For a split second, Helen Yee thought the guy who opened the passenger door of her car and slid in next to her was a neighbor.
Then she saw his gun.
The story of what happened next should be shared with every girl and woman you know. It might just save their lives.
Yee is co-founder of the American Institute of Alternative Medicine in Columbus, Ohio. She is 52 and, at 4 feet 11 inches, petite, but she’s strong from decades as a martial arts expert. Her training made all the difference when the armed man slid into the car seat next to her.
“It’s not all about kicking and punching,” Yee told me in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s about using your head.”
On Monday, Yee pulled into her driveway about 9:45 p.m., after rehearsing with the all-female band Wednesday Wine. She turned off her car, pulled the key from the ignition and clicked on the remote, opening all the doors so that she could retrieve her bass guitar from the back seat.
That’s when the young man slid in next to her. He wore a hoodie pulled over his head and a bandana tied across his face.
“All I could see were his eyes and his gun,” she said. “I had that sunken feeling.”
“I need you to drive,” he said.
“What?” she said.
“I just need you to drive,” he repeated.
Yee looked at the gun and said, “OK,” but she continued to hold the key in her hand and refused to panic.
“I knew I was not going anywhere with this guy,” she said. “I knew from my martial arts training you never do that.”
Yee also knew she had to distract him. She turned to him and said, “Hey! I know you!”
He recoiled. “You don’t know me.”
“Yeah, I do,” she said. “You’re Darren’s friend.”
She made this up. She didn’t recognize him, nor did she know anyone named Darren. But she caught the guy off guard, which gave her precious seconds to figure out what to do next.
Yee pretended to struggle to put the key in the ignition as her left hand reached for the door. She pushed it open and darted out, running and screaming, “Help! Help!”
She never looked back. “I didn’t give myself a chance to see if he was following me,” she said. “I figured, if he was going to shoot me, he was going to shoot me. I was going to run and make as much noise as I could.”
A neighbor of Yee’s, firefighter Jim Amick, was already on the phone to police when she bolted out of her car. He was suspicious after looking out the window and watching a car park too far from the curb and its driver jogging toward Yee’s driveway.
Police confirmed that Amick placed his call at 9:52 p.m.
“At first, I think they didn’t know whether to take me seriously,” Amick said. “I’m describing this suspicious character, and then all of a sudden, I’m saying, ‘Now there’s a woman running down the street, screaming for help.’ That they took seriously.”
Yee banged on a neighbor’s door. No answer. She continued to run and scream, banging on doors until she slid under an SUV parked in a neighbor’s driveway. She waited 20 seconds without moving. When she didn’t see her attacker’s feet, she pulled out her cellphone and started speed dialing. She reached her business partner and asked her to call 911.
Police cars were already on their way because of Amick’s call. They blocked off the street and surrounded the gunman’s car. When he returned to it, sans hoodie and gun, they arrested him. He is a suspect in several other robberies, as well.
Within hours, news of Yee’s escape, covered by local TV stations, started popping up on Facebook.
I asked Yee what advice she’d give other women in a similar situation who don’t have self-defense training. She rattled off the list:
• Stay calm. Your attacker wants you to panic.
• Never agree to go with him to a remote location.
• Don’t hesitate to lie. Telling the robber he looked familiar bought Yee crucial seconds.
• Always keep your cellphone on your body, not in your purse.
• Make as much noise as possible. If your car remote has a panic button, use it. Yee said she wishes she had remembered to do this.
• Be aware of your surroundings, always.
Finally, here’s advice for all of us, all the time: Know your neighbors, and be willing to call 911 if you see something suspicious.
“I am so grateful that Jim picked up that phone,” Yee said. “If I had been out there all alone, I don’t know what I would have done.”
We all can be grateful she never had to find out.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.