Debbie Van Gerko was 17 when she was kidnapped and held at knifepoint for 11 hours by a man who had murdered a 27-year-old woman one day earlier. On 3 March this year – the same day Sarah Everard was abducted by a serving Metropolitan Police officer – Debbie learned her kidnapper had become eligible for parole. Speaking publicly for the first time about her terrifying ordeal more than 20 years ago, Debbie asks, “When will the streets be safe for women?” As told to Deborah Linton.
The world does not normally hear from women like me. We do not usually survive to tell our stories. For more than 20 years I have stayed silent but, in this moment, I feel a duty to use my voice – because enough is enough.
I was 17-years-old when I stopped, in the early light of a Spring morning, at the newsagent’s shop on the way to my Saturday job. The murderer who kidnapped me, moments from my home – still carrying the knife he had used to kill 27-year-old Rachel McGrath the night before – was deemed, by the judge who sentenced him, to be so “indefinitely dangerous” to women that he should die in jail.
And yet, on 3 March, the same day that Sarah Everard was abducted by a serving Met Police officer, a phone call reopened a box that I had kept closed. My kidnapper, Rachel’s murderer, a man who held me at knifepoint for 11 hours, tied me in the boot of my car and told me he’d rape me, had become eligible for parole. He could walk free next year.
No one answered my questions, they gave me no facts. I was asked to negotiate a zone around my home, so that he could not come too close. No one asked me: “Do you feel safe for him to walk the streets?”
At a time when those streets feel more dangerous than ever to women, what I went through then – and now – tells me that we remain an afterthought. Nothing has changed. The institutions that are there to protect us have never stopped placing the onus on us to keep evil men at bay.
I was kidnapped in broad daylight from a place I knew. I did not need the tokenistic offer of better lighting and CCTV in parks that the government promised in the wake of Sarah’s death, to protect me. I did not need the insulting advice handed out by the Met Police last week to shout or wave down a bus.
After Rachel’s murder, her family were asked what she was doing in the pub car park, where she was killed, alone (she was collecting her boyfriend), as though she had some responsibility for her death. As I endured 11 hours with a knife to me, I tried to befriend my kidnapper to save my own life. I managed a man’s inability to manage his own depraved behaviour.
The Happy Mondays songs that he insisted on playing as he forced me to drive my own car 100 miles from home still haunt me – I cannot listen to them, just as I cannot look at the words “rape”, “murder” or “kidnap” in a news report or book, watch a horror film, or even a storyline in a TV soap.
Neither can I read about all the other women and girls – like April Jones, the little girl abducted and killed in Wales, in 2012, or sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, stabbed in Wembley Park, last summer, or Sabina Nessa, killed last month as she walked to a bar near her home – without feeling guilt that I survived. (I escaped and ran into a taxi, at a petrol station.) In 24 years, that guilt has never left. Nor has the question I ask myself: “Why me?” One of the cruellest legacies is not being able to access an explanation as to why I became a victim that day.
The weeks that followed my kidnapping were a blur. There were phone calls and whispered conversations among those concerned for me. I tried – and have always tried – to take back control by staying home more, where it felt safe. I don’t drink and, on the few nights out I agreed to, I’d drive, which, to my surprise, my teenage and twenty-something friends didn’t always understand.
I am the middle of three sisters. What happened confirmed to us that it is a dangerous world in which to be a girl; that we must be cautious, attentive to people’s intentions, have back up and be suspicious; that while there are more good people than bad, there are predators.
At his trial, professionals said the man who abducted me was among the most dangerous criminals they had encountered; that it was impossible to know when the threat he posed, especially to young women, would end. He was given three life sentences – one for Rachel’s murder and two for my kidnap and false imprisonment. When the judge recommended that he never be released, I felt relief that he couldn’t do this to anyone else. I began to pick up the pieces of my life.
I do not know why his sentence has been cut short but I am fighting to find out – and to change it. I do not know why we have a probation system that protects him over me, over all of us. I am angry that my opinion on his release is apparently only sought as a token gesture – I know that it cannot alter a process that is, instead, determined by someone else’s view of the risk he poses to women.
Via some mixture of nature and nurture, he committed the most heinous, unspeakable act that over time has come to be perceived with indifference as progress and his release take precedence. I believe he knew right from wrong when he committed his crimes; he was 28. Time may have healed him and how some see him, to the point of contemplating release, but, for victims, we remain frozen in time.
It is my view that no man who did what he did, who ended one life and planned to end mine, should feel the luxury of walking down a road or looking up at trees again, while women live in fear. I rarely talk about what happened – it is not in my nature to speak out. When I do, it still feels as though it was someone else.
People still cross the road to satisfy their own curiosity, asking about what happened or how I am, which brings back the trauma. We all have a duty to understand more about women’s safety so that victims do not continue to experience this vicarious traumatisation.
The police officers who supported me were incredible but, culturally, there is a raft of institutions that face a moment of reckoning over women’s safety. I have a son now and a life that I will continue, no matter what, but I want my voice to be part of a change.
Enough is enough. Life must mean life. We cannot keep watching a carousel of faces on news reports and not demand a difference, from what boys learn about women in their upbringings and at school, to how they become responsible men, to the laws that deter them from doing wrong and the institutions that keep them behind bars when they do.
This isn’t just about me. It’s about every woman who can no longer share her voice. The change we need is big, and it cannot wait anymore.
Source: Vogue, September 2021