When Jennifer Asbenson accepted a lift from a stranger, a nightmare unfolded. Here the 43-year-old tells the story in her own words:
Standing in line in the shop, I looked out the window just as my bus pulled away.
Oh no! I panicked. It was September 27, 1992, and I was 19. In 10 minutes I was due to start a night shift caring for disabled kids. And that was the last bus of the night.
Outside, a car pulled up and the driver rolled down his window.
‘Hey, do you need a ride?’ he said.
My initial reaction was to say no, but I was worried I’d be fired if I was late. Besides, he looked totally harmless, so I climbed into his car.
When he dropped me off he asked for my number. I wasn’t interested in dating him, so I reeled off a fake one and forgot all about it. The next morning though, when I left work at 6am, the man was waiting outside.
‘How about I give you a lift home?’ he said.
I took him up on the offer and we set off. Then suddenly, he pulled over. He grabbed me by the hair and shoved my head into the dashboard. That’s when I saw a gun and some thick twine.
Next thing I knew, he’d pulled my hands behind my back and tied them together.
It was all happening so fast.
‘Is this a joke?’ I cried in shock.
‘Shut up b***h!’ he screamed.
As he pulled away, I realised we were heading into the remote desert.
Eventually, he parked the car and I knew he was going to kill me. But it was the thought of what he was going to do beforehand that terrified me. He climbed onto my seat and started punching me. Then he used a knife to cut off my shorts and underwear.
I’m in hell, I thought as he tried to rape me.
Thankfully, he couldn’t do it.
‘Tell me you love me,’ he ordered.
‘I love you,’ I said with as much meaning as I could muster.
But it didn’t come out right, and so he shoved my underwear down my throat and tied my bra around my mouth, gagging me.
‘I love you,’ I choked desperately.
But he started strangling me. Unable to breathe, I closed my eyes. I didn’t want his face to be the last thing I saw.
I’m dying today while my friends and parents are sleeping, I thought. While another lady at work is helping the children, I’m in the middle of the desert being murdered.
Everything went white and I remember being lifted out of the car. Then he was banging my head to wake me up.
He wants to torture me some more, I realised in horror.
All I could think was that I wanted to die. Next he went to the boot and got out a paper bag full of knives.
I couldn’t let this happen! With my hands still behind my back, I started running for my life. But he caught me and dragged me by my hair across some rocks.
As he pulled me on to my feet, I was determined not to plead for my life. Instead I looked into his dark eyes.
‘You’re a coward!’ I said. ‘Kill me!’
As the monster shoved a gun in my mouth, I hoped it would be over quickly. But instead of putting me out of my misery, he threw me in the boot of the car and slammed it shut.
As he started to drive, I had a surge of energy and somehow managed to break my wrists free. Seeing my chance, I clawed at the carpet until I found the latch. And when the car slowed, I jumped out.
Covered in blood, I ran as fast as I could. By now, I’d been tortured for two hours.
Daring to look back, I saw he was chasing me down the middle of the road with a machete. Thankfully, a truck stopped and two US Marines pulled me inside.
‘He has guns and weapons,’ I sobbed.
They drove me to a service station where the police were called.
‘He’s a killer,’ I told them. ‘I’m sure he’s done this before.’
While police measured a bite mark on my neck, they couldn’t find any other evidence and my attacker remained on the run.
Over time, the wound healed but the mental scars didn’t fade. I began self-harming, saw psychiatrists and was put on medication.
He had my purse and driver’s licence and I was terrified he’d come after me. I used to sleep under the bed so he couldn’t find me.
Then there was some light in all the darkness. I had a beautiful baby girl. I never wanted her to wish she had a different mum, so I taught my eyes to see only the beauty in the world.
Five years after the attack, I was watching my daughter playing when the police came to my door.
‘We think we’ve found the guy who did it,’ I was told.
At the station, they showed me some photos of suspects. I recognised his evil eyes immediately.
‘His name is Andrew Urdiales,’ the detective said. ‘He’s a serial killer.’
After his arrest, he’d confessed in detail to brutally murdering eight women. He also told them one had escaped. Me.
I was happy I was alive but so sad for the pain the other women had suffered. Then I felt guilty. Why me? Why did I survive?
In 2002, Andrew Urdiales, then 37, appeared at court in Illinois, where he was convicted of murdering Laura Uylaki, 25, and Lynn Huber, 22. Two years later, he was found guilty of killing Cassandra Corum, 21.
It was such a relief when he was sentenced to death.
But then in 2011 the death penalty was abolished in Illinois and his sentence was reduced to life without parole.
I was heartbroken for the families of the victims. It didn’t feel like justice.
Afterwards, Urdiales was extradited to California where he is still awaiting trial for the murders of Robbin Brandley, 23, Julie McGhee, 30, Mary Ann Wells, 31, Tammie Erwin, 18, and Denise Maney, 32 – as well as what he did to me.
If convicted, he is eligible for the death penalty there.
I am fighting for that to happen. I’m also doing what I can to help others.
I started a foundation called The 5th Warrior. On the Facebook page, I share posts for missing children and information to help save lives.
I am no longer held back by fear. So much so, that on the 24th anniversary of the attack, in September 2016, I returned to the exact spot in the desert where Urdiales tortured me.
I filmed myself telling the whole story of what happened and uploaded it to YouTube. I’m also writing a book about my experience.
Self-defence has helped with my post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. I also have a part-time job that I love, and I’m so proud of my daughter, now 20.
I escaped one of America’s most prolific serial killers, but I would rather have been through what I did, than lose a child the way those families did.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think about those other girls. They are my heroes. I won’t stop fighting for them.
To read more, visit Jennifer’s Facebook page, The Girl in the Treehouse.
How the killer was caught
Former US Marine, Andrew Urdiales, was arrested in November 1996 when police saw him in an area known for prostitution. Searching his vehicle, Officer Warren Fryer found a gun, which he confiscated.
Five months later, by chance, Officer Fryer was sent to a hotel where Urdiales was arguing with a prostitute. She told him that Urdiales had taken her to Wolf Lake and wanted to handcuff her and bind her with duct tape.
Fryer recalled two unsolved murders where bodies were found in Wolf Lake. The gun was tested linking Urdiales to the murders of Laura, Cassandra and Lynn. Within hours of his arrest, he’d confessed to five more.
‘It gave me cold chills,’ said Lt Ray Griffith. ‘He was very methodical, very calm… It was like the details, as much as his victims, were the trophies.’
TIMELINE OF TERROR
Jan 18, 1986: Student Robbin Brandley was found dead, stabbed 41 times.
July 17, 1988: Julie McGhee was found shot to death.
Sept 25, 1988: Mary Ann Wells was found shot to death.
April 15, 1989: Tammie Erwin was discovered shot dead. After learning the previous victims had been shot with the same weapon, cops realised they had a serial killer.
Sept 28, 1992: Jennifer Asbenson, 19, escaped Urdiales.
March 11, 1995: Nearly a three-year gap occurred before Denise Maney was found tortured and dead.
April 14, 1996: Laura Uylaki was found shot in the head in Wolf Lake.
July 14, 1996: The naked body of Cassandra Corum was found floating in a river. She’d been bound, shot in the head and stabbed repeatedly.
August 2, 1996: The naked body of Lynn Huber was found floating in Wolf Lake, after she’d been shot three times and stabbed 28 times.
This story originally appeared in that’s life! Issue 12, 23 March 2017.