Elizabeth Shoaf described the horror she endured with an air of calm that is hard to imagine in an adult, let alone a teenage girl.
Just 17 months ago and at the age of 14, Elizabeth was abducted on her way home from school in Lugoff, S.C., by a man dressed in combat fatigues who claimed to be a police officer.
He handcuffed her, told her she was under arrest, and led her deep into the woods, where he stripped her naked and chained her in a cramped and dank “bunker” he had dug into the ground next to his trailer home. Several times a day for 10 days, he raped her.
With no one to save her, the girl saved herself. Her parents, Madeline and Don Shoaf, are still astonished at her courage and strength.
“I look at her all the time and think what she went through and how she did it,” Don Shoaf told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira on Friday. “I’m still amazed.”
The Shoafs talked generally about Elizabeth’s ordeal on TODAY. Tonight, they will talk in depth about it on NBC’s “Dateline.”
(“Into the Woods,” a special two-hour “Dateline” story about this case, airs 9 p.m. Friday, March 7 on NBC.)
Elizabeth is 16 and a sophomore in high school now. From the moment she was rescued, she talked openly about her ordeal, the full impact of what she went through only hitting her later.
Today, she talks about it quietly but openly, her words accompanied by a Mona Lisa hint of a smile.
“I had a lot of hard times,” she admitted of the months after her escape. “I’m still getting through it.”
The man who abducted her was a 36-year-old unemployed construction worker, Vinson Filyaw, who was a suspect in a separate and unrelated sexual assault case. The bunker he had built next to his trailer was filled with canned food and pornography and also contained a Taser, handcuffs and guns.
When Elizabeth did not return home from school on Sept. 6, 2006, her parents called police. Lacking any evidence that she had been abducted, her case was initially treated as a runaway despite her parents’ insistence that their daughter would never run away from home.
But even if police had treated her disappearance as an abduction and broadcast an immediate Amber Alert, it wouldn’t have helped. Deep in the woods in a well-hidden and booby-trapped underground pit, she was utterly on her own.
She said she kept up her spirits by thinking about her family and friends and through prayer. She also realized that she could not hope to be found and would have to discover a way out herself.
“I guess if I wanted him to trust me I’d have to have him think I kind of wanted to be there and be more comfortable letting me do things I wanted to do,” she told Vieira.
It worked. In a few days, he trusted her enough to give her his cell phone so she could play games on it. But when he went to sleep, she used the phone to send text messages to her parents and friends.
When her mother received one of the messages, Kershaw County police released it to the media, and Elizabeth remembers watching the little television in the bunker with Filyaw when it was broadcast. Police had been triangulating in on the signal from the cell phone and she and Filyaw had seen helicopters flying overhead, and now the news report filled Filyaw with fear — and rage.
“I was scared I was gonna die,” she said of that moment. “He was mad. I didn’t know what to do.”
But as angry as Filyaw was, he asked the 14-year-old girl for advice about what to do.
“I told him he needed to leave because if they’d catch him, he would go to jail,” she said.
Filyaw took her advice, and the next morning, when she felt he was gone, she climbed out of the hole in the ground and wandered through the woods, calling for help.
“I was yelling for somebody, anybody to come and get me,” she said.
“Finally I heard somebody yell my name and they came and took me to the hospital. I just started crying. I was happy,” Elizabeth said.
Last September, Filyaw, who confessed to everything and pleaded guilty rather than go to trial, was sentenced to 421 years in prison with no chance of parole. Madeline and Don Shoaf don’t think the punishment is enough and wish there were a death penalty for what he did to their daughter.
“I don’t think he should be allowed to live that long and live off us,” said Madeline Shoaf. “I just think something else should have been done.”