Also published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal
It’s been one-thousand seven-hundred and seventy-seven days. Four years, seven months, and twenty days.
He got to me on October 6, 2016, but when the other flight attendants began to share their experiences, his trail of offenses reached back seventeen years—at least of those who spoke up.
The allegations were shocking—after all, we worked for a highly respected private aviation company, a leader in the industry. We flew the rich and famous, the powerful players in Hollywood, professional sports, and the political and financial movers and shakers of the world.
How could a monster like this be at the controls of their airplanes?
My sleep is pierced now and then with a recurring nightmare. It goes like this:
A force slams into my chest and crushes all the air in my lungs out through my mouth that stretches open in a dry scream. My eyes bounce open and freeze.
There are rolls of whiskered fat topping a white shirt collar that is under a dark navy blazer with four stripes at the end of the sleeves. A pin of yellow gold wings shimmers over where a heart should lie beneath.
My eyelids are fixed wide open like the ones on a vintage doll when brought upright from its nap and my eyes begin to feel dry and cold but refuse to blink. The hulking predator who just swung his arm around my neck clasps his fists beneath my chin. He flexes, squeezing and wrenching until the left side of my face is touching the right side of his. He pants damp beer-soaked breath through locked jaws.
He knew that I left the lobby bar to get away from him. I walked faster than my usual stride and was shocked when seconds later he stepped into the elevator when I turned to push the floor button just as the doors were closing. The other crew members still sitting at the table likely assumed he went outside to smoke. Instead, with perfect timing, he overtakes my pace and traps me.
He insists that I join him in his room for another drink and I refuse, spurning him. His fury becomes a hissing grenade. The bottle of gin in his flight bag was the pin being pulled and with my rejection, the bomb explodes. He grabs my left buttock and claws with such force that I yelp in pain, stunned as he seizes me into a side headlock.
He’s shouting what he likes to do to “boys”—profane things that he likes to do to “boys”. I assume he is using the word as slang for consenting men, but his tone is one of desperation—even self-loathing.
His arms tighten as he constricts my neck inside his elbow, “You’re the only one I’ve ever said that to. I’ve never told anyone else!” and I understand that if he is ever confronted with what he has just said, he’ll know who betrayed him.
He’s probably lying—it doesn’t make any sense. We’ve only met once or twice before. Why would I be the only one he confides in?
But this is the way a criminal sociopath wields power: he convinces his victim that she will never be free from his watchful eye. That if anything gets back to him, he’ll come for her.
He spits and slobbers as restraints on foul, repressed demons break and become undeniably real, his rage breathing them to life and then. . . silence.
A swift blow strikes the base of my skull, and it cracks like an egg. The weapon feels like a jagged chunk of ice with sharp edges, and it is lodged in the wound that now burns cold.
Piercing aches radiate over the back of my head spreading fever on my ears, along my temples, and across my forehead while I hear my brain sloshing in cerebrospinal fluid until the swelling and pressure around it is so great that the rocking becomes gentler, gentler still, then nearly imperceptible, until it halts. The remaining unshattered cranial plates cradle it in a silent embrace.
The bones at the top of my neck—the atlas and axis, cervical vertebrae one and two—sting fiery cold, like a toxic injection of menthol, and I stay still as the vision of their scaffold-like structure upon which my head rests and pivots flashes in my mind. Are they broken? Are they crushed? Or are they still intact? Are they keeping my head from–?
Then I feel my head jerk sharply backward, hyperextending my throat, breaking the ligaments where my ears and jaw meet. A final clutching, guttural protest gurgles and groans from my larynx, until all goes silent with an abrupt unmistakable crack! The vertebrae that supported my head have collapsed. It has torn away and is now detached from my spine, rolling slow and controlled, down the back of my body, until it reaches my sacrum. There, it drops to the floor and breaks open, and all its contents of brains, blood, and mucus ooze out.
But if my broken head is on the floor, how am I looking at the scene? If my head and brains and eyes are there on the floor, the fluids and tissue beginning to congeal, then with what eyes and brain am I processing this vision?
Here, where reason overtakes the subconscious, my sleeping eyes open and I’m fully awake and able to separate from the dream. My head throbs. My stomach rolls and my intestines spasm. I lie still and wait for the room to stop spinning.
This is the way I relive the night that Robert Jefferson* attacked me. His upper back, shoulders, and trapezius muscles were broad and bloated with layers of fat rendering a kyphotic appearance. His deportment was one of perpetual aggression, like a cobra readying to strike, accentuated by his growling face as it lurched low and forward.
I was sleeping soundly when the nightmare brought his hair-covered, muscular arm near and thrust it under my chin. His furrowed forehead separated his hairline from disheveled eyebrows that were a chaos of wiry gray and white hairs protruding from their follicles like masses of condemned men struggling to escape. They emphasized the eyes that leered for opportunities to violate.
He had a reputation, and it generated a pair of dubious nicknames: Captain Nekkid, and the more sinister one—and more fitting—Captain Predator. His offenses became common knowledge among crew members over the course of twenty years. Unofficial briefings were given to flight attendants new to the group—by other pilots in whom previous victims had confided.
“Have you met Robert Jefferson yet? Be careful with Robert Jefferson.”
“No, I haven’t flown with him. Why?” I replied when it was my turn for the orientation.
The captain and first officer exchanged knowing looks that held a mix of annoyance and disgust. They shook their heads as they lowered their gazes to the floor. Both seemed to be thinking, “We need to tell her.”
“Someone needs to tell her.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe he will.”
“You’re the captain. You brought it up—you tell her.”
“You’re the First Officer. You do it while I order fuel.”
But instead of elaborating, they both asked, “Got any coffee yet?”
Eventually, Robert Jefferson’s name came up again and the nuances took more shape. The side-eyed sighs found a voice. The stories had similarities and differences, but the message was consistent: Don’t go anywhere alone with him, especially if there is alcohol involved. And whatever you do, don’t go to his room alone.
“So, if everyone knows about him, how does he—I mean, why hasn’t he—” struggling to form the question, “why, if his actions have been known about for so long and by so many, how has he not been stopped?”
“Oh, he has been reported,” one captain told me. “But nothing happened. He’s got friends in the office. Or he’s got something on someone that keeps it from going too high up. No one really knows, but somehow it always went away. There are a lot of stories out there but I’m not sure how many actually reported once they saw someone else do it with no results.”
He remained free to keep preying.
As he flexed his arms around my neck, I was sure it would snap and began to envision how I would collapse in three steps, recalling how the camels I rode in Saudi Arabia lowered themselves to the ground on front legs that appeared to have two knees. First, I’d bend at the waist and my chest would come to rest on my thighs. Then my knees would give out and my entire body buckle and fall, folded in a trifold: chest to thighs, hamstrings to calves, butt teetering on ankles before I topple over
I expected this because mine is not a good neck. Severe scoliosis that formed in my teens left it leaning to the right and reversed the natural cervical curve. The disks are squished on the wrong side and cause constant pain. The surgery that was planned to stabilize it never happened, not after the excruciating one that straightened fifteen inches of the spine below it.
All the disks between my shoulders and waist were removed and replaced with cadaver bones. Titanium rods were screwed into both sides to support the fusion—my X-rays look like an erector set.
While in his grip with my arms hanging at my sides, I tapped my fingertips to my thumbs thinking, “Okay, I still feel them. That’s good. Try to keep your head square with your shoulders.
Face straight ahead. Don’t let him twist you at the neck—a snap could kill you.
Who will find me lying here? Hotel guests? Employees? How long? Would I be dead?
Alive, but paralyzed? Who will call Tim—how will they tell him?”
There was no one around. I could think of only one thing that could change the situation, and it wasn’t until months later that I realized that what kicked in was something learned in flight attendant training.
Hostage Negotiation 101: Neutralize the tension—make the hostage-taker believe that you’re on equal footing, be sympathetic to his concerns. Make him see you as a person who understands him instead of an adversary.
Calm him. You need to calm him. It’s the only way to redirect this. Say, “It’s okay. . . I have a lot of gay friends.”
No, no, not that. He’ll think that you believe he just told you he’s gay but he’s a big macho pilot—if he thinks that’s what you heard he’ll want to put that genie back in a bottle. He won’t have that. Say something more neutral. Say it calmly. You have to calm him.
With purpose and clarity, I said, “It’s okay. . . to each his own.”
I wasn’t sure how it sounded as I tried to help him release the anger that consumed him and to not feel that he had just boxed himself into a corner with a whole new identity—an identity that led him to violent exasperation.
It worked. He wasn’t expecting my tone and, in his confusion, the tension in his arms relaxed just enough for me to duck out of his hold and, as if directing passengers in an emergency, began shouting commands at him.
“Go! Go to your room, Robert! Go to your room!” I stood with my feet shoulder-width apart to gain balance in my dizziness and extended my right arm parallel to the floor holding it straight and strong, and pointed past him to an unknown destination.
He was stunned and motionless as he stood watching me, contemplating his next move.
I don’t even know if this is his floor. Keep making noise to scare him away.
Shit! I wish someone would come out of their room! Someone has got to be in one of these rooms! Someone, look out your door!
Just keep yelling. Stay in this position and you keep shouting commands until the threat is over—just like in emergency drills.
No one will believe me. It will be his word against mine. They never believe the victim really fought.
“Go! Go! Get away! Go to your room! Go!”
You haven’t said, “No.” They’ll ask you if you actually said the word “No”. If anyone is in these rooms hearing or watching through their peephole, they must be able to say that they heard you say, “NO!”
“No! No! No! Go to your room, Robert Jefferson! Go!”
The scowl that was there as he nearly broke my neck transformed into bewilderment. He seemed to be thinking, “Is she really that mad? What the—does she really mean it?”
He took a few slow steps away before stopping to look back.
Stay solid. Don’t move. Hold your arm straight and keep pointing. Don’t let him see you weaken. Keep yelling. Don’t stop until he’s gone.
“Go! Go! Get away from me! Go! Go!”
And he did. I didn’t move again until reached the room at the end of the hall on the right,
opened the door and it clicked loudly behind him.
My own room was nearby. If I went there, it would only take him seconds to get to me and force his way in. I ran back to the elevator and pressed the down button, listening for his door. This time, I made it inside alone and was relieved to find Ray, one of my pilots, still sitting at the bar watching a game.
“Hey! You’re back!” His face began to fall as he read mine. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know—no—something happened.”
Ray stood up, grabbed his beer, and indicated to the bartender that we were moving to a table. During those few steps, my head was scrambling with words to organize and recount the events that had occurred in the ten minutes I was gone.
I told him everything except for what Robert yelled out—it pounded in my chest, but I could not raise the words to my lips. They simply would not form.
I felt strangely obligated to keep that part to myself. Not to forget or hide there forever—but to not reveal it solely to destroy him. It was bizarre to know that I had the leverage to destroy him but for some obscure reason did not want to. At least not yet. Instead, there was this compulsion to keep his secret, to hide the shame that his desperation exposed.
It would be many months later before I recognized this as Stockholm Syndrome, a response to a traumatic event that involves feeling sympathy toward the offender. Robert Jefferson divulging that he had homosexual tendencies did not offend me—it offended him—and I didn’t know what to do with that.
“You have got to report him,” Ray said soberly. “He does this. They know he does this. You’ve got to–”
“They won’t do anything. That’s all I’ve ever heard when it comes to him—that he has been reported—that people have tried to do something, and then. . . it just. . . nothing. Nothing. Why would this be any different?”
He lowered his gaze to the table, gathering his thoughts. When he spoke again, his voice was pleading.
“This is what he does. . . but this is worse. It’s escalating. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I can’t think. All I can think of is the company, the company— and I hit a dead end. I just want to get home tomorrow. I’ll think about it then.”
“Are you going to tell Tim?”
“That’s wrong. You’ve got to. He’ll support you. He’ll be really upset if he finds out later—I know I would be.”
“Maybe. I’ll think about it. I probably will. You’re right.”
“What can I do? Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I just need a minute.”
“Let me walk you to your room. I’ll make sure you get in okay, and I’ll stand outside your door for an hour or so until maybe you can get to sleep.”
Ray paid his tab, leaving an undrunk beer on the table. We walked in silence.
When we reached my door I said, “Ray, it’s okay. Thanks for walking me but you don’t have to stand outside here. I’ll be okay,” I said.
“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”
“No, really. We both have flights home in the morning and I’m just going to crash. I think his crew has an early trip—he’ll be gone before I have to come downstairs.”
“Are you sure you won’t report this? I’ll help you call.”
“I will,” I said, half-sure. “I just need to think, get home, talk to Tim. But thank you. Thanks for being here, for the support. I’ll be okay,” I lied.
The next morning my thoughts had already begun to scramble. Getting to the airport on time and going through the process of checking my bag and navigating the TSA drill—tasks that are as routine as making a cup of morning coffee—demanded focused concentration. I had to constantly reorient myself as I walked to my gate, blanking out every few seconds and confused by my surroundings.
At home the following afternoon, I was determined to ignore it. Tim didn’t need to be hurt with it when I could just deny it, tamping it down until it didn’t matter.
While chicken baked for dinner, we settled into the sofa to watch TV, clinked glasses of red wine and as I looked at him everything changed. Fearing that harboring this kind of secret could lead to problems between us, my resolve weakened.
I took one sip of wine and turned to him and said, “Something happened.”
Of course, Tim was gobsmacked by what I told him and wanted me to report but understood my skepticism in getting help. We danced around it.
Foot surgery conveniently provided a few months off work. I swam in denial and avoidance. When I returned, if his name ever appeared on my crew brief, a company app was at my fingertips to call in sick.
There was another personal issue consuming me. Six weeks before the attack, I filed a guardianship and elder abuse case against my father’s much younger spouse after we were informed that he had been critically ill and in a nursing home for weeks before reluctantly allowing her daughter to inform my sister Lora and me.
The circumstances were outlandish. They sold their home as well the Kansas farm Dad inherited and bought a home sixty miles away without telling us or any friends.
An asset search revealed Cindy’s name on three recently purchased cars for her two daughters and a granddaughter. She closed the joint marital bank account that held the money from the farm sale and divided the money into multiple accounts, including one that she put her younger daughter’s name on. She began construction on an addition to the new home—after my father was incapacitated and beginning to incur nursing home costs.
The half-million-dollar proceeds from the sale of the farm were being rapidly depleted.
During one of many hearings, the judge listened as an exasperated probate court attorney warned that Dad would soon be needing to qualify for Medicaid—an uphill battle for a couple who cleared $750,000 on the farm sale less than two years before.
Twenty years earlier, shortly after she and Dad married, Cindy concocted a bizarre claim that she was being poisoned while he was away on business trips. Though they lived in rural Oklahoma and more than two hours away from the nearest relatives, she attempted to convince my father that members of his family were responsible. She resurrected this absurd tale nearly every time we saw one another at obligatory holiday get-togethers.
Lora and I were determined to get to the bottom of what was happening to Dad. When a heavy metal test returned alarming levels, my lawyers consulted with the prosecuting attorney’s office and asked me to file a police report so a detective could be assigned, and an investigation would be initiated.
This fight crossed the miles from my home in Pennsylvania to the Midwest. It would be long, expensive, and mentally and emotionally grueling. Establishing a rapport with rural Missouri law enforcement was already proving to be a Sisyphean task.
Many of my weeks off work were spent traveling to Missouri for court dates and spending time with Dad, who was under strict supervision by nursing home administration to prevent him from having unfettered access to him. As a family friend and sitting judge said to me when told about the poisoning, “She’s got to be stopped. I hate to be crass, but at this point, it would really behoove her to finish the job.”
Reeling from Robert Jefferson and my father’s abuse case, I bolted awake every morning while it was still dark. The clock glowed between 4 and 5 AM.
When I imagined entering another court case that would cause more stress, I crashed and burned. The prospect of stepping out on yet another ledge where I would hold the burden of proof was unbearable.
A year later, Hollywood ogre Harvey Weinstein’s reign of sexual terror collapsed when multiple women came forward with credible allegations of rape, threats, and career-crashing encounters with the media powerhouse. The #MeToo movement exploded with testimonies of offenses that spawned decades.
As the Weinstein story grew more legs, the episode from a year earlier boiled just under the surface. I knew it was a terrible misstep on my part not to report it and the longer I waited, the less relevance it held.
At least, that was my feeling until hundreds of other victims rose up and revealed not only assaults, but episodes of threats, bullying, and harassment. The validity given to reports of inappropriate touching and unwelcome advances—far less severe offenses—helped change the lens through which I viewed my experience.
One evening I was sitting on the floor of our office and Tim was at his desk. We compared the similarities between Robert Jefferson and Harvey Weinstein—how they preyed upon, threatened, intimidated—and how for years, others were complicit and accommodated them. I recalled the troubling things Robert said.
“Boys. He kept growling that he liked to fuck boys. He said it three times. I thought he was just using slang. . . diminishing that he liked to be with other men.”
I remembered our flight attendants who are gay males. Some are strong, fit men who could defend themselves. But there was one I met in training who came to mind. He was no taller than me and slightly built.
The thought of Robert stalking and trapping him brought the new realization that while everyone thinks he only does this to women—we always have our radars out—the men wouldn’t see it coming.
“Oh, God. Oh, no. It’s not just our women flight attendants who are at risk—our guys!”
“Oh, Sweetie,” Tim said, at a new loss for words in the year-long ordeal.
“I have to report. I know they’ll think I’m just jumping on the Me Too bus, but it’s not that—I never thought of it this way until now!”
Regret and frustration bored into my throat, and I felt like vomiting.
“I’m doing it. I know it’s been a year. I know I should have already. I can’t stand the thought of him getting to another one because of me. He may have already. I may be the reason someone else is dealing with this awful shit.”
“It’s the right thing to do, Sweetie. I’ll completely support you. Whatever we need to do.”
“He’s got to pay,” I said.
With the help of two flight attendant union representatives, Jill and Darcey, I filed my report through a conference call. Over the following several weeks, reports trickled in from earlier victims—some no longer with the company—who learned there was a new active investigation. Darcey stated, “This thing just exploded.”
About a week after I filed the report Janet, the Human Resource Manager in charge, called to update me on the proceedings.
“We finally decided that we had to move on to the next step and bring him in for a hearing—they (multiple claims) just kept coming in.” The sound of shuffling papers covered some of the shell shock in her voice as it cracked. “There’s just . . .there’s just so many—it’s hard to keep them all straight.”
One flight attendant was on a layover in Hawaii when he swam around her and untied her bikini while she stood in the chest-deep blue waters of Waikoloa. As she sunbathed by the pool, he told her he was going to his room to look out on her while he masturbated. He returned later to share the details.
Another brought leftover food from the flight to the hotel and offered to set up a buffet in her room. After they both left, she went to bed. Hours later, she was awakened when he crawled under the covers, unclothed—he had helped himself to her key earlier as she served him dinner.
She screamed and ordered him out. He threatened, “If you tell anyone, it will be your word against mine, and I know people. I can make your job here great with long layovers in nice places, or I can make it miserable. You’ll work harder than anyone else.”
One couldn’t find her room key after having dinner with both pilots and had to go to reception to get another one. When she opened her door, he was in her bed, naked and waiting for her.
More than one suspected that he drugged them. They remembered sitting down for a cocktail and then nothing more until they awoke sick and unable to recall the night before, but insistent that they had not drunk enough to black out.
One woman’s voice trembled as she told me of vomiting in the lobby of a European hotel on the morning after.
Another reported that during a stay in a particularly luxurious destination, he wanted to “show her a great view” and running ahead of her on the beach, disappeared into a cove of lava rocks. She rounded the corner to find him standing there naked.
She marked it up to boorishness, and when her crew agreed to meet in Robert’s room for a drink before dinner, she dismissed her concerns.
But the crew of three dissolved to a party of two when the first officer never appeared. The evening unfolded with her alone with Robert. She has no memory of those hours until, like the others, she woke up naked and nauseated.
Later as the first officer fueled the rental car, Robert turned to face her in the back seat and said, “I called scheduling and got us another three days here. And you are going to be my bitch.”
Shaking and sickened, she raged back at him, “The only bitch will be your wife when I call her!”
Terrified, she hid in her room the entire rest of the trip.
At his disciplinary hearing, Robert Jefferson and his union representative faced the chief pilot, administrators, and corporate attorneys as allegations from over a dozen accusers were presented.
Three weeks after filing the report, I was in Missouri for another court date. On my way to see my father at the nursing home, Janet’s name appeared on my phone, and I pulled over to stop to answer the call.
“Daphne, I just wanted to let you know that it is over. Robert Jefferson faxed in his resignation this morning. He will never do this to anyone here again.”
“Why wasn’t he fired? He gets to walk away with nothing on his record! A fat severance check? Was he paid to go away?” It wasn’t enough. After speaking with so many other torn and humiliated women he had tormented, I wanted revenge more than ever.
“No, he was not paid to go away. He will receive what his contract entitles him to with over twenty years here, but it’s not a large severance—certainly not compared to what he’s losing,” she said. “And contractually, we had to give him the chance to resign instead of being fired. He put it off until the last minute. The fax was here when I came in this morning.”
“Janet, one thing I learned through the last few weeks,” I said, “is that he knew he had protection. He got away with this for years because there were people who helped keep these stories from getting to your office before now.”
She was listened and let me talk.
“There were men inside those office walls who knew—and he knew—that he had protection.”
“Y—y—yes,” she affirmed with a sigh.
Her admission surprised me, and I felt validated, finally, by an administrator who would not lie to me.
“Am I under any kind of confidentiality restrictions? Am I allowed to talk about this?”
“You are absolutely not under any restriction, and I hope you do talk about it—as much as you are comfortable talking about it. The flight attendants—and all employees—need to know that this will never happen again. It will never be ignored or tolerated again. They need to know that they will be listened to and protected. So, no, you go. You tell. You are in a unique position—I hope you use it.”
Dad died October 5, 2019—one day shy of the third anniversary. There’s been no justice and I’ve begun to write his story.
Now one thousand, eight hundred and twelve days have passed since the attack. Four years, nine months, and twenty-two days.
It’s time to write “Captain Predator”.