August 19, 2002 12:00 PM

Out around the edge of the Mojave Desert, an hour or so north of Los Angeles, things can get pretty slow. To break the monotony, teens from the neighboring towns of Lancaster and Palmdale often drive up to Quartz Hill. There, overlooking the Antelope Valley, they park—some for a romantic evening, some just to listen to music and look at the stars.

Early on Thursday morning, Aug. 1, that sanctuary became the scene of the latest in a rash of kidnappings. Until that night Tamara Brooks, 16, and Jacque Marris, 17, had never met. Brooks is an honors student and track star at Antelope Valley High School; Marris, an excellent student and a cheerleader at rival Highland High. Brooks had driven to Quartz Hill with her friend Eric Brown, 18, in his white Ford Bronco around 11:30 p.m. Shortly afterwards, Roy Ratliff, 37, a career criminal already wanted on a rape charge, pulled up in a stolen gray Saturn to begin his rampage, which continued an hour later when Marris arrived with her friend Frank Melero, 19, who recently finished a training course to become an EMT.

Those involved told PEOPLE’S Maureen Harrington how the ordeal unfolded.

Brooks: When he came up to the window, at first I thought it was the police and we were in trouble. Then I saw the gun. He said, “Give me all your money.” I didn’t even have a purse. I was terrified. I was shaking. I was trying to appear calm but I had the biggest lump in my throat. He told Eric to get out. Eric kept saying, “I don’t want to die.” I couldn’t talk at all. I was praying: “Please let me live. I want to live to see my family.”

Ratliff led Brown off and bound him with duct tape, then came back to the Bronco and told Brooks he just wanted the vehicle. Then, apparently changing his mind, he began taping her arm to the armrest.

Brooks: I knew then he wasn’t going to leave me here.

Next, Ratliff, who had already been convicted in California of three felonies, two for burglary and one for drugs, sneaked up on Marris and Melero, who were sitting in Melero’s Mazda pickup. Melero: All of the sudden he was at my door. He stuck the gun in my face and told me to throw out my wallet. He took about $60 and seemed really mad. He wanted some rope. I had some in the back of the truck. He kept the gun in my back when I got out of the car and went to get it. He was talking all tough, like a mobster. He was calling me “dude” and “bro.” He asked me my name and would say, “You think you’re a tough guy, Frank?” Back in the truck he began hitting me in the face. I could smell the booze on his breath.

Ratliff fastened Melero’s hands and legs with tape. A state Water and Power worker pulled up, unaware of what was happening.

Melero: Ratliff was standing at my window. He said, “Don’t move, or I’ll kill you.” While the utility guy walked around doing whatever he was doing, Ratliff kept tapping on the side of my door with his gun. It was the worst part of the whole night, him tapping that gun. It was eerie.

Marris: I remember telling Frank how scared I was, and he told me God would take care of us. His hands were tied together and mine were still free. So I held his hands and we prayed together silently. Then Ratliff took me out of the car. I was so scared. I didn’t know what would happen.

Ratliff fled in the Bronco with Brooks and Marris. Minutes later, Melero freed himself and used a cellphone to call his mother, Carmen, who immediately dialed 911. Police arrived and freed Brown, who gave a description of his Bronco.

Brooks’s mom, Sharon, 53, a high school art teacher, was in South Korea visiting her oldest daughter, Ericka, 24, a West Point graduate who is now a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. But Marris’s mom, Nadine Dyer, 36, a homemaker who lives with her husband, Ron, 39, who drives a truck that makes the rain and snow on movie sets, was at home when she got a call from authorities around 4 a.m.

Dyer: I sat at the sheriff’s station waiting. Bits and pieces were told to us. I thought this can’t be happening.

You know what I remember about the night? It was the FBI coming in. There seemed like there were hundreds of them. Then around 6 a.m. I started thinking this is bad, really bad, when they started to make one of those makeshift command posts with the coffee pots and setting up food.

By dawn authorities had issued an “Amber Alert,” named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bicycle and murdered in Arlington, Texas, six years ago (see box). Designed to saturate the public quickly with information about child abductions in progress, the California system relies g on media announcements as well as notices flashed on highway billboards.

In the back of the Bronco, Marris and Brooks did their best to keep each other’s spirits up through their 12- hour ordeal, which one sheriff claimed I included sexual assault.

Marris: It was right at the start that the bonding started. I knew I wasn’t alone in this.

Brooks: It’s funny. We never cried once, neither of us, during all those hours. Only when we knew we were safe. Then we cried a lot.

Marris: We knew how worried our parents, family and friends would be, and we felt awful. I started to softly sing “Blessed” and stroke Tamara’s leg and arms. I always sing when I’m mad or in trouble. It’s a comfort.

Brooks: It was like my mom singing a lullaby to me. I started to sing all these songs to myself in my head. We were starting to relax a little and focus on what was going on.

Marris: At one point he stopped the car about 25 feet from the highway and left the front passenger door ajar. I could see the cars coming by and I could kind of figure out when I could jump out and run over and flag someone down. Maybe I could get away, but I didn’t know what would happen to Tamara. So I couldn’t leave her behind.

We were loosely tied and had duct tape over our mouths. We began to communicate by drawing letters on each other’s hands. The first thing we wrote was “What shall we do?” We began to make a plan.

Brooks: We couldn’t let ourselves lose hope. I asked Jacque if she could see the Bowie knife. I knew there was one in the car because it’s Eric’s and Eric showed it to me.

You could see the pulse in his throat. He went to sleep at one point while we were parked and we thought about it then. I hoped I wouldn’t go to hell for killing him.

Marris: He kept telling us he would kill us. I don’t know what we believed then, but we never lost hope.

The girls decided to attack their attacker when he was parked. After a couple of one-two-threes, Marris grabbed the knife and stabbed Ratliff while Brooks bashed him in the face with a bottle. Then they pushed him out the door. But the blade had only wounded him.

Marris: He was yelling, “Open the door or I’ll kill you!” We were yelling back at him. I was saying, “Don’t you believe in Jesus? Isn’t there going to be anyone who will be upset if you die?” He told us that no one cared about him.

Then he fired a warning shot over the car. “We knew we had to let him in. He told us he’d have to shoot one of us because he couldn’t handle us both. He kept saying things like, “The first one to find my glasses lives.” We told him no, we’re sticking together.

When he didn’t kill us after we stabbed him we thought we might get out of this.

Authorities soon had five helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft combing the greater L.A. area. Around 11:30 a.m. a tip came in that the Bronco had been seen speeding along Highway 178 in Kern County, a rugged area 100 miles north of Quartz Hill. Then a county animal control officer, Bonnie Hernandez, caught a glimpse of the Bronco going down a dirt track in the area.

Hernandez: It was a thick wooded area, a lot of cotton-wood trees. I’ve never seen any activity down in there of any type. And when I saw what I saw I knew the police were looking in the wrong area.

Hernandez alerted authorities. Within minutes a helicopter appeared, with vehicles not far behind. The first deputies on the scene, Larry Thatcher and Jim Stratton, ordered Ratliff to surrender. The kidnapper certainly knew that another conviction would put him away for life. As Deputy Stratton approached from the rear of the Bronco he saw Ratliff raise his gun.

Marris: All of the sudden I saw the police and they were shooting at him. He climbed over the seat and was right beside me. He had his head on my shoulder. I was waving to the shooter to tell him that we were in there too.

Brooks: I saw bullets go into his body. I had never seen anyone die. I mean you see it all the time in the movies, but this is different. When you go to bed at night you see his face. You see his eyes.

Marris: He was hit several times and he yelled to the cops, “I have the girls, don’t shoot.” Before he had yelled, when they first came up, “I have the girls,” like he was using us as a hostage. But when he yelled the last time, he looked me in the eye with such despair. It was like he was telling the cops don’t shoot the girls. In a crazy way, I think he was protecting us.

According to preliminary accounts, as the girls were hustled away, Ratliff again raised his gun. Thatcher shot again, hitting Ratliff in the head and killing him. The girls were taken to Kern County Medical Center in Bakersfield, where they were examined and released by 8:30. Since then they have been having sleep-overs with friends, mostly for the company. And both have gone surfing.

Marris: We were really there for each other. We said, “I came here with her, and I’m leaving with her.”

Brooks: When we knew we were safe, it was like my soul soaring. The dictionary has no words for this feeling. You are every minute thankful to be alive.

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