Thursday, May 1, 2008

How a Predator Stalked Me on a Dark Interstate

Hunt for Justice by Cynthia Hunt

He wanted to kill me that night on the interstate.

That’s why the disappearance of Jessica Cain is something I still ponder a decade later. I was a 26-year-old reporter at KTRK-TV, the ABC affiliate in Houston, when Jessica vanished. The year was 1997.

How Could Jessica Vanish from the Shoulder of a Busy Texas Interstate?

The beautiful 17-year-old performed in a musical that night and afterward went with her fellow cast members to a restaurant. Proud parents C.H. and Susie Cain left their daughter and headed home. Jessica (pictured left) promised she would be a few minutes behind them.

When Jessica didn’t show up a short time later, her dad became worried. He drove down I-45 and found Jessica’s 1992 Ford Pickup on the shoulder of the interstate. Her wallet, license, and keys were still inside the truck. That was the
last night anyone saw Jessica.

No Witnesses. No Real Leads. Nothing.

The F.B.I searched for witnesses but none materialized. Investigators believe someone either tricked or forced her to pull over on that major interstate, abducted her, and got away.

I covered the intensive search for Jessica. I covered the growing reward for her safe return. I covered the teenagers who could not believe that the president of their high school drama club could become another tragedy leading the ten o’clock news. I also covered the investigators and their theories of how the predator got her onto the shoulder of the interstate. We may never know, but my experience says the victim doesn’t always react the way we expect.

The Night an Interstate Predator Stalked Me

I was a 19-year-old college sophomore at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I was interning at the ABC affiliate in Birmingham to get a taste of the big city. I would work through the ten o’clock news and drive an hour back to campus.

One night, I left the TV station and stopped at a well-lighted gas station located by a new McDonald's to get some gas. My parents had instructed me to never stop for gas at night but I thought I was a young invincible journalist. As I was putting gas in my car, I thought I saw someone out of the corner of my eye staring at me. I glanced over in that direction to see if I saw correctly. I did.

His Chilling Stare

The bearded man was in his truck about fifteen yards away giving me a cold, dead stare. He wasn’t trying to hide it. He was fixated on me. I pretended I didn’t notice. As I finished, he drove between the gas station’s building and me, yelled something unintelligible, and drove away.

What a weirdo, I thought.

The Predator Watches for Sign

My little sister Angelia, then 11, needed some help with her homework so I pulled to the phone booth right by the gas station and called home. I didn’t want to make her wait until I was back on campus. I still had forty-five minutes to drive, and it was almost eleven o’clock.

We talked for a half hour. I got in my car and pulled back onto I-459. Immediately, a vehicle pulled behind me and started flashing its headlights.

My first thought was that it was one of my girlfriends from Birmingham on her way back to campus. I was like many naïve college students and had put a University of Alabama sticker on my back window. Anybody from campus would have known my distinctive big car. I thought for a second about pulling over.

Then I worried that something could be wrong with my car. Maybe the driver was trying to warn me. The headlights were still flashing.

A minute later the interstate emptied onto I-59 and the flashing grew desperate. I then knew this wasn't someone with the intention of helping me. That instinctive feeling didn't frighten me. It made me angry.

How the Predator Tried to Force Me to Pull Over

Interstate 59 is the dark, forest-lined highway that runs from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa. In many places, trees even grow in the median between the eastbound and westbound sections.

I sped up. The flashing vehicle tailing me sped up.

The vehicle pulled into the other lane and I hit the brakes. It hit the brakes.

I sped up again. He sped up.

I suddenly hit the brakes again. Finally, the vehicle was right beside mine in the fast lane. I could clearly see into the truck—that cold stare focused on me again.

I know—you crime buffs knew it was him by now, but I hadn’t even thought about the gas station weirdo. Remember, I had spent a half hour on the pay phone. I thought he was long gone.

The Surprise the Predator Didn’t Expect

The second I recognized him, I was angry and took my 1990 model cell phone and held it up in front of my Pontiac’s bright dashboard and shook it in the air. Remember this was years before everyone had cell phones. My portable cell phone was huge.

The second he saw my phone, he blew up and started driving all over the road. He got back behind my car. I sped up to 80-90 mph. He closed in on my bumper.

I’ll never forget seeing his headlights disappear in my rearview mirror. He was inches from hitting me.

I thought about calling police—but was uncertain of what mile marker was I near.

He weaved erratically from side to side. The odd thing was I still wasn’t scared. I was furious. I changed lanes, hit the brakes, and tried to get this predator’s license plate. No luck. He was too fast and I couldn’t get behind him to see the plate.

After harassing me for another mile or so he took the next exit and disappeared.

My brush with a predator was over in less than ten minutes.

Bad Reaction

Did I act like we would’ve guessed? No. I never called police. I didn't even call the newsroom for help. It makes no sense to me now.

I was a college honors student working as a journalist. My parents had given me countless speeches on how to protect myself. I knew better than to stop and get gas at night. I knew how to use that cell phone.

We all know that predator studied me as I talked on the pay phone to my sister. He thought I didn’t have a cell phone. Little did he know my retired Marine father had put a portable cell phone pack in my car for just this kind of emergency. I was too cheap to use the minutes to call home. It was 1991. Minutes were expensive.

There is little doubt in my mind that monster went on to abduct and kill other young women. I wish I could do it all over again and do a better job of reacting. I wish I could’ve just done the logical thing and called police. For Jessica and all the others—how I wish.


Diane Fanning said...

The more oblivious you are to risk, the riskier your situation becomes.
Scary stuff.

Levi said...

Cynthia, that man is like a predator, he studies, stalkes, and then pounces on his prey. I bet he is either in jail, or a serial killer like you suggested.