I Survived, Part I of X: My Least Favorite Night

by David E. Shellenberger on December 10, 2017

“Life is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”
       — Attributed to Shunryu Suzuki

On the night of July 18, 2016, I was in my office on the second floor of my home in central Virginia, near Charlottesville. It was about a quarter past ten.

There was an explosion — like thunder. I thought the gas stove had exploded. I hurried down the stairs to save the cats.

In the dim glow of the nightlight in the dining room stood three men dressed in black, wearing black ski masks. One pointed a semiautomatic pistol at me.

I banked my rage. I had to survive. Survive – and then seek justice.

I had to observe without being observed. I had to remember everything that happened.

The criminals demanded to know where “it” was. I told them my wallet was in the bedroom. I led them there. I saw that broken glass covered the living room floor. The criminals had smashed the glass door at the back of the house. That was the explosion.

I pointed to the nightstand. One asked whether I had gloves. I said no. Two of the thugs were wearing rubber gloves, but one was not. He grabbed my gray hiking boot socks lying at the foot of the bed and used these as gloves. They had not mastered the mathematical concept of one-to-one correspondence but were aware of the concept of fingerprints.

I knew that the criminals were black men in their late teens or early twenties. I had seen the hands of the ungloved thug and the skin around the eyes of all of them. I had assessed their age based on their appearance, movements, and speech.

They snatched my wallet and key case. I had $71 in the wallet. I had just added funds when I checked out at the supermarket half an hour before this.

They asked where my guns and safe were. I had neither.

One thug peered under the bed. They ransacked the bedroom, pulling out drawers, dumping my belongings on the floor.

They threatened to murder me if I did not disclose the location of valuables. I proffered a philosophical observation: “Life is precious. Money is nothing.”

As we left the bedroom, one of the criminals kicked in the wall in the entryway. “Enjoy the expense.”

The thug with the gun entered the kitchen and pulled a knife from the butcher-block case on the counter and brandished it.

He opened the refrigerator door and asked, “What’s in here?” I suggested that he take the bottle of sparkling wine. He did not know I was trying to create evidence.

The thug forced me back to the dining room. The other two criminals were upstairs, tearing apart my office.

He pointed the gun at me. A flick of the punk’s finger would end my life.

I remained calm. I felt horror but not fear. There was no chance of escape, no opportunity to fight. I had to survive, second to second.

The thug taunted me: “Are you scared?” I ignored the question.

He told me to turn around. Then I saw my brain glow white. I fell unconscious from the blow to my head.

I woke up. One of the criminals was beating me with a chair, hitting my head and body. I took comfort for a moment that this was just a nightmare. But then I remembered it was real; I had to survive.

They asked where my telephones were. They tore the cord out of the telephone in the living room. They had already done the same to the one in my office.

The criminals opened the door to the garage at the bottom of the stairs and forced me at gunpoint to enter. One started the car, using the key from the case they had stolen. I warned them of the danger of carbon monoxide — another new concept.

They asked how to open the garage. I showed them the button on the wall, and they told me to push it. They then ordered me into the back seat of the car, behind the driver. One of the criminals also got in the back, and the other joined the driver in front.


The driver was impaired or incompetent. He kept going off the pavement.

The thugs asked me where we were and I advised I did not know. They claimed unfamiliarity with the area.

They asked the location of the nearest bank. I mentioned the one by the local supermarket — the only one that came to mind. That bank offered the possibility of escape. The supermarket was open all night. There would be people in the area.

Unfortunately, as the criminals turned onto the highway, another bank was right there at the intersection — isolated. They yelled at me for not mentioning this bank and drove to the back of the property. They gave me my ATM card from my wallet and ordered me to withdraw funds. They argued with me over the withdrawal limit.

Just then, a man was walking through the property, carrying a duffel bag. One of the thugs ordered another to get him. The thug ran to him with the gun and forced the man to get in the car. One of the criminals smashed his cell phone on the pavement.

I tried several times to use the ATM card, with the criminals yelling from the car. Maybe I typed the wrong code, or maybe the card did not function with that bank. But I was unable to get the machine to work.

I thought of running. I did not have my glasses, and I was barefoot. I was 63 years old. I am not a slow runner — I am a non-runner. All of the businesses in the area were closed, with no place for help or shelter. And a lucky shot even from a distance could kill or paralyze me.

But these things did not matter. I worried about the other man who was abducted. I did not want to abandon him. With the two of us, we both had a chance of surviving.

The thugs yelled at me to return. I walked behind the car to get to the left side. The driver put the car in reverse and gunned the engine, ramming the car into me. The new violence apparently was in response to the failed robbery of the bank. I had again disappointed them.

The criminals drove about a third of a mile to the 7-Eleven on the other side of the highway. They pulled the car behind the store and then to the side, by the entrance.

They discussed their plan. The driver took the gun and entered the store.


I believed I was likely to die. I felt sorrow, not fear.

I thought of the work I would not be able to continue — the work on my missions. But my real pain was for my cats, the two lives that needed me.

My cat Edward passed away in November of 2013, back in Connecticut. The next month, my friends at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital encouraged me to adopt the two rescued kittens they were caring for. I renamed them Victoria and Eve.

They were feral. I patiently socialized them. After a few months, they were social, though still skittish. I called them the formerly feral sisters. They came to love me, as I had always loved them.

Sapphire, my late mother’s cat, passed away eight months before the crime. I treated her daily for her medical problems, and she lived as long as she could. It was sad returning alone late at night from the emergency clinic in Charlottesville.

For those of us who love animals, our pets are not like family; they are family. I worried what would happen to Victoria and Eve if I perished.

I worried that, in my absence, after the discovery of the break-in, the cats would run from the house. They revert to the feral when they are stressed, and they already had been stressed.

And I worried that, if they did stay in the house, and someone adopted them, they would not get the care they needed. I worried about their lives without me. I was the only one they loved, the only one they trusted. I wanted to take care of them the rest of their lives.


The thug in the front passenger seat said, “You whites deserve this.” He then stated, “If my fingerprints weren’t on the bullets, I’d kill you both.”

This was not a good time for me to express my views on how people should live in peace. And it was not the ideal time to explain the distinction between bullets and casings.

I again thought of running; I assumed the other man would jump out with me. Again, I decided against it. Again, all of the other businesses in the area were closed. And again, I was concerned about being shot as I escaped.

The thug who had spoken moved into the driver’s seat. His comrade exited the 7-Eleven, carrying what appeared to be a plastic bag. He went to the driver’s door, and the driver banged on the window to alert him to the change in seating.

They pulled to the edge of the highway, where the traffic light was red. The driver said he would speed up if he saw blue lights. The thugs debated this plan.

They drove less than a mile: north on the highway, a U-turn, a right, and then down the road a short distance. They stopped, ordering the other man and me to get out.


We ran from the road to the back of a structure we thought was an apartment building. We introduced ourselves to each other. In the dark and without my glasses, I was disoriented.

We knew the criminals could return. We yelled for residents to call the police. Nothing happened. My new friend, an athletic man in his twenties, climbed the fence and banged on a window. He was motivated; the window broke. At least this would get attention.

A car pulled into the parking lot. When you are a crime victim, you look like a criminal. You have to be careful not to scare people whose help you seek.

We called over to the woman when she got out of her car and asked her to use her cell phone to call the police. She was an angel, calm and helpful. She was a nursing assistant, and we were at an assisted living facility. The residents were probably all asleep; thus, our difficulty in getting attention.

An Albemarle County police car arrived. I recounted the series of crimes to the officer: the invasion of my home, my abduction, the attempted bank robbery, the abduction of my new friend, and the robbery of the 7-Eleven. I asked him to drive us to my house. I got oriented and realized that we were only half a mile away.


Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII 


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