escaping a serial killer? Which is better, resistance or submission? It’s hard to say, Harbort points out, because the victim’s strategy depends on the personality of the killer. Victims are best advised to follow their intuition. Often the subconscious picks up on small clues that give the victim a gut feeling for what strategy to use.

One example is a German serial killer who gave an intended victim a ride in his car, but she was able to engage him in a deep enough conversation that he began to feel lose his passivity and anonymity. Because he was starting to feel like he knew his victim, he didn’t even begin an attack. Another victim survived because she told the killer that her colleague had already noted his license plate number.

Erik Larson’s book Devil in the White City offers a couple of examples of people whose intuition probably prevented them from becoming H.H. Holmes’s victims. One refused to sign a life insurance policy naming Holmes as the beneficiary because he scared her. Another refused to go up on the roof with Holmes when Holmes invited him. He later found out Holmes was probably intending to kill him by pushing him off the roof.

Harbort’s emphasis on following intuition is echoed by Gavin de Becker in his bestselling book, The Give of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence. When your intuition picks up on danger, you will often experience it as fear. That fear might paralyze you or compel you to act without your thinking about it, but it’s important to follow that intuition. Often a person’s subconscious is more aware of small clues in surroundings and behavior than the conscious mind is.

            Intuition in action: my story

There are a few times in my life that I experienced the kind of fear and intuition that Harbort and de Becker wrote about. One was on a trip to Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, Arizona. I was driving down the mountain, alone, when a car began tailgating me. I slowed down to let it pass, but it didn’t. Then I sped up, but it just stayed on my tail. At this point I wasn’t afraid, just annoyed.

I finally lost the car in a series of curves in the road, and because I was tired, I pulled into a rest area, where I drove across the parking lot to a picnic table. With a snack and a book in hand, I got out and sat on the table.

The car in question drove past the rest area and I didn’t give it a second thought until it turned around and pulled into the rest area too. Then it parked between my car and the picnic table, facing me. The driver, whose face I couldn’t see very well because of the reflection on the windshield, just sat there staring at me. That’s when a tidal wave of fear washed over me.

I quickly took an assessment of the situation. We were the only two people in the rest area. The car blocked access to my own car; that escape route was cut off. Behind me was a ravine. I could run down there and try to get away, but an escape wasn’t certain.

A small voice in my head told me to try to intimidate the driver. I was wearing a jacket and slipped my right hand into the pocket, shaping my hand to make it look like I was grabbing a pistol. With my index finger extended to mimic a barrel, I positioned my hand, still in my pocket, on my knee to make it appear like I was taking aim at the driver.

The driver gunned the car and sped out of the rest area. I waited a minute until the car was gone, quickly packed my things, and left, thankful that nothing happened. I never saw the car again on the way down the mountain.

            Have you ever been in a situation where your intuition set off alarm bells? How did you handle it?

*Angie was an acquaintance of mine in Seattle, Washington. I’ve changed her name for this story.

 Literature on point:

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence (New York: Dell Publishing, 1997).

Stephan Harbort: Begegnung mit dem Serienmörder: Jetzt Sprechen die Opfer [Encounter with the Serial Killer: Now the Victims Speak] (Düsseldorf, Droste Verlag, 2008).

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (London: Bantam Books, 2003).

Rhonda Stapley: I Survived Ted Bundy: The Attack, Escape, & PTSD That changed My Life (Seattle, Galaxy 44 Publishing, 2016).

Merken

11 Comments

  1. Lela
    Nov 10, 2016

    Thank you, Ann Marie for these cautionary accounts. At one time I carried pepper spray on my key ring. I took it off because it weighted down my purse. Women are vulnerable, simply because of gender and we do forget to be as alert and pay attention to our intuition. Great informative article.

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 11, 2016

      Thanks, Lela, for your comment. You are right that women need to be alert and follow their intuition. We need to maintain a level of vigilance that men don’t. I hope you never come into a situation where you need to use your intuition to escape, pepper spray or not.

  2. Rachelle
    Nov 12, 2016

    I’ve had all sorts of run ins with men that could have ended bad since I was 13. One of the worst was two men following me through a store then waiting for me on my way out. I started screaming at them and ran to my car. Another similar one was two men trying to get me into their car and when I refused they parked around the corner to wait for me. I saw them stop and called my dad and went the opposite way until he picked me up. (I was 14 or 15.) I have since developed an affinity to wearing boots due to the protection you can hide in them and always have a variety of seemingly harmless items on my body that can double as defense.

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 12, 2016

      Thanks for sharing your stories, Rachelle. I’m glad you were able to get out of all those situations. May I ask what sort of items you carry that can double as defense? Other women might be able to learn from you.

  3. Laura Lewis
    Nov 17, 2016

    This is a fantastic post! Thank you so much for sharing. I run a true crime blog (lauloulew.wordpress.com) and I’d love you to take a look and let me know what you think.

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 18, 2016

      Thanks for the compliment, Laura! I’ll definitely take a look at your blog. I’ve got appointments all day today, but I’ll try to do it on the weekend.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 22, 2016

      Laura, I’ve had a chance to check out your blog and really like it. I tried to leave a comment, but always have trouble with the wordpress comment form. I hope it worked. Do you have email notification for your posts? I couldn’t find it on your site.

  4. Ellen
    Nov 25, 2016

    What a great post! Of all the stuff out there on serial killers, this is the first I’ve seen with advice about them. My husband and I are full-time RVers, traveling the US (and occasionally Canada) so we’re always aware of our surroundings.

    We stopped once to boondock (that’s sleep in the RV without power or water) at a pull-out along an isolated stretch of road in Montana. This pull-out was huge and when we parked we were away from but parallel to the road. When a car parked right behind us (though there was plenty of room elsewhere in the pull-out), we watched as the man got out of the car to stand next to the driver’s side door, talking on the phone. Eventually he got back in the car. Our instincts said, Not here, and we drove on to a more populated rest area down the road. It could have been someone who preferred to be close to another vehicle for safety, but it could have been a bad someone, too.

    It’s sad to have to be so careful (I refuse to say “paranoid”) but even Walmart parking lots can be dangerous places.

    • Ann Marie
      Jan 7, 2017

      Ellen, I just noticed that my reply to you never got posted, so sorry for the two-month delay! I think you did the right thing by following your instincts. It’s not worth waiting around to see what would have happened if you hadn’t. Stay safe, and thanks for commenting.

  5. David Liscio
    Nov 25, 2016

    Good stuff. If even one person avoids the clutches of a serial killer because they read your article, then it’s worth its weight in gold. My new novel, “Deadly Fare — a Boston-based serial killer thriller”, was written after I researched what the FBI and other expert sources had to say about the subject. The book, released last month on Amazon, is dedicated to all the innocents who have lost their lives to a serial killer. I’d be glad to send you a mobi file.

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 26, 2016

      I agree, David. If reading this post helps one person avoid becoming a crime victim, it was worth it. Sure, I’d love a mobi file. I don’t review fiction on my blog, but a blog post interview with you about your research might be possible and that could include a link to your book. You can contact me through the contact form on my site.

      Thanks for commenting!

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