WARSAW — Shavonia West can see in the dark.
Driving home at night, she can identify the make of a car from nothing more than the shape of its headlights in her rearview mirror. Walking up the driveway to her house, she can pick out the distinctive silhouette and shadow of each familiar object in her yard.
It’s a skill she’s learned out of necessity, because in that darkness West can see back to the morning nearly two decades ago when she opened her front door and stepped into a world of fear, a world she would come to know intimately in the minutes, hours, and years to come.
“I try to be strong, but it’s not always easy. A lot of memories get stirred up,” admits West, speaking from her office at Sarah’s Refuge Crisis Center in Warsaw, where she works as a community educator.
In 1995, West, then 19, broke off a relationship with 26-year-old Joseph Muller. Shortly afterwards, Muller began turning up unexpectedly at locations West frequented, first at ballgames, then at the homes of her friends and her aunt.
“He was not taking ‘No’ for an answer,” remembers West, who at the time was working at her mother’s beauty salon in Garland while finishing her senior year at Union High School in Rose Hill.
Though annoyed by Muller’s actions, West said she never related her concerns to friends or family members. “I was stalked without letting anyone know for at least a couple of months. I just kept a lot of that stuff quiet because I felt like I could handle it.”
After a time, Muller broke off all contact with West, leading her to believe he had finally accepted that their relationship was over.
In the months since their breakup, West had graduated from Union and was living in a recently purchased trailer on Tomahawk Road in Harrells. West says she thought little more about her former boyfriend until she stepped through her front door one morning on her way to work.
“When I came out of the house he came from under the steps,” she recalls. “I could smell alcohol on him. He told me the reason I hadn’t heard from him was because he had been plotting how to kill me for a month. He kept calling me a bitch and saying ‘Today is your last day.’”
After telling West that he was carrying a gun, Muller methodically related his plan to kill her and dump her body down a dirt road in Fayetteville, after which he would drive to California. “He told me he had been saving checks from his job and he had enough money to get out of town,” says West.
Muller told her he had already written letters to his family members apologizing for her murder.
As she turned and attempted to flee, Muller dragged West back inside her house, where he proceeded to rape and beat her.
It was the Monday after Thanksgiving, November 27. West’s ordeal was just beginning.
Pulling her from the trailer floor, Muller dragged West to her car and made her drive northwest along N.C. Highway 411 towards Garland. On the way, he forced her to stop at a gas station.
“I was looking around to see if I could find anything to blow the car up with,” remembers West. Fearful that Muller would hurt others, she made the decision not to reach out for help.
Once they were on the road again, West says she suddenly remembered advice Oprah Winfrey had given during a broadcast concerning women who have been abducted. “Oprah said you should never allow your captor to take you to a second location. If you do, it makes it much easier for them to abuse you and do what they are going to do,” West recalls.
As she began to pray, West pleaded with Muller for any solution that would allow her to live. “I started to lie, saying I was sorry for leaving him. He said the only way I could live was to be with him, to get back in a relationship with him.”
Having convinced Muller that she would take him back, West says he told her to make a right turn at an intersection in Roseboro onto N.C. Highway 24 going towards Clinton. A left turn would have taken them to Fayetteville and the location Muller had chosen for her murder.
Instructed to head back towards her trailer in Harrells, West was allowed to stop at her mother’s beauty salon to break the news of her and Muller’s reconciliation. Before they arrived Muller assured West he would kill her mother if she interfered with their plans.
Believing that he would be moving into West’s trailer that afternoon, Muller left the beauty salon to collect clothes from his home, located less than a mile from West’s trailer.
After he was gone, West related the desperate nature of her situation to her mother, who immediately called the police.
“We had to go to the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office and then I had to do a rape kit,” remembers West.
Muller was arrested at his home and held for trial. Though it was discovered he had prior charges in New York, he was allowed to plea bargain his sentence down to less than two years. “My lawyer at the time advised me to accept the lesser charge so I wouldn’t have to testify in front of him,” says West.
After serving his sentence Muller was released, with the stipulation that he not enter the state of North Carolina for five years.
Looking back, West says she never recognized any signs of violence in Muller during the time they were together. “He was always very nice to me, he was always buying me gifts,” she says.
Only once during their relationship did Muller show his true face. “We were just talking with some of my family and someone joked around about us breaking up,” remarks West. “He just came out and said ‘She’ll never leave me. If she tries to leave, I’ll kill her.”’
As she looks over a newly constructed poster covered in statistics on teen dating violence, West appears relaxed as she talks about the events that changed her life so profoundly. Waiting patiently for a school group that she’s scheduled to address, the youthful, small statured 36-year-old betrays little of the anxiety one would expect as she describes the details of her abduction.
But appearances, says West, can be deceiving. For years after her attack, she explains, her self-control teetered on the edge of collapse, as day after day she put on a brave face designed to hide her increasing sense of panic.
It was during this time that West realized she had begun focusing on cars driving behind her on the roads at night, had begun peering into the trees around her home, watching and waiting for what she believed was inevitable.
“I lived in fear. I kept waiting for him to come back,” she says.
While West stayed busy working at the beauty salon, the memories were there waiting every night when she returned home, to the same trailer where Muller attacked and violated her.
“I had to relive that over and over,” she states.
Though Muller never attempted to contact her after he was released from prison, West says she had no doubt that, given the chance, he would hurt others. “I knew that if he didn’t get some help eventually there would be another victim.”
Fourteen years after her attack, West’s sad prophecy proved correct.
In 2009, she received a call from a friend who told her to turn her television to WRAL News. According to the newscast, Joseph Muller, age 40, was wanted on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of his former girlfriend, Jessica Ellis of Durham, who had been found shot in her home on June 13.
The report said Muller was armed and dangerous.
“On the news they said they had no idea where he was,” West recalls.
West would later discover that Muller went to the Sears store where Ellis worked, lured her into his car and took her to her home, where he shot Ellis in front of a family member.
West says she immediately contacted the detective handling the investigation. “When I told him what had happened to me he said it sounded exactly like the story her family was telling, how he was so nice and loving to her until they broke up, and then he couldn’t handle being rejected.”
West, who by then was a mother of two young children, moved out of her home and lived with her mother for a time. She had received word from law enforcement that Muller’s abandoned car had been found off of Interstate 40, between Warsaw and Rose Hill.
After a month at her mothers, West decided to move her and the children back into their trailer. Friends and family members kept watch. “I couldn’t live like that anymore, always afraid,” says West.
Three days after returning home, a month and a half after the murder, West was notified that Muller was dead, his body found hanging in a Miami hotel room. His remains were identified using information—a panther tattoo and other distinguishing marks—provided by West.
In the days following Muller’s death, West’s life began to change.
“The way I lived before was fearful but functional. After he killed himself, I felt like I could breath,” she reflects.
Through her work in the hair salon she began to entertain the idea that she could help others who had been through similar traumas.
“I feel like I’ve always been a semi-counselor,” she states. “All my life I’ve been dealing with women who come into the salon who have issues, with verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault with their spouses or mate.”
Last June, after speaking with a client who worked in abuse counseling, West made the decision to volunteer at Sarah’s Refuge.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand why you don’t go to the authorities and a lot of that is driven by fear and uncertainty,” explains West. “I knew what these women were feeling, so I thought who better to help someone like that than someone who’s been through it.”
In October, West was hired on full-time at Sarah’s. In her role as community educator she travels to local schools, telling her story and pointing out the warning signs that she missed so many years ago.
Though West has learned to manage the fear, to breathe, she knows that fall morning in 1995 is still with her, acting on her life in ways not always easily understood.
Several years after Muller was convicted, West married a man she describes as verbally and emotionally abusive. “Some of the things he said stick with me a lot more than what happened with the guy who kidnapped me with the intention of killing me,” she comments.
Trusting people, simply letting her two teenagers go off with friends, will never be easy.
But her story, say West, and the lives she can touch and possibly alter through its telling, have offered her a new freedom, a new way of seeing past the darkness into an undimmed future.
Three weeks ago she moved out of the trailer on Tomahawk Road.
“People die all the time. I was one of the blessed ones,” she says, leaning forward, her large dark eyes solemn yet intent. “If I can save one person, it’s worth it.”