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What Elizabeth Shoaf did right

A brave high school girl was held hostage for ten days in an underground bunker and managed her own rescue (click here for more information). Below, one of the police officers writes about being inside the investigation while 14-year-old Elizabeth Shoaf was still missing.

By Captain David Thomley, Kershaw County Sheriff's Department

When I was asked to write this blog I was not sure how to start.  You have now seen her story and there is no way for me to relay the sheer terror that Lizzie and her family endured.

I have been in law enforcement for 19 years now. As a young patrol officer, I have dealt with family members being killed in automobile accidents, taking reports for assaults, and arresting suspects for every crime imaginable. I have witnessed firsthand how this affects the lives of the family members of all involved, not to mention the victims. 

One of the first lessons I was taught after becoming a criminal investigator is to follow the facts, keep an open mind, and don't get emotionally involved in the case. Over the years I have done my best to abide by these seemingly simple rules, even though at times it was very difficult. 

In this case, when I first met the victim's mother, I immediately saw the pain, concern, and frustration in her eyes. As the days went on, it only grew and my role as a protector, and a parent began to take its toll on these "simple rules." 

Looking back at this case I can only think of a small poster that hangs in most offices and cubicles everywhere I go. It's of a bird with a half-eaten frog coming out of its mouth.  The frog has grabbed the throat of the bird with the caption "never give up."

This family and this brave and courageous child never gave up, and neither did we.  Even after 10 days in captivity, living in a hell that mere words can not adequately describe,  underground, alone and afraid, and being violated in a way that no one should ever be exposed to, she never gave up. 

Not only was she very brave, she was also very smart and did several things that greatly improved her chances of survival.

  • When she was walking home from the bus stop a man approached her and lead her into the woods.  She had the wherewithal to drop her shoes on the trail hoping it would lead us to her. 
  • She was repeatedly told she would die and explosives were hung around her neck every time he would leave her. She was chained so that she could not runaway while he slept. Yet, she never gave up. She would talk with him about things that interested him, which in his eyes, made her a person, not just a captive. She began to gain his trust.
  • Eventually she was allowed to leave the bunker with him. While she was out she would pull out strands of her hair and lay them on branches hoping search dogs might pick up her scent.
  • Elizabeth did such a good job of gaining his trust she was able to get his cell phone, to "play games." That is how she was able to send text messages to her mother. 
  • Even though she had no idea if her text messages were getting through, Elizabeth kept thinking and kept trying over and over to get the messages out.
  • She was the captive but he became the victim of a reverse Stockholm syndrome.  Elizabeth pretended to care about him as a person. He fell in love with her and began to think that he would have a life with her.
  • She paid close attention to her surroundings and to the dangers Vinson Filyaw said he'd planted around the bunker. The morning that she was found as officers from every direction was approaching her in the bunker all she was concerned about was letting us know that he had explosives hid around the bunker.  After she was taken to the hospital instead of worrying about her own well being, she continued to give us information.  She wanted us to know that he had taken a gun with him, and that he still had explosives with him, as well as night vision.  Her concern was for the safety of those officers still searching for Filyaw.

One of the most pleasurable moments in this ordeal was reuniting her with her family.  The joy in her eyes, that she was free and alive and back with her family, was unimaginable.  To see her mother hug her neck and not let go was an emotional experience that I had not fully understood until now.

If I could use one word to describe her it would be courageous.

The first court hearing after he was captured she was in the courtroom to face him. She has attended each and every hearing that was scheduled.  She was able to look him in the eye each and every time with the conviction that she won, she beat the odds and survived.

Many people ask the question, what did Lizzie do right during this entire horrifying ordeal?

The answer is she did everything right, she did what she had to do to survive, and survive she did. No one case that I have ever been involved with has affected me as this case has, and there are many other officers that would echo my sentiments.