Elizabeth Shoaf’s abductor approached her pretending to be a police officer.
The 14-year-old was on her way home from school in Lugoff, South Carolina, on Sept. 6, 2006, when the man dressed in combat fatigues handcuffed her, walked her into the woods, and then held her captive in a hand-dug underground bunker for 10 days, during which he repeatedly raped her.
As part of her strategy to escape, she resolved to win his trust, convincing him to share his cell phone so she could play games on it. Then, when he slept, she urgently texted family and friends, Shoaf told NBC’s Today show in 2008.
That rallied police who initially had considered her a runaway, and they were able to zero in on Vinson Filyaw, then an unemployed 36-year-old construction worker and a suspect in an unrelated sexual assault.
Alarmed as he watched news coverage of the manhunt with the girl, Filyaw asked Shoaf what to do.
“I told him he needed to leave because if they’d catch him, he would go to jail,” she said.
After he did, she fled and was recovered — exhibiting her own bravery now recounted in a new film, Girl in the Bunker, debuting May 28 on Lifetime (8 p.m. ET/PT).
Filyaw was captured five miles away and arrested. Facing multiple charges including kidnapping, he avoided trial by pleading guilty to all counts and was sentenced in September 2007 to 421 years in prison. Now 48, he currently is being held in “statewide protective custody,” a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections tells PEOPLE.
Vinson Filyaw, center, with his attorneys
Authorities at the time said Filyaw had stocked his booby-trapped underground holding place next to his trailer with guns, canned food and pornographic materials.
Shoaf said she was stripped naked, chained to a beam, and repeatedly raped.
“I look at her all the time and think what she went through and how she did it,” her father, Don Shoaf, told Today in 2008. “I’m still amazed.”
Shoaf said she focused her thoughts on family and prayer as she devised her way out.
“I guess if I wanted him to trust me I’d have to have him think I kind of wanted to be there and be more comfortable letting me do things I wanted to do,” she told Today.
That included asking for access to his phone. When he gave it to her, she texted her mom.
“Hey mom, it’s Lizzie,” Madeline Shoaf recalled the message as saying, she told CNN in 2006.
“I looked at the text, and I ran straight to [my husband] and told him, ‘It’s Elizabeth. No one else has my cell phone,'” she said.
“She told me exactly where she was, down the road, which road it was … get the police. She’s in a hole.”
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Investigators traced the message as coming from an area around Filyaw’s trailer located less than a mile from his victim’s parents’ home. Authorities moved in, eventually finding Elizabeth wandering on her own.
After her ordeal, Elizabeth Shoaf turned the case of her abduction into activism.
“I’m the perfect example of what can happen,” she told dozens of mothers and daughters in 2013 at Lugoff-Elgin Middle School, sharing her warning to be cautious around strangers, according to WISTV.com.
“I survived and I can help others survive,” she said.
“Unfortunately we can’t stop it from happening, but we can reduce it if parents are more cautious of what’s going on and who’s around,” she said.
Girl in the Bunker debuts May 28 on Lifetime (8 p.m. ET/PT).