Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Run, Scream, and Don't Get in the Car!

by Kathryn Casey

As far as we know, Susana De Jesus, 37, was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. On Monday, February 2nd, at 9:15 p.m., De Jesus walked out of the woman's clothing store, where she worked as an assistant manager, in Pearland, Texas, south of Houston, with a co-worker, probably tired and looking forward to going home. Her shiny new Cadillac was in the parking lot, and as she approached it, a man appeared out of the darkness wearing a ski mask and flashing a gun. He forced her into her car, and drove off. At the time of this writing Susana De Jesus remains missing.

This past weekend, a second Houston-area woman went missing, 27-year-old Sabrina Pina. Again, it appears she was abducted from a department store parking lot, this time in the middle of the afternoon. Sadly, Pina's body was found in a ditch yesterday. (As of this morning [Wednesday], it appears investigators are near an arrest and Pina may have known her killer.)

Reading about DeJesus and Pina, I started thinking about someone I've known for a long time, John Denholm. Until he retired last year, John (photo below left) was the lieutenant in homicide and robbery in the Harris County Sheriff's Office. Law enforcement's loss is the defense bar's gain, since John finished law school a while back and has signed on with Houston's Musick Law Firm. I considered John's 31 years in law enforcement and thought it would be a shame to waste all that knowledge, so I asked him to answer questions on how not to end up with our picture or the photos of our children on a missing flier. Here's his advice:

KC: Do you have any tips to prevent becoming a target?

JD: Here's a laundry list: Don’t flash large sums of money in stores. Don’t wear large or conspicuous pieces of jewelry. Be alert to who is around you or who may be paying special attention to you. Park in well-lighted areas. Scan the area before you leave the store. Look for suspicious persons as you walk to your car. Lock your doors the instant you get in the car. Take a look at your surroundings before exiting your car. Disable the automatic unlock when you put the car in park. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. I tell people to “trust your gut,” because that little feeling is your primal fear instinct trying to warn you of a predator.

Here's a personal story about your primal instinct. Back in the late 1970s, I was working as a Killeen Police Officer. My wife was at home one afternoon with my infant son. There was a knock on the door. Without looking, she opened the door. Standing in the door was a stranger, in a dark shirt and tattoos. She told me later, that the instant she opened the door she knew had made a mistake. The guy looked over her shoulder and down the hall, and in a slightly eerie tone asked her, “So, is your husband home?”

My wife was scared bad right then. Her primal instinct was warning her. Fortunately, Cruiser, my 70-pound mutt, went right through the door and latched onto the guy's thigh, drawing blood. The man ran off. My wife was lucky. She could have been raped and strangled, and to this day believes Cruiser saved her life. Let me add something else. I NEVER took a burglary report at a house where there was a big dog.

KC: What do we do if we're approached in a parking lot?

JD: Start walking the other way. If pursued, scream. If caught, fight.

KC: Do you ever get in the car with an abductor, or is it always better to take your chances and run/scream.

JD: I will tell you what I tell my wife, my sisters, and my daughter: If you get in a car you are as good as dead, so you might as well fight for your life right then and there.

If you fight, people might see you and come to your aid. There might even be a concealed license handgun holder nearby. Even if no one helps, they will probably call 9-1-1. Yes, fight, even if he has a gun. Ninety-seven percent of people shot in combat, with heavier weapons than you encounter in a parking lot, survive. Basically, even if you are shot, you have a good chance of surviving. Don’t panic just because you are bleeding. You would be amazed at how much blood you have to lose before you even pass out, let alone die. Your best defense is a survival mindset that no matter what: I’m not getting in the car, and I AM NOT DYING!

KC: What if the guy has a gun? Does that change your response?

JD: No. But let me clarify, it's one thing if someone walks up to you, points a gun and says, "Give me your money." Statistically, you're way better off handing over your wallet or purse. Or if they want it, let them take your car. Don’t confuse a robbery with someone trying to force you into a car. They have mayhem on their mind.

KC: What's the biggest mistake people make when confronted by someone who means them harm?

JD: They underestimate the danger.

KC: What do we tell our kids to help keep them safe?

JD: Same thing they told us when we were kids. Stick together, stay away from strangers, and don’t get in a strange car. Teach kids how child predators try to trick them. Tell them to scream if someone tries to grab them.

KC: What's the smartest thing you ever saw a potential victim do to prevent a crime?

JD: A woman was driving home late one night. A truck hit her in the back of her car. BEFORE getting out to check, she called her husband and told him that she was just involved in an accident. It occurred right at the entrance to the subdivision. He jumped in his car and was there in two minutes. Just in time to see the truck drive off, and someone drive off in his car. Unknown to him, his wife had just been abducted and was being held in the truck, while the other crook was driving off in her car. The husband had a split second to decide, and he made the right decision: He chased the truck.

In the meantime, the wife started fighting and actually bit the crook’s little finger off. He crashed the truck and was captured, and is currently serving life in prison. There's no doubt in my mind that if this woman hadn't called her husband and fought, she would have been raped and murdered, and maybe even burned up in her car.Let me address this, if someone hits your car and you don’t like the area or who did it, crack your window and tell them you’ll pull into a parking lot where there are other people. If the person drives off, get their license. You can fix a car, but you can’t restore a life. While not a common technique to abduct or rob, it has happened.

One more thing: police impostors. If a car is unmarked but used for traffic, it will have tax exempt license plates. If it doesn’t, don’t run but don’t stop until a marked car arrives. If the person really is the police, there will be plenty of patrol cars soon enough. But use common sense. We're not talking about an unmarked car running radar on the freeway. We’re talking about the guy who tries to stop you on a dark road.

KC: Do we worry too much about crime?

JD: Yes. We do worry too much. The media is lazy. It is far easier to pay a “stringer” $100 a story to run calls off the police radio, than actually have a news department that does real journalism. I used to call the 5 a.m. news the carnage report, because all it is was the overnight shootings, fires, and car crashes. Is it any wonder Wall Street was robbing the country blind while the news was reporting on the Lacy Petersen murder or Brittany’s breakdown?But in reality, your chances of being a victim of violent crime are pretty slim. Most people who get murdered are involved in illegal activity, or living a lifestyle that invites trouble. If you're not selling dope or sleeping with someone else’s spouse, or shooting pool in bar a 1:00 a.m., you probably won’t get killed. When you consider the victims of violent crime per capita, you understand that you truly are fairly safe.


Sandy said...

Great post Kathryn. I always said if someone tried to take me, I'd take my chances and run or fight.

Anonymous said...

John Denholm gives excellent advice from the voice of experience. Thanks for bringing this interview to WICI Kathryn.

piper said...

Kathryn and Mr. Denholm, thank you very much for this very helpful information.

I love this blog site!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post to both of you John and Kathryn. (Former) Lt. Denholm: you will be sorely missed in the world of law enforcement. We wish you all the best!!

P.S. Re: the fact that you never took a burglary complaint where a big dog lived.....what about David Temple?????

Kathryn Casey said...

Anon, interesting comment. Guess you'll have to wait for my book, which I finished yesterday. :) Unless John wants to weigh in on the case here.

This is really good advice. There was a second abduction in Houston over the weekend, and the girl was found dead yesterday. We need to be careful and try to be smart, and at the same time try not to worry. It's a big order, but an important one!

Anonymous said...

Good advice! Thanks for sharing. Good to have the inside scoop from law enforcement!

Jodi Scaife said...

Multiple dogs can be a deterrant as well. I have three smaller dogs (25-35 pounds), and my meter reader, who also read the meter at a state penetentiary, told me that they were the best thing I had to protect myself against a break in. All of the men he'd spoken to at the prison said they skipped houses where they heard dogs.

FleaStiff said...

I think we often hear about the one case wherein a woman did get into the car but was able to talk a man into releasing her alive but we fail to recall the far more numerous times wherein the results were fatal. I think also there is a tendancy to opt for taking the greater risk rather than confronting the immediacy of the danger. Its hard to run toward someone who is shooting at you, but unless you can run faster than the bullet, its often not much use to run away.
Dogs? Hah! Come calling with some "I'll blacktop your driveway real cheap" deal and pet the pooch, then come back at night once he knows your smell. And if you really want to get serious: the old Gypsy trick works real well. If you visit a Gypsy camp and see a man sitting there drinking wine with bread under his armpits, don't think it strange: he is going to go visit a place that has a dog. The next night he will return and the dog that got that treat will remember his smell and not bark!
Sure its easier to just move onto the next house that doesn't have a dog, but usually a dog is not that much of a problem at all.

FleaStiff said...

Used to be you could protect your property by "chalkin' yourself up": go some distance away and chalk the hobo signs for Mean Woman and Mean Dog. The trouble is now the class of criminals is so bad, most of them don't know the signs and don't abide by the law of the jungle anymore. They don't spit three times before crossing a stream, they don't even carry three small stones in their pocket, they don't contribute to the pot if they enter a jungle and they sure don't learn how to cook anymore! Its just a terrible disgrace how values are no longer past down to the younger generation. Without values, no wonder they are son unnecessarily violent.

Anonymous said...

Wherein the dogs some people have might not be a problem, a good watch dog is not "tricked" by bad guys. Most dogs are a better judge of character and will bark regardless of whether the intruder is someone they have smelled before or not. Trying sneaking into your own house sometime, bet the dog will bark.

FleaStiff said...

I've tried it. Although inclined to bark furiously at anyone else approaching , the dog investigated my intrusion silently.

I do agree that dogs are better than not having any deterrent. And I certainly agree that its best to not go to any secondary place. Don't get into that car, don't go into the backroom, etc.

Kathryn Casey said...

There's an article in the Houston Chronicle today saying they may be near an arrest on the Pina case, and that she knew him. Looks like we don't have to worry about a serial predator out there, which is wonderful news.

Kathryn Casey said...

P.S. sorry about all the bad breaks, etc., in the piece as it ran the first day. I kept trying to fix it, but blogger wouldn't let me. I think it's okay now. Sigh.

Anonymous said...


In today's Houston Chronicle:

De Jesus' family told that body may be hers

Found in trailer near Reliant Park early today, Houston police say


March 10, 2009, 12:07PM

Investigators have informed the family of Susana De Jesus that a body found in south Houston, not far from Reliant Park, may be hers, a spokesman for the family said this morning.

The body was found about 2:30 a.m. in the trailer of an 18-wheel truck in a light-industrial business park in the 9000 block of Knight, near West Bellfort.

"It was in an advanced state of decomposition and it's going to the (Harris County) Medical Examiner's Office for identification," said Jodi Silva, a spokeswoman for the Houston Police Department.

The truck also has been removed from the gravel-surface lot to be processed for evidence. The site is just southeast of the area once occupied by AstroWorld.

De Jesus, 37, was abducted at gunpoint on the night of Feb. 2 as she and a co-worker left their jobs at a women's clothing store in a Pearland shopping center.

The co-worker said a masked man with a pistol forced De Jesus into her 2008 Cadillac and drove away, followed by a dark-colored van or sport-utility vehicle.

The man was photographed later that night by the camera at a bank's ATM at 3636 Old Spanish Trail in south Houston. He was in De Jesus' car, but it was not clear whether she was still in the car.

The car was recovered the next morning in the 6300 block of West Airport in Houston.

De Jesus' abduction triggered widespread search efforts, but no trace of her was found.

Danny Perez, who has acted as a spokesman for the family, said this morning, "While nothing is confirmed and final determination will have to be made by the medical examiner's office, the family wishes to express gratitude to everyone who helped search for Susana and supported the family during this trying time.

"They want to especially thank the Laura Recovery Center for their tireless efforts," said Perez, who works as the spokesman for Harris County Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino.

Family members have declined to comment while they await more details.

The family revealed last week that De Jesus made two phone calls from the car on the night of Feb. 2, although they were not aware at the time that she had been abducted.

Her sister, Guilly Puente, said she received a call at 9:55 p.m.

"She just said that she was taking someone home and would be late," Puente said, adding that De Jesus did not sound upset during the short call. "I didn't pay much attention to it."

In another call, at 10:05 p.m. from somewhere near Reliant Park to a family friend, De Jesus asked if the OnStar device in her car could help to locate her even though she had not paid the OnStar subscription.

"That did sound suspicious," Puente said.

But investigators were hindered because De Jesus' frightened co-worker did not report the abduction until about 11:30 p.m. She knew De Jesus only as "Susie," and Brazoria County sheriff investigators learned the kidnapped woman's full name only after a family friend reported the strange phone call about 2 a.m.

OnStar began tracking the Cadillac about 2:40 a.m., heading toward Houston from the La Porte area, in east Harris County, said Brazoria County sheriff's Capt. Chris Kincheloe. The car followed Beltway 8 access roads to south Houston.

Puente filed a missing-person report with Houston police about 3 a.m. The car was recorded by the drive-through camera at a Whataburger on Bellfort in Houston about 3:30 a.m. before stopping at at 6363 W. Airport, Puente said.

The family friend went to that location and, at 7:02 a.m., saw a man getting out of the Cadillac, Puente said. She called 911 and Houston police arrived about 20 minutes later.

The family has not heard from De Jesus since that night.

At the site where the body was found today, an employee at a nearby business said he had wondered about the truck trailer that had sat in the lot for months.

Broderick Holdman, who works at The Blood Center, said the gates on the lot's chain-link fence are always open, so anyone would have had access to the trailer. He said he went to look at the trailer about a month ago, out of curiosity, but didn't notice anything unusual and didn't check to see if the doors were locked.