It’s a parent’s worst nightmare and a fear that has been instilled in children for decades. The idea of “stranger danger” has been ingrained in all of us since we were little, but what happens when those warnings fail? What happens when, no matter how often we’re told to kick and scream, something still happens? The van still pulls up, a hand is covered over a mouth to stifle the noise, and then, perhaps we are never heard from again?
Thankfully, by some miracle–whether it be the human spirit and its tenacity, the help of others, or simply running out of other options–these 15 children were able to escape their kidnappers, and move from “victim” to “survivor.” Despite all the odds and the amount of time spent in captivity which ranges from one day to almost 25 years, these young people were able to come out on the other side of things. Certainly, there are scars that chart their journey from there to here, both physical and emotional, but they lived to tell the tale. While the unthinkable happened to them, many of them have since used their position to speak up for those that have been silent for too long.
15 Erica Pratt
She was only abducted for a day, but that’s not the most important part of Erica Pratt’s story. It was that this 7-year-old girl, in 2002, was able to escape from her captors by gnawing through the tape that bound her wrists and smashing a window to break free of the vacant house where she was being kept.
In addition to being one of the few kidnapping victims who was able to escape without the aid of others, the Erica Pratt case garnered national media attention for the limited focus that the case was initially given, which many thought was due to Pratt’s status as an African-American. The coverage her case received was minimal when compared to the media’s attention towards similar cases involving white women, or women who were kidnapped with a s*xual motive (Pratt’s kidnappers were motivated to collect ransom from Pratt’s grandmother). The selective nature of the reports led to public outcry, but Pratt’s successful escape also earned her the distinction of being Time’s Person of the Week.
14 Elizabeth Shoaf
He tried to win her confidence by claiming to be a police officer while dressed in combat fatigues, but 14-year-old Elizabeth Shoaf was not speaking to an officer of the law when she was abducted in 2006 after leaving her school bus. After her abductor took her to the hand-dug 15-foot bunker near his trailer home, he repeatedly r*ped her over a 10-day period and would place a necklace of explosives around her any time he left during the day.
Despite this harrowing ordeal, Shoaf behaved smartly and was able to earn the trust of her captor by asking him about his interests. The trust between the child and the man became so intense that Shoaf’s kidnapper began to imagine a life and future together for the two of them. That same trust also allowed the man to lend Shoaf his cellphone which she promptly used to contact authorities, parents, and friends. Shoaf’s kidnapper saw her messages broadcast on TV and fled the scene. He was arrested five miles away and sentenced to 421 years in prison.
13 Katie Beers
In a weird twist of the usual story, Katie Beers’ kidnapping actually allowed her to escape the abusive household she was raised in, which saw her surrounded by poverty, neglect, and physical and emotional abuse. It was also a case of interest because Beers was not abducted by a stranger or a serial predator. She was taken by a family friend.
Two days before her tenth birthday in 1992, Beers was lured by family friend John Esposito, under the pretense of giving her birthday presents. For 17 days, Beers was held in an underground concrete cell which contained only a toilet, a TV set, and a mattress with chains used to restrain Beers. After Esposito informed police of what he had done, Beers was rescued and sent to live with a foster family, who shielded her from media attention. In recent years, Beers has spoken out about how the ordeal as a “blessing in disguise” because she would not have otherwise been able to escape her abusive home. Now the author of a memoir, Buried Memories, Beers is happily married with two children.
12 Sabine Dardenne
Sabine Dardenne is arguably one of the “lucky” children to be kidnapped by child molester and serial killer, Marc Dutroux. Four other kidnapping victims were found buried in his property when he was brought to justice—two starved to death and two others were buried alive.
In Belgium in 1996, 12-year-old Dardenne was riding her bike to school when she was abducted by Dutroux, who claimed that he was rescuing Dardenne from men who wanted to kill her and that her parents were unable to pay her ransom. Chained around the neck and kept half-starved and r*ped repeatedly in the dungeon cellar for a period of 80 days, Dardenne’s spirit never wavered. In fact, it was her pestering that led to the kidnapping of another child, 14-year-old Laeticia Delhez, and her subsequent rescue! Dutroux had been spotted taking Delhez and police were able to recover both girls six days later.
While Dardenne stayed fairly quiet in the aftermath of her abduction, she did release a memoir in 2005 titled, I Choose to Live. Dutroux was sentenced to life in prison.
11 Alicia Kozakiewicz
A reminder not to meet strangers from the Internet, Alicia Kozakiewicz was only 13 when she was abducted after believing that she was speaking to another 13-year-old over the course of a year in a Yahoo chat room. In reality, Kozakiewicz was speaking to Scott Tyree, a 38-year-old man who used those conversations to groom the child before arranging a meeting where he kidnapped her. Over the course of four days, Kozakiewicz was shackled, r*ped, and tortured in Tyree’s basement dungeon and all video footage were broadcast online.
While disgusting and brutal, this live-streaming actually worked to the girl’s advantage, because a viewer recognized Kozakiewicz from her “Missing” fliers and contacted the FBI. The FBI was able to rescue Kozakiewicz and Tyree was arrested and sentenced to 19 years and four months in prison in 2002.
Since her time in captivity, Kozakiewicz founded the Alicia Project, an advocacy group dedicated to raising awareness about Internet safety for children. She has also penned a survival guide of sorts for recovered abduction victims.
10 Elizabeth Smart
Easily one of the most well-known names on this list, Elizabeth Smart’s journey from abduction to rescue is one that played out in the media for years following her nine-month time in captivity at the hands of David Brian Mitchell.
It’s the sort of scenario that horror movies are made of. 14-year-old Smart was in bed when she was taken from her home at knife point by Mitchell. Then, the pair walked for hours until meeting Mitchell’s wife, Wanda Barzee, and Smart was subjected to a marriage ceremony where she became Mitchell’s “wife.” Over her nine-month period in captivity, Smart was forced to watch adult videos, consume alcohol and marijuana, and was r*ped repeatedly.
Luckily, Smart was rescued, following a sketch of Mitchell that appeared on America’s Most Wanted. A viewer of the show called the police after spotting Mitchell and two female companions. In 2009, Barzee was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while Mitchell was given two life sentences in 2011. Using the media attention surrounding her case for good, Smart started the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to raise awareness about abductions and has become an outspoken critic of abstinence-only s*x education programs.
9 Fusako Sano
The feeling of futility and helplessness must have been overwhelming for Fusako Sano, who, at nine years old, was kidnapped and held for almost a decade in an apartment located only 200 meters from the police department.
Sano has stated that she was initially terrified and that, as the months and years went by, she gave up and accepted her fate, which included being punished with a stun gun if she failed to tape the horse races on TV. Despite the door being unlocked for the duration of her captivity, Sano told the police that she never set foot outside of the apartment because she was too scared and then eventually lost the energy to do so. It wasn’t until the captor’s mother contacted a public health center out of worry over her son’s violent behavior and requested a visit. Only then was Sano rescued. Discovered to be healthy (although extremely thin), Sano could barely walk, was severely dehydrated, and had the mentality of a child. After almost a decade with no social interaction, Sano still struggles, but is managing and prefers photography and long walks to ease her mind.
8 Shasta Groene
For eight-year-old Shasta Groene, she had the rare distinction of not being the only victim of her kidnapper. In 2005, convicted killer Joseph Duncan beat her mother, stepfather, and older brother to death with a hammer before escaping with Shasta and her other brother, nine-year-old Dylan. For seven weeks, Dylan and Shasta were held in captivity at a campsite, where both siblings were subjected to horrific physical and s*xual abuse by the abductor, until Duncan decided he only wanted Shasta. In cold blood, he shot her brother, killing him, and leaving Shasta alone with her captor. It wasn’t until Shasta was recognized in a Denny’s parking lot that she was rescued, but the damage had already been done.
It was a bumpy road back to normalcy for the girl, who turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma she endured, including trying meth for the first time at 14. Her addictions put her in a juvenile detention facility for one year, something she has since said saved her life.
7 Colleen Stan
As if you needed more reason NOT to go out hitchhiking, let Colleen Stan’s harrowing story of kidnapping, s*x slavery, and ultimate survival be a lesson to you! In 1977, Stan was hitchhiking home from a friend’s party and has stated that she initially felt comfortable climbing into the anonymous blue van, as she had had plenty of experience hitchhiking before.
Unfortunately for her, this was one ride she definitely didn’t want to be in. It was only a matter of moments before Cameron and Janice Hooker pulled over in a remote area and threatened Stan with a knife to her neck. For the following seven years, Stan was brainwashed, kept locked in a wooden box, and held under the couple’s water bed for 23 hours a day, where she was repeatedly r*ped by Cameron (although he usually used objects, in accordance with an “agreement” between him and his wife).
Stan was eventually allowed more freedoms, including getting a job as a motel maid, which eventually led to her escape. However, it was Janice Hooker who called the police and informed them of her husband’s atrocities. He was sentenced to 104 years.
6 Tanya Kach
Another kidnapping victim who came from a dysfunctional home, 13-year-old Tanya Kach was dealing with the breakup of her family unit as her parents split, and so the child began to confide in an unlikely person, 37-year-old school security guard Thomas Hose. Hose manipulated Kach into running away with him to escape her family and move in with him, which she did willingly in 1996.
Their life together was far from idyllic, however, and for the first four years, Kach was not allowed out of Hose’s bedroom, was forced to use a bucket as a toilet, and allowed to shower only once a week. By 2000, she was renamed “Nikki” and introduced as Hose’s new live-in girlfriend. It was a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome, and despite the violence inflicted on her by Hose, Kach thought that she was in love with her captor. It wasn’t until ten years after her initial abduction that she found the courage to let someone know who she was and what was happening to her.
Since her rescue, Kach has written a memoir and while she reconnected with her family, she is now estranged from her father, who she claims blames her for her tragic ordeal.
5 Shawn Hornbeck
All too often, we hear the brutal stories of women and girls who have been kidnapped and subjected to an intense and torturous time, but what about the young men and boys? Shawn Hornbeck was such a child and his time spent in captivity is one that is so visceral and brutal, it goes beyond shocking.
In 2002, Hornbeck was only 11 when he was kidnapped at gunpoint while riding his bike. Over a period of more than four years, Michael Devlin tortured and s*xually abused Hornbeck, ordered the child to renounce his real identity and threatened Hornbeck with the deaths of his family if he ever tried to escape or tell anyone what was happening. Despite eventually being allowed to see friends and use a cellphone, Hornbeck was manipulated and terrorized into believing that his life was a tenuous one. It wasn’t until Devlin brought back another young boy, Ben Ownby, that both children were rescued. Devlin was given three life sentences plus 170 years, while Hornbeck spends much of his time with his parents working on the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation.
4 Elisabeth Fritzl
Arguably one of the most grotesque and shocking cases of abduction in history, the case of Elisabeth Fritzl is all the more revolting owing to the fact that it was her own father who committed the crimes.
Elisabeth was held captive under her own home for 24 years by Josef Fritzl, unbeknown to her mother. When she was just 18, she was tricked into the basement, under the pretense of helping to carry a door. It was the last piece needed to ensure her confinement. To explain her absence, Josef ordered Elisabeth to write a letter stating that she had run away and that her parents were not to look for her. During those 24 years held in captivity, Elisabeth gave birth to seven children, three of whom remained with her, three of whom were sent to live upstairs as “foundlings,” and one who died. It wasn’t until the eldest daughter fell ill and required medical attention that Elisabeth and her children were finally rescued.
Owing to the intense media scrutiny, Elisabeth and her children were offered new identities and have been receiving ongoing therapy. The latest news reports that Elisabeth, now 51, is involved in a relationship with one of her bodyguards.
3 Natascha Kampusch
It’s the kind of abduction we think of when we think of the words: a child, on their way to school, dragged into an anonymous white van.
Sadly, that was the reality for 10-year-old Natascha Kampusch, who was kidnapped in 1998 and held captive for over 8 years in a small cellar underneath a garage. Wolfgang Přiklopil was the man who abducted Kampusch, occasionally allowing her to journey upstairs to do housework and cook for her captor. At the beginning of her time in captivity, Kampush said that Přiklopil was almost nice, but as the years wore on, he became more violent, beating her so severely that she would hear her bones break, forcing her to shave her head and ordering her to address her kidnapper as “My Lord” and “Master.”
Kampusch saw her chance to escape while vacuuming Přiklopil’s car. When he walked away to take a phone call, she ran until she found a neighbor who called the police. One week after her escape, her captor killed himself by jumping in front of a train. Since her time in captivity, Kampusch has written two books and bought the home that was once her prison.
2 Steven Stayner
Not all cases of abducted people who get out alive end happily. Unfortunately for Steven Stayner, his story is one that ended in tragedy.
In 1972, Stayner was only seven years old when he was taken in a van while coming home from school. This led to a period of captivity that lasted for over seven years, during which, Stayner was r*ped over 700 times. It wasn’t until he hit puberty that his captor decided a younger boy was needed. So in 1980, five-year-old Timothy White was abducted as well. Knowing that he could not allow the child to suffer the same torment he did, Stayner waited until their kidnapper was at work before fleeing with White and hitchhiking to a police station to report what had happened. Their kidnapper was sentenced to only seven years, five of which he served. He later died in prison in his seventies after trying to buy another child victim.
By 1985, Stayner had married and had two children and by all accounts, seemed to be managing well. Tragically, a motorcycle accident killed him at 24. Timothy White, a pallbearer at Stayner’s funeral, later died at 35 of a pulmonary embolism.
1 Jaycee Dugard
The last on our list is one of the most recognizable, not only for the brutality it involved and the miracle of survival, but for the duration of the case itself. Almost 18 years after being abducted at the age of 11, Jaycee Dugard was freed by her captor, Phillip Garrido. After she had first been attacked with a stun gun and pulled into a car while her classmates and stepfather watched in horror.
Faced with capture by a religious fanatic and mentally ill person, Dugard was kept in the backyard of the Garrido home while Phillip Garrido went on drug binges and claimed to hear voices in the walls. In 1994 and 1997, Dugard gave birth to two daughters by her captor, and was ordered to identify the three of them as Phillip’s children and herself as her daughters’ older sister.
While on a trip to UC Berkeley, campus police were notified that Garrido was a s*x offender, which is ultimately what led to his capture and Dugard’s reveal of her real identity. Phillip was eventually sentenced to 431 years in prison, while his wife received 36 to life. Dugard is now quietly raising her two daughters, received a $20 million settlement from California, and published two books.