Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cecily Tripplehorn: The Six Percent, A Survivor’s Story

Maybe it was just mother’s intuition. In retrospect it seemed like a premonition. We couldn’t have predicted that my mother’s advice would eventually give me the courage to save my own life.

 “If anything ever happens to you, if you’re ever attacked, scream your lungs out and resist with all your strength. Your chances of attracting attention and getting rescued are better while you’re still in a public place than if you’re taken,” Mom would lecture every time a news report popped up covering someone like Natalee Holloway or Chandra Levy.

“Sure, Mom,” I always replied, humoring her and thinking, what are the odds?

May 17, 2006. Twenty-six years old. It happened in Amarillo, Texas, at a park in an upscale neighborhood referred to as the good side of town. I didn’t have the patience to sit through my boyfriend Jim’s softball game, so I rollerbladed around the field in the humid spring air under the bright stadium lights. The sounds of softball fans cheering drowned out everything else, and the smooth, even rhythms of my stride calmed me and erased the stresses of daily life.

Finally, muscles aching, I headed toward the parking lot to grab my water out of Jim’s truck. That night the fields were so crowded we had to park on the front row. “Perfect,” Jim  had muttered earlier as he squeezed his black Dodge Ram into the tight space. “Right in the fly ball zone.  Might as well paint a big target on my windshield.”

I climbed back into the tall truck and gulped down some Evian like I’d just crossed the Sahara. My breath returned to normal and I stepped out of the truck to make my way toward –

Someone grabbed me in a headlock from behind. Surely just one of the teammates playing a joke, I rationalized. Not Jim though.  He’s busy pitching. Whoever it was threw me into the driver’s seat of another truck beside Jim’s Dodge. A leering face in a red, white and blue doo-rag hovered over my wide eyes and gaping mouth, and it was definitely not Jim, or one of his teammates, or anyone I knew. All logical thought processes froze at that moment as he pressed up against my dangling legs so close I couldn’t move. “Don’t scream,” he snarled as he put his hand over my mouth. Those words made me snap back to reality, and I started screaming as hard as I could. But my screams were indistinguishable from the cheering fans just about 50 feet away.

Then, a flash of silver in front of my face. “Shut up and get in the truck or I’ll slit your throat.” His voice was full of rage. Images of everyone I loved flashed through my mind.  In that instant I knew I wasn’t afraid of death, but I was deathly afraid of what he might want to do to me first. Thoughts of Jim, alone and frantically searching for me after the crowds dispersed before having to call my parents when he realized I was gone were too much to bear.

In a move Jason Bourne would envy, I grabbed the blade of the knife with my bare hand and went Billy Blanks on him. The blade sliced into my palm and fingers, but a rush of adrenaline suppressed the pain. Driven by survival instincts and the determination not to cause my family suffering, I resolved that this man could not, would not control me. There was no way I could kick him with my legs restrained by the weight of his body, but with the keys in my hand I went for his eyes. Never again do I wish to feel the primal urge to kill someone in defense of my own life.

Frustration began to overcome me with the realization that I wasn’t inflicting enough damage. His 5 foot 9, 195 pound construction worker’s build was stronger than my 5 foot 6, 130 pound frame, no matter how many cardio kickboxing classes I’d taken.

But then I sensed that the element of surprise was shifting. He didn’t want to be caught; that much was obvious from the look of shock on his face when I started to resist. And although we hadn’t attracted any outside attention yet, clearly I was more trouble than he had bargained for.

Nevertheless, the punches kept coming and stars danced in front of my eyes. Don’t pass out, I thought to myself. Keep fighting. Don’t pass out.

At last I got in a hard jab to his temple, and as he shook his head, I gathered all my strength to force myself out from underneath his grasp, falling and scraping my knees on the rough asphalt.

But it wasn’t over. He went to grab me again. Just then I looked up to see someone walking into the parking lot. Relief flooded my entire being and I suspected he was an angel disguised as an umpire. Somehow, with my hands shredded and still on rollerblades, I managed to scramble to my feet. Then I was standing near the umpire, Alvino Alvarez. Tears clouded my vision as I gasped, “Please get his license plate.”

My attacker jumped in his work truck with the construction company logo on the door and peeled out, almost running over a couple who tried to block his escape.

Then, a blur. Crowds of gawkers. Police statements. Ambulance. Hospital.

At the hospital, the shock wore off slowly, in layers, like scrubbing ink off skin. A detective was taking yet another statement while doctors and nurses buzzed around. I couldn’t remember my address. I wasn’t even sure about my age at that point.  “It’s okay,” the officer said.  “Temporary memory lapses are typical after trauma.”

“You did the right thing by fighting back,” a nurse commented as the doctor carefully inserted nineteen stitches. “Did you know only six percent of victims manage to escape like you did?” I feigned cheerfulness to assure my boyfriend that I really was okay. Jim stayed at my bedside until we were released an exhausting seven hours later at 5:00 a.m. After a quick stop at the 24 hour pharmacy for some pain meds, at last I could rest.

The next year seemed endless.  My relatively sheltered and comfortable life was now interspersed with periods of anxiety and apprehension. The day after the attack, I identified the attacker, Dewey Mack Evans, from a photo lineup at the police station. Other witnesses corroborated.  The following month, in June, U.S. Marshalls surrounded a gas station across the state border in Oklahoma and took Evans into custody. That September, Jim and I got engaged. The next June, we were married. Then in August, 15 months after the attack, the trial began. Evans and his attorney concocted an elaborate story claiming I attacked him.  The poor guy was just defending himself, the slick lawyer explained.  When they accused me of perjury it started to feel like I was the one on trial.

The jury deliberated for an excruciating four and a half hours before convicting Evans of aggravated kidnapping with a sentence of 80 years in prison. Since he was on parole for armed robbery at the time, he also had to serve the rest of that 10 year sentence. Evans wouldn’t be considered for parole again for at least 40 years at the age of 86. By then he would be too old and decrepit to harm anyone else.

The courtroom trial was over, but my emotional trials were ongoing. My emotions were a confusing mix of pride and guilt, vindication and cynicism, strength and vulnerability. While I tried to deal with the situation without dwelling on it, not a day went by that something or someone wouldn’t remind me of it. Never again would I feel comfortable alone in a parking lot or exercising outdoors by myself. But I was also bizarrely thankful that it had happened to me. If he had chosen a different victim, I might have turned on the T.V. that night to see another Natalee Holloway-esque story, and a predator might still be free.

The haunting faces of missing girls are a repeat occurrence on the nightly news. Each time their parents appear begging, pleading and crying for the return of their daughters, my eyes brim with tears and I feel an inexplicable kinship with these young girls and women I have never met. That could be my family, heartbroken and searching for closure they might never receive. My tears are followed by waves of guilt because I survived and they didn’t.

My happy ending could have been another victim’s final ending.

Cecily Tripplehorn is a survivor, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a high school English teacher.  For this article, she consulted the work Kidnapping: An Investigator's Guide to Profiling by Diana M. Concannon, 1st ed., London 

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