By Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent
People often ask me what it's like to talk to men and women accused -- and often convicted -- of horrendous crimes. Is it frightening, they'll ask, to interview such people? Can you tell if they are innocent or guilty? Can you sense evil in the room?
And usually, to such questions, the answer is.. no. A person capable of doing something quite terrible will frequently arrive for an interview well scrubbed and thoroughly prepared, and will prove to be intelligent, funny or charming. And almost always, such a person will present a reasonably believable argument for innocence. Skepticism is an important companion during prison interviews; truth is rarely easy to pin down.
And then there is Vinson Filyaw.
For one thing, what Vinson did to Elizabeth Shoaf is almost beyond description. In court he finally admitted it was all true: he kidnapped her, held her in truly dreadful conditions for ten days, raped her several times a day, chained her by the neck to the ceiling of his underground bunker, and gave her every reason to believe he would eventually kill her.
But the man who sat down for an interview in the prison library was no longer the least bit terrifying, not anymore. Vinson seemed almost needy in his desire to explain how he had been victimized by law enforcement, that his attempt at revenge -- sexually abusing a young girl -- was somehow reasonable. Did he do those awful things to Elizabeth? Well, yes, but she was really only "collateral damage" (said Vinson) in his own struggle for justice. And then, a little later, he tried out a new (and quite monstrously untrue) claim, suggesting that his victim actually enjoyed the experience and that it was her idea. Among prison interviews, Vinson's was, shall we say, unique.
As is, in her own way, the remarkable young woman he attempted to destroy. I'd been eager to meet Elizabeth. What sort of girl, I wondered, could survive the sustained attacks of a predator such as he, and then in the end somehow outwit him? Would she be tough, cynical, somehow hardened?
Well, no, she wasn't. This quiet, rather shy, teenager was obviously bright, even wise, about her circumstances in life. But during the hours and hours we talked in the course of taping her story, she never once strayed into anything like the worldly cynicism you can see on TV or read in gossip magazines every day.
When Vinson snatched Elizabeth, just 14 years old, she had never dated a boy, had never once spent even a single night away from home without a family member. She was taken by a wiley wolf of a man who had just spent the better part of a year eluding the efforts of law enforcement.
She endured unspeakable horrors, faced what seemed to her certain death. And she prevailed.
The contrast -- Vinson to Elizabeth -- was quite remarkable.
Where his story was self serving, claims shifting back and forth to suit whatever version he was trying to sell, Elizabeth was open and brutally candid. Where his fearsome behavior wilted in the presence of a television crew, Elizabeth seemed to gain strength from telling the experience. And having come through it with her dignity and humanity fully intact, she smiled a smile to light up the room.
Every once in a while, a dark tale turns out well, and the worst in human behavior is overcome by the best. Which is why it was quite an honor to tell the story of Elizabeth Shouf.
"Into the Woods," a very special two-hour Dateline on this case, airs Friday, March 7, at 9pm on NBC.
Click to read Elizabeth's mom telling how she first heard her kidnapped daughter was still alive.
For those interested in communicating with the Shoaf family, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for complete coverage of this case.