Rachel Stephenson was headed back from Christmas with family in Greenport when she stopped off for gas on her long drive back to Binghamton Wednesday and her trip took a terrifying turn.
As she attempted to enter her zip code at the pump in East Stroudsburg, Pa., a man who had been waiting at the station walked toward Ms. Stephenson’s 2005 Saturn Vue and hopped in the driver’s seat, she said. Thinking of her two kittens inside, Ms. Stephenson, 23, reached in through the passenger side in an attempt to fight off the carjacker.
What followed was a high-speed ride with the man behind the wheel before Ms. Stephenson made a daring escape at another gas station more than two hours later.
In her first interview since the incident, which made headlines around the region, Ms. Stephenson described the scary ordeal, which spanned more than 100 miles.
“I never in a million years thought this would happen,” she said. “I was in complete shock. I just kept looking at him and asking, ‘Are you really doing this? Just give me the cats and let me out.’”
The alleged carjacker, who police later identified as 18-year-old Raliek Aminkal Chambers of East Stroudsburg, has been charged with several felonies, including kidnapping for ransom and robbery of a motor vehicle, according to a press release from the Stroud Area Regional Police Department.
Ms. Stephenson was about 100 miles away from her apartment near SUNY Binghamton, where the 2010 Greenport High School graduate is pursuing a master’s degree in social work, when she made the stop at about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Her vehicle was loaded with Christmas gifts, including a new washing machine.
Ms. Stephenson said she noticed Mr. Chambers standing near the front entrance to the mini-mart, but didn’t think much of it.
“Then I heard my car door shut, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he just got in my car,” she said. “All I could think about was my cats.”
With her first instinct to protect her pets, Ms. Stephenson said she immediately turned around and opened the front passenger side door of the vehicle. As he started the engine, she attempted to grab the cat carriers, while shouting at him to “Get out of my car!”
“He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me in the car and said, ‘Okay, I guess you’re going for the ride,’” she recalled.
Ms. Stephenson said her legs were still dangling outside the vehicle as Mr. Chambers sped off. Pulling herself in and shutting the door, she found herself in an unthinkable and potentially life-threatening situation.
“I said to him, ‘You’re so young. Do you really want to do this?” she recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t have a choice. If they find me, I’m done.’”
Ms. Stephenson began quietly sending her boyfriend text messages, writing that her car had been stolen with her inside of it.
She also passed along her license plate number, which she had recently memorized.
Her boyfriend then notified her parents and her father, Brett, placed a call to his only daughter.
After convincing Mr. Chambers that her father would worry something was wrong if she didn’t pick up her phone, the abductor allowed her to answer so long as she didn’t tell Mr. Stephenson what was going on.
“The worst thing in the world was hearing [my father’s] voice,” she said. “It broke my heart. I can still hear his voice. I never see my daddy cry.”
Her father attempted to call her again, but Mr. Chambers had taken her phone from her.
“He slapped me across the face, the leg and pulled my hair,” she said.
Thinking that maybe they were being followed by a friend of Ms. Stephenson’s, Mr. Chambers became increasingly paranoid as the ordeal continued, she said. Driving through dense fog at more than 70 miles per hour, he began weaving through traffic.
“You couldn’t see more than 20 feet down the road,” she said. “I was begging him to please slow down.”
With her vehicle’s gas tank running low, Ms. Stephenson told Mr. Chambers he needed to stop for gas. That’s when she made her escape at a station in Frackville, Pa.
She first attempted to spray Mr. Chambers with a can of pepper spray, but it malfunctioned.
“He tried grabbing me again, but I screamed and pushed out of the car and sprinted,” she said.
A group of men came to her aid as Mr. Chambers sped off in her vehicle. He then led police on a high speed pursuit that ended when he crashed near Harrisburg, Pa. and was apprehended by Pennsylvania State Police, according to the police press release.
Mr. Chambers, who is being held on $100,000 bail, is due back in court Monday. In addition to the kidnapping and robbery charges, he is accused of kidnapping to facilitate a felony, receiving stolen property, false imprisonment, simple assault and unlawful restraint. He is also suspected in three other attempted carjackings that afternoon, according to authorities.
Police say quick thinking is what ultimately brought Ms. Stephenson to safety.
“He picked the wrong girl to carjack,” Stroud police Sgt. Rob Eberle said in a phone interview. “She’s a very strong and smart girl who kept her wits about her the entire time. She made her escape when it was prudent to do so.”
After being notified by Mr. Stephenson, Southold Police were able to assist in the emergency, even calling Ms. Stephenson while she was in the car with her abductor.
“It was a good example of how police are able to coordinate their responses with the technology we have available to us,” said Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley. “Our dispatchers, along with the sergeant supervising the call, did an excellent job.”
Mr. Stephenson, who along with his wife Karen, wished to thank everyone who assisted in helping their only daughter, said he felt “hand-tied” knowing for several hours that his daughter was the victim of a carjacking.
“I was devastated. When my daughter was born I swore to protect her until the day I die, and I couldn’t protect her,” he said in an interview. “I felt helpless. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
“My daughter is my hero,” he added.
Ms. Stephenson ultimately had her car returned to her with all of her belongings still inside, including her beloved kittens, Blade and Milo, who were unharmed in the ordeal. Following the traumatic event, Mr. Stephenson is attempting to raise money to help his daughter purchase a new car so she won’t have to continue to drive the same vehicle she was abducted in. In five hours, they had raised more than $1,500 through a gofundme page Sunday evening.
The experience, Ms. Stephenson said, is still hard to grasp.
“I was always the person who expected the best out of people and never wanted to make assumptions about people I didn’t know,” she said. “But now I know, if you get a weird feeling in the pit of your stomach, trust that feeling. Take the keys from the car every single time you get gas.”