Midsi Sanchez was walking home alone from Highland Elementary School in Vallejo, California on August 10, 2000 when a 39-year-old stranger grabbed her and forced her into his 1984 Oldsmobile Firenza.
The eight-year-old watched as the man, who was later identified as convicted felon and pedophile Curtis Dean Anderson, drove by her house where her mother was home making arrangements for her birthday party, planned for that weekend.
“I’m watching my house I just remember thinking I want to be home so bad,” the 24-year-old missing child advocate recalled in an interview with KTVU.
Anderson eventually pulled over at a truck stop where he sexually abused Sanchez and then chained her feet together, locking it with a padlock.
“It was one of those long silver link chains and he tied it really tight,” she told the network. “And I thought, this is it. I’m never going to see my family again.'”
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But Sanchez lived to tell her harrowing tale. Two days after the abduction, Anderson slipped up: He left her alone in the car and forgot to bring the keys.
Sanchez made her move. She quickly grabbed the keys, unlocked the padlock, and climbed out of the car window. She was able to flag down truck driver Carl Tafua, who then called for help.
“I came around the corner and noticed a little girl crying,” Tafua told PEOPLE in a 2000 interview. Tafua said he wasn’t scheduled to be on duty that day but had volunteered for an extra shift. “I wasn’t meant to work, but I was meant to be there.”
That night, Sanchez returned home to an emotional welcome. “It feels good to be home,” Sanchez told PEOPLE at the time. “I was really happy when I saw my parents and brothers and sister. I cried a lot.”
“She is very brave, and we are proud of her,” her mother, Susana Velasco, told PEOPLE. “We were really lucky that [Tafua] was there at the right time.”
Sanchez’s survival defied the odds, given that she’d been kidnapped by the same predator who was later learned to have murdered Amber Schwartz, 7, on June 3, 1988 and Xiana Fairchild, 8, who disappeared while walking to school in 1999. (Anderson later died in prison in 2007 while serving a 300-year prison sentence.)
But the years ahead were difficult for Sanchez. She struggled with alcohol and when she was 16 she was badly injured in a car crash, she told KTVU. When she found out she was pregnant as a teenager, she decided to change her life around.
“Coming home from the hospital I found out I was pregnant, with my daughter who’s now six,” Sanchez told KTVU. “That was life changing for me. That was my wake-up call.”
Sanchez found a new purpose in life: helping parents of missing children. She has helped in a number of high profile missing girls cases and has worked alongside Mark Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter was kidnapped and murdered in 1991, to help launch Polly’s Guardian Angel, a parent-initiated missing child alert system smart phone app.
“This is what I am here for,” she said. “This is my purpose. When I think about Xiana and Amber and all of the other girls that didn’t make it sometimes I’m overwhelmed with the feeling of why me?”