Peggy Ann Recounts Shade Gap Abduction
Forty-two years after being abducted from a school bus near her home, kidnapping survivor Peggy Ann Bradnick Jackson recounted her very personal story of a crime that terrified a community for eight days and thrust the small town of Shade Gap into the national headlines in the spring of 1966.
Speaking to a standing-roomonly crowd of more than 700 in the McConnellsburg High School auditorium last Thursday evening, Bradnick Jackson ended her story by telling the crowd she is not a victim. "Victims," she said, "always look back and never go forward - but you have to learn to forgive. So, victim, I am not. Survivor, I am."
Bradnick Jackson spoke for nearly 90 minutes and took questions from the crowd for another 30 minutes. She also graciously met with those in attendance and signed autographs both before and after her presentation to a crowd gathered for the Fulton County Historical Society's fall meeting to kick off the 35th annual Fulton Fall Folk Festival.
Peggy Bradnick was only 17 years old when former mental patient William Hollenbaugh took her at gunpoint as she was getting off the school bus with her younger siblings on May 11, 1966. What followed was eight days of terror for the teenager as search parties of both civilians and law-enforcement officers combed the mountains in search of her. She recounted the abduction and said initially she could hear her father screaming for her upon learning that she had been taken. She also remembers how she looked forward to getting home that day because her mother was making a special dinner for them. Hollenbaugh, who had lived near the Bradnick residence in the Shade Gap area, was known in the neighborhood as "Bicycle Bill" or "Bicycle Pete" as he rode his bicycle throughout the area. He was originally from Mifflin County and had spent 13 years in a hospital for the criminally insane diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia before being released in 1959 when he moved to Shade Gap.
After abducting her, he told her he had been watching her for three years and also told her that from then on, "she should consider herself dead." He told her she would never return to her family as he forced her deeper and deeper into the woods of the Tuscarora Mountains in an area known as Gobbler's Knob. There he had hidden supplies in various caves that allowed them to subsist and to elude the more than 1,000 law officials searching for them. After Hollenbaugh shot and killed FBI agent Terry Anderson, law-enforcement officials continued to arrive in the county to join in the hunt. In addition to Anderson, Hollenbaugh shot and killed a tracking dog and wounded another dog that eventually also died.
During the eight days, the kidnapper, now known nationally as the "mountain man," often menaced the young woman, putting a gun to her head and a knife to her throat and always reminding her that he was in control and that he could outsmart all of the search parties. Bradnick Jackson called Hollenbaugh "a brilliant man of many disguises who had nearly perfected his plan to abduct her." His ultimate intention, she said, was to hijack a car at the Pennsylvania Turnpike exchange at Fort Littleton and to force her to drive them to Mifflin County where he said they would live.
She told the audience that Hollenbaugh had no remorse and showed absolutely no compassion to any living thing. She said that no matter what she said to him, she could not please him and that he talked very little, often just grunting. After killing Anderson, he felt she should be grateful to him that he would kill someone to save her. She said he was very bitter with society and felt that he had been unfairly treated by law enforcement. She said he was proudest after he killed Anderson and the dog. At the time, Anderson was only the ninth FBI agent to be killed in the line of duty. Today, Bradnick Jackson stays in touch with Anderson's family and said that his two sons followed in his footsteps by becoming FBI agents.
Bradnick Jackson recounted how they would sometimes be close enough to searchers to "reach out and touch them" and that she could hear them light cigarettes and smell the smoke. Although she knew there were search parties looking for them, she did not know anything else and said she feared for her family that they might all be dead.
On the final day, Hollenbaugh shot Francis Sharpe, a Cambria County deputy sheriff who had spent the night at a friend's cabin on Gobbler's Knob while joining in the search. Hollenbaugh forced the deputy, who had been wounded in the abdomen, to drive the pair down to Route 522 near the Fort Littleton area and the turnpike exchange. At the Rubeck farm, Sharpe alerted state troopers who were stationed there and in the ensuing gun battle, Hollenbaugh was shot and killed. Program emcee David Hoover recalled how Hollenbaugh was brought to Fulton County Medical Center. Although already dead, he was handcuffed to the gurney, Hoover said. Bradnick was also taken to the Medical Center, where she spent a week recovering from cuts, scrapes, bruises and severe dehydration. She had lost 14 pounds during her week in captivity.
The theme of her story now is one of trying to give back all she can to a community that she said "saved her with its prayers." "I became a Christian when I was seventeen years old," she said. "When you are abducted, fear takes over and all common sense is gone," she said, "but all of your prayers were felt by me - without them, I would not be here tonight."
She spoke lovingly of her late parents, saying that on the day she was abducted her mother was able to give a perfect description of what she was wearing. "How many parents can do that today?" she asked. She was also joined briefly on stage by her daughter, Alicia, whom she called "the light of my life."
She remained quiet for many, many years after the abduction. "You can't fix what's been broken," she said, "but I'm OK and I am at peace - I have worked hard to become a person I could be happy with when my life ends." Expressing compassion for her abductor, she said she has often wondered how difficult it must have been for him to have no one to care about him and no one to love him. "I'm just so sorry that anyone had to die," she said, and one gets the sense that she includes Hollenbaugh in that sorrow.
Now living in Three Springs, she manages the senior citizen center there, but she said when she retires, she hopes to work as an advocate for those who have a mental illness. She speaks in high schools and colleges and admonishes students to stay connected to their parents, to always leave a note or let them know where you are. She also encouraged everyone not to take the same routes to work every day and not to do things in the same way, to avoid patterns that criminals can study and use to harm you. "You don't realize what can be taken away from you until it happens," she added.
Following her remarks, Bradnick Jackson took questions from the audience which included questions about "Cry In The Wild," the movie made of her abduction. She rejected the script 16 times and had resisted consulting on the project until the film's producers persistence wore her down. She was asked about Robert Cox's book, "Deadly Pursuit" and said, "I never read it." Cox went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the story for the Public Opinion. She also very strongly set the record straight about the many rumors that were talked about after her rescue.
Prior to Bradnick Jackson taking the stage, Hoover recounted many of the events leading up to the abduction. For several years, there had been strange occurrences and shootings in the area and although Hollenbaugh was suspected, it was never proven until after his death that he was the perpetrator.
After receiving a standing ovation at the end of the program, Bradnick Jackson told the very large crowd that the turnout and the reception "is overwhelming to me - I guess because we're neighbors and we stick together and it is so heartwarming. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart," she said, as she stood strong and stoic before the crowd, many of whom had offered prayers for her safety all those years ago. Locally she will now be remembered forever as a survivor, never a victim.