In this day and age, hitchhiking is almost non-existent.
It seems like everyone knows that getting into cars with complete strangers is a bad idea, and there are safer ways to get around. But in the 1970s, hitchhiking was a common practice – sometimes, it was even someone’s only mode of transportation.
But there are reasons why we don’t hitchhike anymore. And Colleen Stan’s story is one of them.
In 1977, she was hitchhiking to a birthday party in northern California when she accepted a ride from a man named Cameron Hooker and his wife, Janice. This decision would lead to her being kept as a sex slave in the couple’s home for seven years, terrified of a shadowy organization that she believed would kill her and her family if she escaped.
Colleen Stan Kidnapping
On May 19, 1977, Colleen Stan set out to hitchhike from her home in Eugene, Oregon to a friend’s home in northern California.
She said in later interviews that she believed herself to be an “experienced hitchhiker”, and she’d allowed two rides to pass her by before a blue van pulled up.
The driver was 23-year-old Cameron Hooker. He was with his wife, Janice, and their baby daughter was in the backseat. Colleen said that she “felt confident” accepting the ride from them, though her instincts began telling her something was wrong when they stopped at a gas station.
She went to use the restroom, and she later said, “A voice told me to run and jump out a window and never look back.”
But she didn’t. She returned to the van with Cameron and Janice. Once they reached an isolated area, Cameron Hooker pulled a knife on Colleen and put a wooden “head box” on her. The box was homemade and weighed almost 20 pounds. Once she was restrained, the couple took her to their home in Red Bluff, California.
But let’s go back for a second: you need to know a few things about these two.
Cameron Hooker, a lumber worker, had been engaging in violent fantasies of sexual bondage with his wife, Janice. To mitigate this abuse, he and Janice struck a deal: he could capture a young girl to be a sex slave in Janice’s place, but he could not have penetrative sex with her.
The first girl to fall victim to this sick compromise was Marie Elizabeth Spannhake.
Nicknamed Marliz, Spannhake was last seen in Chico, California on January 31, 1976. She was just 19 when she was spotted by Cameron and Janice Hooker, walking along Mangrove Avenue.
Her body had never been found, but Janice told police years later that they offered the girl a ride, and she accepted. They drove to her destination on Rio Linda Avenue, but as she tried to get out, Cameron grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her back into the car.
They took her to their home and strung her up from the rafters in their basement. Cameron tortured her, shot her in the abdomen with a pellet gun, and then strangled her to death. She was their captive for only a day, but it must have been excruciating.
Janice says that they buried her body near Lassen Park in their hometown, but authorities have never been able to locate the remains. This occurred just over a year before they abducted Colleen Stan, but it was already clear that Cameron was a dangerous and depraved man.
During the first night of her captivity, Collen said that Cameron tied her to the rafters by her hands, leaving her suspended. He beat her, and then he and Janice had sex underneath her while she hung there.
Afterwards, he locked her in a box that was about the same dimensions as a coffin, and she was kept there for just under a year, 23 hours a day. He would only take her out to torture her.
During this time, Stan recalled that part of her view from the box was, horrifyingly, a photograph of Marie Elizabeth Spannhake, though it’s uncertain whether or not Colleen knew who she was or what had happened to her.
In January 1978, Cameron Hooker forced Colleen to sign a document that said that she was his slave. She further testified that Cameron had been leading her to believe he was a member of a powerful organization called The Company – if she tried to escape, this organization would hunt her down and harm her family. He also began referring to her as “K” and made her call him “Master”.
She couldn’t speak to him, or anyone else, without permission. He apparently fantasized that she was like the female character from a French erotic novel that was published in 1954, Story of O. He soon began raping her orally and violating her with objects – these actions apparently did not breach the agreement he had with Janice.
The Hooker family moved into a mobile home in Red Bluff during this period and took Colleen with them – they confined her in a wooden box underneath their water bed. Janice would actually give birth to their second daughter on that bed while Colleen was underneath it in 1978.
Colleen was terrified of The Company, and Cameron reinforced this fear with her daily. She would comply with his orders to avoid his sadistic punishments, and he would eventually allow her to leave the house to jog or work in the yard. She was also responsible for caring for Hooker’s children and was enlisted to help Cameron build an underground dungeon where he could keep more slaves.
She was still imprisoned by her fear of The Company, however, so even when she had access to an open door or a phone, she did not seek help.
In 1981, she was allowed to visit her family – the first time alone, and the second time with Hooker posing as her boyfriend.
She didn’t reveal her situation to them out of fear. They thought that she had become involved in a cult because of her handmade clothing, lack of money, and lack of contact. However, they were worried that pressuring her would push her away completely, and thus didn’t try and get her to open up to them. They actually took a photo of her and Cameron, smiling as though nothing was wrong – this photo was later shown at the trial.
According to Stan’s testimony, Cameron began to worry that he’d given her too much freedom after this visit, so he took her home and locked her back in the box underneath the waterbed. She, then, stayed in the box for three years.
He would only take her out to feed, rape, and torture her after his children were in bed. Her bodily functions were dealt with using a bedpan, which she had to position underneath herself using her feet. She wasn’t allowed to make any noise, and had to lie still in the dark with little air.
Summers, she recalled, were especially harsh because the temperature in her box could rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Escaping from Hell
Cameron reintroduced her to the neighbors and his children in 1983, and even allowed her to get a job at a hotel as a maid. Sometime after this, he started saying that he wanted to take Colleen as his second wife.
This seemed to be the turning point for Janice, who appears to have been entirely complicit in Colleen’s captivity before this point. In August 1984, she went to Colleen and told her that Cameron wasn’t part of The Company, though she maintained that the organization did exist.
She helped Colleen escape and go to a bus station, where, bizarrely, she phoned Cameron to tell him that she was leaving him. According to her testimony, his response was to burst into tears. She then caught a bus home.
Despite having escaped the horrifying ordeal, Colleen never reported her kidnapping or abuse to the police. Instead, she continued to contact Cameron Hooker regularly. At the trial, she explained that Janice had asked her not to tell anyone in order to give Hooker a chance to “reform”.
Three months later, Janice’s conscience caught up with her, and she reported her husband to the police. Initially, she told them about the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Marie Elizabeth Spannhake – however, there was no conclusive evidence supporting this, and no murder charges were brought. He was, however, arrested for what he’d done to Colleen Stan.
Trial and Aftermath
Janice made a plea deal to testify against her husband in exchange for full immunity – her testimony was used to corroborate that of Colleen Stan. At the end of it all, Cameron Hooker was convicted of sexual assault, kidnapping, and using a knife while committing these crimes.
He was sentenced to consecutive terms for this, resulting in a period of 104 years in prison. He was originally ineligible for parole until 2023, but his hearing was moved up seven years by California’s Elderly Parole Program. His parole request was denied on April 16, 2015, and he is not eligible again until 2022.
In an interview with People Magazine in 2016, Colleen said that she survived her ordeal by compartmentalizing her trauma, much like Janice did. “I learned I could go anywhere in my mind. You just remove yourself from the real situation going on and you go somewhere else. You go somewhere pleasant; around people you love. Whatever makes you happy.”
After the trial, she studied for an accounting degree, and she is currently married for the 4th time and raising her grandson, who should be about 4 now.
Colleen’s Story In The Media
The case garnered massive media attention and has sparked both fiction and non-fiction portrayals. A book called Perfect Victim: The True Story of the Girl in the Box was written by prosecutor Christine McGuire and released in 1989. A more updated version of her story can be found in Colleen Stan: The Simple Gifts of Life (2009) by Jim Green.
The main plot of the mockumentary horror film The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) is based on her case, and it’s inspired multiple episodes of TV crime show dramas, including Criminal Minds (Season 7, Episode 20), Ghost Whisperer (Season 4, Episode 10) and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (Season 1, Episode 22).
A TV movie called Girl in the Box premiered on the Lifetime network on September 10, 2016 – though the film is a fictional account, it was followed by a two-hour documentary called Colleen Stan: Girl in the Box.