Voices: I lived through an attack similar to the Idaho murders. We must defend the survivors

 (Alanna Zabel)
(Alanna Zabel)

It was an amazing, fun, vibrant summer of 1992. I was living in a three-level house off campus from the University at Buffalo with five of my Chi Omega sorority sisters. Mine was the front room, a converted patio. The original entrance door was sealed shut and drywalled over, so you wouldn’t know that from the inside.

Our partying continued into September, with constant late nights out at the bars until they closed at 4am, followed by sleeping in every weekend. One Thursday evening we all went to The Steer, a local bar within walking distance of our house. Around 10pm, I offered to walk my friend home as she left early. She turned to me, rolled her eyes and said, “Alanna, I’m from New York; if something were going to happen to me, it would have happened to me by now.” Regardless, I grabbed a friend and we trailed 50 steps behind her. Then I saw a man standing with a bicycle across the street from our house, watching us.

I didn’t think any more about it and went back to The Steer. The next night, we all went out again. We drove to downtown Buffalo, where we slugged Jaegermeister, laughed and listened to music before deciding to go to a fraternity party not far from our home. The same housemate who left early the night before decided to skip the party. Since we had only brought one set of keys, she agreed to let us in when we each arrived home. We were getting increasingly hammered (Jaegermeister mixed with beer...), so not long after getting to the party Kristin left. I stayed a little while longer, somehow finding a second wind. Around 1.30am Peggy and I decided we would go to PJ Bottoms, another local hot spot for UB college students. But we’d have to stop by home first, as my (fake) ID was in Kristin’s purse.

The side entrance from the driveway had three options: downstairs, second level or upstairs. Donna, who lived downstairs with Kristin, let me in while Peggy waited in the car. Kristin gave me my ID and we left. I never went up to the second level, the floor I lived on with Emily, Keri and my other housemate.

After a couple of hours at PJ Bottoms, Peggy and I called it a night. At 3.30am she pulled into the driveway at our house to drop me off before waiting until I got inside safely. For fifteen minutes I rang the doorbell, kicked the door, and screamed my housemates’ names, yet no one let me in.

Peggy got out of the car and pointed to a bathroom window open on the second level. She laced her hands together and boosted me up through it. I noticed the screen lying on the floor, so I put it back and locked the window. There was an odd smell and some wet towels in the sink, but I continued into the hallway. I saw my housemate’s door cracked open and I called her name, but upon hearing some heavy breathing I assumed she was with her boyfriend. I went down to the kitchen and let Peggy inside to confirm, together, that the house was safe. Peggy left and I went to my bedroom. About fifteen minutes later as I began to doze off, I felt someone enter my room. I lifted and turned my head, but I didn’t see anyone. Seconds later I heard the front door shut, and assumed that someone had come home. I then fell asleep.

Around 9.30am, Keri came into my room asking why the back of the house “smelled so bad.” She asked me if I had vomited the night before. I brushed her off (remember that Jaegermeister?), telling her I had not. She returned ten minutes later. Same thing, with more insistence, “Keri, I didn’t throw up last night!” So she left again.

The third time, Keri said she couldn’t wake our housemate. We both went into her room to find her lying on her back with her eyes closed.

Keri took her pulse and I shook her feet and legs while screaming her name. She was not responding. I ran to the kitchen to call 911, reporting that “my roommate had choked on her vomit.” I then proceeded to make one of the most challenging phone calls of my life: letting her parents know something was wrong. When the paramedics arrived, I followed one as he approached the room and stepped backward, causing me to jump. “Holy s***, look at all of this blood!”

The room instantly filled with red. The mattress was three-quarters soaked with blood, the liquid I saw in her hair and on her face turned red, the walls were streaked with red; everything changed. My mind began racing as to “who, what, how” faster than I could process the thoughts, compounded with emotions never felt before. All of my protective walls disintegrated and fear overtook every aspect of my being.

We were told that my housemate only had another 20-30 minutes left to live, which thankfully she did. It took several years for a suspect to be named, and it was the very first conviction in Erie County with DNA evidence as the primary link to the perpetrator. However, before that relief and closure, I spent the first year utterly tortured. A homicide detective working on the investigation became a close and frequent contact. When he first arrived at the house the day of the attack to ask me questions, he sat me down and said, “Listen,” while he closed his eyes. “Listen and the scene will talk to you. It will tell you what happened.” I closed my eyes and sat there, almost meditating, with this detective. My sorority sisters nicknamed me “Holmes,” because I couldn’t move on until I knew who had done this. I began my own investigations, likely to the annoyance of the officers assigned to the case, who I called with my hunches and suspicions. I couldn’t sleep, because every time I closed my eyes I felt someone chasing me in that bathroom as I stepped inside the window. The “what ifs” were shredding my sanity, as well as the guilt for not calling 911 sooner. To think that I slept yards away while she lay unconscious from being beaten unspeakably brutally.

One thing that is important to share is the uncertainty over what happened is absolute mental torture for someone who has experienced a situation like this. That is why I have been so adamant about supporting the surviving housemates in the Idaho murders case. The similarities to what happened to me are jarring - from environment to timing to relationships to ages. We all went out the night before, both to a local fraternity party and local stomping ground bar for college students. Both incidents occurred between 3-4am and both found the main suspects based on DNA left at the scene of the crimes. Our attacker was a rapist who was stalking us, while the Idaho suspect is also said to have stalked his victims - who didn’t know who he was. While I personally didn’t see our attacker, as one of the surviving Idaho housemates did, I am sure that both she and her other roommate are devastated just the same.

I remember feeling overwhelming guilt and paramount fear that I had done something “wrong.” I would also imagine that the “what ifs” are overpowering their minds as well, thinking “what if I was in the kitchen getting a glass of water when he entered…” and so on, as the mind works to process the ungodly and horrific experience.

I compartmentalized what happened; made myself adapt to situations where I felt unsafe. I never wanted to identify as a “victim” so I didn’t tell many people in my life about it. Yet, I eventually changed my life direction, finding a path, or perhaps it found me, as a yoga instructor, author and “sound healer” as a means to work out something I couldn’t fully grasp.

Re-living this thirty years later hasn’t been easy, as I continue to connect the dots. My advice to these surviving housemates, and to anyone who has experienced a trauma like this, is to take time to process their feelings by talking about them in safe environments and with trusted people. Write about it. Create artwork about it. Dance it out. Cry. Scream. Dedicate some of your creativity to the victims to, metaphorically, keep their candles lit. We simply cannot let evil “win” by making us fearful, diminished or unwell for the rest of our precious lives. Nothing can destroy love, ever.

You can find more of Alanna’s work here.