Every time I take Exit 5 off the Blue Route, a major highway in the Philadelphia region, I think of Aimee Willard. A star college athlete, she didn’t make it home from a night out with friends back in 1996. Her still-running car and a pool of blood were found that night at that exit. A day later, her brutally beaten body was found. It took two years and an almost-victim to catch the murderer, an ex-felon who had killed another person about twenty years earlier and almost across the country in Nevada. When finally arrested for a parole violation on that earlier murder, he was questioned about Aimee. Additional investigation lined up all of the evidence, and the killer was convicted for Aimee’s murder. The story that came out was that Aimee left the bar alone at about 1:30am. Her killer followed her out of the bar, got her to stop her car on that exit – apparently by rear-ending her, flashed a fake badge at her and accused her of some driving violation, and when she protested, he punched her, kidnapped her, and raped and killed her.
Aimee’s story comes to mind for me every time I hear about a cop impersonator. Her story is one of the reasons I have long been suspicious of who you might meet on a dark highway. Her story is one of the first I learned personal safety lessons from, lessons like these:
Let people know where you’re at and where you’re headed. The fact that Aimee’s car was found, with obvious evidence of foul play, so soon after she was attacked, was pure luck at that time of night. If it had not been so obvious, if her friends didn’t know she was headed home to her parents’ place, how long could it have taken before enough people put their heads together to realize she was missing? What if they thought was staying with somebody else, or gone home with someone she met at the bar, or decided to head back to her on-campus housing? When I head out on trips, I’ll let at least a few folks know where I’m headed and what my ETA is, and text a quick “hey, I got here” to them when I arrive, so that they know I reached my destination safely. It doesn’t need to be more complicated or formal than that.
Be suspicious of car accidents. Sometimes it’s obvious that they’re truly accidents. Sometimes they’re a little more sketchy. Having driven down that stretch of highway in the wee morning hours, I can tell you that it was likely pretty empty that night. Being rear-ended even slowing down for an exit? Highly unlikely. While it’s normal to pull over to examine the damage and exchange insurance and contact information after an accident that doesn’t disable your car, you can certainly control when and where you do so to maximize your safety. Not much is open in very late (or early, depending on your point of view) hours, but a gas station, convenience store, or police station might work for you. I happen to know there’s not much immediately off that exit even now, so it’s possible that staying there was the best option since that highway is busier even late at night than the road off that exit. In either case, don’t be afraid to call the police and report the accident and identifying information about the other vehicle. You might also request that they respond to where you will be pulling over. You’re not being a bother or paranoid; you’re taking reasonable measures to protect yourself from the possibility of an interaction going wrong.
If and when you do pull over, you don’t need to get out of your car right away. Maybe stay put, open the window a crack but not all the way, and let the other driver approach while you keep an eye on them in your mirrors. If you carry defensive weapons, maybe get that pepper spray in your hand or make sure that your shirt isn’t caught up behind your seat belt so you can get to your gun. Either way, start looking for pre-assault cues as they approach and while you’re interacting with them. I’m not saying you should have a gun pointed at the hapless person who had a bad day and rear-ended you, but making sure nothing is in the way of you defending yourself if they get violent? And I’m not saying that everyone in those circumstances is going to get angry and try to hurt you, but watching for signs of extreme anger and for tells like hands balling into fists? Those are good ideas.
By the way, if flashing lights appear behind you, you don’t have to immediately pull over if you have a safety concern. Slow down, turn on your hazard blinkers and call 911 to report that you understand that an officer is trying to pull you over. Then pick a well-lit, well-trafficked area that will allow the officer to approach your car safely. Show, as much as you can, that you want to cooperate, but that you also want a setting that protects both you and the officer. Isolated environments can be unsafe for anyone. And stories like Aimee’s – and hers isn’t the only one by far – tell us that people impersonate cops, sometimes elaborately – complete with realistic lights, uniforms, and badges – and sometimes with ill intent. Being careful is not unreasonable.
Be aware that crime happens quickly. From when Aimee left her friends to when her empty car was found was only about thirty minutes. There was perhaps a ten-minute drive between the bar she was at and the place her car was abandoned. A window of just fifteen minutes or so, and Aimee Willard was as good as dead. You can’t always see an attacker coming for you, and you won’t always have much time to respond. Getting ready has to happen before you expect bad things to happen, because sometimes you don’t get warnings. That’s why it’s so important to look at incidents like these and identify all of the ways you can manage them ahead of time, to hopefully avoid the problems or if not, to already have a plan to deal with them as they come up. Then, when they do, all you have to do is put that plan into action. If we’re being fancy, we’d say that you need to engage in pre-need decision-making so that you can respond instead of react.
Choosing to use real-life examples in order to refine our ideas of what bad situations look like and how we can respond to them is a way we can ensure that the people who have suffered in them are not forgotten. Remembering them helps us carry on their memory so part of them lives on forever, protecting future potential victims. So here’s to you, Aimee Willard: may you always be a reminder, whether I drive by your exit or not.