Ten agonizing days had passed since Elizabeth Shoaf inexplicably vanished from her driveway in Kershaw County, South Carolina, and police were desperate for a break in the case.
David Thomley, former chief investigator for the sheriff’s office, tells A&E Real Crime he dreaded that the missing teen would never be found alive.
But a text—from Shoaf herself—provided hope and a possible location for her whereabouts.
In a woodland near her home, a team of officers conducted a grid search. Meticulously, step by step, they scanned the thickly forested area.
In the distance, someone was calling. Thomley hurtled forward to see a girl standing alone.
“Yes,” replied the girl, who looked exhausted.
“We’ve been looking for you everywhere,” Thomley told her.
‘A person that holds a grudge’
On September 19, 2007, a Beaufort County judge sentenced an unemployed construction worker named Vinson Filyaw to 421 years for the kidnapping and criminal sexual assault of Shoaf, who was 14 years old at the time of her abduction.
Her story is reminiscent of archetypal fairy tales—a malevolent villain, a mysterious forest and a resilient heroine who escapes the monster.
It starts with Filyaw, whose father died of alcohol poisoning when he was a baby, defense attorneys said. By his teens he was drinking heavily, and that history of alcoholism caused brain damage, a doctor testified in court.
In November 2005, a judge issued a search warrant for Filyaw for sexual assault of his girlfriend’s 12-year-old daughter.
And that led him on a bizarre quest for payback against the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Department.
“I guess you could say I’m a person that holds a grudge,” Filyaw told NBC’s Dateline in 2008.
When he couldn’t get back at his 12-year-old victim, who was moved to foster care, “the second plan was to kidnap somebody else…draw all of Kershaw County into one general area and then just blow them all up.”
A bunker in the woods
In the following months, Filyaw, then 36, lurked in the woods near Shoaf’s neighborhood, hunting for a likely victim. He built a bunker in the side of a hill and stocked it with food, guns and crude explosive devices.
On September 6, 2006, Filyaw approached Elizabeth, who had just gotten off the school bus and was walking to her door.
Wearing a homemade uniform and badge, he masqueraded as a police officer, concocted a phony marijuana charge and handcuffed the bewildered girl.
Filyaw led Elizabeth into the woods, weaving a circuitous path until she lost all sense of direction and found herself at the mouth of a bunker.
The dank enclosure was a torture chamber where Shoaf was ordered to remove her clothes and was raped.
The sexual assaults were continual and excruciating. Filyaw placed a chain around Elizabeth’s neck and threatened to hurt her brother if she escaped.
Through the ordeal, Shoaf conceived an idea to turn the tables on her tormentor.
“I always would do what he told me to do. And like he’d always call me baby. So I’d call him that back.
And he’d tell me he loved me, and I told him I love him. Which is—I’d act like I really liked him and I wanted to be with him,” Shoaf told NBC.
‘There’s a bomb’
An odd relationship struck up between captor and captive. Filyaw unchained Shoaf, allowed her outside and let the teen use his phone to play games.
While he slept one night, Shoaf texted her mother: “Hi mom,” the message read. “I’m in a hole across from Charm Hill where the big trucks go in and out. There’s a bomb. Call police.”
Kershaw County sheriff’s detectives weren’t sure what to think.
“It was either one of the greatest breaks we could hope to have—or a prank by someone trying to be funny or throw a wrench in the way of us finding this girl,” recalls Thomley, who teaches criminology at Camden Military Academy in South Carolina.
“Initially after a bit of investigation, we discovered we were on to something.”
Detectives intensified the manhunt, enlisting aid from U.S. Marshal’s Office experts who traced the phone’s location.
Down in the bunker, Filyaw and Shoaf heard helicopters and watched local news reports about the intercepted text.
Filyaw was rabid with rage, yet panicky at the same time.
“I told him he needed to leave because if they’d catch him, he would go to jail,” Shoaf said. After she sagely advised her captor, he fled into the night.
‘That child saved herself’
The morning of September 16, 2006, “we had set up a line search and I was on the end of the line with officers in sight of each other,” Thomley remembers.
“I was just walking the line and I heard someone yelling for help. I ran through the woods, and when I broke through the woodline, I could see her standing by the top of the bunker.
“I received credit many times for saving her and I did not. That child saved herself.”
Shoaf was rushed to hospital and reunited with her family. Police arrested Filyaw on September 17, 2006, walking along a highway with a pellet gun, knife and night-vision goggles several miles from the bunker.
“I used an innocent young lady as a pawn. I can only hope one day they will be able to forgive me, because I cannot forgive myself,” Filyaw said at his September 2007 sentencing.
Shoaf, now in her late 20s, graduated from college, works as a dental assistant and counts her blessings. “You can be a survivor just like I am,” she said in 2013. “It simply takes faith, it takes talking to someone and encouragement that it’s not the end of the world.”
In 2018, Lifetime aired a movie “Girl in the Bunker” about Shoaf’s ordeal.
Coward or tragic?
“The good news is, these types of crimes are statistically rare,” psychology professor Elizabeth L. Jeglic tells A&E Real Crime. Shoaf “humanized herself to (Filyaw), and instead of being a random victim…she became more of a human being,” explains Jeglic, a sexual violence prevention expert at John Jay College.
“I think that was a very smart tactic.”
No longer king of the bunker, Filyaw is Inmate 324082 at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina.
On April 7, 2011, he threatened to harm an employee, according to the South Carolina Bureau of Prisons. That deprived him of canteen privileges, visits and telephone use for 226 days.
His release date is May 18, 2353.
“Vinson is as tragic a person as I’ll ever see,” his defense attorney Jack Duncan said at Filyaw’s sentencing.
Thomley thinks, “he’s just a coward and that’s all he’ll ever be.”