Vanished: News 3 investigates women disappearing and what some do to protect themselves

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - Hampton Roads has seen several disturbing cases involving women disappearing.  Sometimes the victims turned up dead or remained missing for months or even years.

These cases have Ann Wiggins taking action to speak out about what happened to her.

“It was the most frightening thing I've ever gone through,” said Ann Wiggins of Chesapeake.

Wiggins left a Sam’s Club in Virginia Beach in 2015 and was abducted by two men.

They threatened her with a knife, forced her in the back of her car, and drove around going to different ATM’s demanding her money.

She said the experience lasted about an hour and a half.

Wiggins was terrified. Her husband died about a year prior to her abduction. She said she thought she might die at the hands of these men and was worried about her children not having any parents.

“It was the most frightening thing I've ever gone through." She said one man wore a hat that said Navy across the top and asked her for directions and the other man snuck up behind her with the knife.

Her abductors demanded money. They eventually let her go, unharmed physically but mentally she suffered from PTSD especially while the suspects were on the run for a few weeks.

“For a month I lived in fear in this house,” said Wiggins.

This year alone there have been too many cases of women vanishing.

35-year-old Keir Johnson of Newport News, and her 1-year-old daughter Chloe were last seen on April 30 in the 1900 block of Hastings Drive in Hampton. Keir's car, a 2013 black Kia Optima, was found in Newport News on May 14, but Keir and Chloe were nowhere to be found.

Reshaunda Gerald has been missing since January 4. Gerald had not been seen or heard from since the morning of January 4 when her mother saw her get into her ex-boyfriend's car, according to court documents.

According to court documents, later that day, Gerald's phone went right to voicemail when people called her. Her Facebook, which normally was constantly updated, remained quiet.

At this time Norfolk police have not arrested anyone in connection to Gerald's disappearance, they are still investigating her disappearance.

Ashanti Billie, originally from Maryland, was last seen leaving Joint Expeditionary Base – Little Creek in Norfolk on September 18. Her white 2014 Mini Cooper was found in Ocean View on September 23.

Sadly, her body was found behind a church in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 29.

No one has been arrested for the murder of Billie or the disappearances of the other two women.

For Wiggins - the men who did this to her were eventually caught and a jury convicted Jorge Zambrana and Mark Albrecht, for the crime.

Wiggins said she talked to the men during the time in their captivity. She said she asked about their families. She said they told her the money they were demanding was for a drug addiction.

She faced one of them in court and said she won’t forget what happened but will forgive them.

Wiggins said the awful experience was a learning lesson about protecting herself.

“I was never scared of stuff like that before but, now I realize I must be more proactive about being careful and pay attention,” said Wiggins.

Walking alone, looking at your phone and not being aware of your surrounding are ways people sometimes put themselves in danger, according to experts.

Wiggins wasn’t hurt but thousands of other women are physically attacked every year. Experts say one in six women will experience a rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.

Many times, the attack is by an intimate partner but sometimes it is someone looking for a target.

“Awareness is critical,” said Shawn Altman, a self-defense instructor at Tidewater Community College, “You just never know and you always have to have your head on a swivel.”

Altman teaches male and female students martial arts and self-defense. The college has several classes and students get credit while learning skills that could save their lives.

“The techniques I teach the females in class, they can use against a much larger opponent,” said Altman.

He said too many people are walking around looking at their phones and not paying attention.

Across town in Norfolk, UFC Gym periodically offers free self-defense classes for women.

Nelson LeBron is an instructor and veteran who teaches some of the basics. “It's better to have a tool and not need it then need it and not have it,” said LeBron.

“I think it's important for all women to know and for everyone to know, there's a lot of men of taking the roles and a lot of people of taking the roles of wolves in society and they tend to pick on weaker people in society,” said LeBron.

Now Wiggins doesn’t go shopping at night, she carries something that makes a lot of noise with her always and she pays a lot more attention when she’s walking to her car.

She said she is glad the police caught the suspects in her case who are both serving time in jail.

“I finally got a good night’s sleep the day they were in jail,” said Wiggins.

Although the memory of being abducted will never go away, she now shares her story of survival to educate other women in hopes of preventing them from being victimized.

Tips from the National Crime Prevention Council to prevent yourself from being a victim:

  • Don’t walk or jog early in the morning or late at night when the streets are deserted.
  • When out at night, try to have a friend walk with you.
  • Carry only the money you’ll need on a particular day.
  • Don’t display your cash or any other inviting targets such as pagers, cell phones, hand-held electronic games, or expensive jewelry and clothing.
  • If you think someone is following you, switch directions or cross the street. If the person continues to follow you, move quickly toward an open store or restaurant or a lighted house. Don’t be afraid to yell for help.
  • Try to park in well-lighted areas with good visibility and close to walkways, stores, and people.
  • Make sure you have your key out as you approach your door.
  • Always lock your car, even if it’s in your own driveway; never leave your motor running.
  • Do everything you can to keep a stranger from getting into your car or to keep a stranger from forcing you into his or her car.
  • If a dating partner has abused you, do not meet him or her alone. Do not let him or her in your home or car when you are alone.
  • If you are a battered spouse, call the police or sheriff immediately. Assault is a crime, whether committed by a stranger or your spouse or any other family member. If you believe that you and your children are in danger, call a crisis hotline or a health center (the police can also make a referral) and leave immediately.
  • If someone tries to rob you, give up your property—don’t give up your life.
  • If you are robbed or assaulted, report the crime to the police. Try to describe the attacker accurately. Your actions can help prevent someone else from becoming a victim.