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Three incredible serial killer survival stories

A woman in silhouette
Image by Lorna Scubelek |

Survivors of serial killers

When it comes to tales of serial killers, there is very rarely a happy ending. Very rarely a person can come face to face with pure evil and live to tell the tale… However, there are several cases where the intended victims of serial killers manage to survive their traumatising ordeal. In fact, many of these survivors go on to become instrumental in that serial killer’s downfall by assisting in identifying them and then testifying during trial. This article will detail three regular people who escaped from the clutches of a serial killer and who inspired resilience in others.

Denise Williams and The Weepy-Voiced Killer

Between 1980 and 1982, residents of Minneapolis were terrorised by a sadistic serial killer. He was known as the 'Weepy-Voiced Killer' due to the fact that following his murders, he would call police and wail in a high-pitched town down the phone.<

The first victim of this serial killer was 20-year-old Karen Potak, a University of Stevens Point student. She was walking home from a nightclub at approximately 1AM on New Year’s Day of 1980. As she walked down the street near Pierce Butler Road and Syndicate Avenue in St. Paul, Minneapolis, she was attacked by a man with a tire-iron. She was left clinging to life under the cool winter air. At around 3AM, police received a phone call from the woman’s attacker. His voice quivered with emotion as he directed police to the crime scene, stating: 'There’s a girl hurt here…' Miraculously, Karen survived the attack but was left without her memory. The next victim wouldn’t be so lucky.

On 3 June, 1981, 18-year-old Kimberly Compton was stabbed to death with an ice pick and strangled with a shoe lace. Her body was discovered by a group of teenage boys in a wooded area north of Superior and Oneida Streets. Following Kimberly’s murder, police once again received an emotional phone call from her attacker. 'God damn, will you find me? I just stabbed somebody with an ice pick. I can’t stop myself. I keep killing somebody,' he cried. Two days later, he called back and said: 'I’ll try not to kill anyone else.'

On 5th August, 1982, 40-year-old Barbara Simons was stabbed to death with an ice pick. Her body was discovered by a newspaper carrier walking along the Mississippi River near 29th Street. Once again, the killer called police and said: 'Please don’t talk, just listen… I’m sorry I killed that girl. I stabbed her 40 times. Kimberly Compton was the first one over in St. Paul.' Barbara had last been seen at a local bar where patrons told police she was given a lift home by a man described as being around 40-years-old, 6 feet tall and around 185 pounds.

The final victim was 19-year-old Denise Williams, a sex worker from Minneapolis. Denise had been working the streets when she was approached by the still-unidentified killer. After working out a price for her services, Denise hopped in his car, completely unaware of the horror that was about to unfold. As soon as the man turned onto a dead-end road, Denise knew that something was amiss… Before she even had a chance to react to the situation, the man lunged at her with a screwdriver, stabbing her a total of 15 times as she was trapped in the passenger’s seat.

Denise noticed a glass bottle sitting in the footwell. She managed to pick it up and smash it across the face of her attacker before fleeing from the car. Unbeknownst to Denise at the time, she had just survived a serial killer and this attack would lead to his apprehension. Following the failed murder attempt, the man returned to his apartment before deciding to seek out medical attention for the wound to his face. When he called the St. Paul Fire Department asking for assistance, the department noticed the vocal similarities of the 'Weepy-Voiced Killer.' He would quickly be identified as 37-year-old Paul Michael Stephani.

Stephani would be found guilty of the murder of Barbara Simons but due to lack of evidence, he couldn’t be convicted of the other murders. In 1997, however, Stephani confessed to the murder of Kim Compton as well as to the murders of Barbara Simons and Kathy Greening, who was murdered in St. Paul on 21 July, 1982. Stephani had been motivated to confess after discovering he had cancer. He died on Oak Parks Height maximum security prison on 12 June, 1998.

Lisa McVey and Bobby Joe Long

Lisa McVey had a tumultuous start to her life; her mother was an alcoholic and drug addict who ended up living on the streets. When Lisa was just 14-years-old, she was sent to live with her grandmother and her grandmother’s boyfriend where she was subjected to sexual and emotional abuse at his hands. At 17-years-old, Lisa decided that life wasn’t worth living and she made the decision that she was going to end her life.

On 3rd November, 1984, Lisa left her job at a donut shop in Tampa, Florida, and started to cycle back home. She had decided that this was the night she was going to end her life. In fact, she already had her suicide note written. Fate, however, had different plans for Lisa that night and a chance encounter with a sadistic serial killer would give Lisa the determination to live.

As Lisa was cycling home, a car approached from behind. The driver honked their horn at Lisa several times in a bid to get her attention. Lisa decided to ignore the car and continue on her route. When she couldn’t hear the car any longer, she turned around, expecting to see that it had driven off. However, the car was now parked at the side of the road. In that instant, Lisa was dragged from her bicycle and a gun was pointed at her head. The man holding the gun forced Lisa into the car.

The man drove the terrified teenager to his apartment where he sexually assaulted her. While Lisa had been planning on going home to end her own life, she said that the only thought running through her mind throughout the ordeal was that she wasn’t yet ready to die, that she wanted to live. 'I was deathly afraid that he was going to kill me,' she said.

Lisa didn’t know but the man who had abducted her was Bobby Joe Long. By the time he abducted Lisa, he had already murdered at least ten women along the strip of Tampa.

Lisa was determined to survive this ordeal and she knew that she needed to earn her abductor’s trust. She started to speak to Long as though he were her friend, asking him what had happened in his life to make him want to hurt her. Long complained that he had gone through a bitter break up and was taking revenge on women. Lisa told Long that she would have been proud to be his girlfriend and that he was just misunderstood. She opened up to Long in a bid to save her life and told him that she was an only child and that her father was sick.

After a 26-hour ordeal, Long decided that he would let Lisa live. 'When he released me and drove off, I took off my blindfold and saw this amazing oak tree. I had wanted to die before and now I wanted to live,' she said. McVey felt as though she had been given a new lease on life. 'I got a second chance at life,' she said.

When Long let Lisa go, she managed to catch a glimpse of his face and gave a detailed description to police who identified and apprehended him shortly thereafter. Following his arrest, he confessed to ten murders and 50 rapes across the state of Florida and received a death sentence. In 2019, that death sentence was carried out. Lisa – who was now a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy – was at the front row of the execution witnesses.

Krystal Surles and Tommy Lynn Sells

It was New Year’s Eve of 1999 when 10-year-old Krystal Surles and her 7-year-old sister, Marque, went for a sleepover at 13-year-old Kaylene Harris’ home in Del Rio, Texas. When they went to bed that night, they could never have imagined in their worst nightmares that they were going to be targeted by a sadistic and opportunistic serial killer. Marque slept in a spare bedroom while Krystal slept in the top bunk in Kaylene’s bedroom; Kaylene was asleep below her. Marque had wanted to sleep on the floor of the same bedroom but the two older girls wouldn’t let her. She went to bed upset but this decision undoubtedly saved her life.

It was around 3:50AM when Krystal woke up to the sound of a frenzied struggle taking place below her and Kaylene screaming. As Krystal’s eyes adjusted to the darkened bedroom, she saw that there was a man with a large boning knife attacking her friend. Krystal lay on the bed motionless and soundless, hoping that the man wouldn’t notice her. For a brief moment, it appeared as though her plan was working. After attacking Kaylene, the man began to move around the bedroom. As Krystal later said, 'almost like he was cleaning up evidence…'

Moments later, however, the man noticed Krystal as she opened her eyes. He lunged towards Krystal still armed with the boning knife. Krystal attempted to protect her throat by grabbing it with both of her hands. 'Move your hands,' the man hissed at Krystal who complied. He then sliced Krystal’s throat as she attempted to defend herself. Krystal then decided the only way she would survive is if the man believed that she was dead. She fell limp and miraculously, the man stopped the attack and left the bedroom. In another bedroom, an alarm clock began to beep; it was 4AM. As the attacker left the home, he made sure to turn it off.

In the space of just ten minutes, the lives of two families were completely shattered beyond repair.

When Krystal heard the man speed off in his car, she managed to pull herself down from the bunk bed. Immediately, she checked on Kaylene but it was evident that she was dead. Kaylene had been stabbed 16 times with the boning knife before having her throat slit. Krystal’s windpipe had been severed and her fingers had been sliced while attempting to defend herself. Her vocal cords had been nicked; the knife had sliced the sheath covering Krystal’s carotid artery but had failed to slice the artery itself.

From the bedroom, Krystal made her way to the bedroom where her sister was sleeping. Unable to awaken her, she assumed the entire household had been slaughtered by the man. Thankfully, however, her sister and the rest of the Harris family had been left untouched. The killer had a specific target in mind that night and had peeked into the bedrooms until he found exactly who he was looking for.

Krystal staggered to the nearest neighbour which was approximately a quarter of a mile away. Unable to speak due to the severity of her wounds, Krystal had written several notes which read: 'The Harrises need help' and 'Will I live?' Krystal assisted police with handwritten notes from her hospital bed. She described the man who had killed her best friend and attacked her and a composite sketch was drawn up.

Within two days, Tommy Lynn Sells, a 35-year-old drifter and former carnival worker, was apprehended for the crime. Krystal recognised him immediately as the man who murdered her friend and attempted to murder her.

During Sells’ murder trial, Krystal was called to testify as a prosecution witness. On the day that she testified, Sells had asked not to be present but Krystal was adamant that he was there. She wanted him to see the scars he had left her with and wanted him to hear what it was like for her to wake up in the middle of a nightmare that wouldn’t end. She took the jury through that nightmare, stating: 'He had his hand over her mouth. She was struggling. She told me with her eyes to stay there and not move, and so I didn’t. He took the knife and slit her throat, and she just fell.' Her mother, Pam, said: 'Krystal looked him right in the eye. That took a lot of courage and strength. I know a lot of adults that couldn’t have done that.'

Tommy Lynn Sells was convicted of one murder but he was suspected of killing at least 22 other people throughout the country, some of which he gave graphic confessions to. He was sentenced to death and on April 3rd 2014, he died by lethal injection. When asked if he had a final statement, he said: 'No.' Krystal Surles would receive a plaque from the Val Verde County Sheriff’s Office which read: 'For invaluable assistance in solving the murder of Kaylene Harris and the attempted murder of yourself.'