On September 6, 2006, 14-year-old Elizabeth Shoaf got off the school bus and began the short walk to her Lugoff, South Carolina, home when she was suddenly approached by a strange man in a homemade police uniform. He told Elizabeth she was being arrested for a drug charge, placed her in handcuffs, and led the frightened girl away.
The man took Elizabeth deep into the woods until they reached a secret underground bunker he had built for his victim. It was booby-trapped, 15 feet deep, and concealed with plywood. He forced Elizabeth inside, ordered her to remove her clothes, and assaulted her for what would be the first of many times.
Elizabeth’s parents called the police when she failed to return home but authorities deemed her a runaway and refused to broadcast an Amber Alert. It was only at their insistence that an investigation began the next day.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth was chained inside the bunker which had been stocked full of explosive devices, guns, cans of food, a television, and a small stove. The man strapped an explosive around Elizabeth’s neck, raped her repeatedly, and threatened to kill her younger brother if she tried to escape.
A few days into captivity, the tenacious young girl realized she couldn’t rely on hope alone, she needed to take matters into her own hands. Using her resilient spirit and quick wit, she began to bond with her captor. Elizabeth told the man about her life in an effort to humanize herself and when he called her “baby” and said “I love you,” she said it back.
Before long, the brave teen had gained her abductor’s trust. He occasionally released Elizabeth from her shackles and allowed her to exit the bunker. In the hopes her scent would be picked up by search and rescue dogs, she secretly planted her shoes in the woods and strands of her hair on tree branches.
Ten days into the nightmarish ordeal, Elizabeth asked the man if she could use his phone to play games. Much to her surprise, he agreed. When he fell asleep, Elizabeth sent a text to her mom Madeline:
“Hi mom. I’m in a hole across from Charm Hill where the big trucks go in and out. There’s a bomb. Call police.”
When Madeline received the text, she ran to her husband Don and they frantically dialed 911. Detectives believed the text to be a sick prank but Madeline insisted her daughter wrote it. She felt it in her gut.
Detectives traced the phone back to the trailer of 36-year-old Vinson Filyaw, an unemployed construction worker who was wanted for sexual assault. Ten months earlier, he was accused of raping the 12-year-old daughter of his common-law wife, Cynthia Hall. The young girl told her mother what had happened and when she refused to do anything, she turned to her school guidance counselor who called the police. Vinson began hiding out in the bunker after a judge signed a warrant for his arrest.
Within hours, Vinson saw his face plastered on the news and heard the sound of a helicopter scouring the area in search of the missing girl chained beside him. Panicked, he turned to Elizabeth for advice; she told him to run.
Armed with a hunting knife, a pellet gun, and a taser, Vinson took off. Early the next morning when Elizabeth was sure he was gone, she exited the bunker and called for help. She was located by detectives who were searching for her nearby. They rushed Elizabeth to the hospital where she was reunited with her relieved family after ten long days in what was later referred to as a “torture chamber.”
Vinson was arrested five miles away after a woman called 911 and reported that a man had attempted to carjack her. He was charged with kidnapping, criminal sexual assault, and impersonating a police officer.
Vinson’s 55-year-old mother, Ginger Nell Cobb, and his common-law wife Cynthia Hall were arrested for helping him evade capture by dropping food, water, and other supplies off near his bunker. Cynthia was also charged with unlawful neglect and her daughter was placed into foster care.
Vinson was sentenced to 421 years in prison.
He died in his cell on May 3, 2021, at the age of 51.
You can be a survivor just like I am. It simply takes faith, it takes talking to someone and encouragement that it’s not the end of the world.” — Elizabeth Shoaf