"There are all these moments you think you won't survive. And then you survive."
It was the 6th of September 2006. Fourteen year old Elizabeth Shoaf was at high school that day in Logoff, South Carolina, United States. She got the bus home and got off at the stop closest to her home. It was around 4.30pm. It should have been a short walk home for Elizabeth as her house was 200 yards from the bus stop but she never made it back that day.
Elizabeth's mother, Madeline, was at work. She called home and her twelve year old son, Donnie, answered. He told Madeline that Elizabeth was not home. Every day, their children would get the bus from school, go straight home and do their homework until Madeline and her husband Don returned from work. They lived at the edge of the wood so the children knew they had to keep the door locked.
So when Madeline was told that Elizabeth was not home, she was concerned. Elizabeth knew her aunt was calling to the house to cut her hair for her cousin's party so it didn't make sense that she wouldn't go straight home. Donnie looked outside but he couldn't see her.
Elizabeth's friends confirmed that Elizabeth was on the bus that day and some of them even saw her walking towards her driveway. Madeline and Don went home. Nothing was missing from Elizabeth's room but there was still no sign of her. They called police.
The police did not issue an Amber Alert as they believed they were dealing with a runaway case. There was no sign that anything had happened to Elizabeth and they had not received any sightings or reports of an abduction. Madeline and Dan insisted that their daughter would not have just run away but there was no evidence to the contrary. So, Madeline and Don asked their family and friends to help search for her. Even though police believed she was a runaway, they helped search too.
In the days that followed, the search for Elizabeth grew. There were helicopters, sniffer dogs and search teams involved. The media broadcast the search. That led to a huge amount of tips but nothing at all came from them.
As they were beginning to lose hope of finding Elizabeth, after an agonising seven days, Madeline received a text message from an unfamiliar number. It read:
"Hey mom, it's Lizzie. I’m in a hole down by the road or by Charm Hill. The road where the big trucks go in and out."
Madeline believed the text message was from her daughter as she called her Lizzie. Charm Hill was private property owned by a chalk mining company and police searched the area that night and the next day but they didn't find anything. Police traced the text message, it bounced off local cell towers and they discovered who the number was registered to. Thirty six year old Vinson Filyaw.
Police knew who Vinson was. He was an unemployed construction worker and he was wanted in connection to the alleged rape of a twelve year old girl. He was on their wanted list for a year. He lived in a trailer in the area but every time police called to the trailer, he was never there.
Police searched the trailer. They discovered a hole that had been cut in the floor of the trailer. But he wasn't in the hole. The police released the text message and the image of Vinson to the media. Elizabeth's family were furious. They feared that if he saw it, he may kill Elizabeth.
Three days after the text message was sent, Captain David Thomley was walking through the wood when he heard a voice. It was Elizabeth. She was calling for help. She was alive.
Elizabeth's family were overjoyed. She had been missing for ten days. Even though Elizabeth survived, her ordeal has left lifelong scars.
That day, the 6th of September, Elizabeth got off the bus and began walking home. A man , Vinson, approached her and told her he was a police officer. Vinson said that she was under arrest. He had been waiting for her. He hid in the woods beside her driveway until he saw her approaching her house.
After Vinson handcuffed her, he led her into the woods and within the first fifteen minutes, he sexually assaulted her. He tied a string with a black box around her neck and told Elizabeth that it was explosives and could blow up if she tried to run away. They walked in the woods for around an hour in circles and during that time, he told Elizabeth that if she tried to call for help, he would shoot her younger brother with a rifle.
In the woods, Vinson opened a camouflaged door in the ground which revealed a six foot deep bunker. He made Elizabeth climb into it. It was about a mile from her home. Inside the bunker, there was a well, a bed, a stove, chimney and a television.
View looking down into the bunker
Vinson also had an inflatable doll and explosives made of gunpowder and pellets.
During her ten days in the bunker, Elizabeth was subjected to a horrific ordeal. He took her clothes off, chained her and raped her. Elizabeth was raped several times a day every day.
Inside the bunker
Some days, Elizabeth heard people searching for her and when they heard voices, he held a Taser to her head. But he soon began to trust Elizabeth as she didn't try to escape. She pretended that she liked him so he would trust her. He allowed her to go to a nearby pond to get washed and eventually allowed her to use his phone to play games. That's when she took a chance and text Madeline.
Vinson saw the news about the text message and was furious but Elizabeth told him he should escape before he was caught and that is exactly what he did. When he fled, she left the bunker and called for help.
Vinson was captured a day later, kneeling on the side of Interstate 20 in Richland County. He confessed and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 421 years in prison with no chance of parole.
According to Vinson, he kidnapped Elizabeth as revenge and to embarrass the Kershaw County Sheriff's Department. He believed he had been mistreated when they investigated him about the alleged rape of a twelve year old girl.
"I can tell you, he is not the clean cut man you see today."
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
"The effects of abuse are devastating and far reaching. Domestic violence speaks many languages, has many colors and lives in many different communities."
- Sandra Pupatello
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