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The Girls in the Boxes

Five disturbing true stories about forcible confinement.

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  • Photo Credit: Lake County Sheriff's Department

In 1977, 20-year-old Colleen Stan was picked up in northern California while hitchhiking to a friend’s house for a birthday party. An experienced hitchhiker, Stan had already let two potential rides go by when Cameron Hooker and his wife Janice pulled up in a blue van. Seeing the man with his wife—and a baby in the back seat—Colleen Stan felt safe getting into the vehicle.

Unfortunately for her, it was the beginning of a nightmare. Stan was kidnapped by the couple and spent the greater part of the next seven years locked in a small wooden box beneath their water bed. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Cameron Hooker, who called her his “slave” and compared her to the main character in the French erotic novel Story of O, about a Parisian fashion photographer who becomes a willing sex slave.

The disturbing story of Colleen Stan’s imprisonment has been told in several books and adapted to film and television many times, including the 2007 horror film The Poughkeepsie Tapes and a 2016 Lifetime original movie, Girl in the Box. However, Colleen Stan is sadly not the only woman to have undergone such a horrifying ordeal.

Ursula Herrmann

In 1981, a 10-year-old German girl named Ursula Herrmann disappeared while riding her bike from her cousin’s house to her own home. Two days later, cryptic phone calls began to be made to her home, playing a recording of a jingle from a public radio station. These were followed by ransom demands in the mail, which explained that the commercial jingles were coded messages meant to elicit a yes-or-no response for the ransom payment of two million German marks.

By that time, Ursula Herrmann was already dead. Her kidnappers had buried the girl alive in a box in the woods that was barely 2 feet by 2 feet by 4 and a half feet. The box included food, lights, reading material, and even a radio tuned to the same station from which the kidnappers had taken the jingle. It also included ventilation, but it did not provide sufficient exchange of air, and Ursula Herrmann suffocated within 30 minutes and five hours of being buried.

A neighbor of the Herrmann family named Werner Mazurek had long been a person of interest in the case. In 2008, he and his wife were arrested for the fatal kidnapping of Ursula, and Mazurek was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010, while the charges against his wife were dropped. However, Ursula’s brother Michael has long been skeptical of Mazurek’s guilt, and many questions about the case remain unanswered to this day.

Barbara Mackle

the girls in the boxes
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  • Krist took this photograph of Mackle holding a sign that reads "kidnapped" and sent it to her family to demand a ransom. 

The kidnapping of Ursula Herrmann may have been inspired by a similar crime that had occurred years earlier. In 1968, a 20-year-old Emory University student named Barbara Mackle was staying at the Rodeway Inn in Decatur, Georgia with her mother during Christmas break. A stranger posing as a police officer knocked on the door. His identity would later be revealed as Gary Stephen Krist, who had escaped from prison in 1966.

Once Mackle allowed Krist inside, he chloroformed and bound her mother before forcing Mackle into a car at gunpoint with the aid of his accomplice, Ruth Eisemann-Schier. The pair then drove Mackle to a remote pine stand where they buried her in a fiberglass-enforced box. Mackle was more fortunate than Ursula Herrmann, for Krist and his accomplice had outfitted the box with an air pump, allowing her to survive. The box also contained food and water laced with sedatives.

Mackle spent more than three days buried underground before FBI agents found her. She wrote about her experience in a book, 83 Hours Till Dawn, which she co-wrote with reporter Gene Miller of The Miami Herald, and which was later adapted into two TV movies.

Unnamed Victim in Lake County, California

Another true story of forcible confinement begins with Ryan Balletto, who picked up his 15-year-old victim in Southern California, where she had run away from home. Balletto took the girl to an illegal marijuana growing operation that he oversaw with his business partner, Patrick Stephen Pearmain. With Pearmain acting as his accomplice, Balletto sexually assaulted the girl, forced her to work on the farm, and locked her in a metal box drilled with air holes that was only four feet long, two feet high, and two feet wide.

Police eventually raided the marijuana growing operation and confiscated numerous firearms, including two assault rifles. To their surprise, they also found the missing girl and rescued her from her kidnappers. Balletto and Pearmain were eventually convicted of marijuana charges and employment of a minor to violate drug laws, with Balletto also convicted of firearms-related offenses. The victim’s name has been withheld because she was underage at the time of her ordeal.

Joelle Lockwood

Thirty-year-old Joelle Lockwood left a friend’s house in Evansville, Indiana on July 9, 2014 and ran into an acquaintance of hers named Ricky Roy House Jr. He invited her over to his mobile house, then refused to let her leave. For the next two months, House and his girlfriend, Kendra Tooley, kept Lockwood in a wooden cage, sexually assaulting her and depriving her of food and water while forcing her to wear a makeshift collar and leash.

“It was pretty much modernized slavery in my eyes,” said Deputy Sheriff Tom Latham, who investigated the case after Tooley’s ex-husband rescued Lockwood from the couple. According to statements made by Tooley, the pair were attempting to forcibly impregnate Lockwood because Tooley, 44, was “old and unable to have children of her own.”

Colleen Stan

the girls in the boxes
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  • Colleen Stan and Cameron Hooker, who posed as her boyfriend during a visit to the Stan family. 

    Photo Credit: Discovery Channel

Unfortunately, Colleen Stan was neither the first nor the last woman to undergo forcible confinement under terrible conditions, but her torment was among the most brutal—and one of the longest. After years of being abused, degraded, repeatedly sexually assaulted, and kept locked in a box beneath the couple’s bed, Stan was forced to sign a contract saying that she was Cameron Hooker’s slave.

At times he let her out, allowing her to work around the house, look after the couple’s children, and even go for a jog or to visit her family, but by then he had conditioned her to believe that she and her family were being observed by a secretive organization called “The Company” that would kill her family if she tried to escape.

Despite the occasional bursts of freedom that were afforded to her, Stan was locked in a wooden box beneath the Hookers’ water bed for 23 hours a day for years at a time. After more than seven years of this torment, Cameron Hooker wanted Stan to become his “second wife,” which prompted Janice Hooker to finally reveal to Stan that Cameron was not part of “The Company”—though she did still insist that the organization was real.

Stan departed the house, phoning Cameron Hooker from a bus station to tell him that she was leaving. Still, her fear and brutal conditioning at Hooker’s hands prevented her from going to the police. It was ultimately Janice Hooker who turned her husband in three months later. She alleged that Cameron had also kidnapped, tortured, and murdered Marie Elizabeth Spannhake a year before kidnapping Colleen Stan. Spannhake’s body was never found.

Sources: People, NBC News, Los Angeles Times, Oxygen, Justice.gov 

Featured photo of the metal toolbox in which an unidentified teenage girl was confined: Lake County Sheriff's Department