This happened in 1982. I know this because it was our first vacation with my new dog, and she was still a puppy in the summer of 1981. I was 11. We were heading for a week long stay at a rustic cabin in Tennessee somewhere. Along I81 in the eastern part of Tennessee somewhat near Knoxville, we pulled into a rest stop. While everyone else went into the bathrooms, I took my dog not too far from the car but in the grass. I was attempting to give her water by squirting it from a baby bottle into the bowl of a spoon.
A man approached and knelt down. Instantly every cell in my body went tense and my dog growled at him, backing up away from him a bit as he stretched out his hand as if to pet her. I knew: this was not a nice man. He tried to be friendly. Tried to smile, act disarming. Told me: “What a cute doggie. I have a puppy in my van. Want to come see it? She’s real cute.”
Yes, he actually said that. I remembering thinking “he must think I’m really stupid.” He motioned across the way toward a van. I want to say it was white, but memory can be a funny thing. I definitely remember him pointing it out, looking at where he pointed to see it, then focusing back on him and before shaking my head no. I did not want to talk to him. I wanted him to go away.
Sweeter smile and a cant of the head. “She’s reeeeeeal cute. You’d like her. Come see.”
It was that this point that my Mom arrived. Remember, 1981. A very different world. Kidnappers and serial killers weren’t everywhere yet. A few weeks ago I asked her if she remembered this incident. She immediately recalled it and right off said “your dog really did not like that man.” He tried to pet the dog again while she was there and Mom warned him he would likely get bitten if he tried to push it.
You, of course, don’t know this dog. She was super friendly and outgoing, a bold terrier mix. This was the only person in the entire length of her life that she did not like on sight.
I don’t remember my Mom talking to the man, or what was said. Mom said he was working his way to excuse himself, but that he was cordial enough. She thought him odd, but was more alarmed by the dog’s dislike than any sense of her own dislike. I do remember that his entire demeanor changed the moment he caught sight of my Dad heading toward us. He immediately excused himself before Dad got there. Mom confirmed that part of my memory.
With the odd man gone, we put the incident out of our mind and went on with our vacation.
It pops back into my mind from time to time. I realized in my 20s that this man had a very practiced approach: he looked for a young girl, alone in a potentially chaotic situation like a busy rest stop; had a quick exit strategy onto the interstate where he could vanish pretty fast; and a line which today would be super cheesy and immediately raise warnings, but back then was just a friendly conversational question. In talking with Mom, she agreed. He was very confident, practiced, and women (Mom) didn’t threaten him enough to scare him away from his potential prey (me) but men (my Dad) sent him scurrying immediately.
I told Mom that my suspicion is that this was a serial killer in some form. It never crossed our minds in the least to report this scenario to the local cops. I mean, really, why would we? But we saw him. Saw his vehicle – not that I could describe either now with any degree of certainty. I know without any doubt whatsoever he wanted to do vile things which even my vivid imagination refuses to consider. I often wonder how many little girls did he succeed in stealing? What happened to them? Since he was practiced and smooth in his approach, how many before me did he lure willingly to his waiting van? And worse, how many after?
My Mom was horrified by this idea. She had never thought about it like that. I’ve done some looking and found no known activity in this area at that time, but most serial killers of this type have a range and maybe the pattern was too spread out – there are 6 states accessible right there (TN, VA, NC, GA, KY & WV). Perhaps he was never caught, never stopped. Or perhaps he was and my search just didn’t turn him up. My Google-foo isn’t the greatest.