Those close to me know I am a true crime obsessive.
I was born into the era of “stranger danger,” which emerged from some high-profile stranger abductions and murders of small children including Etan Patz and Adam Walsh (whose father is John of America’s Most Wanted fame). The infatuation for me started in the late 80s when Unsolved Mysteries was in its heyday. My parents never monitored my TV consumption, and the show would captivate me on weeknights with stories of kids my age who had disappeared, some of whom are still unaccounted for to this day. I have read a ton of true crime books, from accounts of individual abductions and murders to the trials of infamous serial killers (I highly recommend Helter Skelter, the very long but very good account of the gruesome murders committed by Charles Manson and his clan and the eventual trial as told by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi).
I have a keen interest in cold case abductions. The idea that someone can be missing for decades without their loved ones knowing what happened to them both terrifies and fascinates me. It’s like living in a purgatory. Every once in a while, a current case will really grip me. And that has happened in the last few weeks with the Feb. 13th murder of Abby Williams and Liberty German, teenage best friends in rural Delphi, Indiana. You can read the details of this case all over the web, but the synopsis is that these two friends went hiking in a well-known wooded area on a day off from school. They had been posting pictures of their excursion on Snapchat, which is why the case is being dubbed by some “The Snapchat Murders.” But German, 14, captured more than just images of her hike and her friend—she took both photos and audio of what police say is likely her killer. A month later, they are still hunting for the person responsible.
This case is haunting and heartbreaking and resonates deeply with me because it reminds me of a time more than 20 years ago when I would go off in the woods and on walks around my town with one of my friends, Staci. It also makes me think of when my future daughter becomes a teenager and the fears I will have for her in a world where women of all ages are preyed upon by both strangers and people close to them.
Staci and I mostly pursued innocent fun in our hometown of Brick. NJ when we were 12, 13 and 14. I rode my pink, 10-speed Huffy all over the neighborhoods on either side of Mantoloking Road, off of which we both lived.
It was heavily wooded in parts on either side of this main thoroughfare. There were always rumors of neo-Nazi activity in my town, and on more than one occasion we spotted swastikas spray-painted on trees. One time, as we walked our bikes through a swampy area because my bike chain kept popping off, we saw an overturned canoe littered with swastikas. No one else was around—that we could tell—but we both felt an immediate and intense sense of unease. We practically ran our bikes through the rest of the wooded pathway until we got to a development. A dead body would turn up in that same area years after I’d left town for college.
The scariest thing that ever happened to me and Staci took place while we were walking on Adamston Road, which ran parallel to Mantoloking, one Friday evening in spring.
Both Adamston and Mantoloking roads were flanked by neighborhoods, but there were pockets of desolation marked by clusters of woods. In those areas, street lights would disappear and, without the headlights of passing cars, it would become quite dark. That night, a jeep passed us in the opposite direction of where we were walking and flashed its lights. At 12 and 13, we didn’t know many people with cars beyond our parents and neighbors, friends’ older siblings and coaches and dance teachers. I squinted into the headlights, but there was no way I could tell if it was someone I knew.
We kept walking—and then the car spun a sharp U-turn and drove up behind us. Neither Staci or I had any idea who this person was or why they were taking such a strong interest in talking to us, if talking was indeed what they were after. As the door to the jeep began to open, we bolted. We ran onto a neighborhood street and into the yard of the first house we came to. It was dark. We rushed to the backyard and hid behind a deck. Within minutes, we saw headlights beaming into the driveway. I hunched down, silent, praying the driver wouldn’t get out of the car.
I was 5 foot 3, 115 lbs. at that time. A strong adult could have easily grabbed me without much of a fight.
Thankfully, after what felt like an hour, the car reversed out of the driveway. Staci and I stayed crouched down, catching our breaths. We gave it a few minutes and then ran across the street to a house with lights on. We told the adults there what happened and they offered to drive us back to Staci’s house nearby. We took them up on their kindness and stayed inside for the rest of the night.
The event still jarred us a few weeks later when we were stopped by yet another jeep, this time in broad daylight on a Saturday while walking on a different road. Startled, Staci and I ignored the driver and started swiftly walking away. This time, the person quickly rolled down the window.
“Lauren,” said a familiar female voice. “It’s me.” It was my teenage dance teacher who drove an off-white Jeep Cherokee. It was confirmed that she was not the same driver who had stopped us on Adamston weeks earlier. We never found out who that person was.
Thankfully, nothing that scary ever happened to us again, at least while we were together. There would be creepy boys and men, poor choices and experimentation on various levels, but we survived. Others in our town weren’t so lucky and would fall victim to evils ranging from domestic violence to drugs. Around the same time as our Adamston Road incident, there were actually two missing teenage girls in my town. One ended in a murder without a body ever found. The other had a happier ending, and Facebook tells me the victim has a family of her own and seems to be doing fine today.
It’s entirely possible the person who stopped us that night on Adamston didn’t have nefarious intentions. I will never know. At the time, our early adolescent intuition told us otherwise. And I realize random abductions and murders like the kind that happened to Abby and Libby are rare. Chances are, you will make it out of childhood and adolescence without falling victim to such a fate. In fact, it’s more likely you will die in a car accident or at the hands of someone you know (and, to be clear, police don’t yet know for certain if these girls were killed by someone known to them).
I know all that. And, yet, I hope that when my daughter becomes a teenager that she can enjoy her rites of passage without feeling threatened by the evils of the world. That she can feel like she can walk in the woods with a friend and talk about boys or girls she likes, take pictures, even sneak a cigarette, and own this world as one she deserves to explore, not one in which she has to walk in fear.