There are true stories that chill your blood, that make you wonder how such things are possible and in your home city, a place not known for this sort of evil. David Bagshaw, sentenced to life in prison for killing Stefanie Rengel on the orders of his jealous girlfriend, redefines the sickest form of obedience. He was so young he could only be identified as D.B. until his sentencing.
He was sentenced for killing his girlfriend’s imagined teen rival — a girl he had never even met, the daughter of two policemen, whom he stabbed to death on a residential Toronto sidewalk on New Year’s Day. The case has horrified Toronto and me, who grew up and went to high school there. I once covered a trial there whose details remain with me still, more than 20 years later — of a teen boy who sat eating his dinner off a TV tray in the basement of his home while his friend beat a young man to death in front of him. Then they cut off his arms and legs and stuck him in a freezer, which, bloodstained, was wheeled into the courtroom. You can’t forget things like that, no matter how much you want to.
In both cases, all of these kids are white, from middle-class families. They did not grow up marinated in violence. bullets whizzing past their ears in a terrifying ghetto.
What made this young girl so sick? Why did this young man become so depraved? What’s going on here?
While suburban parents are freaking out about whether or not to allow their kids to walk to school, the big news story now on this coast, and making national news, is the discovery of the body of Annie Le, a 24-year-old Yale grad student who was to have been married this past weekend — but was instead found dead, her body stuffed inside a wall of the lab. A fellow grad student told The New York Times it requires three levels of security to get into the basement of the lab building, including two swipes of a security card.
The prime suspect is a lab technician who had an unrequited crush on her, according to the New Haven Independent, someone who had access to the lab but who is not a fellow student. While the standard narrative now unfolds of a “promising life cut short”, her $160,000 in scholarships and her academic dedication, a young woman’s murder, at Yale or anywhere, raises larger questions for every woman and the women, of all ages, she cares about.
How, where and when — if? — can a woman protect herself from harm? It’s an issue we don’t talk about much, in a serious way, because it’s deeply frightening and can make you feel powerless and overwhelmed. Danger feels random, when for more than 90 percent of women, it’s not. They are usually killed by someone they know, and usually a man with whom they have or have had a relationship. When some men can’t have the woman they want, they claim the ultimate prize instead — her life.
I learned a lot about violence against women, hearing things I wish I hadn’t, and hadn’t known men can do, when I spoke to women around the country for my book on women and guns. One woman was shot point-blank in her own suburban California driveway, her husband shot dead beside her because he only had $8 in his wallet, not enough to satisfy the criminal who followed them home. Today, a trained counselor, she helps other women cope with trauma. Hers was a random attack, but it’s usually a man who decides he owns you — no matter how the woman feels about this — and is going to have you, or else.
Here’s my wish for every woman, of any age. Don’t trust appearances. You need three security cards to get into the basement lab which makes you feel safe and secure. Right? Who’s in there with you? Are you alone? How quickly and easily can you get out? I don’t advocate paranoia; none of us can live like that all the time. But I do advocate thinking and acting like a member of the Secret Service, men and women exquisitely trained to observe their surroundings in detail, to watch faces and body language, to anticipate danger before it happens and figure out how they can, or will, avoid it.
I say this from personal, brutal, terrifying experience. A convicted felon came into my life 10 years ago. I was lonely, broke, struggling, low on confidence. Vulnerable. He had — I would only discover after four months’ dating him and hiring a private detective, a former NYPD cop — served time in Illinois, made the front page of all the Chicago papers for his crimes there, even appeared on American Journal, an early reality TV show. After I realized what he was and bought the tape of his television appearance and showed it to my Dad, he had one immediate reaction: “He’s so little!” The criminal was; maybe 5’6″, with hands and teeth almost childishly small. His most powerful weapon? He didn’t look threatening.
He opened my mail, stole a credit card, used it, forging my signature….a total of six felonies by the time he was done with me. The local police and the DA refused to take my case. No one was going to gallop to my rescue. No one. All those years of believing in authority and their right and ability to help me. Gone. I changed my locks and phone numbers and all my bank accounts. I did not date for four months. I did not let a man I did not know very well cross the threshold of my front door for 12 months. I was terrified to answer the phone for months, slept at a friend’s house for a week or two, learned how to drive while looking to see if someone was following me.
This will sound unreal, but the felon gave me a present. It’s a book called The Gift of Fear which contains an entire page listing male behaviors that, to many women, look social, friendly, even flirtatious or kind. They are also time-tested and highly efficient ways to win a woman’s trust, then commit a crime against her. It’s written by a security expert and I think every woman of every age should read it. It would have saved me an enormous amount of time, money, heartache and terror. It would have, the felon knew, saved me from him.