This woman apparently believed that the criminal who approached her at the ATM wanted to steal her car. Which, he did.
But that’s not all he was after.
After he told her to get out of her car (she did), he told her to open her trunk (she did), and then he told her to get inside the trunk (she did).
And he drove away.
With her in the trunk.
Happy ending: she got away, later. Dude drove around for awhile with her trapped in the trunk, forced her to give him more information so he could steal more money from her at other ATMs, and eventually parked the car with her still in it. She was able to force her way out of the trunk to report the crime. 1
She was lucky. She wasn’t one of the rare crime victims who vanish without a trace. She wasn’t one of the 2000 Americans each year who go missing and are never found. 2
What can we learn, here?
As I’ve said in the past, the only thing worse than a scary, horrible event is a scary, horrible event nobody learns anything from. So let’s learn something from this one. In order to do that, I’m going to ask you to do something surprisingly tough: I want you to watch this video carefully, and think it through.
It’s the thinking it through that’s the hard part. If you’re anything like most people, you’ll feel a strong temptation to comfort yourself with denial, or with judgmentalism, or with soothing but unrealistic beliefs about … well, about a lot of things including your own natural and very normal behavior. You might want to make some kind of point in your head about how you could never be the innocent person in this video for whatever reason.
Avoid all that, if you can. Don’t shelter your ego or smother your best thoughts inside a comforting blanket of smug sympathy. Be brave and put it all on the table. Risk that kind of honesty with yourself.
As you get ready to watch the video, you may also need to remind yourself of some hard truths. Truths like this: sometimes bad things do happen, even in your own neighborhood. Sometimes, even smart, alert people — people just like yourself — do fail to see trouble coming. Sometimes even otherwise good and well-trained awareness fails. Accept those possibilities and admit these negative realities with an open mind but without fear. You’re doing this, not to discourage yourself or bring yourself down, but so that you can put yourself in the best place to learn. You want to see what’s happening in front of the camera from an honest position of gentle understanding about how it might happen that way… even to someone as smart as you are, even to someone who lives in a neighborhood as good as your own. Tell yourself that you will consciously be courageous enough to put yourself in this person’s shoes as you watch.
You can use the questions below as a jumping off place to explore your own thoughts. Please, don’t just shout at the screen with the “right” answer. Try instead to find the real answer, the one that fits your personality, that matches your daily lifestyle and everyday social patterns. The right answer for every single question I ask below is the one you can live with and that fits into your life or into the life you’re willing to live. That’s it and that’s all.
Just so you know, I’m not going to insult either one of us by telling you that there aren’t any wrong answers here. Of course there are. But here’s the twist: for this post, I am going to define “wrong” in a very specific way and it’s not what you think.
The wrong answer to every question below is a quiet little half-truth or a dodging denial. It’s the answer you give not because it fits you and the way you want to live, but because it’s more comfortable to say it that way. Maybe you say it because it’s what you would like to do, like a New Year’s Resolution that you won’t ever carry out. Or because you think it’s what you should do. No matter how good that thought might be, it’s the wrong answer because in your heart you know you probably wouldn’t really do it that way or be the kind of person who could do that. It just …doesn’t fit you, for whatever reason. 3 Those kinds of answers are wrong not because there’s no such thing as better or worse choices (there are but that’s a subject for another day). It’s just because you have to let go of the idealized dreams in order to fit better safety into your own real world.
In the beginning
First, at the very beginning of the recording, after you see the car on screen but before anything else really happens, freeze the frame and just look at the entire scene for a few minutes.
- Which direction do you believe is most likely for a criminal to use if he wanted to approach a driver at this particular ATM? Why that direction? What are some reasons he might not come from there, and which other direction might be a good alternative?
- If you were the criminal in this scene, where would you choose to stand while you waited for customers and potential victims to pull up to the ATM? How would you avoid alarming other people while you waited for your victim to come along? What would your hands be doing? Your body? Would you crouch and slink behind things so people didn’t see you at all, or would you be more casual and try to hide in plain sight?
- Bring it home: based on your answers above, think about your own bank and the ATM you use most often. Which direction(s) do you think would be most likely to cause problems for people using your favorite ATM? What are some ways you could minimize your own risk of not spotting someone in that area when you approach the machine?
“Should’ve seen that coming…”
Next, play the video and freeze it at the moment you believe the driver should have seen the man approaching her car. Then let it play just until she does see him.
- How close is the criminal when you think the driver should have seen him, compared to how close he was when she did see him? Why do you think she didn’t see him earlier? What things were distracting her or keeping her from seeing him?
- If you were the criminal, how would you approach someone at a drive up ATM? What would your body language look like when you got close? How would you avoid alarming your intended victim before you were ready to act? How would you prepare to move first and move most quickly when you did attack?
- Is it reasonable to expect that every pedestrian walking anywhere near an ATM while we’re using it actually has the intent to rob or attack us? If not, what are some ways we might predict dangerous intent?
- Would it be realistic to expect her — or yourself, by extension — to simply drive away at the first moment she “should have” seen him, at whatever distance that was? … or when she does see him? (Would your answers change, if your bank card was still in the machine when you spotted the potential criminal?)
- If driving away early on isn’t a realistic answer for you, what would be a realistic and reasonable thing you would be willing to do when you first see trouble coming toward you, even before you know for absolute sure that it really is trouble? (Bonus: do your answers change if the potential criminal is a different race than you are? Would you respond more slowly if the person were someone who might take offense at you rolling up a window or giving them a hard look?)
- Bring it home: how often do you spend a little time rearranging yourself, or settling down your kids, or making sure that you put your wallet back into the right pocket of your purse, or fixing your makeup or calling a friend or balancing the checkbook, before you pull out of a parking space? When you do those little tasks, how likely are you — really, truly likely — to have your head on a swivel so you’re consciously aware of events happening outside your car?
Counting the cost
Let the video keep playing until the spot where the criminal is standing at the driver’s side window, pointing a gun directly at her head. Note that we do not have audio for this event and thus do not know what he said to her. We only know what we see happen next: she got out of the driver’s seat and into the trunk.
Watch that. Think about it.
This part is tough, and it’s going to get tougher. These are the questions no empathetic person really wants to ask herself. But for someone interested in self defense, they’re crucial.
- When you see the criminal point the gun at the woman’s head, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind? Does it make you angry? Frightened? Disgusted? Do you instantly start thinking coulda-woulda-shoulda? Close your eyes for a moment and explore those thoughts and the feelings that go with them. Emotional reactions to danger are part of self defense, and sometimes they’re the reason people freeze up or don’t respond as quickly as they’d like to respond in a crisis. There’s no way to guarantee that a freeze won’t happen to you, but you may be able to reduce the size of the road block by exploring potential emotions beforehand so that you can put them in perspective.
- According to Dr. Vincent J. M. DiMaio, former chief medical examiner in Bexar County, Texas, and the author of several books about gunshot wounds and forensic pathology, if you get shot and make it to the hospital with your heart still beating, there’s a 95% chance you’ll survive. 4 With that in mind, would you be willing to hit the gas and drive away if someone walks up to your window, points a gun at you and tells you to get out of your car? Would you be willing to do it instantly, without pausing to think about it?
- If you did decide to drive away, would you realistically be able to do that quickly enough, if you were taken by surprise? Do you habitually keep the car in gear while you’re using an ATM from the driver’s seat? If not, is that a change you’d be able to fit into your life? Or is it realistically something you’re not going to change?
- Related: if you are willing to drive away in order to get out of trouble and away from danger, are you willing to run somebody over in order to escape that way? Legally, deadly force is deadly force, whether it’s applied with a gun or with a motor vehicle. But as you think it through, you might find that you hesitate or balk at one of those ideas but not the other. Think it through.
- Watch the video carefully. It’s a little tricky to picture the speed that things happen with all the stop-frame jumps, but do you think this woman would really have had time to draw a gun while she was in the driver’s seat with her seat belt fastened? Bring it home: have you ever practiced drawing from your everyday carry holster 5 while you’re seated … in a car … behind the wheel … with your seat belt on? If so, what do you think: would you realistically be able to get the gun up and in use fast enough or sneakily enough (or both) to avoid getting shot by the guy at the window?
- If drawing isn’t an option, and driving away won’t work for you, what’s your next best plan? Would you be willing to get out of the car? Would you be willing to risk staying in the car? (Does your answer change if family members are with you?)
- If you did get out of the car, would you immediately run to get away from the area, hoping that the attacker would stay with the car instead of following you? If so, how good are you at sprinting and how far can you sprint? 6 Would you be tempted to maybe run ten steps, then stop and look back to see what happened?
- Related: have you ever practiced drawing the gun 7 from your regular carry holster while you’re running? This one might be an especially critical concern if you carry in a nonstandard location such as in a purse, or on your ankle, or in a thigh holster, or in a shapewear based holster — and it might be completely pointless to even discuss it if you often leave the gun at home.
Final thought on this whole thing. Runs through some very personal territory indeed. For me, for myself, a long time ago I decided that I’d rather take a bullet at close range or catch a shot in the back while running away — and perhaps die bleeding right there on the spot — than to embrace a futile hope and risk a slow death by torture in a secluded location. 8 That’s the bargain being offered by the gruff command to get in the trunk: fight death now, or face torture later.
Which would you choose?
- You can read the Arlington PD press release by clicking “more” on the information line of the embedded video’s YouTube page. ↩
- Not wanting to leave you with a distorted understanding of either the odds or the stakes in events like this, let’s put some numbers in perspective. According to NCIC, over 600,000 people get reported missing every year in this country — that’s around 50,000 every month and more than 1700 missing people every single day. Most of the missing people are underage children, and nearly all of those are taken by relatives in custody disputes or similar circumstances. But “most” isn’t the same thing as “all.” The FBI usually has around 85,000 active cases of missing people open at any given time, and there’s a pretty steady turnover of those cases. So in the big picture, out of a much bigger pool of possibilities: only 2,000 of the people who go missing this year will never be found. Almost all of the ones who disappear forever will be cases like this one, though a few may be undetected car accidents in remote areas and similar things. Take from that what comfort you can. ↩
- Funny part is, I can’t even see your face and won’t ever know what your answers were, so who would you really be fooling with one of those? ↩
- Quote from New York Times, “One Bullet Can Kill, but Sometimes 20 Don’t, Survivors Show,” published April 3, 2008 and written by John Eligon. ↩
- Using a dummy gun first, please! ↩
- Friend of mine is a firefighter who thinks it’s ridiculous that so many firefighters run marathons. “You need to run out of a burning building, you need to sprint,” he says. “It’s anaerobic and you need fast twitch muscles to do it. We should all be running wind sprints, not jogging.” ↩
- Using a dummy gun first, please! ↩
- It’s not the worst of these cases, not by a long shot, but if you want an example of the type of outcome that haunts my personal dreams, Google the name of Meredith Emerson — a woman who fought back barehanded and did her very best to survive. Then read the transcript of the detectives’ interview with her killer, and ask yourself which door you’d rather use when you exit this world. ↩