From manhunt to movie: photos from the Kershaw County kidnapping
Editor's note: This story was initially published in The State on Sept. 20, 2007.
A judge sentenced Vinson Filyaw to 421 years in prison Wednesday, levying the maximum punishment possible for kidnapping a 14-year-old girl a year ago and raping her in an underground, explosive-laced lair in Kershaw County.
Judge G. Thomas Cooper, prosecutors and the family of the sexual assault victim all described Filyaw's actions with one word: Unforgivable.
"He got what he got, but it's not enough," said her father.
The family waited in anguish last September when the girl was missing after getting off the school bus near their home on wooded property in Elgin.
"For 10 days we endured a hell we would not wish on any other family," said the victim's mother. "Our innocent child was subjected to torment and abuse and placed in a world she did not deserve."
After her daughter's rescue, the mother said, another hell began, one in which the family watched their loved one suffer through anger and sadness.
"This monster does not deserve any forgiveness from us, nor will he ever get it," the mother told the court, crying.
Filyaw, 37, pleaded guilty Tuesday at the Beaufort County Courthouse, minutes before his trial was to begin, to kidnapping, 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual assault, two counts of second degree sexual assault, possession of explosives, attempted armed robbery and impersonating a police officer.
He wrote that the kidnapping stemmed from a desire to exact revenge and embarrass the Kershaw County Sheriff's Department, an agency he felt had mistreated him while investigating a complaint he had sexually assaulted a 12-year old girl in 2005.
Moments before the plea, Cooper ruled that prosecutors could share with jurors a manuscript Filyaw wrote from prison, evidence one prosecutor called a "play-by-play of everything he did to the victim."
Prosecutors quoted extensively from that manuscript and introduced several gripping pieces of evidence during the sentencing hearing, including:
- The chains placed around the girl's neck to keep her captive
- The handmade badge Filyaw used to post as a police officer
- A crude ladder made from tree branches used to enter the bunker
- The knife, pellet gun and night vision goggles Filyaw was carrying when he was arrested.
His earlier sexual assault victim, the then-12-year-old girl, described how Filyaw would give her Benadryl to help her fall asleep, and then she would find evidence of sexual assault the next morning when she woke up.
"I can tell you, he is not the clean-cut man you see today," said the girl.
Filyaw grew up in Florence and dropped out of high school.
His father died of alcohol poisoning when Filyaw was 1, defense lawyer Jack Duncan said, and his mother remarried, to a man who cross-dressed and was a substance abuser.
Filyaw began binge drinking when he was 14 and has had a lifelong problem with alcohol.
Each of the 10 times he has been treated for alcohol abuse, he has suffered from extreme withdrawal known as delirium tremens, Duncan said.
His alcohol problems contributed to his losing his job as a construction worker, Duncan said, and contributed to paranoia and delusion.
One doctor who evaluated Filyaw said he suffered from brain damage because of his alcohol abuse.
"Vinson is as tragic a person as I've ever seen," said Duncan.
Stress, addiction and brain damage combined into a "perfect storm," said Duncan, leading him to develop his plan of revenge.
In a statement to the court, Filyaw said he was living alone in a swamp when he began preparing for the abduction.
"I had very little contact with my friends or family, and I had no purpose or direction left in my life," he said. "Unfortunately, my anger and hatred towards (the Kershaw County Sheriff's Department) manifested itself in a plot of revenge."
"..... I used an innocent young lady as a pawn," he said. "I can only hope that one day, they will be able to forgive me, because I cannot forgive myself. I think of nothing else every day."
Filyaw waited for the 14-yearold to leave the bus stop, hiding in the woods by her driveway, before he stepped in front of her, wearing the police emblem on his shirt.
He told her she was under arrest because her family was growing marijuana and handcuffed her, leading her into the woods.
Within 15 minutes she was sexually assaulted, the first of many times.
She was made to walk on leaves instead of sand, so as not to leave footprints.
Filyaw made sure she did not drop anything.
He placed a necklace -- a string with a black box that he described as an explosive -- around her neck.
If she did anything stupid, he said, he'd blow her up.
He also threatened to find her little brother and shoot him with a rifle when he came home from school, claiming to be an expert marksman.
They walked for at least an hour into the woods and stopped.
Once they reached their destination, Filyaw reached down and opened a camouflaged door in the ground, and sent her down into the 6-foot-deep bunker.
Filyaw had built at least four bunkers in Kershaw County, according to authorities.
The bunker the 14-year-old was kept in was in such dense woods that investigators had trouble relocating it after it was discovered.
It had 6-foot ceilings, a well, a bed, a stove and chimney and a television, which would be turned on for newscasts.
There was also an inflatable doll and an escape hatch in the back of the bunker, covered with a refrigerator door.
As comfortable as Filyaw made it for himself, it was horrific for his prey and unwitting investigators.
A chain was placed around the girl's neck, tethering her to a beam.
When searchers passed overhead, Filyaw held a Taser to her head.
Inside the walls Filyaw placed crude explosives made of gunpowder and pellets, designed to be discharged when police searched the bunker, according to his writ- ings.
As the days passed, Filyaw began to allow his victim freedoms.
She was permitted to bathe in a nearby pond and help wash the dishes and clothes.
When leaving for the pond, she would discreetly pull out strands of her hair, a prosecutor said, draping them on bushes in hopes authorities might find them.
Soon she was allowed to play games on Filyaw's cell phone.
She tried to send messages for help, but inside the bunker there was no reception.
Once when Filyaw slept, she wrote a message to her mother and lifted the heavy bunker door just enough to stick her arm out and send it.
U.S. marshals were able to trace the cell phone signal and narrow down the bunker's location days later.
On the eve of her rescue, the girl and Filyaw watched the 11 p.m. news, which made mention of her text message and of Filyaw as a suspect.
Filyaw was angry and quickly packed his belongings, fleeing the bunker.
He told his victim to leave the bunker the next morning. She did and was found .
Filyaw was captured a day later, kneeling on the side of Interstate 20 in Richland County.
On Wednesday, prosecutors praised the girl.
"If she had not gotten that text message out, they would have never found her,' said Barney Giese, solicitor for the 5th Judicial Circuit.
The victim, now 15 and in the 10th grade, has nightmares and panic attacks and sometimes says she feels the chain around her neck.
Certain images from the bunker are etched into her memory.
She goes to counseling sessions each week, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She takes Prozac and other medications.
In front of TV cameras and nearly a dozen reporters after sentencing, she was calm and collected, and also a little shy.
"He didn't ruin my life, he just changed a lot of it," she said, flanked by her parents, sister, brother and boyfriend.
"She handled a situation not many people could handle," her mother said. "She came out the victor."
Filyaw walked out the door to prison quietly on Wednesday.
His mother, Ginger Nell Cobb, had been in the courtroom during the pretrial hearings, guilty pleas and sentencing.
She, as well as Filyaw's former girlfriend Cindy Hall, have pending cases, charged with helping Filyaw elude police.
When sentencing Filyaw, Judge Cooper was stern and swift.
"This position requires I be the conscience of the community, and the community is outraged by your acts," said the judge. "Many people have difficult paths and don't commit the heinous crimes you committed. You have preyed upon helpless victims with violence and in a savage manner."
Cooper then sentenced Filyaw to 421 years in prison, each sentence to be served consecutively. "Good luck to you, sir," he said.