Produced by Peter Shaw
[This story first aired on Jan. 23, 2016. It was updated on May 13, 2017]
The inspiring story of one woman's will to live through a brutal attack, how that night changed her life forever, and the investigation and changing technology that would help police track down her attackers 18 years later.
"Victoria" | Survivor: My story is evil. ...Sort of, getting a taste of hell. ...But it's a story that needs to be told. ...My name is Victoria. But it's not my real name. ...I'm gonna take to you a really dark place.
HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIF. | DEC. 23, 1990
I was 19 years old ... I was an absolute rocker - chick. ...That night ... I was with ... a few friends. ...We were gearing up to go out and look at Christmas lights. ...As I was going home that evening ... I know it was just after midnight ... I was pulling into my complex, I noticed ... my gate was wide open. ...It was extremely dark in the parking lot. And ... the lights in -- over -- my car port were glitching.
I thought I had heard the sound of possibly somebody coming through the gate. ... It was that "dah-duh, dah-duh" sound of tires going over, like, a rail. ...Just the sound. ...I had taken my dog and stuck her inside my jacket and then folded her up ... real tight 'cause it was very cold outside. ...And as I got out I just had the weirdest feeling that I was being watched.
[Sigh] and as I got up to the sidewalk ... I saw a shadow go in front of a light. ...And as I did that -- a guy just came up and fastly approached me. ...And he kept saying, "Excuse me, excuse me, I'm lost. Can you help me find where the beach is?" ... [sigh] and then ... a second person comes up. ...He had a cigarette in his hand ... and I see this in slow motion in my head--I see him flicking it and I said to myself, "Watch where it lands." ...And then BAM! ...I got pounced, from the front and from the back ... he slammed a gun to my head. ...And he's just like, in my ear, ..."I'm gonna kill you so bad, I'm gonna throw you off the cliffs, I'm gonna mutilate you and throw you ... down the cliffs."
And I fought with everything I had in my soul to not be a missing person or to have a toe tag at the end.
Erin Moriarty | "48 Hours" correspondent: Victoria's story is a miraculous tale of survival. But even nearly 25 years after the attack, it's not over. Which is why she's not using her real name on camera.
A VICIOUS ATTACK
Erin Moriarty: With sheer will, Victoria survived a series of terrible events beginning with the assault on that Christmas Eve. Her attackers came out of nowhere. One, she thought was Hispanic. The other, an intimidating Asian man, who, according to Victoria, was the one calling the shots that night.
[A warning: some of the details of Victoria's ordeal are graphic]
Victoria: I have been referenced as Jane Doe for many years. ...I just remember thinking, "I don't have a toe tag. I lived through that night."
BAM! I got sandwiched like a bear trap. ...He gauged me in the eyes as hard as he could. ...And he slammed a gun to my head. He tells me, "Bitch, you're gonna die tonight. I'm going to f---ing kill you."
And at that moment, my little puppy dog, who was caught in between all this, bit him so hard in the wrist. ... And he says, "What the f was that?" ...They both kind of broke free for a second ... I threw my dog in the bushes as I ran, because I didn't want her to get killed. ... And then my hair got pulled back. ... And then they both jumped on top of me and just started beating me. ...And he just took his gun and he slammed it into my mouth. [sigh] And he takes my hair and he turns me to the side and he says, "Do you see that?" ... And it was the Hispanic man with his gun pointed at the windows of my neighbors. And the Asian guy says in my ear, "The first one that hears you, ...they're gonna get their head blown off, and you're gonna watch. So it's your choice."
And [sigh] I heard this really loud smack ... what I thought to sound like maybe like a bowling ball being dropped on cement. ... When I came to ... the door was opened and they threw me in.
And then, he asked me where the cliffs were - "take us to the cliffs, we need to go to the cliffs" ... he's trying to get me to pick out where I'm going to be thrown to.
And, as we were going, I -- I had this flash of -- my funeral.
So I zoned ... outta that and I said to myself, "There's two guns, silencers are on them and nobody knows I'm missing. So it is going to be game on from this point, and I need to think of everything I can 'cause all I have is my mind, that's my only weapon." ...So I'm like, "There are no cliffs around here. I don't know where there are any cliffs." ...They ended up pulling over ... in front of someone's house. ... And ... the Asian guy said, "Bitch, take your clothes off."
And he took his gun and showed me that it was loaded ... and he put that into my ear and told me not to get any ideas 'cause he will have no problem splattering my brains in this car. And proceeded to rape me -- for the first time.
And then, he proceeded to say ... "I needed a beach girl for my Christmas present to myself because ... I'm gonna throw you down, I'm gonna make sure the cops see you." ...He had a specific role for me.
And I felt like my only chance to live was to rewrite that role. ...Just so happens that I have, in my wallet, a friend of mine's newborn baby picture that she had mailed me and ... I remembered saying that I had a kid, I had a baby. ...'And you're gonna let me out so I can go and see my son'. ...And he says, "Bitch, you think I'm gonna let you go after you've identified me?" ...And I said, "You poked my eyeballs out with contacts in them. I can't see s--t right now." And then it got real quiet. And I just thought, "Did they buy that? Did they buy that?"
Erin Moriarty: Victoria was desperately trying to gain their sympathy. Yet, the assault continued for what felt like hours -- the two men taking turns raping her at gunpoint in the back of the car. And when things couldn't get worse, they did. And the man in charge became even more sadistic.
Victoria: ...And I'm like, "This guy is psychotic. He is an animal."
I just remember thinking ... at this point, I would rather die than continue where -- where I'm at right now. ...And, he rips the door open. Rips me out by my hair. I'm naked ... he's got me with the gun to my head, right here. Right here. And so, I'm on all fours... He's telling me, "Bitch, keep your head down. Keep your head down."
Right as he goes to pull the trigger, the other guy throws the jacket on me real quick. ...And he goes, "What the f--are you doing, man?' ...And the friend says, "She's cold, man." And here I am on the ground, going, "Oh, my God. The guy has caved. He feels something for me."
And it was that pivotal moment ... And he comes down to me ... and he said, "One ... two ... By the way, bitch, Merry F-in' Christmas. Run."
"EVIL HAS CROSSED MY PATH"
Victoria: I was kidnapped, I was tortured and I was left for dead. By the grace of God I knew the right words to say and I ended up getting away.
I was like, "Oh, my God, Did I really make it? Am I not in a car?"
I just kept thinking, "Evil has crossed my path."
Erin Moriarty: Victoria was suddenly free -- running for her life. A family took her in and called 911. But before she went the hospital, Victoria returned with investigators to the initial crime scene. They were looking for evidence. Victoria was looking for something she had left behind.
Victoria: I got out ... and I'm -- calling for my dog, "Shassy, Shassy!' ...And I didn't hear anything. And I'm, like, "Oh, my God, I probably killed her when I threw her." ...And I'm crying now, because I'm thinking she's dead [sigh]. ...And I heard this screech sound, "Yipe, yipe, yipe, yipe, yipe, yi--" like this. And I saw her and I'm like "Shassy! Come here girl!" ...And I look over. And these officers are at the end of the sidewalk, bawling and jumping up and down and saying, "She found her! She found her!" ... It was a perfect moment.
"Veronica" | Victoria's sister: We got to the hospital. We went into the waiting room. ... You know, it was kinda all confusing because at 12 years old I didn't understand what was happening and no one was saying anything. And all we knew was just that my sister was hurt.
Victoria: I had red marks going across each one of my eyes where -- apparently his nails had gone in and cut the backs of my eyes. ...I had a semi-dislocated shoulder ... I had dislodged part of my hinge in my jaw. ...Majority of my teeth were extremely loose. ...I lost a lot of hearing from the head trauma. ...I was in so much pain, that on a scale from one to 10, I would've registered 1,000.
Veronica: I guess the way you can explain it is it took the air outta my lungs. It was just devastating -- nothing that any child that age should have to see. ...She was always the strong one ... and always our rock. And now ... she was made into nothing. Now she's the one that needed us.
Victoria: They took me into hiding at my grandmother's house in Huntington Beach. ...I wanted a shower. I wanted to be clean. And I remember my mom, and she just lost it.
Veronica: My mom couldn't do it. It was just too -- it was too hard for her. So I took her. ...You know, but I just had to reassure her, "It's OK. I'm gonna get you clean. We're gonna make you beautiful," you know, and just ... if you've ever watched a horror movie and seen a murder scene in a shower, that is what it looked like.
Victoria: All this stuff was -- was touching my foot; my ankles. Like something -- it reminded me of when I was on the beach. That seaweed would wrap up around your ankles. ...And I was like, "What is that? What is that? What is that?" She said, "Don't look down. Don't look down."
Veronica: As I washed her hair and as I tried to smooth it out, just chunks of hair came out. And by the time we were done, probably half of her hair was on the floor of the shower. ...It had just been held on there by the blood that was in her hair. ...That day made me an adult. ...It was a nightmare. And it's still a nightmare. ...And there's not a day that I don't think about it.
Victoria: My sister's so brave. And she was so strong, and got me through the worst day of my life, which was Christmas Eve.
Det. Don Howell | Huntington Beach P.D., Ret.: I was assigned to Victoria's case on Christmas Eve of 1990.
Well, when the case was first assigned to me, I looked at it and I realized we really had a problem here. ...These were two violent offenders. I felt certain that they were gonna -- continue to assault. ...And so I set everything else aside -- on my desk to work this one.
Victoria: I remember sitting there and them asking me ... "What was the shape of the brow, what was the -- face shape, what did their hair look like?"
Det. Don Howell: We post the composite drawings to the news media and television ... Just about any place we could distribute the -- composite drawings, we did, hoping we'd get somebody to recognize 'em.
Erin Moriarty: But investigators had something else - DNA. Evidence collected from Victoria's body at the hospital and from the jacket she was wearing that night yielded profiles for two men. And there was another clue: something Victoria remembered her attackers discussing.
Victoria: I know that they were saying "Show the respect to Sons of Samoa," and really playing into that as though they were part of that gang. ...And I saw a smug self-centered psychopath. ... He carved "SOS" onto my rear end. ...I know I've heard of SOS before. They were a really bad gang.
Det. Don Howell: I thought that they had -- had screwed up by telling her that and ... not killing her. I thought that was a real viable lead.
I knew we'd get these guys. I was in a 90-percent certain range that we'd get 'em real quickly.
Victoria: Detective Howell told me... "People like this, who do heinous acts, will slip up one day. ...And I'll be there when that day happens."
"WE GOT HIM"
Victoria: I felt like my whole life was completely dominated by this attack. And it really beat me down because I thought I survived it. And the realization ... was that my journey had just begun.
"Jessica" | Victoria's best friend: They broke her. They broke her spirit. ...She just was different. She didn't smile. She didn't laugh.
Victoria: I remember when I would nod off to sleep, I was back in the car again. ...I would wake up screaming and [sighs] ... I would shake like a seizure. ...I was in the moment, every time I closed my eyes. So, why would I want to close my eyes?
Jessica: I'd have to talk to her -- talk to her to get her to realize, "You're OK, you're safe, you're safe."
Victoria: Things that set me off would be the brake of a car ... a door shutting ... the phone ringing ... knocks on my door ... TV ... the news. ...Somebody passed ... by a window. ...And I -- I heard this -- this quick move and the shadow. ...They're coming to get me again, they're coming to get me again.
Jessica: I would double check all the windows and doors for her over and over 'cause she was too terrified.
Victoria: How in the world am I gonna get past this?
Det. Don Howell: This one was at the top of the pile for a very long time.
I thought there was enough information immediately to -- have these guys in jail in a few weeks.
We worked the Sons of Samoa angle for about a year. ...There was nothing. There was no rumors on the street. There was no gang intel. There was no one matching the descriptions. ... I had to come to the conclusion that it was a false lead.
What didn't we have in this investigation? We did not have a license plate. ...We did not have fingerprints. ...Nobody else saw the bad guys coming or going. ... What we had was a lotta nothing.
But we knew we had to work the DNA. ...And in 1990, DNA evidence was just starting to become popular. ...And so we had this good DNA evidence that would tie us to somebody, we just didn't have a big enough data bank to make the connection. ...It was incredibly frustrating.
Victoria: After the days turned into weeks and turned into months...
Det. Don Howell: I'd have to tell her, "No, we got nothing."
Victoria: [Sigh] And then years went by.
Det. Don Howell: The case had gone cold and actually gotten to the point where we weren't actively doing a lot with it.
Victoria: Knowing that they were still out there made me fear for every single person on the street in the daytime, walking amongst two demons. Because they were out there and nobody knew who they were.
For my sanity and my health ... I was going to leave the state ... and start over fresh. ...It was amazing. ...It felt like the weight of the world lift off my shoulders.
Eventually, I made it to where it wasn't with me every day. ...I could sleep through a whole night ... I was ...regaining some of my inner peace. And I think with that -- allow myself to feel again.
I had ... made a phone call to an old friend. ...And the day he showed up he never left. ...And then I ended up having twins. ...It was the highlight of our lives.
And one day ... I received a phone call that I had waited for for 18 years.
Det. Don Howell: I said, "Yeah, we got him. ...We finally got a DNA hit."
Victoria: This was the best part of the story.
Det. Don Howell: Yes! Yes.
Victoria: To know that one of them was caught.
Det. Don Howell: Just -- to -- confirm ...that she could identify him ... we arranged to ... send the photo lineup to her.
Victoria: So the moment I looked at this lineup, I immediately knew.
Det. Don Howell: And she goes, "Number one, no. Number two, no. Number three, no. Number four, no..."
Victoria: Number five was him.
Det. Don Howell: "That's the face I see every night when I go to bed before I fall asleep. That's the nightmare I have. I don't have to look at number six."
Victoria: When I saw his face, I said, "You're caught. It's you. And I've caught you. And you're gonna go down."
Det. Don Howell: The name to the DNA was a man named Joseph Son.
Victoria: Rather than going and hiding and staying away from the limelight ... he was in the MMA. ...it all came together ... That's why he was ... doing all the wrestling-type moves with me.
Erin Moriarty: Joseph Son was in the DNA database only because he had a conviction after he kicked in the door of a former roommate's car. As part of his plea deal, Son had agreed to submit his DNA and that's what led to the hit in Victoria's case in 2008. But investigators couldn't believe what else they found. He was an actor with a role in a Hollywood blockbuster, "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery."
Victoria: I had his movie sitting on my rack. I remember running over there and just destroying it, because I thought, "Are you serious? He's in my home?"
Investigator: Joe, we're trying to give you your opportunity to tell us what happened that night...
Joseph Son: I've never done anything like that; I have no idea what you're talking about.
Joseph Son: That's nasty, that wasn't me.
Det. Don Howell: Completely denied the crime. Completely denied any contact with her whatsoever.
We knew that he was lying to us. I'd prefer a confession, but sometimes a lie is just as good.
Erin Moriarty: Despite Son's denials, there was that DNA. So, in October 2008, he was charged with multiple counts of rape and kidnapping. And then the case was handed off to another D.A. brand new to the sexual assault unit.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough | Orange County, Calif., D.A.'s Office: : It was my first day. I had been on the job in sexual assault for maybe half an hour.
I just pulled a case down by random. ...and it's the Joseph Son case. ...I cannot believe the horrors that this woman had to go through. "If this is my entire caseload, I'm never gonna survive." ...This is a case that you have to work for, you have to fight for to make sure she gets justice.
I was glad we had Joseph Son, but ... I wanted to find the second suspect. ...You know he's dangerous. You know he's out there. That was my priority number one."
A SICKENING DISCOVERY
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: When I got this case, it kept me up at night.
We had identified one of the suspects who had assaulted Victoria, and I knew there was another one out there. And that's really where I focused my initial energy. ...So we decided to put Joseph Son's picture out on a bulletin along with the sketch of the second assailant and ... we put it out to the media.
Det. Don Howell | Huntington Beach, Calif. P.D., Ret.: We weren't gettin' anything. I mean, nothin'. And we're goin', "Come on, you know? This -- somebody has to know this guy." And then, couple of days into it -- we get an email ... from a man who wanted to be anonymous.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: He told us he didn't know anything about the crime, but he knew Joseph Son in high school and he knew one of Joseph's friends and the sketch looked a lot like that friend. ...It's a couple months of hard detective work. ...And they were able to put together a very good profile about who this individual was, and where he was living.
Victoria: And that name was Santiago Gaitan.
Det. Don Howell: We still need to identify him. We still have DNA evidence for the second offender. So, we need to get his DNA and compare that.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: Two Huntington Beach detectives ... set up surveillance outside of his apartment complex. ...They were there for maybe 30 minutes and they saw Santiago Gaitan walking out of his apartment, drinking a bottle of Sunkist soda, and throwing out the trash. ...Finishes his last drink from the -- from the bottle, and puts it on top of the dumpster. ...The detectives get out of the car. ...they grab the bottle. They bag it. And they grab the trash. They take that with 'em.
Victoria: And what do you know, it was a DNA match.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: So Santiago Gaitan is arrested.
Victoria: That was the best night's sleep of my life.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: Mr. Gaitan had minimal criminal history. He had moved out of state, and essentially had tried to start a new life for himself. He had a wife. He had a couple of children. He was like anyone else you might meet.
So we've identified the suspects. ...Now is when the real work begins. ...Any time you have a case that's 18 years old, you know there's the potential for things to go wrong. Memories fade. Evidence gets lost. So I wanted to make sure that I dotted my I's and I crossed my T's. Let's get ready. Let's get ready for trial.
Erin Moriarty: But things did go wrong -- very wrong. Deputy D.A. Scarbrough made a sickening discovery. It had taken police so long to track down the suspects, the statute of limitations for rape and kidnapping had run out.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: It was like my stomach had hit the floor. ...There was the very real likelihood that we were gonna have to dismiss the case and they were gonna walk out of the courthouse scot-free.
Victoria: "Oh my God."
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: I spent the weekend looking for different ideas and different angles. ...I re-read through the entire case file. ...And so a light went off. Why don't I charge torture? ...There was no other way to describe the defendant's conduct other than they had tortured her. ...Because torture carries the possibility of life imprisonment, there is no statute of limitations ... there was still gonna be an opportunity to bring Victoria justice. ...One of my absolute best days, bar none.
Santiago Gaitan's attorney ultimately approaches me and says his client is willing to plead guilty.
Victoria: I agreed that a plea deal would be acceptable. But he needed to confess what he did. ...He confessed to everything. And they gave him 17 years.
Victoria: Son decided that he wanted to go to trial. He wasn't gonna confess to anything.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: Then let's get ready to go.
Local news report: "An actor from the Austin Powers movies goes on trial in Orange County this week for charges of a violent rape."
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: The trial took place in August of 2011. ...Victoria was essential to this prosecution.
Victoria: I had a job to do. ...My job was to put away what I considered one of the biggest monsters ever.
Veronica: I was terrified for my sister because ... I knew that she was going to have to see him.
Victoria: My biggest concern about going in the courtroom was making eye contact. ...I didn't want him to be able to wink at me, or do anything that would give him the sensation that he was doing something to me again. So I didn't allow him eye contact.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: The testimony was heart wrenching to hear.
Veronica: The jurors were horrified.
Victoria: And they needed to hear every single detail.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: There were jurors who had tears in their eyes.
Victoria: There wasn't a dry eye in the whole courtroom.
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: Joseph Son did not testify during the trial. ...At various times throughout the case ... he would attempt to yell out, "That's a lie" ... "They're making this up."
Victoria: [Sighs] When I was waiting for the jury to make their decision ... in my head ... I thought ... "Was everybody affected? ... Did they believe me? Did they see the evidence? ...DNA's DNA?"
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: There are no guarantees in a jury trial.
Victoria: What if 99 percent of them feel one way and one doesn't?
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: The jury deliberated for a few hours before they reached a verdict.
Victoria: He was guilty. ...Guilty of torture. ...I just thought, "You son of a bitch. Now you're the one who has your hands behind your back. Have a little taste of my life and what you put me through."
Erin Moriarty: Joseph Son was sentenced to seven years-to-life in prison, which meant, theoretically, he would one day be eligible for parole. But then just one month later, guards made a gruesome discovery.
Victoria: No one was safe around Joseph Son. No one's safe!
A NEW BATTLE
Deputy D.A. Eric Scarbrough: In my career, I have dealt with what I think is some of the worst of the worst that humanity has produced. Joseph Son, I think, deserves a place at the top of that list.
Joseph Son was convicted and sentenced; he was transported to state prison. Within a very short time of being there, he murdered his cell mate.
Victoria: The fact that the cell mate died of punches, kicks, and blows, it just sounded exactly like the person that I was with that night who did the same thing to me.
Det. Don Howell: Under California law, if you're serving a life term in prison and you kill somebody in prison that could be a death penalty trigger. And so it would be possible for them to file a death penalty case against Joseph Son for this. And if so, Victoria would need to come and testify at the sentencing to say, "This is the crime he committed against me. He's bad enough a guy to warrant that kind of punishment."
Victoria: Honestly, in the very beginning, I didn't think he deserved to live. But there was a lot more to it than that that I had to think about. ...I didn't know if I had enough energy to do this battle. ...I understood they wanted to put him to death. I mean, he killed somebody. He tried to kill me. He's an animal. But I just felt at the end of the day that I was done. I had a life to live. And I wasn't interested anymore.
Erin Moriarty: Prosecutors dropped the death penalty for Joseph Son's upcoming trial. But Victoria's ordeal was still not over. It's hard to believe, but once again she found herself in a fight for her life.
Victoria: I had noticed in May of 2014 that I wasn't feeling that great ... and I shared with my husband that and he said, "Get to the doctor immediately." He just had a bad feeling.
Victoria: I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.
Veronica: I think you, for a minute or so, lose your faith, that "Why is that happening to my sister so many times? Why is she being attacked in different ways? ...Why can't she just have a beautiful happy life? ...Why now does this have to come in?"
Victoria: I needed to get in immediately and start getting treatment.
Veronica: When she got diagnosed I told her, "I'm gonna shave my head." ...'Cause I didn't want her to go through it alone. And I wanted to make her feel -- that I supported her. ...To shave your head for someone, in my heart, meant that -- I'm traveling with you.
Victoria: It made me feel like I wasn't the only bald person in the room, and it made me feel like I had someone like me there.
Victoria: I've managed to bounce back pretty good. I'm in remission ... and I'm just gonna stay in that light for as long as it allows me to.
Det. Don Howell: She has that something in her that allows her to bounce back, even when bad things happen to her. It's quite remarkable of her to do that. ...I don't know if it's in her DNA or in her karma, in her personality, the way she was raised, I have no idea. ...For her to not only survive but to ... survive well and do well is ... it's a miracle. It's miraculous stuff.
Victoria: I chose the name "Victoria" because ... I find that it's more rewarding and more healing -- to be called Victoria. ...Because it was a victory, it was an epic victory. ...There is happiness after tragedy.
It's OK to be happy again. ...I've had my kids. We're in a good place. I'm healthy again.
And I rock out every chance I get
Joseph Son's trial is scheduled for later this year.
Santiago Gaitan could be paroled as early as 2018.
in 2016, Victoria became a grandmother for the first time.