In November 2000, Michelle Renee, an Assistant Vice President at Bank of America, was home playing video games with her seven-year-old daughter, Breea, when three masked gunmen broke into her southern California hilltop house. Tormented by their captors, duct taped and wrapped with explosives, they were threatened with murder if Michelle didn't empty the vault of the bank she managed.
After an intense 14 hours held hostage, Michelle executed the robbery of her own bank. But this was just the beginning of her nightmare. Michelle's involvement was called into question as the hunt ensued to capture the gunmen. On top of the post-event trauma, Michelle even became a suspect.
In this riveting personal account, Michelle tells the story behind her and Breea's harrowing ordeal, the inside details of the bank heist, the threat of death forcing her to confront a turbulent past, and the dramatic trial of the gunmen, in which defense attorneys presented a sensational version of events that stunned everyone. HELD HOSTAGE challenges familiar notions of what is right, what is true, what is ethical, and what it takes to survive.
Interview with Michelle Renee by Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery
What has been the most difficult challenge to overcome since the crime?
Renee: There have been several major challenges to overcome since the crime. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real and incredibly difficult to overcome and still today Breea and I experience some symptoms that we have learned to live with in the most positive way possible. Career and financial challenges have also been difficult. Having to truly seek understanding, answers and a whole new direction for my life was a huge challenge.
You've faced skeptics who thought you may have somehow known about the bank robbery plot. Is that chapter behind you?
Renee: Yes, it is behind me. I used to care what people thought. Now I realize that for anyone to think for one moment that I would ever even consider such a thing, that person doesn't know me at all and certainly doesn't belong in my life or deserve any of my energy.
Taking the witness stand in your own defense was obviously trying. Tell us about that experience.
Renee: I was so naïve about the justice system before this experience. First, I learned that the law isn't about the truth. I was told it is about "gamesmanship." Many times the victims are just pawns in the legal chess game. I was completely unprepared for what the defense is allowed to do to innocent victims in our courts of law that added to the already difficult emotional pain and trauma we were struggling with. Presenting a completely fabricated course of events without any evidence to support it is completely fine. I don't understand that.
Secondly, being attacked as a mother, knowing anyone would ever believe I would put my child through such a horrific ordeal, was the most painful aspect of being on the victim/witness stand. Lastly, I believe the prosecution could have done a better job of shutting down the defense on many levels, particularly by trying Lisa Ramirez, Robert Ortiz, and Christopher Huggins together so all three confessions could have been heard, and having a separate trial for Christopher Butler alone.
Is there anyone involved in your case who you regard as a hero?
Renee: My brother Dave was absolutely heroic in the aftermath of the kidnapping. He gave up his life in Los Angeles and moved to San Diego with his son just to be our advocates and help us heal. He was amazing. Rudy Zamora, the gang task force detective on the case, is the other person I would say, and my daughter just said as well, is our hero. He -- and I know many others -- spent nearly two years of their life on this case. But Rudy was different. He cared on a different level than the others it seemed, and he even showed up to a book signing and spoke to the crowd, telling them what he learned about how to better treat victims and apologizing for the mistakes made in how I was treated. I didn't need to hear it, but it touched me that he would make the effort and admit such a flaw in the system.
You're clearly disillusioned with the justice system. What's the number one problem with the system, and what are you doing about it?
Renee: The legal system has an actual name for it: Dirtying the victim. What little victims' rights we do have, they are not respected which is made clear by the unfair and unbalanced burden of proof standards and what is allowed in open court for the defense. Being focused on positive change in the victims rights arena has been quite the learning experience and I continue to speak out as often as possible at conferences, meetings and events educating the legal community about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD), as well as being vocal about the need for fair treatment of victims, the need for new laws and respecting our rights in our courts of law. It is my hope that one day my DOVE (Dirtying Of Victims Ends) Act will be recognized.
What question should Crimesider have asked you that we didn't... and what's the answer? How was your daughter affected and how is she today?
Renee: Youth in our country suffer greatly from the symptoms of PTSD and lose their sense of wonderment, childlike enthusiasm and have their world shattered every day by violence, abuse and trauma. My daughter experienced all of this and was a completely different child after this event in our life. However, it is important to be aware of the fact that it is up to the parent to model positive recovery for the children, and not take a victim stance for the rest of their life. They must role-model recovery in a way that is self-empowering, self-loving, educational and positive. Today Breea has chosen to pursue photography and in the future go into the medical field. Breea is successful in school, happy, well-adjusted and empowered with the facts about PTSD in youth, knowing that it takes strength, not weakness, to get the help you need to move through and beyond trauma in a powerful way.
Michelle Renee owns M. Enterprises and is an international speaker and marketing/media specialist. She is the founder/creator of Women Who dreamBIG® and Rock To Stop Violence. She is also a family advocate for the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and Children's Hospital Chadwick Center in San Diego. She resides in southern California with her daughter Breea and dog Gypsy.