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Don't Be a Victim
Fighting Back Against America's Crime Wave
By Nancy Grace
With John Hassan
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- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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Now it seems like another world, a world where I set out to follow my dream of teaching Shakespearean literature. When I studied all of his works in the silence of a library, everything else seemed to disappear. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do, and I planned a lifetime of doing just that.
But that all changed. I remember pushing through the heavy doors of Mercer University’s math building. I had just finished a statistics exam and after a few more classes, I was heading for a graduate program in Shakespearean studies. It was all right there within my reach, and I distinctly remember thinking as I stepped out of the darkened halls how the world looked so bright and shiny and new outside. I headed across campus to my job in the library, stopping to use a pay phone and let the librarians know I was en route. They gave me the message to call my fiancé’s sister, Judy.
Right then, I knew.
I kept trying to dial the numbers, but my hand wouldn’t cooperate. It was like a moth batting around an outdoor porch light, back and forth in erratic, darting movements. I couldn’t quite get the numbers straight. But then, I did. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I asked her one question: “Is Keith gone?”
She said yes.
I hung up the phone, and that was the beginning of a dark, hazy blur…a blur that ended up lasting for years.
Everything was fine, everything was perfect, and then, in a flash, it all changed. Just before our wedding, Keith’s world ended. My world exploded.
I grew up in a world where there was nothing but tall pine trees and soybean fields as far as the eye could see, where violence was something unknown and very, very far away. We could ride our bikes anywhere we wanted after school. We could build forts between pine trees and only come home when we’d hear chimes in the church steeple telling us it was six o’clock and time for supper. I could explore rushing streams and pastures full of cows munching grass and edged with trees. I could swing from a long rope out in a circle over a deep gully full of water, crash-running once I hit the soil when the circle ended. Keith’s murder changed all that.
I found out about an alternate universe, a world of violence and unnamed hate. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stand to hear music or the TV. My mom had to stop the clocks because I couldn’t bear the tick-tick-ticking. I dropped out of school.
Weeks, then months passed. I would sit for days on our front porch in the hot sun. I was fading away mentally and physically. Nothing mattered.
In a last-ditch effort, my parents sent me to visit my sister, who had made it to the Wharton School in Philadelphia. I remember sitting on a bench watching students pouring in and out of the bookstore. They were getting books and supplies to go back to school for fall semester. Back to school…I knew I could never be happy in a classroom, not anymore. I had to do something, but what? Sitting on that bench outdoors in the late afternoon, I had an inkling of an idea…an inkling that turned into a life’s devotion. Heaven threw me a rope, and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I grabbed it.
Yes, I went back to school, but teaching literature was no longer an option for me. My one burning goal was to somehow get into law school and then fight crime with all my might.
I had only one reference to present to the law school admissions department, from my Sunday school teacher. I remember riding by the law school and seeing the lights burning in the library into the night and wondering if I could possibly get in, wondering if good grades and a letter from a Sunday school teacher could possibly be enough. And then, I got a letter. It was sitting in our black metal mailbox at the end of our driveway near the road, which had finally been paved over just a few years before. The pavement is important because when I opened the letter and read it, I remember the hard asphalt when I went down on my knees and thanked God. I got in.
Before my first day of law school, I actually had to look up the definitions of plaintiff and defendant. It took me seven years before I struck my first jury and tried my first jury trial in inner-city Atlanta, which was at the time one of the murder capitals of the country.
For the next ten years I had a life very different from the way it was before or after. For ten years, an ordinary person like me had an extraordinary opportunity to speak for those who could not speak for themselves and be their voice in courts of law.
Fighting crime is nothing like what you see on TV and in movies. Being on a real murder scene is something I wish on no one. The sight, the smell, the malice hanging in the air is something I never forget. It sticks with you.
Other cases stuck in my heart. I remember a little girl with a hundred pigtails on her head, just three feet tall. She was the victim of repeated rapes by Mommy’s boyfriend. Turned out he had been molesting young girls for thirty years. I found seven of them and brought “similar transactions” before the jury when the little girls were too afraid to testify. But they did.
I remember Ms. Leola, the mom of a teen boy gunned down in cold blood over ten dollars, knitting during the trial when testimony was too raw or crime scene photos and bloody clothes were too unsettling for her to look up. But Ms. Leola wouldn’t leave, not during witnesses, not during arguments, not during jury selection, not during graphic photos of her son on the autopsy table as the medical examiner testified to mortal wounds. Standing at the jury rail, I looked over at her sitting in the very first row behind me. Ms. Leola would look right back at me, smile and continue knitting, urging me on. She gave me strength, and even the recollection of her renews me.
I remember so many families of murder victims lining up to come into the courtroom and sitting on the hard wooden pews, numb. Standing before many a jury to deliver final closing arguments, I argued this: there are people in our society who are too weak, too poor, too afraid, or too intimidated to speak for themselves and be heard. It is our duty to speak for them and fight injustice in every way we can, in every place we can, whenever we can, as hard as we can, for as long as we can.
After well over twenty years, I still carried the same grief and the same burden, even in my personal life. I couldn’t bring myself to risk it again, loving and losing and going back into a world of hurt. I accepted that after Keith’s murder, being a wife and mother would never be for me. But just before my window closed, a miracle happened. I married David and had my miracle twins, John David and Lucy. I never thought I would have joy in my life again, but I do. With that joy comes an overpowering drive to protect them, to never allow violence or evil to destroy their lives the way it nearly destroyed mine.
So many times at night, I watch them sleep and I imagine the dream world they visit, where it is innocent, peaceful, safe. My mind plays back what I remember from the years I prosecuted, the thousands of cases I worked and covered. When all is said and done, my message is the same one I argued to every jury: do all you can to fight the fight, as long as you can and wherever you can.
I still hear my own words ringing in my head. I carried that message from juries of twelve to juries of hundreds of thousands per minute, whether on Crime Stories, Sirius XM, ABC, NBC, CBS, Oxygen—different juries, but always the same message. And now, I bring that message along with all the cases I tried and pled and investigated, every legal argument I’ve ever made, and every story I’ve ever covered, and pour them all into this book. For you.
Don’t be a victim. Join me. Fight back.
How Do I Protect My Child?
Your Child Safe at School
I remember one night, sitting in the hair and makeup chair at CNN-HLN headquarters, just before airtime. That means it was about seven p.m. because I hadn’t left yet to walk to the studio. I was on a conference call with staffers in New York, L.A., and Atlanta, talking about the lead story for that night. Just as we were finishing up, a phone buzzed. My longtime friend and makeup artist, Shayzon, got a call. Her face went ghost white as she listened to the voice on the other end.
When she hung up, she just stared at me blankly.
“Shay, what is it?”
I instinctively stood up, the long makeup cape still around my neck covering my clothes. She didn’t speak. I repeated the same question, and she answered in two words.
Arlie is her son, Arlington.
“What do you mean, Arlie’s gone?” I can still remember my words coming out harshly.
“He didn’t get off the school bus. He’s not answering his cell.”
Instead of hugging her, I immediately started firing off questions as we hurriedly packed all her things to leave. Where was he last seen? Where was her younger daughter? Was she safe? When did they realize he was gone? A million questions. Then the big question: Is there any reason to think he was ever on the school bus to start with?
We all rushed her to the elevator to leave, and on the way she collapsed and crumpled into a ball with her back against the cement wall in the employee hallway. I tried to pull her up, but she wouldn’t budge. I knelt down close to her face, and she said, “Nancy, I know what’s happening. We cover it every night…he’s gone!”
I will never forget the look on her face as long as I live…completely without hope. I hugged her and got her up and was saying all sorts of things like “We’ll find him. Arlie’s too smart to get into somebody’s car. He’s probably at some little friend’s house playing video games right now. I’ll be on my way there in one hour.”
She got on the elevator, and as it closed, she looked me in the face and said, “He doesn’t really play video games.” The doors shut and she was gone.
School buses have been around forever in our country. The sight of a yellow school bus trundling down the road is familiar and comforting. Nearly all of us have been on them, including during our early formative years en route to elementary school. We grew up catching the school bus, climbing up its steps, settling into a shared seat, and ending up, every time, safe at school.
Believe it or not, over 25 million children ride the school bus every day in our country. My dear friend Marc Klaas founded KlaasKids after his daughter Polly was kidnapped. He tells me that the dark side of that stat is that nearly 40 percent of all attempted child kidnappings take place when a child is walking or riding a bike to or from school or walking to or from the school bus. A friend at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children confirms those statistics and it took a while for me to grasp the numbers. Let that soak in: nearly 40 percent of all child kidnapping attempts are related to school, bus stops, and school routes.
Rural Missouri. A straight-A student and Boy Scout jumped the last step of his school bus, hit the ground, and ran toward home. Beaufort was sunny that January day in 2007 as he ran down the gravel road. Minutes later, the boy’s friend spotted a white pickup with a camper top speeding away, but the Boy Scout, Ben Ownby, was no longer walking along the gravel road. He was gone.
Ownby’s parents were beside themselves. Where was their boy? In hours, searchers by foot, by air, ATV, and horseback were scouring the hilly terrain sixty miles south of St. Louis. Even with that incredible effort, they turned up nothing.
Days passed and then, finally, there was a break in the case. Kirkwood police officers spotted a white truck with a cab attached. Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, working off the truck’s plates, determined who and where the owner of the truck was and then descended on the home of Michael Devlin. Up until that time, Devlin, a white male in his forties, had no known criminal history and remained under the radar. When cops swarmed his place, they found Ben Ownby, alive. To their shock, they found another boy who had disappeared at age eleven from his parents’ home in Richwoods when he left to go ride his bike and never came back. Devlin had held the second boy, Shawn Hornbeck, for four long years.
Craig Akers, Shawn’s stepdad, had quit his job in software design to devote his time to a foundation named after Shawn. He and Shawn’s mom, Pam, drained their entire savings to search for Shawn, exploring all avenues, including psychics. At the time of his rescue, Shawn stated Devlin had ordered him to help “find” a younger boy to kidnap. Shawn feared Devlin was set to kill him once Devlin replaced him with a newer, younger victim. Since being found following four years of molestation in captivity, Hornbeck has disappeared from the public eye.
It was cold in Cleveland, Ohio, the morning of January 26, 2017, when fourteen-year-old Alianna left for a bus to school at seven a.m., but she was bright-eyed and eager to get to tutoring early, so off she went. She had quite a trek to get to special tutoring before school, but it was a route she’d traveled often. The day passed as usual, but by four thirty, Alianna wasn’t home. Mom and Dad started an odyssey of frantic calls before, to their shock, they learned their girl never made it to school that morning.
But why? Her family had specifically signed up for text message alerts from the school to be notified if Alianna did not arrive or was ever absent. The school knew about Alianna’s developmental disability and that she practically never missed school. But because no text came, ten hours were lost, precluding an immediate and potentially life-saving search for Alianna. Realizing late in the afternoon that their girl never made it to school, her parents called police.
Weighing heavy on her family was the knowledge that with each passing hour, the likelihood of finding Alianna alive dwindled drastically. The search was on, including wading through security footage from the buses she took to school and their pickup and drop-off points. The young girl with long dark hair was spotted, which normally would have been a huge victory, but the surveillance video continued. It showed her getting off her bus en route to school, on time, around seven a.m. that morning. In the video, Alianna is smiling and laughing.
She crosses the street at East 93rd, but then she’s stopped outside a church by a man. She steps back away from him and continues on. As the video shows, he follows. Shortly after, the video shows the same man leading Alianna through a field toward Fuller Avenue.
Minutes, then hours, then three days passed by the time Cleveland police officer Willie Hodges and his partner were sent to check vacant houses. They found a house with the back door swinging wide open. When Hodges stepped through the doorway, he saw a trail of blood from the living room all the way to a closed door. Kicking the door open, he found the lifeless body of missing schoolgirl Alianna. Scattered through the abandoned home were Alianna’s school clothes, a bloody drill, a hammer, and a box cutter.
Cuyahoga County’s deputy medical examiner, David Dolinak, observed that Alianna’s injuries were so numerous and severe that he couldn’t positively say exactly which one caused her death. Police learned the man in the video, forty-five-year-old registered sex offender Christopher Whitaker, had followed her from her bus stop, forced her into the abandoned home, and then raped her, tortured her with a drill, and murdered her.
Alianna’s parents say the school’s negligence ensured that the last hours of their girl’s life were nothing but excruciating, paralyzing, and debilitating physical and mental pain. They claim the school lied when they said they tried to text the parents and that their system failed. The school says they’ve tried to be supportive of Alianna’s parents. I’ve listened as Alianna’s dad told her story, and the pain he is still suffering is just beneath the surface of every word.
Alianna’s twisted, heartless killer now sits on death row. In 2019, Alianna’s Alert went into effect in Ohio, a law requiring all schools to contact parents and guardians of children who are unaccountably absent from school. But it comes too late for one family.
Alianna’s parents still look out the window and imagine their girl walking up the path home.
It was bright and sunny on June 10, 1991, when eleven-year-old Jaycee Dugard headed out on her morning trek up a hill to her school bus stop in rural Lake Tahoe. Mom Terry had left for work and stepdad Carl watched from the garage as she walked by. Doing chores in the garage, he could still easily spot her about a third of a mile away.
But then, at a distance, he saw a gray sedan make a U-turn and head back up the hill toward Jaycee, cutting across the road to swing open the door. In a flash, he saw his daughter being dragged into the car, and he watched it take off. He heard Jaycee scream. He chased after the car on his mountain bike but to no avail. Jaycee was gone.
That horrific moment started mom Terry’s descent into a chain-smoking alcohol-soaked hell, and even though husband Carl immediately called 911, she blamed him. But one day, Terry found her strength, making over a half million posters, collecting donations to search for her daughter, waking up when it was still dark outside to write hundreds of letters to the media, hospitals, and homeless shelters, begging them to be on the lookout for Jaycee and speaking with the press ceaselessly. She even went to casinos, rapping on car trunk after car trunk on car after car because a psychic “felt” Jaycee was imprisoned in a trunk.
The nightmare lasted for eighteen years. After several suspicious, unrelated incidents, feds raided the suburban home of Phillip Garrido, a sex offender on parole at the time Jaycee was snatched, and his wife, Nancy. The two lived just three hours away from the Dugard home. In a backyard shed, they found Jaycee, alive. With her were two other little girls. They were Jaycee’s. Their father was her kidnapper and tormenter, Phillip Garrido.
The horrible day Jaycee vanished, the two Garridos stun-gunned Jaycee and abducted her. For the next eighteen years, she was held captive and raped by Garrido. Today, Garrido and his minion are both in prison, and Terry has her daughter back. They lost eighteen years together. But the miracle is that Jaycee lived to make it back to her mother’s arms.
On a sunny Friday morning, May 25, 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz sprinted out of his family’s apartment in SoHo, headed for school. After much practice, that Friday would be his very first solo trip walking the two blocks to his school bus stop. Etan was dressed in his black “Future Flight Captain” pilot cap, blue jeans, blue tennis shoes with stripes, and a blue corduroy jacket.
But Etan did not come home after school. Mom Julie called the school and discovered that while his teacher had marked him absent, she never notified the principal. Julie called police. Nearly one hundred police plus bloodhounds combed the area for weeks. Neighbors and volunteers joined the effort to canvass the city, flooding it with missing posters. Etan was the first child ever to appear on a milk carton, and even though his photo was projected larger than life on screens in Times Square, Etan never came home.
Decades later, it was determined that Etan was kidnapped and murdered the same morning he walked out of the family apartment. Pedro Hernandez confessed to the murder, and after one basement excavation that yielded nothing, one mistrial, and twenty years of heartbreak, Hernandez was finally convicted for Etan’s murder. One six-year-old little boy, Etan Patz, launched the missing children movement that lives to this day, major legislation, and the national milk-carton campaign. Etan’s case led to President Ronald Reagan declaring an annual National Missing Children’s Day, May 25. While all those accomplishments are irreplaceable, it is cold, cold comfort for Etan’s parents.
True cases of children gone missing in and around schools and bus stops go on and on. Each one is a heartbreak, but what can we do to fight back?
Safety Tips for Bus Stops, Bus Routes, and School Arrivals
- Instruct your child’s school to call and text you immediately if your child is absent, and insist that they follow through.
- Tell your child that, if confronted by a stranger, they should not worry about schoolbooks, backpacks, or belongings. Drop them and run.
- Put everything inside your child’s backpack or school bag and keep it secure so that the child doesn’t drop things on the way, causing them to bend over and be distracted. Don’t give a predator an edge.
- Never have your child’s belongings monogrammed or stylized with their name or initials. This makes it so much easier for a predator to get your child’s attention by calling out their name, and in that one moment they attack. Being called by their name also lulls a child into the belief the predator knows them and their family.
- Get your child to the bus stop ten minutes early. You do not want them left stranded and alone at the bus stop (or running in the street after the bus that just left).
- Walk your child to the bus stop, if possible. Same for after school. Be there if you can.
- If you do walk your child to the bus stop, wait for the bus. It won’t take long. Some of my happiest moments are getting the twins to school. We have so much fun, we get to talk and laugh and I hear about what they think will happen that day. I love it. It’s not a chore.
- If you can’t walk your child, try to have your child walk with another mom or dad that can or already does walk to the stop in the mornings. Same thing for after school.
- If there is no adult, have your child travel with a group. I walked to the school bus stop all through elementary school and also walked home after school. By the time I left for the bus in the mornings, both my parents were typically long gone for work. We were latchkey kids, so no one was there when I was walking home. I don’t know if my mom or dad warned me to do this—they must have—but we always traveled in a pack. Any child is more vulnerable when alone.
- Long story short: if you or another adult can’t walk your children to the bus, have them walk in a group with other children if possible. There is safety in numbers. Look at the animal world: there’s a reason they travel in packs. An added safety bonus is that drivers can spot groups more easily.
- If groups don’t form daily and naturally, join with other parents in the neighborhood to create a bus walk group.
- Walk the route with your child before they walk it alone. Use the most direct and the safest route. Avoid isolated shortcuts and abandoned structures, anything that is a spot where a potential predator could lie in wait. You won’t know this until you walk the route yourself.
- Train your child to stop, look left, right, and left again before crossing. This isn’t just to spot oncoming traffic. It’s also to spot cars slowing down to approach your child as in the Jaycee Dugard and Ben Ownby kidnappings and to spot anyone loitering nearby.
- Instruct your child not to become engrossed with games or devices like smartphones, Switches, and Game Boys at the bus stop. They need to stay alert to what’s happening around them. Also, horseplay can end up with someone being unintentionally shoved into the street.
- Teach your children to be especially careful in bad weather when they are focusing on an umbrella, a raincoat, and staying dry, and not on what’s happening around them.
- Go to the bus stop yourself and show your child where to stand. They need to stay at least ten to fifteen feet from the road not only to be safe from traffic zooming by (even though it’s a school bus stop zone) but also to make it more difficult to be snatched. If your child is five to ten feet from the street, a bad guy must get out of the car to get to your child. Jaycee was near the street.
- Move heaven and earth to get surveillance cameras at your child’s stop.
- If your child’s bus stop is on or near a neighbor’s property, take it upon yourself to get to know them. Visit, introduce your child, and get their number to program into your child’s phone if they have one. Don’t necessarily program it in by name because your child may not remember the name. Use an identifier such as “School Bus Stop Lady.” You never know when that number could make all the difference in the world.
- "One of the greatest broadcasters of our time, Nancy Grace awakens us to the dark forces hiding among us."—Dr. Mehmet Oz
- "Nancy Grace has been America's preeminent crime victim advocate for as long as I have known her, and I have known her for more than 20-years. She understands the emotional and psychological suffering that crime victims endure, and always responds with empathy, compassion and dignity. Whether you are a victim of elder abuse, or a critically missing child, Nancy Grace will be your champion until justice is served."—Marc Klaas, president of KlaasKids Foundation
- "From her days at Court TV to her long-running show on CNN Headline News to her newest ventures, Injustice and Crime Stories, Nancy Grace has been one of America's foremost voices for victims. Her new book takes that advocacy to a newer, higher level. She provides a step-by-step and risk-by-risk guide for every parent, every child and every person on how to avoid becoming a victim."—ErnieAllen, Chairman, WePROTECT Global Alliance
- "[A] sensible guide on how to avoid becoming a crime victim...Grace's conversational tone makes for easy reading. Those concerned with personal safety will find comfort and practical advice."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Sep 21, 2021
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing