I just watched an online video training women about safety and I had a flashback to my early twenties when my roommate, Winnie, and I were just out of college and enjoying the freedom of our first "real" apartment.
We had so much fun in our apartment together. I would pick up my grandma and she would come over and cook with us, we'd have friends over to watch the first season of American Idol, Winnie would practice her cheerleading moves in the large mirror in her bathroom and I would spend hours modeling outfits from my huge walk-in closet. We weren't home much because we both worked a lot (she as an engineer/dancer and I as a first-year teacher) and we had boyfriends that we spent a lot of time with, so often we were just home to sleep. But, at least it was a pretty place to sleep!
And this wasn't a dirty college apartment like the one we subleased during summer classes at Purdue, but a beautiful brand-new apartment with tray ceilings and real furniture and a huge, open kitchen. It was located in a central area close to the interstate and shopping and even though it was on a main road, felt very secluded and quiet because it was in the back of the apartment complex. We had selected a first floor apartment because we liked the floor plan and architectural details, and we loved the convenience of no stairs or doors between us and the parking lot. We never gave the "open" model of our apartment complex any thought, we just felt it was easier to not have to buzz people in and open and close and unlock extra doors when unloading groceries.
Then, on an early spring night I was jarred awake shortly after midnight by the sound of my roommate screaming "JENNIFER!!!!!!", accompanied by the loudest banging I had ever heard. I jumped out of bed and ran down the little hall to find Winnie, phone in hand, frantically dialing 911 (while meanwhile screaming "I'm calling 911!" at the top of her lungs) as the door to our apartment shook on its hinges. I didn't think, I just started screaming and threw myself against the door with Winnie to hold it shut as the two men on the other side were gearing up and charging towards it. After the third attempt our door was hanging off of the hinges at the top but still standing by the force of our tiny bodies pushing against it with all of our might. The predators must have determined that the screaming and banging at this point was too loud and ran off. By the time the police arrived, we had piled up furniture against our door to hold it shut, and we were shaking and crying as we huddled on our love seat together, still terrified they would return.
Winnie recounted the story of how the events unfolded, and it was clear how her wise actions saved us from something awful. Close to midnight, someone knocked on the door to our apartment. I was already asleep, but Winnie was still awake working and heard the knocking. She went to the door and peeked through the peephole to see two men standing there in our hallway, wearing seasonally inappropriate clothing. "That's funny," she thought. It was a warm and breezy spring night, and they were wearing winter hats and large, dark coats. At this point, Win thought that maybe they were just at the wrong house, so she ignored it and went back to her room.
Then they knocked again.
She didn't answer.
She stayed still.
Winnie was getting nervous. This seemed more intentional than "wrong apartment" , but she wasn't going to take the bait. She didn't wake me up, but she huddled on her bed awake and alert. Then, she heard a knocking on her window. Now she was really terrified, too terrified to move. In her memory, she feels like this all lasted about 15 minutes as heard the two men going around the outside of our apartment, as she lay there in her bed shaking. They tried her window and the patio door that led into the courtyard before they finally returned to the main door in the hallway. Winnie pressed herself against the door to listen, and heard one say to the other, "If we go at it together, we should be able to get in." That was last thing she heard before the first terrible bang shook our door and I woke up to the sound of her screaming.
We were so, so lucky.
Later that night (a night in which we obviously didn't sleep), long after the police had left and we were still desperately trying to contact the maintenance guy, Zach, to come fix our door, I went into my room and noticed that I had my window open just a crack. It was so pretty that night, I went to sleep with it just like that to enjoy the breeze. What if they had seen that crack of a window behind the bushes in front of it?? I shuddered and slammed it shut. There were so many "what if's". Thank God we were OK.
The next day after work, we went to every apartment in our building to explain to them what had happened. Our neighbors across the hall said, "Oh, yeah. We heard that. We didn't know what was going on." (???!!!!?????!!!!) Our neighbor upstairs whom we had never met, gave us his phone number. "You call me if ANYONE bothers you," he said. "I'll be down in a heartbeat." We felt comforted, but of course not comforted enough to still live there. In the light of what had almost happened all of the mistakes we had made when selecting our apartment were glaring. We broke our lease and left intact with many lessons which I hope someone else can benefit from.
1. Choose apartment location wisely. All of the things we loved about our apartment were also the things that made it easy for predators to target us. That easy interstate access and lots of traffic around it makes it easy for strangers to watch you without raising a single red flag. The location: First floor, secluded at back of the apartment complex, backed up to an office park (the predators didn't even have to drive into our complex to get to our apartment, they likely parked in the office complex adjacent and walked right through the thin line of bushes to get to our building) and having no doors where you need to buzz in visitors. . .all of these things were stacked against us. Even in the same complex, if we had selected a higher level apartment in a more central and prominent area, we would not have been such easy targets.
2. Know your neighbors. Not everyone in an apartment complex is friendly, but pay attention to who lives in your building. We did not really do that, it didn't feel important to get to know them if they didn't want to say more than "hi.". But if the young family across the hall knew us and cared about us, they might have done something when they heard people trying to break down our door. (Again- ???!!!!?????) It never hurts to put yourself out there and say more than "hi" to your neighbors! Lesson learned.
3. Be aware of your surroundings. The police said that it is likely that these men followed one of us home from an event to find out where we lived. Situational awareness helps. We were pretty oblivious most times coming home, just focused on getting in the door with whatever we had brought with us.
4. Listen to your mom. I am pretty sure my mom warned me about ALL of these things and I dismissed it as being overprotective. Moms are smart, they aren't just worrying for no reason. They love you and have imagined every possible scenario to protect you. I know because now I do the same thing!
They never caught those men, which scares me as to which women they might have targeted next. My roommate and I were so, so fortunate. Although there are surely things we could have done differently or better in that situation, we survived by the grace of God. I hope that in sharing the lessons we learned, it can help another woman to be safe and enjoy her freedom and independence.