The Girl Who Escaped: The Kara Robinson Story, premiered on Lifetime Feb. 11.
In the early afternoon of June 24, 2002, Kara Robinson, 15, was watering plants and bushes in the front yard of a friend’s house in West Columbia, S.C, when a Pontiac TransAm pulled into the driveway. Out of the car popped an affable guy in his late 30s, wearing jeans, a button-down shirt and a baseball cap. He offered Kara some “pamphlets.”
“He said, ‘Are your parents home?’ and I said, ‘Well, this isn’t my house. This is my friend’s house,'” Kara, now 36, told PEOPLE in 2022. “And he said, ‘OK, well what about her parents, are her parents home?’ And I said, ‘No, her mom’s not home right now.'”
What came next was a nightmare. The man, who was later identified as 38-year-old serial killer Richard Evonitz, pulled out a gun, pressed it to Kara’s neck and forced her into a large storage bin that was stowed on the back seat of the car.
She spent 18 hours of torture at the hands of her attacker before she was able to escape.
Evonitz, who had previously kidnapped and killed three girls in Virginia, later shot himself after a police chase in Florida after Kara’s escape put police on his trail.
Here are five things to know about Kara’s kidnapping and escape, and how she has moved on.
1. Kara Kept Calm Through Torture — and Gathered Identifying Information
Robinson told PEOPLE that once she was forced inside the large storage bin on the back seat of Evonitz’s car, as he drove towards his apartment, she began counting the turns he made, in hopes of later finding her way home again.
She noticed details: He was listening to a classic rock station and smoking Marlboro red cigarettes. She even memorized the serial number on the inside of the plastic container that he had forced her to kneel inside.
“My survival mechanism said, ‘All right, let’s gather as much information as we can,'” she says. “Fear barely even kicked in … the human will to survive and the survival mechanism really just can’t be underestimated.”
On his way to his apartment, he pulled over and restrained her with handcuffs and put a gag in her mouth. He then took her to his cluttered apartment — also home to a guinea pig, a lizard and other small animals — and assaulted her for 18 hours.
Despite being terrorized, she tried to find ways to identify him — the names of his doctor and dentist were on his fridge — and to keep him calm. When he wanted her to have some food, “I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to eat right now, but is there anything I can do for you?'” she says. “I actually ended up sweeping his kitchen.”
2. A Harrowing Escape at Dawn
In the dawn hours, while Evonitz was asleep, Kara was able to free one hand from a pair of handcuffs, which were attached to the bed frame using a circular clamp tightened by a screw, connected to a rope, with her teeth and unclip a leather leg restraint that was attached to the foot of the bed.
She quietly tiptoed to the front door and, trying to make as little sound as possible, unbolted the two locks.
“I know he has the gun right beside him, and he’s going to see me running, and he’s going to shoot me in the back – that’s all I could think,” she told PEOPLE. “And I was like, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter, because I’m out, and at least someone will be able to find him.’ My body was scared, but my brain was like, ‘OK, we’re just about business. We’re doing this.'”
She made her escape and ran towards a car in the parking lot and flagged down two men who took her to the police station, where she recounted her ordeal. She was asked by the officers to take them back to Evonitz’s apartment, and because of her keen powers of observation and the help of the apartment maintenance man, they found his lair.
3. Police Discover Evidence that Evonitz is a Serial Killer
By the time authorities arrived at Evonitz’s apartment, he had fled.
Inside his apartment, police found a locked foot-locker with newspaper clippings about the unsolved murders of three girls: Sofia Silva and sisters Kati and Kristin Lisk. They had all gone missing in Spotsylvania County, Va., more than five years before Kara’s abduction.
“I don’t care how tough you are as a cop, when you see something like that, it grabs you,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told PEOPLE in 2022. “At that point, bells really went off in our heads that we just didn’t have a kidnapping of Kara Robinson. This was something else. This was actually a serial killer.”
4. Evonitz Is Linked to Three Murders
Sofia Silva, 16, disappeared from her front stoop in the Loriella Park neighborhood of Spotsylvania, Va., on Sept. 9, 1996. Her remains were found a month later in a creek. Then, on May 1, 1997, Kristin, 15, and 12-year-old Kati Lisk were abducted from their home. They were found five days later in the South Anna River.
The murders went cold until the abduction of Kara ramped up the investigation. Forensic evidence found at the crimes scenes later matched evidence found inside Evonitz’s home. Police also found two of Kristin’s fingerprints from the inside of the trunk of Evonitz’s car.
Police tracked Evonitz to Sarasota, Fla., on June 27, 2002 and a high-speed chase there ended when he ran over spike strips on the highway and was attacked by a police dog. Evonitz then shot himself.
In August 2002, Spotsylvania County Sheriff Ronald Knight announced that Evonitz was responsible for the crimes in his jurisdiction.
“We have experienced these crimes, and they overwhelmed our community with a sense of grief, fear and uncertainty, much of which still lingers today,” he said, the Washington Post reported.
For her help in solving the murders of Sofia and the Lisk sisters, Kara received $150,000 in reward money and was able to meet their families.
“It was one of the most important things that’s ever happened to me,” she told PEOPLE. “Because it brought home the importance of what I did. Because I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m actually giving these families something that they never would’ve gotten without me.’ Just the closure of knowing that the person responsible for their daughters’ death is no longer here.”
5. Kara Has Shared Her Story of Survival
In 2019, after participating in an interview with kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart, Kara took part in a 90-minute Lifetime special, Smart Justice: The Jayme Closs Case, with five other survivors to lend support to Closs, a Wisconsin teen who escaped her captor in 2019.
“I sat down on a couch with Elizabeth and five other women who had survived kidnappings and sexual assaults. And that was the moment that I realized that I really had a bigger purpose. I knew that I could find a reason for what happened. And I always knew that what happened to me was something that happened so that I could help other people,” she says.
“I was healed on that couch, sitting there talking to those women, in a way that I didn’t even realize I was hurting,” Kara said. “Just to sit down and talk to women who really understood the heart of what I had been through.”
Smart inspired Kara, an advocate for trauma survivors, to continue to speak out. The two women teamed up to work on a documentary that could do her own story justice.
The final product, called Escaping Captivity: The Kara Robinson Story, premiered on Oxygen last year, detailing how Chamberlain not only outsmarted her captor — serial killer Richard Evonitz — but used her remarkable memory to help police track him down and stop his reign of terror.
“I want everyone to always have a sense of hope because no one gets through this life without their fair share of struggle and trial and heartbreak, and I think Kara’s story really just brings that ultimate sense of hope,” Smart told Oxygen about the documentary. “I’m so proud of Kara and I’m so proud of everything that she’s doing.”
Kara’s story has recently been made into a Lifetime movie called The Girl Who Escaped: The Kara Robinson Story. The movie, which stars Ginny and Georgia actress Katie Douglas as Kara, premiered Feb. 11.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to rainn.org.