Crime & Courts

‘This is for all girls’: USC student shares creepy story of being followed at mall

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A University of South Carolina student endured a scary situation during a recent trip to a Midlands shopping mall.

As a way to cope with the experience about being followed by a group of men at Columbiana Center, Mackenzie McNabb posted her story on social media. Her post, and a similar one by her roommate, has gone viral.

Women are sharing the story, many are offering encouragement and support, and others are coming forward with frightening experiences of their own during shopping trips in the Midlands.

McNabb’s roommate, and fellow USC student, Emma Kate Smalley was part of the group of four girls that experienced the incident in a Monday trip to the mall. She wrote about it on Facebook, and her post has been shared more than 26,000 times while garnering more than 10,000 reactions.

People are responding to McNabb, Smalley and two other friends being uncomfortably followed by three men. They are also heeding the USC student’s warning to be aware when in public situations.

The four young women went to Columbiana Centre around 6:30 p.m. to do some shopping for apparel to wear during spring break.

In an interview with The State, McNabb said shortly after arriving, one of the young women in their party became aware a group of men staring at them. She described the men as between 25 and 30 years old, and being of Arab or Middle Eastern descent.

None of the girls thought too much of it at the time and proceeded with their shopping before spending a good amount of time eating and talking while seated in the food court.

Just because I’m 19 doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between flirting and being overboard creepy.

Mackenzie McNabb, USC student

As they were preparing to continue shopping, they again saw the men staring at them. This time, the men were also seated at a table in the food court, but had no food and McNabb said they were only focused on the four young women.

McNabb said she’s had men, young and older, stare at her before. But in this instance, there was something different. Something that made all four young women uncomfortable.

“It felt like you were being watched, not like other situations where other guys stare at you, but eventually look away,” McNabb told The State. “Just because I’m 19 doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between flirting and being overboard creepy.”

Things got creepier as the young women decided to go to Belk. As they were walking to the department store, they realized one of the three men was right behind and following them.

McNabb, and Smalley in her Facebook post, both indicate this man was shadowing their group.

“It was obvious that he was looking at random items, just stalling until we left the store,” Smalley wrote.

At this time, the young women were uncomfortable and wanted to leave and headed toward their car, which was parked outside of the entrance at Forever 21. The one man continued to follow them.

“I thought, ‘where are the other two?’” McNabb recalled.

The young women wisely asked the clerks at Forever 21 to call security to escort them to their car. As they waited for security to arrive, the man followed them into the store and made a show of looking at items.

McNabb, who was clutching a can of pepper spray, said store clerks were aware the man was following the young women and asked if him they could help. McNabb said the man awkwardly asked the clerks how much certain items were, only to be informed price tags were on the items.

Throughout this process, McNabb said the man was constantly texting on his cellphone.

When security arrived, McNabb said there was a sense of relief, but as she led the procession out of the store, she felt uneasy about what was waiting outside.

I felt unsafe, even leaving.

McNabb

Their concern seemed validated, as was their decision to ask for security.

McNabb said a second man from the trio was waiting along the wall, just outside of the store. The third man was leaning on a car, parked two spots away from Smalley’s car.

“He was waiting,” McNabb said. “The guy, at the car, was just staring at us.

“I felt unsafe, even leaving.”

Security at Columbiana Centre didn’t respond to messages about the incident.

In her Facebook post, Smalley asked, “who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t told security?”

Fortunately for McNabb, Smalley and the rest of their party, nothing did happen.

“They didn’t do anything, but it felt like they were planning to do something,” McNabb said.

Something definitely happened after both USC students posted about their uncomfortable experience on social media.

Smalley opened her message by saying, in all caps, “ATTENTION TO ALL GIRLS IN THE COLUMBIA/IRMO AREA.” After recalling story, she issued another all cap warning, “GIRLS BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS!!!”

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SCREENSHOT Submitted by Emma Kate Smalley

In her initial tweet, McNabb closed her post with a similar warning.

“PLEASE be safe when going to the Columbiana (Centre), and ALWAYS be aware of who’s around you. RT AND SPREAD THE WORD!”

People on social media have. Including a number of women who shared similar experiences. Women from as far away as Hawaii and Canada have shared their stories with McNabb and provided her with feedback.

There have also been between 5 to 10 women in the Midlands area who have shared similar experiences while out shopping.

Among them is Laken Radvansky, who posted about similar experience she endured at the Walmart on Garners Ferry Road on March 1.

Her post opened, “LADIES BEWARE!!!” before saying she “noticed a man who appeared to be middle eastern watching me.”

This man – who Radvansky said was between 25-30 years old, with facial hair and is about 5-foot-5 – approached her speaking in several languages, two of which she said she recognized as French and Spanish.

She then realized the man was taking pictures of her, and told him to leave her alone. He didn’t, and instead inched closer, according to her account. When she walked away, he followed.

Radvansky said she told a store manager, who called the police, who walked her to her car. She left without further incident, but told women to be aware of their surroundings among other warnings.

Another Midlands woman shared a similar experience of hers at another area Walmart, this one located on Bush River Road.

Tonya Lancaster Keller posted she was with her son in the grocery area when she “noticed an nice looking Arabia guy.”

Keller said she and her son proceeded to the electronics department, only to see the same man, this time with a cellphone. A trip to the “medicine department” led to another encounter with the man, who took a picture of Keller, she said.

Disturbed, Keller said she confronted the man and told him to leave her alone. Following this, Keller told management about the encounter, and “they confirmed it on camera and there were three of these men.”

Like McNabb, Smalley and Radvansky, Keller warned women to be aware.

McNabb said she and Smalley have contacted both the Columbia Police Department and the USC Police. She said all four young women from her group have been asked by USC police to look at pictures they have of “dangerous Arabic men.”

She said her experience with the Columbia Police Department wasn’t as pleasant, initially.

She said she called the police and asked if she should file a report about the incident. McNabb said the officer she spoke with seemed dismissive of her claims.

“It felt like she was calling me a liar and tuned me out,” McNabb said.

When contacted about this, Columbia Police Department public information officer Jennifer Timmons said she wanted to reach out to McNabb to speak with her in greater detail about the incident, saying “We want her to know that we care.”

Timmons said CPD is working with mall security at Columbiana Center to investigate the incident. She also offered some general advice on what to do for anyone who encounters a similar situation.

“If someone feels uncomfortable in their surroundings, especially at a public place, we encourage them to find a security officer, manager or store owner, etc. to explain the concern. A person can also call 911 and request an officer to meet them,” Timmons said. “We take matters of public safety very seriously.”

We take matters of public safety very seriously.

Jennifer Timmons, Columbia Police Department public information officer

Timmons also said citizens can file complaints, adding, “Part of Chief (Skip) Holbrook’s mission for CPD is to provide the best customer service to citizens we serve.”

When told of this, McNabb said she was eager for the opportunity to meet with members of the Columbia Police Department and talk again about the incident.

Beyond that, McNabb said she just wants to notify people about the incident. She has been successful.

As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, more than 1.5 million people had seen McNabb’s post on Twitter.

People interacted with the tweet more than 400,000 times, and it had been retweeted or liked more than a combined 30,000 times.

As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, more than 1.5 million people had seen McNabb’s post on Twitter about being followed by a group of men at Columbiana Center.

“This is for all the girls. It’s become a bigger thing,” she said of all the feedback she has received online, including invitations to speak from sex trafficking organizations.

In spite of the scare, McNabb said the incident won’t keep her from shopping in the future. She said she is considering getting a concealed carry permit.

“I’m still going to shop, I’ll just be more aware,” she said. “This could’ve ended badly.”

Safety Tips

Perhaps the most important tip to remember is to call 911 for emergencies or contact mall/shopping center security immediately.

In the city of Columbia, there is also a non-emergency dispatch number: 803-252-2911. Citizens can request an officer meet with them.

In Parking Areas

  • Never park in an isolated area.
  • (At night) Park in a well-lit area as close as possible to mall entrances.
  • Make a mental note of where you parked your vehicle.
  • Never leave valuable packages in your vehicle.
  • Store your packages in the trunk of your car.
  • When leaving your vehicle, make sure all doors are locked and windows closed.
  • Have your keys ready when returning to your vehicle.

SOURCE: Columbia Police Department

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