During the summer of 1983, I was woken by 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 find 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 times beating them. They said I fit the profile of the girls he was raping 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 scream. Scream as loud as you can.”
They 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 6 weeks. 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 were standing in the driveway talking to the police. One of the officers asked us if our neighbor had a dog. “No,” we said. Suddenly we heard the sound of footsteps taking off quickly. The stalker rapist was watching me, through my neighbors fence.
The stalker rapist was watching me, through my neighbors fence.
And then he again watched and waited, time after time.
I came home from my waitress job late one night. Got out of my car and walked towards my house. Suddenly he appeared from behind my neighbor’s bushes.
My car keys were between my fingers, so I could use them as a weapon, if needed.
I got to the door 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.
I frantically pounded on the door as I yelled for my dad as the rapist was getting very near me.
My dad always slept on the sofa in the living room until I was home. Thankfully he was not too far away and he was able to open the door just before the stalker got to me. Another phone call was made to the police. I bet we called close to 30 times that summer, over a month and a half.
The police once again brought in the dogs to track him, but he always got away. Remember, my backyard had a way for him to escape to four different streets.
Remember, my backyard had a way for him to escape to four different streets?
He could cut through one field and a back yard 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. But it would be impossible to see him as the ditch was hidden by many houses and shrubs.
He could exit through any of the houses on the south side of the ditch and escape to another street. This gave him 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 back yard and exit to yet another street.
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 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 been caught.
He had tried breaking into the home of a girl who was home alone. She was on the phone with a friend, whose father was an off-duty police officer. The father entered the backyard and found the serial rapist trying to break in. The dogs arrived and tracked him. They found Stephen Van Dam 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 baby-sitting.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 and I heard some terrifying news on the radio. Stephen Van Dam had escaped from prison.
He simply 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 effect me?
My post-traumatic symptoms increased. My ability to sleep had the biggest impact. 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 Cultivating Health, Happiness and Joy. 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.