Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lessons from the Dead

by Diane Fanning

When I travel to a high school to speak to students, I take with me the lessons I have learned from the dead -- how not to become a victim, how to recognize warning signs in a relationship, how to trust your intuition.  Because, in most instances, the victim has contributed to their victimization.

Ask any seasoned violent crimes investigator.  They'll tell you that they rarely see a totally innocent victim.  Something the person did or didn't do set them up for the predator.  Did that mean they deserved their fate?  Absolutely not.
The fact is that predators are constantly on the lookout for vulnerability and opportunity.  Controllers seek relationships with those they can dominate.  They all prey on our weakness, and we need to know how to conceal it from them.
It is especially true of adolescents, who often do not think past the present moment, do not believe they will die, and find it easy to accept something that is too good to be true.  So I strive to teach them the discernment they need to help them not become victims. One case that I often speak about is the murder of Bobbie Lynn Wofford.

Bobbie Lynn made one big mistake: she lied to her mother.

She said she was going to the lake for the Fourth of July weekend in 1999 with a friend and her family.  Instead, her friend picked her up at the house to deceive Bobby Lynn's mother, then left her with a group of kids that Mrs. Wofford did not trust.  Did they harm the girl?  Not directly.

They did drop Bobby Lynn off at a convenience store at two in the morning.  She had no ride home.  She knew she could call her mother but also knew if she did, she'd get in trouble.  Thinking that was as bad as it could get, Bobby Lynn accepted the first offer of a ride she received from a man in the parking lot.

Unfortunately for Bobby Lynn, that man was serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells (right). By the time the 15-year-old listened to the demands of her intuition, it was too late.  Her body was not found for more than four months.

 Whether I am talking to a small class of students or a group of 300 stuffed into every available space in the library,  when this story is finished, silence fills the pause.  I scan the faces and see tears on some cheeks and fear in most eyes.

No matter how careless they are or how risky their behavior, many of these teenagers will never encounter a serial killer.  But they will all have a relationship, probably many of them in their lifetime.  I talk to them about the red flags they can encounter there.  I talk about physical abuse leading to homicide.
In the absence of violence, I caution them not to be complacent when analyzing the safety of a relationship -- sometimes the only incident of abuse is the ultimate one -- murder.  I tell them about my books with stories of one spouse killing another.  In nearly every case, there is controlling behavior.  I've told them what it looks like and how, in the hands of a clever manipulator, it can look like a symptom of true love.
I warn them about another red flag -- secrets.  I talk about serial killer Richard Evonitz, who had a foot locker that neither of the women he married were allowed to open.  In it, he hid the underwear of victims and newspaper clippings of his crimes.  I discuss Michael Peterson (above, between his attorneys in court) and Richard McFarland ,who both had an office that no one else was allowed to enter.  One hid the secret of his bisexuality, the other hid a compulsion for multiple rebate entries.

The substance of what was hidden in the secret place was irrelevant -- it was its existence that presaged a problem.  I urge the students to evaluate their relationships and make troublesome behavior stop or get as far away from the person using it as they can.

I am gratified when I look out over the group and see girls elbowing the boy next to them or raising eyebrows in their direction.  I knew they got it, I hope they remember it, and I hope knowing it will make a difference in their lives.

Finally, I try to impress them with the importance of their own intuition.  It's hard for all of us to listen to it when we're being pulled in an opposite direction.  For teenagers it is a constant battle -- walk away from what a gut feeling says is a bad thing and be a social outcast.  Or do what feels like the wrong thing to go along with peers.  Gavin De Becker wrote THE GIFT OF FEAR, an informative and important book about the need to obey our instincts and respect our valid fears. I encapsulate its essence in the time remaining in a class period.

I know, though, as I look at over the students, that some will never learn any lessons from the dead.  Some won't make it to adulthood because of it.  Others will live to a ripe old age but encounter a lot of avoidable difficulty along the way because they cling to adolescent insecurities and the senseless fear of looking foolish.

 I can only hope that the message will get through to some of them -- that they will learn, remember and, one day, use it to save their lives -- or the life of a child yet to be born.


cheryl said...

I wonder how much the victims of BTK,(and many other serial murderers) or little old ladies who are raped in their beds at night "contribute to their own victimization".

Don't get drunk or you are asking for it. Don't wear skimpy clothes at night, or you are asking for it. Don't be a prostitute, or you are asking for it.

Anonymous said...

I do not believe anyone 'asks' to be a victim and I do not believe that anyone intentionally sets themselves up to be a victim, but the following are suggestions to lower the probability that you will be a victim:

Don't go to bed with your doors or windows unlocked. Keep plants by doors and windows small so no one can hide in them. Take self-defense classes; many police departments have free classes.

Hang out in low places, expect to hang out with low people.

cheryl said...

Of course if you hang out with the low folks you can expect nothing good.
What about the innocent folk I was talking about earlier? the old ladies..the single women just trying to support themselves and their children?..

If a divorced woman with children decides to go out for an evening (with her children being babysat) does she deserve to be killed because she "got a little tipsy"?

Or could she have avoided being killed by not becoming "tipsy"?

Anonymous said...

You are right Cheryl. Seems Diane is taking on the blame the victim status that Pat Brown has.

Yes, its dumb to hitchike, yes its dumb to like a man you meet, yes its dumb to be in your own home with the doors locked but your neighbors know you are alone.

Surprisingly the only thing I agree with is the hitchiking thing. But then again, I HAVE taken rides home with strangers in the past.

Diane Fanning said...

I absolutely am not blaming the victim. I am saying that we unconciously take risks that if we are aware of them, we can avoid. I am also saying that sometimes,just by living, we put ourselves into bad situations without doing anything wrong. At these times, we need to pay attention to our intuition and try to extricate ourselves from the environment.
Using your example of a divorced woman going out and getting tipsy--does she deserve to be killed? Of course not. Is it her fault she is killed? Of course not. However is there a possibility she could have saved her own life? Yes, in many situations, it is possible. If that woman had been paying attention to her intuition--or as De Becker would say, embracing her gift of fear--she may have taken action to get away from her predator.
I was sexually assaulted when I was in college by a stranger. I had been drinking. Did that mean I deserved that? No. What I did wrong was ignore the internal voice that told me to be afraid and run. I didn't and suffered the consequences. I do not want others to have this experience.
Awareness saves lives. I am not blaming victims at all. I am simply encouraging people to be aware.

cheryl said...

Thanks for explaining Diane.
It's a shame that we have to live our lives with that "internal voice" constantly "on".

Ronni said...

Is "sexually assaulted" supposed to be a nicer way of saying "raped?" Or is there a fine line somewhere?

At some point, I hope to take a small theater troupe into schools and show some of the behaviours that are really controlling, but not generally recognized as such by teens, and ways to get out of such relationships before disaster happens.

Leah said...

This is a fantastic post Diane. I lied a lot when I was growing up on the beaches of Miami to be able to do things that my parents would have denied me. Got a few scrapes along the way but I am very fortunate that I didn't meet the same fate as Bobbie Lynn. God knows I gave many predators ample opprotunity. I love this book. Everyone should read it.

Anonymous said...

Ask any seasoned violent crimes investigator. They'll tell you that they rarely see a totally innocent victim. Something the person did or didn't do set them up for the predator. I TOTALLY DISAGREE WITH YOU IN REGARDS TO THIS STATEMENT!

I was a victim of child molestation until I was 10 years old as well as raped with a tree branch. And, then I brutally raped and almost killed by the same person in 1989. How does a 10 year old set them selves up for such a horrible crime? Instead of asking a crime investigator, why not ask a victim? I am very offended by your statement about a victim not totally being innocent. Not only have I been a victim or I should say a survivor, I work with victims on a daily basis and I am a huge supporter and assist in an organization called, Peace Over Violence.

And as far as Gavin De Becker, he is a private investigator who bullies and intimidates people with his books and words in order to obtain business. How can he write a book about something he never experienced? He has even bullied me recently and I have no respect for this man. He is a disgrace to the private investigation industry and my only other point to you would be, “why not talk to victims about the crimes in order to find out the truth?

Diane Fanning said...

Hollywood PI Becky,
Any small child is a totally innocent victim. I am not saying they are not. Crimes against children are a seperate case and not my audience for this piece. I was writing about my experience talking to high school students who often take outrageous risks without thought. I wrote this to help near-adults and adults to protect themselves. I was not writing to little children.
I don't know De Becker personally and have never had any communication with him. I know I read his book and learned a lot.

Diane Fanning said...

I hesitated to spell out the specific disgusting details in an open forum. Suffice it to say that it was a violent attempted rape.

A work in progress said...

I was very leery of people when I got involved with a serial abuser. He was so good at talking people into things that when I did find out some things about his past, it was very hard for me to reconcile that to the image he had presented to me for a number of months. I am a child of Domestic Violence as some of the teens you reach out to are. I think it is great that you are passing on the wisdom of caution to the kids. Caution, prudence, wisdom. Kids aren't the only people who fly by the seat of their pants. I not only have a history of domestic violence in my family, because my mom worked two jobs when I was a teen, I was molested in my own basement when she wasn't home at the age of 13! Later, I was raped at 15 by a guy on leave from the navy, at a party. My mom wasn't home and didn't know where I was. I know more teens are left to their own devices today than when I was young, for more time and more often. I wish we would have had the kind of talk you are giving at our school. I lived in a progressive and affluent suburb and bad things happened to my peers too. Kudos to you. Right now, my serial-abuser ex ( is giving advice to teens on, I have been informed by a friend. From what I understand quite a few young people use that site and so being savvy is very important in protecting one's self. Information is power. Kids do discuss things with one another too. So the feedback Ms. Fanning saw them give one another is awesome, and could indicate that a young person would be spared some agony. I hope so.

Anonymous said...


Don’t you think you should know more about someone before you use them as an example for students or any other person? I do know Gavin De Becker and some of the people who helped him write Gift of Fear. They too say De Becker uses fear to gain clients, and they will no longer work with him on another book. How can someone write about something that they have no personal knowledge of? And as a survivor, I would like to ask you to be a bit more sensitive when you write about victims of crimes.

cheryl said...

Becky, I hear ya loud and clear. I'm sick of criminals getting a pass. Oh well, they're going to rape someone, so you better gird up and not do anything to become a victim.

How about telling kids not to rape someone or kill someone because it's wrong?

Anonymous said...

Great article Diane. Too bad some seemed to read a small portion and commented on that instead of reading the whole thing and then maybe they would get the message. Aster

Diane Fanning said...

Becky, If you had read any of my books, you would know that I am sensitive to victims of crime. I've received expressions of gratitude both from surviving victims and from the families of deceased victims.
I do not use Gavin De Becker, the person, as an example of anything. I use his book which I still feel contains much important and valuable information.
Although I am disturbed and disgusted by what happened to you and hold you blameless for it all, I do not understand how any victim could not want others to have information that might help protect them against victimization.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: I did read the whole article but I took the part about how "rarely see a totally innocent victim" very personal. I even spoke with Peace Over Violence yesterday who agree with me 100%. I'm sure Diane didn't mean it the way the statement was said, but it hit me like a brick as a survivor of some horrible crimes.

You will not understand unless you have been a victim of such horrific crimes. And, I am not commenting on this based on my feelings alone.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Diane: I too teach students about becoming a PI and about safety. I teach them how to stay safe based on my life and the lives of my clients. I’m sorry I don’t read your books. I don’t read any criminal books because I live it everyday.

I do not teach my students or tell my clients how to stay safe based on some man's book who uses his book to teach FEAR in order to gain clients. Again, I have had personal experience with De Becker and his bulling. You and I will never agree about Gavin De Becker so let's just agree to disagree.

Please try to be a bit more sensitive in the future when you write any statements about victims. Trust me when I say I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Janet Braunstein said...

So, just because some of you believe instructing teens on how to protect themselves is blaming the victim? I don't know about you, but I appreciated every bit of advice I got. At 19, I was a cocktail waitress and bartender in St. Pete, walking out into the parking lot each night carrying a lot of money. I was prepared; I had very strong legs and high heels, and my aim was good. I held a key tightly between two fingers in a fist. All my senses were alert.
I spent a lot of time in NYC and worked in Miami. There were rules in both cities, and if I followed them, I had a much better chance of avoiding, let alone surviving, an attack. Would you prefer no one taught me these rules -- because if I were attacked, I'd be the victim blamed? If so, I'm glad you weren't among my teachers and friends when I rode public trans in NYC, trains out to the burbs, romped through
Greenwich Village and Battery Park... I'm glad you weren't there to protect me from learning that in Miami, it was a good idea to avoid anyone involved in the cocaine trade, as well as flipping off a very wrong person in traffic.
I don't care how you're dressed, I don't care if you've been to a bar, I don't care whether you've been talking to a man you don't know. I care whether you're prepared to protect yourself -- including making sure you go out with friends who will bring you home. I care whether you know better than to be dropped off at a practically deserted gas station.
I'm not blaming you. I'm just very sorry no one taught you the basic rules of survival, including trusting your own instincts.
One last thing: if you're in a bad situation, your parents may act angry when they come to pick you up -- but they'll also be more grateful than you can possibly imagine -- because they understand the dangers you were in.

Diane Fanning said...

The phrase "rarely find a totally innocent victim" was a direct quote from a now retired, but highly respected, serious crimes investigator. He was not blaming victims, nor was I.
I do know that awareness is power. And I do not by exercising that awareness, I have avoided situation that could have be dangerous or even fatal.

cheryl said...

Well I'm glad that jerk is retired because it sure sounds like "blame the victim."

I understand what you are conveying here, I really do. But when someone hears that they are a victim because of their own actions, it kind of rubs them the wrong way. I was married to my perpetrator for 18 years. He tried to murder me when I left him. I didn't see THAT coming, although according to that DeBecker guy, I guess I should have.

Diane Fanning said...

Leaving a relationship is the most dangerous time in any woman's life. I am glad you survived.

And he really was not a jerk. He worked very hard to secure justice for survivors and for victims' families. He was and is a very honorable and caring man.

Anonymous said...

So you wrote that statement based on one man's opinion? I think I’ve expressed my feelings and enough said. I’m sure you didn’t mean it in any other way, but it just hit many others’s I spoke to in a very negative manner including myself. But, it doesn’t take away from the fact that you are an excellent writer. Thanks for allowing me to express my feelings.

Diane Fanning said...

I am sorry you are so distressed. No it was not one man's opinion. He said it to me first and surprised me when he did. I have asked multiple investigators about it since then and all have agreed.
You need to understand that there is a huge difference in saying that some victims contribute to their victimization and saying that a victim is to blame or that a victim bears any responsibility or that a victim deserves her/his fate.
They are two entirely different things.
For example, if I get rear-ended on my way to run an errand, I can look at what happened and analyze it to try to prevent its reoccurance. Did I travel a route that wasn't as safe as another route? Can I do something differently next time? Does that mean I am to blame. No.
Thank you for expressing your feelings. But I hope that you and others who took offense will attempt to understand the meaning and try to gain a useful life lesson from your horrible experiences that you can use to help others.

A work in progress said...

I think the idea that victims should be seen as complete innocents is outrageous. Yes, some victims, children for example, are complete
innocents. However, I am not the "perfect victim," but that does not mean that what happened to me at the hands of s sociopath didn't happen. And I am still fighting for him to be charged. I openly talk about the other victims, having come to know 5 of them personally, in real life, having flaws the sociopath/psychopath exploited. I have had
people say to me, "Well, you let him take you for everything." I have a mental illness and I believe it was actually held against me by
Sangamon County law enforcement agencies. It happens to be PTSD and I have filed a discrimination charge with the Department of Justice. When I first started talking to the man I call a psychopath/sociopath on the
phone, it was the slightest moral weaknesses in me he picked up on and exploited. I had fought for my granddaughtger and daughter and was not
a weak-minded individual. My efforts resulted in meth people being held accountable. But I had slight resentments toward my daughter he played and I made choices which ended up to be devastating. But the fact is,
he worked me, played me, however you want to put it, he really did. And since so many women have been fooled and harmed by him, I know I am not alone. The women he picks to prey on are not the "perfect" victims and he makes certain he corrupts or "pollutes their testimonies," as the husband of the New Jersey victim calls it. There are some evil people in this world who take advantage of other's weaknesses. Taking a
self-inventory and being aware is diligence. Teaching teens to examine their own actions and attitudes and behaviors when it comes to being
able to avoid being a victim in life is a good thing. Not just to avoid being victimized by a potential serial killer, rapist, etc, but also in general. Some people are lower level exploiters of others, but they have social-intelligence which aides them in finding people they can exploit. I confess, I don't read true crime stories either. A fewpeople close to me are very much into it. I am living a true crime
story right now so I just don't feel like it. I think what some of these writers can do through their books though is infuse lessons about
subtleties, because sometimes, one bad decision can ruin your life and a different decision migth be made when one is aware of one seemingly
small factor. Really. I hope I am making sense. Life is serious business. If older wiser people can impart that idea to them, and they are spared some consequences, GREAT.

Anonymous said...


I'm not distressed. I was offended but I’m over it now.