HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – Police asked the public's assistance finding a masked gunman who kidnapped a woman working at an Horry County convenience store early Sunday morning. The woman, who wants to remain anonymous, was later found unharmed in North Carolina.
"I'm happy to be alive, but I'm absolutely devastated that that happened to me," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "They probably ruined me for a long time and I'm very angry for that."
"I'll tell you this is every parent's worst nightmare," the woman's mother said.
According to Horry County Police Department spokeswoman Krystal Dotson, officers responded to the Scotchman at 1272 Dick Pond Road in Surfside Beach around 4:30 a.m. Sunday.
The man took the 28-year-old clerk by force, did not take any money or items from the store, and the two left in her car, a silver 2002 Mercury Sable. Authorities located the woman around 7:30 a.m.
"I wasn't leaving my kid. I was not letting my child grow up without a mom," the clerk said. "I absolutely refused to do that to her. That was my driving force through that entire thing was her."
According to an Horry County Police Department incident report, an officer stopped into the store prior to the kidnapping and the victim told him she was working until 8 a.m. A newspaper delivery person noticed there was no attendant in the store around 4:10 a.m. and called 911.
The clerk said the man who delivers newspapers always makes a point to check on her in the morning when dropping off papers.
"They don't have to do that and I think it's great they do that," she said.
The clerk said she worked the overnight shift so she could spend the day with her young daughter.
She said she had only been working for Scotchman for a month and had spent two weeks at the location on Dick Pond Road when the kidnapping happened.
"I always had heard if somebody comes in to rob you, give them all the money and they'll go away," she said. "So I never really worried about it too badly. I figured I'd do what they wanted and they'd let me go."
An officer found the victim's purse, cell phone and jacket under the front counter. Using information from the woman's driver's license, dispatchers found a phone number for a family member. Officers then checked the victim's house for her car. It wasn't there.
The business owner arrived to show officers surveillance footage of the suspect, who was wearing dark, jogging-style pants with a green stripe, a black jacket with a red zipper, a black hat and a red bandana covering his face.
The woman said she's never seen him before and she doesn't know who he is.
In the video, the suspect is seen grabbing the victim by the upper arm after jumping over the counter. He took her keys from her purse and led her out of the store at gunpoint.
An officer noticed a black Shimann bike on the walkway near the front entrance and a 24-ounce Budweiser can, which were collected as evidence.
The woman said she was in the store's bathroom when she heard the door chime.
"When I came out, nobody was in the store so I went to go wash my hands and get my hand sanitizer and as soon as I took one step behind the counter when I was putting on my sanitizer, that's when I saw him coming," she said. "I made eye contact with him first and then I saw the bandana on his face. I immediately knew no good was about to come from that situation."
The man hopped over the store's counter and put the gun to the back of the woman's head and asked for her car keys, she said.
"I point down to where my car keys are in my purse. He takes my keys, nothing else," she said. "Just my keys and then leads me out of the store to my car with a gun to the back of my head. He put me inside of my car in the driver's seat and I begged and pleaded, 'Please don't hurt me. Please don't hurt me,' because I'm a mom. I wanted to go home. I wanted to see my baby at the end of the night. He said, 'I don't want to hurt you. I just want this,' and he slapped the inside of my car. I was like, 'You can have it, you can have it,' and he was like, 'No, you're driving.'"
She said they stopped in an empty parking lot in Surfside Beach, where she was forced into the trunk at gunpoint. At that point, she didn't know what the man's plans were.
"He was like, 'I don't want to hurt you. I just have to take care of something. I have to take care of something,'" she said. "He said that he wasn't going to hurt me, he wasn't going to hurt me. But I think he was a liar. I don't think he would have let me live when he got to where he was going."
The woman said she saw something glowing and realized it was a release latch inside of the trunk.
"I sat there on my knees and on my elbows holding onto that latch and I held onto it until the right moment, until what I felt was the right moment," she said.
The woman said the car stopped once and someone else got inside of it. She didn't see what that person looked like at the time.
Police are looking for information on another person in addition to the man in the bandana. The woman said she hasn't ever seen the person in the picture police released.
The clerk said the car stopped for gas, but it was still dark out and she couldn't hear anybody else outside.
"I knew I was probably going to pull it, but it was just a matter of time, waiting until people were around me to pull it," she said.
She added she could smell the fumes from inside of the trunk.
"The gas fumes filled up the trunk and I couldn't breathe," she said. "That's when I started getting really scared for my life."
The clerk estimates about an hour later, the car stopped again for gas. This time, she could hear other people around the car.
She said she waited to make a run for it until the two people had finished paying, pumping gas and had gotten back inside the car to buy her more time.
"He came after me and tried to grab me by the hair and I screamed," she said. "He ran back to the car and got back in."
The woman said she ran inside the store, which was a Sun Do store in Columbus County, N.C.
"I ran as far into that store as I could before I hit a wall and collapsed on the floor because I was getting as far inside as I could," she said.
She said an off-duty police officer was inside and offered her a phone to make a call. She dialed her sister.
Her sister recounted the shock she was in at the time.
"Did I just hear my sister? Did I have that confirmation that she's still here?" the sister said.
She said she was amazed by her sister's strength and the fact that the situation was over in a matter of hours.
"My sister, I don't know where she got that kind of smarts from to be able to stay that calm in that kind of a situation, to be able to free herself like that," the sister said. "Not many people can do that."
The woman's family had been at the Scotchman with police waiting to hear some kind of news.
"At some point I'm going to have to identify the body and I'm going to end up burying my daughter," the mother said, describing what she was thinking before the call came in.
The woman's family members are thankful she escaped and is alive.
"It seemed like an eternity until we got the phone call that she was OK," the mother said.
However, the horrifying experience has affected all of them.
"It's going to take some time. We all realize that," the mother said. "It's going to take a lot of healing, a lot of counseling, a lot of talking through it. Not just for her, but for us. This didn't just traumatize her. It traumatized our entire family."
The family is thankful for everyone who helped, including the newspaper delivery person, the off-duty police officer, Scotchman customers and staff members, and the Horry County Police Department.
"I don't want anybody else to have to go through because of these two people," the woman's mother said. "I want them caught. I want them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
"I'm afraid that he's going to come back for me," the woman said. "I'm afraid he's going to hurt somebody else and that person's not going to have the smarts to get away."
The woman and her family also urge gas stations to put more than one employee on each shift.
"Like everyone always says you never think this is going to happen until it happens to you and yesterday that happened," the sister said.
The woman said she also wants convenience stores to allow employees to lock the front door when going to the bathroom.
"Had I been allowed to lock that front door, I never would have been taken because I was in the bathroom when he first came in looking for me," she said.
The clerk said she won't be allowed to go back on the overnight shift if she returns to work at the Scotchman. At this point, she's not sure whether or not she will go back to work there due to this experience, but she is appreciative of the people she works for and she said they've been very helpful.
On Monday night, Horry County police released a new photo of a woman wanted for questioning in the incident. She is listed as a possible suspect. The second is a sketch of the suspected kidnapper.
Anyone with information as to the identities of these two individuals should call the HCPD at (843) 915-8477.