TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL VIOLENCE/RAPE
During the summer of 1983, I woke to the rattling of my bedroom window. Still half asleep, my 19-year self thought, “Go back to sleep. You were dreaming.” But then I heard it again. And this time, I knew I wasn’t dreaming.
Someone was trying to break into my bedroom!
Not wanting to alert the person that I knew they were there, I quietly got out of bed and went to find my dad. I was surprised to see him in the hall with my brother. He and my brother were taking in hushed voices. They had both heard someone jump the fence. We called the police, hoping they could catch the guy in our backyard.
When the police arrived, they told us that someone had been pulling girls out of bed and raping them at knifepoint and often beating them. They said I fit the profile of the girls he raped, and this man had raped many girls living in my area.
The detective said the rapist told his victims, “If you scream, I am going to kill you.” But a couple of the girls did scream, and he ran. The detective told me, “If he ever got in the house to scream. Scream as loud as you can.”
The police even had a suspect – a serial rapist who was out on parole. But they had not gathered enough evidence to arrest him yet.
This pattern continued for nearly two months. Night after night, I would wake to the sound of him trying to get in my window. We would call the police. They would try to track him down. He would escape.
After one instance of him trying to get to me, we stood in the driveway talking to the police. One of the officers asked us if our neighbor had a dog. “No,” we said. The officer quickly turned towards the fence. He had heard something. Then there was the sound of footsteps taking off fast.
The stalker rapist was watching me through my neighbor’s fence!
He watched and waited, time after time.
One night, I came home from my waitress job pretty late. I got out of my car and walked towards my house. Suddenly the stalker appeared from in my neighbors drive-way.
My car keys were between my fingers so I could use them as a weapon.
I rushed to the door of my house and quickly realized the set of car keys I had grabbed that day was the backup set, and it didn’t have a house key.
The rapist was getting very near to me. I frantically pounded on the door as I yelled for my dad.
Thankfully, my dad always slept on the sofa in the living room until I was home, and he opened the door just before the stalker got to me.
We made another phone call to the police. We called nearly 30 times that summer, over a month and a half.
The police again brought in the dogs to track him, like they had many times before.
My backyard had a way for him to escape to four different streets. He could cut through one field and a backyard to escape to one street. He could hike down a ditch, hidden between houses and shrubs, to exit in the direction the police came from. And it was pretty much impossible to see him. Many homes and shrubs hid his exit routes.
He could exit through any of the houses on the south side of the ditch and escape to another street. He had 14 potential exits on the south side alone while remaining hidden.
He could hop the fence on the north side of our house. Hop another fence. Cut through a backyard and exit to yet another street.
So, once again, the stalker got away
It finally got where when I heard him, I whipped open my curtains to scare him away. I wanted him to know I knew he was there.
My parents asked neighbors to leave their porch lights on at night. But many of them said things like, “Leisa is making things up to get attention.” Or “She must have been mistaken.” After all, we lived on the same street as lawyers, doctors, and TV broadcasters.
“Things like that don’t happen here.”
But then it happened. The stalker tried to get into a neighbor’s house during the day. Finally, someone else’s voice was added to my voice. A neighborhood watch meeting was called, and people began to watch for him.
One day he was finally caught.
He had tried breaking into the home of a girl who was alone. She was on the phone at the time with a friend whose father was an off-duty police officer. The father rushed to her house, entered the backyard, and found the serial rapist trying to break in. The dogs arrived and successfully tracked him. They found Stephen Van Dam, the police’s number one suspect, hiding in some bushes.
Van Dam was first convicted of sexual assault in 1970 and sent to prison in 1971. He was suspected of committing as many as 30 rapes in the Salt Lake County area. One victim said Vandam viciously beat, choked, and raped her while she was babysitting.
He was paroled in 1974 but was sent back to prison for sexual assault in 1975. He was paroled again in 1982, just a few months before he tried to make me a victim.
I began to sleep a little better, knowing he was in prison. But it was short-lived.
On May 28, 1984, I was driving on I–15 in Salt Lake County late at night when I heard some terrifying news on the radio. Stephen Van Dam had escaped from prison. He walked out wearing a three-piece suit smuggled to him by a girlfriend.
I was terrified that he would come back. After all, why would he not want to get to the girls he didn’t get before? He was so persistent in trying to get to me before.
Acting on a tip, police in August 1984 once again arrested Vandam while he was eating breakfast at a Salt Lake City McDonald’s restaurant.
How did these events affect me?
My post-traumatic symptoms increased. It had the most significant impact on my ability to sleep. I don’t think I got a good night’s sleep until I was in my 50’s. I also began to be hyper-vigilant and felt detached. After all, why would I want to be attached to the situation?
About the Author
Leisa Watkins is the founder of Cultivate An Exceptional Life. She believes life is meant to be enjoyed and experienced in abundance. She is on a mission to help people break through barriers and avoid roadblocks in life while creating a life they love. She also shares tips on getting more out of life, despite it's challenges on our Instagram channel. Please follow us.