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The Instinct to Flee
by Nadja Bernitt
A detective once told me that in the majority of crimes there are no victims, only those who put themselves in harm’s way. She went on to say humans were the only animal species who let manners and guilt override to their instincts of self-preservation. “You know what I mean?” she said. “You know you shouldn’t do something, but you do it because your mother taught you to never be rude.”
I understood exactly what she meant. Several times in my life my actions brought me close to tragedy, each one proof of the detective’s “there are no victims” theory. In two incidents luck saved me, and in the third I credit my instinct.
I lived in Boise, Idaho in the 70s, one of those big square states as easterners often describe them. As a newbie social worker, my supervisor sent me to investigate a case of child abuse, involving a woman’s three-year-old, a victim of her aggressive boyfriend. I arrived at the shabby tenement complex, hesitant to enter the two-story building. My case was on the second floor. I climbed a flight of steep, narrow stairs, arriving at a landing so small and littered with trash that it left barely enough room for me to stand on in my brand new three-and-a-half inch heels. I should have been wearing sneakers. I should have walked back down, got in my car and driven back to the office. But my boss had sent me, and like a good girl I did as I was told. I knocked on the door, suddenly aware of my stupidity. If this woman or her boyfriend took umbrage with me, she or he could shove me down the stairs in a blink. The realization hit me just as the door opened. Luckily the woman answered. She did not strike me when I told her why I was there. Instead, she broke down crying. I was able to help her.
In 1976, I worked in adoption, traveling both in state and out. It was on a trip to New York that I again made a thoughtless decision. My girlfriend and I went to a disco one night after a dinner meeting. She, an excellent dancer, was out on the floor the minute the DJ started playing a series of songs by the Swedish rock band ABBA. She parked me at the bar with a fellow who she’d met there two nights before. He seemed nice, but I was tired. My flight out of La Guardia the next morning left very early. Since she lived only four blocks away, I excused myself and said I would walk back to her apartment.
The men on either side of me, including the fellow I’d been talking to, said it was a bad idea. Hadn’t I heard about the “Son of Sam,” who was murdering young women? He liked brunettes. I was a brunette. It was late and dark. The fellow said he’d walk me back to her place, and I went with him. He left me at the door, making sure I was safely inside before he left. Okay, I did leave the bar with a relative stranger. That is not the worst thing I did, however.
I rose at 5:00 am the next morning and managed to get out the door with barely enough time to hail a cab. As I stepped outside, there was the man who had walked me home. He was leaning against the door of a well-used Corvair. He said, “Get in I’ll drive you to the airport.”
My naïve western brain thought, “Isn’t he sweet to do this.”
The fellow had slept there since three in the morning he said. There was a quilt over the passenger seat, and he had set an alarm clock to make sure he woke in time. Yup the Big Ben alarm clock was on the dashboard. Wow. He loaded my suitcase into the back and we took off. It wasn’t until we were halfway through the midtown tunnel that it struck me: things are not always what they seem. There was a crazy murderer on the loose in NY City, and this was a man who my friend had only met in a bar. I was sitting in his car on my way to the airport—or was I?
I was. The lovely, looney fellow dropped me at the airport and wished me a safe trip home. Lucky me, it was not my day to meet a murderer. A chill settled over me as I thought back…I had already met one.
Serial murderers were big in the 70s, but living in the small-town atmosphere of Boise, I felt removed from danger, far from the California Zodiac killings and the Washington state series of murders. Both were open cases far from my mind as I drove across southern Idaho on my way to an interview in Pocatello, a college town on the borders of Wyoming and Utah about 230 miles from Boise.
It was 1974, eight years since I had been a student at Idaho State University. The familiar sights brought back memories. After the interview, I checked into a motel and changed into a pair of Levis and a turtleneck sweater. I took advantage of the clear, fall afternoon, strolling up East Center Street to a park not far from the campus. Students milled about. They looked so young to me that I felt out of place at the old age of 27. I was about to return to the motel when I spotted a dozen or more kids sitting in a semi-circle around a fellow who was playing a guitar. I sat down, enjoying the laidback atmosphere. The strikingly handsome man played popular folk tunes, engaging us with an easy smile. He wore his wavy brown hair long but not too long. His intense blue eyes caught mine every now and again. I thought he was flirting. Although I was married, it still felt good to feel attractive.
I hadn’t been there more than fifteen minutes when the circle of students began to wander off. The group thinned quickly until another couple and I were the only ones left. When they stood to go, I got to my feet.
“It’s not nice to leave just like that,” he said, affecting the expression of a wounded child. “Stay and talk to me. I’m not really a part of this scene either.”
I felt obliged to sit back down. “Just for a minute,” I said.
He flattered me but not over the top. He was charming, wanting to know all about me. Still, I didn’t encourage him. I made the excuse that I was meeting friends at the library, and didn’t want to keep them waiting.
He set the guitar down and moved closer to me, telling me an attractive girl like me shouldn’t be sitting in the library on a beautiful evening. “I can drive you there and you can tell your friends you’ve made other plans.”
I politely refused. We talked for a while, but it wasn’t really talking. He was questioning me, and I began to feel uncomfortable. “Where did I live? What was I doing so far from home?”
He kept a light, chatty tone, though the mood had changed. He insisted on driving me to the library. He continued to pressure me, and I continued to resist. My gut told me something was wrong. I glanced around, dismayed to see the park nearly empty.
“Everyone’s gone,” he said as if he’d read my thoughts.
I had stayed too long, my vulnerability all too clear. He was taller, stronger and could easily overpower me. I was four blocks away from the motel. If I did get away, he could follow me. My heart raced, I could feel it pounding in my ears.
He said, “There’s no one waiting at the library; is there?” He smiled. I swear it was the smile of a coiled rattlesnake.
“There is,” I lied, “I’ve got to go.”
He leaned even closer to me. He said, “You’re afraid of me, aren’t you?”
Again, I lied, “Why should I be afraid of you?” But I was terrified, watching his handsome face twist into a cold, conniving mask. My skin crawled, reacting to the presence of evil. I read it in him just as he read the fear in me. I felt trapped. Then I saw my salvation. A couple of students were cutting across the grass twenty yards from where we sat. I bolted to my feet. “There they are now,” My knees barely held me as I hurried to intersect their path. I begged them to help me out, to let me walk with them. “I just need to get away from that guy,” I said.
The fellow glanced over my shoulder to the spot where I’d been sitting. “Okay, no problem,” but you don’t need to worry. He’s gone now.”
Whenever I recall the incident, my heart pounds and my voice becomes raspy. The encounter held no similarity with the one in NY, when the sweet fellow had walked me home because of a killer on the loose—David Berkowitz, Son of Sam. Admittedly, both times I had put myself in harm’s way. To my credit, I read the intentions of both men correctly.
Who was that man in Pocatello?
Three years later I moved to New York. I occasionally saw an article on network news about a serial killer in the northwest who had been identified as Ted Bundy. He was accused of raping, torturing and killing young woman, usually college students. He lured them to his car, where he struck them, handcuffed them and took them to a remote area to murder them. Most of his victims wore their shoulder-length brown hair parted in the middle, just as I had in the 70s. His victims littered the northwestern states of Washington, Utah, Colorado and Idaho. Two of his victims were from Pocatello. The 1974-timeframe fit my encounter with the man near the ISU campus.
I retired to Florida, where, coincidentally, Bundy was imprisoned, awaiting execution for the proven murders of 30 young women, although the total estimates of his murdering rampage were well over 100. Major networks frequently ran his biography and photo after photo of his victims. I watched films of him argue his case in a courtroom, being arrested and with each arrest his mug shots. Not every bio was the same. In one they mentioned his playing the guitar on college campuses and showed pictures of him with longer hair. I felt something I can’t describe. Seeing these images triggered the memory of that day in the park in Pocatello. My husband and I were watching the bio. I said, “I’ve met that man, and I know where it was.”
Although I cannot prove it, I swear it was him. Bundy was quoted as saying, “I have known people who… radiate vulnerability. Their facial expressions say ‘I am afraid of you’.” Those were his words to me. “You’re afraid of me, aren’t you?”
I have not forgotten those words. I never will. His quote went on to say “These people invite abuse… By expecting to be hurt, do they subtly encourage it?”
Did I subtly encourage the man in the park? Was it Bundy? Was I a potential victim who got away? If so, all I can say is my instinct to flee saved me because I followed it—lucky, lucky me.
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