The True Story Behind Girl in the Bunker, the Lifetime Movie About Elizabeth Shoaf's Kidnapping

Elizabeth Shoaf was abducted and held hostage in an underground lair. Now, Lifetime is telling her real story in Girl in the Bunker.

girl in the bunker elizabeth shoaf
Courtesy Lifetime / CNN

On September 6, 2006, 14-year-old Elizabeth Shoaf was walking home from high school in Lugoff, South Carolina when a police officer approached her and told her she was under arrest for possession of marijuana.

Except the man, dressed in combat fatigues, wasn't a cop.

His name was Vinson Filyaw, a 36-year-old former construction worker wanted for the rape of his ex-girlfriend's 12-year-old daughter, according to . He proceeded to kidnap the teen, drag her into the woods, and hold her hostage in his booby-trapped, underground bunker. But after 10 days in captivity, Shoaf outsmarted her captor by convincing him to let her borrow his cell phone to play games. Once Filyaw fell asleep, she texted her mom and friends who were then able to the authorities.

Three days later, Shoaf was free.

Except the man, dressed in combat fatigues, wasn't an officer at all.

It's been twelve years since the kidnapping, but the world still marvels at the incredible bravery, resilience, and quick-thinking of Shoaf, now 26. Her story is even the focus of a new Lifetime movie Girl in the Bunker starring Henry Thomas (E.T.), Julia Lalonde (Anne of Green Gables), and Moira Kelly (One Tree Hill), which debuts on May 28 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

You’ve heard the story in the news. Abducted on her way home from school. Held for days. See the terrifying movie based on the true story of what happened to this 14-year-old girl in premiering May 28 on Lifetime.

— Lifetime (@lifetimetv)

Here's everything to know about Shoaf's miraculous escape and life after imprisonment.

Elizabeth Shoaf was only 14 when she was kidnapped

Filyaw approached Shoaf as she exited her school bus and "arrested" her. He walked her around in circles in the nearby wood, leaving her disoriented. The teen, sensing she was in serious trouble, dropped her shoes on their walk in the hopes that someone would coming looking for her and find the clue. Eventually, Filyaw led her to a 15-foot hole in the side of a hill near his trailer home, according to .

Once inside the bunker, which had a hand-dug bathroom and shelves made of branches and canvas, Filyaw took off Shoaf's clothing, chained her up, and raped her.

He would sexually assault her several times a day over the next 10 days.

"I just didn't know what to do. Just scared I was going to die. Most people do," Shoaf told MS News Now . "Day-to-day life was wake up, get assaulted. Couple hours later, if that."

Elizabeth Shoaf's bunker was close to her house

Shoaf's sudden disappearance sparked a search and rescue effort with volunteers and officers scouring miles and miles of dense woodland. But authorities couldn't find her—even though she was being held within one mile of her house.

"In the middle of the night, I would just get up and walk out of my driveway and would just walk across the street to this empty lot and just stand there. You know, I could only go so far and I couldn't go no further," her mother Madeline Shoaf told . "And I’d just stand there and just stood in the dark. And just prayed."

She gained his trust in order to survive

image
Courtesy Lifetime

Filyaw repeatedly threatened to kill Shoaf by hanging explosives around her neck. But Shoaf devised a plan to make him see her as a person, and not just a captive. She'd do things like initiate small talk about things that interested him, according to NBC News.

Slowly, Shoaf began to gain his trust.

"To pretend I enjoyed the sexual assault," Shoaf told MS News Now. "To tell him I loved him and I want to run away with him. I then wasn't chained up at night to go to sleep. The sexual assault wasn't as violent and he wasn't yelling at me and threatening me 24/7."

When Filyaw eventually allowed Shoaf to exit the bunker, she pulled her hair out and placed strands on branches so that search dogs could pick up her scent.

How Elizabeth Shoaf escaped

After 10 horrific days with Filyaw, Shoaf convinced him to hand over his cell phone—saying she wanted to play games on it. But she had a plan. When Filyaw fell asleep, she texted her mother, who immediately alerted the police.

"She told me exactly where she was, down the road, which road it was ... get the police. She's in a hole," Madeline Shoaf told at the time.

Investigators, aided by U.S. marshals, traced the teen's call to an area near Filyaw's trailer. They found the bunker "well-built and stocked with food, clothing and a toilet, as well as cigarettes and pornography," according to the news outlet.

image
Courtesy Lifetime​

What got her through it

After Filyaw was captured and arrested, Sheriff Steve McCaskill said the perpetrator was "a very calculating man, a very thinking man."

"If you've been through anything, you can still make it," Shoaf told MS News Now. "You can be a survivor just like I am. It simply takes faith, it takes talking to someone and encouragement that it's not the end of the world."

Facing multiple charges, including kidnapping, Filyaw avoided trial by pleading guilty to all counts and was sentenced to 421 years in prison in September 2007. Now 48 years old, he is currently being held in "statewide protective custody," a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections told .

What Elizabeth Shoaf is doing now

More than a decade later, Shoaf is now 26 years old. In a 2013 interview, Shoaf said she works as a dental assistant and spends her free time exercising and taking self-defense classes at a karate studio.

According to , she also volunteers her time partnering with the Kershaw County Sheriff's Department to educate parents and children about stranger danger.

"I'm the perfect example of what can happen," she said. "It's just a remembrance... I use it to keep me strong. I survived and I can help others survive.

She adds: "Unfortunately, we can't stop it from happening, but we can reduce it if parents are more cautious of what's going on and who's around."

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