Escaping a Serial Killer: What Science Says About Victim Strategy
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.
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.
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.
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).