Following several incidents in popular off-campus housing developments, for which three suspects have been charged, a USC student has come forward to share his experience of being kidnapped and robbed.
The third-year international business and finance student has chosen to go by Chris in this article.
'It wasn't just another person walking by'
Chris's story begins around 2 a.m. on July 25. He and his roommate were moving into an apartment at Stadium Suites, taking loads up to a second-floor unit from both of their cars.
As they started on one of their last trips, Chris said, three males emerged from underneath the stairs. Until the suspects confronted them with guns, Chris and his roommate didn't realize they were in danger.
"At that point when I realized it wasn't just another person walking by, going in and out of their apartment ... I was just thinking, trying to follow their orders, trying to follow it all in my head," Chris said. "It happened so quick, I was playing catch-up in my brain."
Chris dropped the printer he was carrying, and he and his roommate handed over their keys, wallets and cell phones. The suspects then told them to get into Chris's car and that they were going to get cash from an ATM. They told Chris and his roommate that each of them had to withdraw at least $500, and Chris immediately wondered if he had enough money in his account.
The two younger suspects took the driver and passenger seats, while the older suspect, Chris and his roommate were in the back seat. Chris said he noticed that the driver didn't turn the headlights or windshield wipers on, even though the windshield was fogging up. They drove to the Shell gas station at the corner of Bluff Road and S. Beltline Blvd., where there is a Wells Fargo ATM.
The suspects took the roommate's card first and withdrew $300, which worried Chris because it was under the $500 demand.
"They seemed almost excited, like they may not have even thought they were going to get that," Chris said.
After the roommate's card, the suspects took Chris's and got another $300. They probably could have gotten more, Chris said, but, "There was a camera on the ATM and they knew that. So I think they were trying to get out of there as fast as possible."
From the Shell station, they drove down a back road, taking several turns until Chris and his roommate couldn't recognize the area. One of the suspects led them out of the car and held them at gunpoint, facing the car, while the others unloaded a TV and an XBOX 360.
Chris wasn't sure what was going on behind him, but once they were all back in the car, the suspects said there was a change of plans since Chris and his roommate had seen their faces.
"And so that was immediately when I started feeling like, 'Am I going to make it out of this alive?'" Chris said.
They drove back out to Bluff Road, and as they did so, the suspect in the passenger seat turned to Chris and asked him if he had ever played Russian roulette.
"And when I said no — I mean, I knew what it was, but I said no," Chris said, "and he took the revolver he had, and he spun the wheel of the revolver, pointed it at my chest and pulled the trigger."
There was a click; there was no bullet lined up to fire.
"[The other suspects] told him to stop playing around, to stop messing around, but he was serious," Chris said. "There were bullets in the gun. He later showed me that there were bullets in the gun."
The threat happened too quickly for Chris to process it in the moment, but it left him feeling hopeless.
When the suspects threatened them directly, which happened throughout the kidnapping, Chris said that he tried to reassure them that he wasn't going to fight back. Not that the thought hadn't crossed his mind.
"Actually, my first instinct was, 'How do I get out of it?'" he said.
At the ATM or when the car would slow down, Chris considered how he could escape. But when they were all in one car, the two suspects who weren't driving had guns trained on Chris and his roommate the whole time.
Chris also never had a chance to communicate with his roommate and didn't know what would happen if he escaped and his roommate didn't.
"If I was to get away, that had consequences on him," Chris said. "He was in the middle. He would have had to climb over the floorboard stuff, the TV, different things like that."
'Do you understand why we're doing this?'
They re-entered Stadium Suites using Chris's key fob. As it turned out, Chris said, the change of plans was to go back for his roommate's car. Chris stayed in his car, while the older suspect took his roommate. Other than the threat of Russian roulette, Chris said he was the most scared during the car ride alone with the two younger suspects.
Chris said that throughout the ordeal, the suspects were talking to him and his roommate. Sometimes they would ramble or argue with each other, but they would also ask Chris and his roommate questions, such as, "Do you understand why we're doing this?" Chris said it was difficult to tell at first that the suspects wanted them to actually answer.
"When we weren't answering because [the questions] felt rhetorical, they were getting upset," Chris said. "So it seems like we were having a conversation with them."
The oldest suspect was the calmest and tried to explain why he was robbing them.
"He was saying he couldn't find work, that no one was willing to hire him or give him a chance," Chris said.
On the other hand, the two younger suspects were trying to be intimidating. They told Chris and his roommate how many times they had shot at people or about things that their friends had done.
"We've since learned that they were younger than my roommate and I," Chris said. "And so, despite them being younger, they were still in a position of power."
'We're either going to make it out of this, or we're not'
After returning to Stadium Suites, the suspects took Chris and his roommate away from the stadium in separate cars, driving into Rosewood Hills. They weaved through the neighborhood, taking many turns.
During this drive, Chris became more worried as they passed through unlit, relatively isolated areas. In the dark, he couldn't tell exactly where they ended up, only that they were near a small airport and train tracks. According to the incident report, they were at the edge of Jim Hamilton Airfield.
"If we're not going to make it out, this is where they're going to do it," he said.
The cars stopped at a dead end, and the suspects took Chris and his roommate out of the cars, still holding them at gunpoint. Then, without wasting much time, the suspects got back into the cars and left the students by the train tracks.
Without their phones, Chris and his roommate's only option was to walk back through the neigborhood towards the main road.
"We first looked at each other, and I don't know if it was adrenaline or what, but we looked at each other and we both just audibly sighed," Chris said. "We were obviously relieved that we were out of harm's way for the most part and that neither of us were hurt. We recognized immediately how lucky the outcome was."
Chris said that they weren't comfortable trying to find help right away. Cars without headlights on would pass them, so they felt at first that the suspects might be making sure they didn't contact the police too quickly.
Eventually, after knocking on doors and trying to flag down drivers, they spotted someone pulling into a driveway. The driver turned out to be a SLED officer.
"We got lucky in the sense that the person we were able to find was very aware of what to do, how to act," Chris said.
Shortly, they were in touch with Columbia police and investigators, who took over right away.
Since the incident, Chris said, he hasn't felt any lasting trauma. He has some fear of retaliation, but the police have assured him that response is unlikely and that he has their protection if he feels unsafe.
"Because I've been talking about it, it's not hidden, I'm not carrying it on my back," he said. "I've talked to the police. My family knows, my friends know. So, I know I have a good support system."
The same day of the attack, Chris identified the suspect who drove his car in a photo lineup. He was relieved that it wasn't an in-person identification like the ones often seen on TV.
Chris said he recognized the suspect because of his eyes. The driver had worn a bandana in a way that left only his eyes visible, so Chris had been able to focus and remember them well.
"I don't know if it was subconsciously so I could try and later recognize them or if it was just, you know, something that I was drawn to," he said.
'They embody the biggest part of the university'
As it was a string of off-campus incidents that escalated from robbery to kidnapping throughout July, the university and USC Police Department did not publicize the attacks on campus. Media coverage remained relatively low until after Jordan Dinsmore took to Facebook to share the story of her kidnap and escape.
Chris said that he doesn't hold any university official responsible for his attack, but he does believe that off-campus housing should have better coverage from systems such as Carolina Alert.
"I think, as student living facilities, they're part of the university," he said. "They embody the biggest part of the university, which is the students."
He believes that communication among the housing development themselves and with the university should be increased to keep students safe. A Carolina Alert might not have prevented his kidnap, he says, but there's always a chance it could save someone's life.
"They might seem annoying to people who it's irrelevant to, for the people who are at home and would receive it, but it could save someone's life," he said.
'Living every day to the fullest'
In addition to increasing communication in several ways, Chris hopes that students on campus, particularly incoming freshmen, will become aware of the dangers and of how to keep themselves as safe as possible.
Safety is covered in orientation and University 101 classes, but it's something that could be emphasized even more, he said.
Chris also wants students, especially those who have experienced a violent crime, to take advantage of recovery resources available to them on campus, particularly counseling. He said he doesn't intend to go to counseling at this point given how he's felt since the attack, but students who want additional support shouldn't hesitate to ask for help.
"My goal going forward has clearly been defined in my head as helping others, making sure this doesn't happen to other people," Chris said.
He is impressed and inspired by Jordan's willingness to share her story publicly, saying, "I just want to follow in that, in those footsteps right here and make sure that I do what I can, my part as well."
Chris knows how lucky he and his roommate were under the circumstances, and the attack has left him slightly nervous, but mostly determined. Going forward, he plans to focus on appreciating each day and advocating for victims of similar crimes.
"Definitely the two most prominent are seizing the day, living every day to the fullest, taking all the opportunities and chances that I have to better myself and my community," Chris said. "But also, speaking on community, trying to do more, maybe getting more involved for victims of similar situations or being the advocate that maybe the university needs to prevent things like this from happening."
Adam Orfinger and Mike Woodel contributed to reporting. WUSC assisted in recording Chris's interview.