It's every parent's worst nightmare: something happening to their child. For Elizabeth Shoaf's parents, they had to endure 10 days of absolute agony when their 14-year-old daughter went missing without a trace.
Lucky for them, Elizabeth is smart, and she wasn't about to give up without a fight.
In 2006, Elizabeth was walking herself home from school. Taking her normal route, a man claiming to be a police officer approached the young girl and told her she was under arrest. The man was dressed in combat fatigues, and Elizabeth didn't want to get into any more trouble than she already assumed she was. The man handcuffed her, then led her deep into the woods.
But the man was not a police officer. In fact, he was far from it. 36-year-old Vinson Filyaw was an unemployed construction worker who was looking for someone to capture and torture. He didn't live far from Elizabeth's home, which made her the perfect target.
"He just walked out in camouflage and told me he was the police and that he needed to talk to me," Elizabeth recalled of that day. "And then I walked over and he handcuffed me behind my back."
As for why she was "under arrest," Elizabeth said Vinson told her it had something to do with marijuana, and that her 12-year-old brother Donnie had already been arrested.
"Then he put like a fake bomb. I didn't know it was fake, because he told me it was real. But he put it around my neck," Elizabeth told Dateline. "I was confused. I was like, kind of angry, because he had told me he had my little brother with the other people. And then that angered me, because I’m just protective over my brother."
Instead of leading Elizabeth into a squad car, like a real officer would, Vinson led the young teen farther off the road and into the woods.
"He was asking me just like the oddest questions," Elizabeth said. "If I had a phone and if I was a virgin and--Of all things for a police to ask me, that's when I kind of was wondering what was going on. And then he said that I was a smart girl and I should have figured it out. And then that kind of got me scared. That's when my heart started pounding because I knew something was wrong."
Her intuition was right, and unfortunately, that meant she was in for 10 days of complete hell.
Vinson led Elizabeth deeper and deeper into the woods, walking around for almost an hour. He took her in circles and doubled back many times so that she would lose any sense of where she was. One thing was very clear: he did not want her to be found.
Eventually, Vinson stopped at a random spot in the forest and lifted up a piece of ground. Elizabeth realized it was actually a trap door that lead to an underground lair.
"He told me to go down a ladder and get into the bunker," Elizabeth said. "He had like a rifle and a belt that had guns and I saw a Taser in it. So I knew he was really equipped to do anything, if I acted stupid or whatever."
Immediately, Vinson demanded that Elizabeth strip down and he raped her. It became a common occurrence.
"More than two times every day. Between two and five times a day," the young teen recalled. "All I remember is that it hurt, of course. And I had looked off to the side to one of the shelves that was there. And I was looking' at it like-- there was, like, a propane tank and dishes and stuff on it."
Elizabeth was kept in that lair for days on end, naked and chained by her neck to the roof of the bunker. That's when she knew she had been kidnapped and wouldn't be leaving anytime soon. She also assumed it's where she would die.
The lair was ready to be lived in for weeks on end, with supplies stacked on shelves.
"It was, like, dirt walls and then over the walls he had some kind of sheet of some kind of fabric," Elizabeth recalled of the underground lair. "And then he just had, like, his own little homemade bed and homemade shelves and a retarded toilet. It was a broken plastic chair over a bucket. It smelled muggy. Really, really muggy. In the afternoons, and then at nighttime it'd be really cold. I would sit there for like hours. Just thinking."
The worst part for Elizabeth was watching the news on a tiny, battery-operated TV underground. The abduction was plastered all over the news, and all Elizabeth would hear about is how she was "missing," not abducted.
"I watched my mom and my sister and my aunt, and all the other people I saw on the news," Elizabeth recalled. "And just watched like them talk about how I was missing. And they wouldn't put an Amber Alert out for me. It made me angry, because they thought I was a runaway."
But people were looking for the missing girl, they just didn't know where to start.
Dan and Madeline Shoaf were worried sick about their daughter, it was only made worse by the lack of cooperation from the police. Sheriff Steve McCaskill wouldn't put out an Amber Alert for the missing teen, because they believed she had just runaway from home.
"Well, you know, any time a young person is missing a lot of times they just run away," McCaskill said on Dateline. "You know, they just get mad about something. But you know -- you've got to cover all bases."
Despite the lack of Amber Alert, police launched a search for Elizabeth. Dozens of officers, plus hundreds of strangers from the neighborhood, were out looking for the teenager. Every ditch, every house, every highway, anywhere a young girl could have gone, it was searched.
As helicopters flew over the forest where Elizabeth was being kept, the missing girl could hear them. She could even see the people on foot looking for her.
"I could actually see their shadows walking across the door above me. And I’m just sitting there while they're right above me," Elizabeth recalled. "And it's -- I didn't say anything, but he just came up to me and told me that I needed to be quiet and if I said anything, all he had to do is Taser me and it'd knock me out."
Even if someone had gotten close enough to the lair, Vinson convinced Elizabeth his booby-traps would stop them from saving her.
"They were all pretty much on the way towards the water hole," Elizabeth said of the traps. "And he showed me that one thing he had in the ground. It was between these two trees and it was shocking bullets that were, like, pointed upwards. And if you step on it, it will shoot you in your feet."
Elizabeth began to feel helpless, but her intelligence is what ended up saving her.
Elizabeth considered killing Vinson, and even tried it one night while he was sleeping.
"He had a pellet pistol," the teen recalled. "And while he was sleeping, I grabbed it. And I pulled the trigger to his head but it got jammed. And I couldn't-- I didn't want to un-jam it, because then he'd hear it. So I just put it away and cried."
Finally, Elizabeth developed a crazy idea, but one that might just work. The teenager took the mentality of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." What if she pretended that she was falling in love with Vinson? Would he be nicer to her if he thought she really wanted to be with him?
I always would do what he told me to do. And like he'd always call me baby. So I’d call him that back. And he'd tell me he loved me, and I told him I love him. Which is-- I’d act like I really liked him and I wanted to be with him. I didn't like it. But I did it anyways. Whenever we would walk through the woods, like to the water hole or back to the bunker, I’d just pull out a few strands of my hair and leave, it like on the ground or on the tree branches, thinking that maybe a dog or some -- like a police dog would sniff it.
It started working. Vinson took Elizabeth out of the bunker more and more, and would let her come with him to get water. The more time she spent with Vinson, the teenager noticed his phone.
"He'd sit there and text message his wife or girlfriend and that kind of gave me the idea of text messaging my mom," Elizabeth said.
It was risky, of course. But what other option did she have?
"When he was like real, real deep in his snoring that I knew he was asleep, I would start text messaging," Elizabeth recalled. "For three days I did. I wrote so many that like some of them were long text messages and some of them were just short. It always told me it didn't [send]. Every time I’d send it it said it failed cause of the signal."
One night, Vinson caught Elizabeth trying to send a message, but she played it off as though she was playing games. That excuse worked, but she still needed to get a text out. She finally worked up the courage to climb the ladder while Vinson was sleeping and opened the hatch. She got her arm out enough to send the message, but it still said it hadn't gone through.
Or so she thought.
Madeline Shoaf looked at her cellphone, and there was a text from an unknown number.
"Hey mom, It's Lizzie. I'm in a hole."
Madeline knew this was her daughter. She called Elizabeth Lizzie. This was her.
I’m in a hole down by the road-- or by Charm Hill. The road where the big trucks go in and out.
"I just knew it was her. I mean, I knew it was her, just the mannerism of the text," Madeline said. "You just sit there and you know how your child talks to you … I was like "my God.” You know, I said, "Don, this is her.”"
Authorities were worried it was all a hoax, but Madeline knew this was her daughter. Sheriff McCaskill worked with techs to figure out where the message was sent from.
"We were able to come together with the marshal service and triangulate between the three cell towers in the area and get the number. And when the number came back that's when the big break came."
That "big break" was that Vinson Filyaw was known to authorities, and they had an address. They searched Vinson's home and he was nowhere to be found, but they uncovered multiple bunkers on his property. Police blasted his face and name on TV, which only made Madeline more upset. She didn't want her daughter put at even more risk because her abductor knew she had made contact with authorities.
But the opposite happened. When Vinson saw the news, he got scared.
"He was just asking me like if he should pack stuff and he should start leaving or if he should stay and wait it off to see if they never find me," Elizabeth recalled. "And I just told him that he needed to pack his stuff and leave while he could because the police were going to get him. And I didn't want him in jail. And I acted like I wanted him to be safe."
Vinson ran out into the night. Elizabeth was finally free of his grasp. She left the bunker the next morning, using all of her strength to open the hatch, and she heard the search dogs looking for her.
"I started yelling like "hello” and I yelled it like 10 times and then somebody finally yelled my name back. And then that's just like a big, big relief I just like fell down and started crying."
Captain David Thomley was the first person to see Elizabeth.
"I knew it was her, I could feel it was her," he said. "I would have walked thru hell on a Sunday to get to her. I don't know if you could call it a run in my shape. I ran as fast as I could. I went up to her and put my arm around her and told her I’ve been looking for her everywhere."
An ambulance was called, Elizabeth was taken to the hospital, and Cpt. Thomley went to tell Madeline and Don their daughter was safe.
"All of a sudden I seen something coming up the road," Madeline recalled. "I said, is that one of the police officers?When he said that he had her, it was my whole life started again, it was like, my heart just started beating again. And of course, I saw her, I couldn't stop it. I just jumped on her. You know? I just had to give her a hug and kiss her."
But it still wasn't over. Not even close.
Elizabeth may have been found, but she refused to go home with Vinson still on the run. He had told the young girl that if she ever escaped, he'd go after her brother Donnie. She told police about Vinson's guns, and bombs. Immediately, they started searching for the monster who had taken away this 14-year-old girl's innocence.
"I was some kind of mad," McCaskill said. "Oh, I just wanted this guy. I mean, for what she had been through, and I know she had been through for all those days, now wh-- the anger really set in. We really got in a manhunt mode."
Vinson's picture was plastered everywhere, and he knew it. The man was on the run, a six hour head-start on the cops, and needed to disappear.
Unfortunately for Vinson, he bumped into Jennifer Lynn and tried to steal her car. Game over.
"He had a long knife hanging off his belt and a gun," Jennifer said. "That's pretty much all I saw is his face. I recognized him from the internet. So I knew right away who he was. I was kind of cursing him out for doing this in front of my child for putting my child through this, he’s already hurt one little girl. He knew he wasn't getting my keys and he said, OK never mind and started running down the sidewalk."
Jennifer called the cops as Vinson ran, and a few hours later he was in handcuffs.
Vinson plead guilty to all 17 charges against him, which included rape and kidnapping of not only Elizabeth, but another girl named Amber from years prior. The judge said Vinson showed no remorse for his actions, and he was ultimately sentenced to 421 years in prison.
But for Madeline Shoaf, that's not enough.
“I don’t think he should be allowed to live that long."
And while you may think Elizabeth wants to forget this all happened, that's not true at all.
"It's like, for some reason I like to think about it and people think I’m weird for wanting to think about it," Elizabeth confessed. "But I just think of it because I don't want to forget it, because that's something I accomplished that a lot of people might not have. And it makes me feel good to know that I got to get through something like that."
She's not wrong, either. Very few people would have the wherewithal to not only come up with that plan, but have the courage to follow through.
Elizabeth Shoaf's story is one of triumph, and it's inspiring to us all.
[H/T: NBC News]