When it was all over, Colleen Stan’s harrowing ordeal was described as “unparalleled in FBI history.” Beginning in 1977, Stan—then aged 20—was kidnapped while hitchhiking and held captive and tortured for seven long years. During the worst of her nightmarish experience, she was kept locked in a wooden box for 23 hours a day.
She wasn’t held in the box all that time. Occasionally she was granted enough freedom to cook and clean, look after her captor’s children, even jog or visit her family on her own, but always she was kept in place by brainwashing and threats, including promises that a shadowy organization called “the Company” would kill her and her entire family if she tried to escape.
It wasn’t until August of 1984 that Stan—then just months from her 28th birthday—would finally escape her torment and, even then, her long years of torture and programming prevented her from going to the authorities right away. When the whole story finally did come out, it shocked not only the police but the entire world, inspiring dozens of movies, TV episodes, and even songs, from the 2007 found footage horror film The Poughkeepsie Tapes to a Swedish opera.
But just what actually happened to Stan, how did she survive, and what other horrifying secrets remain to be discovered? For that, we must start at the beginning.
CW: This story contains frank (though not graphic) references to sexual abuse.
It was May 19, 1977 and a 20-year-old Colleen Stan was hitchhiking from her home in Eugene, Oregon, to a friend’s birthday party. Describing herself as an “experienced hitchhiker,” Stan later averred that she had let two other rides go past before Cameron Hooker and his wife Janice pulled up beside her.
“I felt confident climbing into the blue van,” Stan later said, because Hooker’s wife and their baby were in the car. Unfortunately, that sense of safety proved to be misplaced. Within 30 minutes, Hooker had a knife to Stan’s throat—and her seven-year ordeal had begun.
“I thought I was going to die,” Stan told People magazine. What waited for her wasn’t death, however, but something that might be considered even worse. The young couple—Cameron Hooker was no more than three years older than Stan herself—took her back to their home in Red Bluff, California, where her ordeal began.
For the first few months, Colleen Stan spent 23 hours a day in a wooden box, brought out only to be fed, tortured, and raped. At first, Hooker honored an agreement with his wife that precluded penetrative vaginal sex with Stan, but he still raped her with implements and forced her to perform fellatio. He called her “K,” and told her that he wanted her to be like the character in the 1954 French erotic novel Story of O—about a woman who becomes a willing slave to a secret society of sadistic masters. When she wasn’t being tortured and raped, Stan was kept inside the box beneath the couple’s waterbed.
In January of 1978, Cameron Hooker forced Stan to sign a contract saying she was his slave for life. By then, he had already begun to tell her about “the Company,” a shadowy organization of which he was ostensibly a part, which he claimed would slay her and her family if she ever tried to leave him. Over the next few years, Hooker gradually began granting Stan greater and greater freedom, as he became more and more convinced of the hold that his lies about “the Company” had on her.
She was allowed to help around the house, work in the yard, care for the couple’s two children, and even go for jogs on her own. Every night, though, she slept in the box beneath the couple’s waterbed. Then, in 1981, Cameron Hooker actually took her to see her family, and left her alone there overnight. She said nothing to them about her ordeal. The next day, when he came to pick her up, he posed as her boyfriend, and they took a smiling Polaroid together.
“People will ask you why you didn’t do this or that and they don’t know,” Colleen Stan told CBS News years later. “They were not in that situation.” So complete was Cameron Hooker’s hold over her that, at one point, he handed her a gun and told her to put the barrel in her mouth and pull the trigger. “I didn’t know if it was loaded or not,” she said, “and he told me ‘this is to see if you’ll do what I say.’” She did.
After the visit to her parents, however, Hooker began to dial back her freedoms once again. For most of the next three years, she again spent 23 hours a day in the box. During the summer, temperatures in the box would exceed 100 degrees, and bodily functions had to be taken care of with a bedpan which Stan positioned with her feet, since the box was essentially a coffin.
“He liked to whip me with whips,” Stan later recalled. “He had electro-shocked me. He had burned me. He had done so many things.” Yet, what turned out to be Cameron Hooker’s undoing was when he told Janice that he wanted Colleen Stan to become his “second wife.” That proved to be a breaking point for Janice Hooker, who went to Stan and released her, telling her than Cameron Hooker wasn’t really a part of “the Company”—though she did still insist the organization was real.
Finally free, Colleen Stan fled to a bus stop, but even then she didn’t turn her captors in right away. Instead, she called Hooker, telling him that she was leaving him—at which news she said he burst into tears. It wasn’t until three months later that Janice turned her husband in to the authorities. That was also when she leveled another chilling accusation, claiming that he had previously kidnapped and murdered Marie Elizabeth Spannhake, who had gone missing from Chico, California, in 1976.
Despite his horrifying testimony, no body was ever found, and so no charges were ever brought against Cameron Hooker in relation to Spannhake’s disappearance—merely the kidnapping, detainment, rape, and torture of Colleen Stan, for which he received a sentence of 104 years in prison in 1985.