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5 Other Kidnapping Victims Who Survived Their Ordeals

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Details are still slowly emerging about the bizarre case of three young women who were allegedy held hostage by Ariel Castro and his two brothers for 10 years in Cleveland, Ohio. One fact that is not in dispute, however, is that the families of Amanda Berry (right), Georgina DeJesus (left), and Michelle Knight are overjoyed that their long-lost daughters and sisters were found alive. Here are the stories of five other kidnapping victims that, like the Cleveland women, suffered through unspeakable horrors during their captivity, but were fortunate in that they also survived their ordeals. 

1. Jaycee Dugard

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Still fresh in the public’s mind is the case of Jaycee Dugard, who was just 11 years old in 1991 when a car slowed down as she was walking from her house to the school bus stop in South Lake Tahoe, California. Thinking the driver was going to ask for directions when he rolled down his window, she walked up to the car.

Instead the driver, convicted sex offender Phillip Craig Garrido, zapped her with a stun gun and his wife, Nancy, dragged Jaycee into the car and held her down during the two hour ride to their home in Antioch. There, Garrido locked her in a soundproofed storage shed in his back yard, warning her that his Doberman Pinschers would attack her if she tried to escape.

Garrido raped Jaycee repeatedly while she was held captive, and at age 14 she gave birth to a daughter. By the time Dugard gave birth to her second daughter in 1997, Garrido occasionally let the three sleep in a tent in his back yard rather than the storage shed. Eventually Dugard answered exclusively to the new name Garrido had given her, Allissa, and even worked for him sometimes in his printing shop, where customers said she never mentioned her true identity or that she was being held against her will.

Jaycee and her daughters were out with Garrido at the University of California-Berkeley in August 2009 when he tried to secure permission to hold an event on campus. The manager thought the girls looked very pale and acted robotic. She had Garrido fill out a form and excused herself to run a background check in another office. When his name came back as a registered sex offender who was not to be in contact with young children, she called the police.

Jaycee Dugard was awarded $20 million by the State of California for the mishandling of her case by law enforcement, and Phillip and Nancy Garrido are serving life sentences in prison.

2. Colleen Stan

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Colleen Stan was 20 years old when she accepted a ride in May 1977 in Red Bluff, California, while hitchhiking from Eugene, Oregon, to Westwood, California, to attend a friend’s birthday party. Even though hitchhiking was considered unsafe, and women especially were warned against it, Colleen felt safe getting into the blue Dodge Colt because the young couple inside was clean cut had their baby with them.

However, shortly after she got inside the car, the driver, Cameron Hooker, detoured onto a small dirt road and then stopped. His wife, Janice, stepped outside with the baby while Cameron put a knife to Colleen’s throat and ordered her to cooperate. He then handcuffed her and placed a hinged plywood box over her head which he’d constructed especially for the occasion. It was heavily insulated so Colleen could not see or hear; in fact, she could barely breathe.

Once they arrived at the Hookers' house, the “head box” was removed, but Colleen was hung by her wrists from the basement ceiling and whipped. After Cameron tired of this torture, he and Janice had sex on the floor near where Colleen dangled and whimpered in pain (he’d threatened to cut her vocal cords if she screamed). It turned out that Cameron had long harbored fantasies of having a sex slave, and his wife went along with his plan because she was afraid he’d leave her otherwise (and who would want to lose such a gem of a husband?).

Hooker was fascinated by the erotic novel The Story of O, and proceeded to have Colleen sign a slavery contract in which she agreed to follow his every depraved order. She spent much of her time in another box Hooker had constructed that fit underneath his and his wife’s bed. Stan spent seven years as Hooker’s prisoner, punching bag, and sex toy until his wife finally called the police. Cameron had made the mistake of confessing to Janice that he wanted to have a baby with Colleen, and Janice got jealous.

After her rescue, Colleen returned home, went to college for an accounting degree, got married, and had a daughter. Cameron Hooker was sentenced to 104 years imprisonment, thanks in part to testimony by his wife, who received complete immunity for being the state’s witness.

3. Tanya Kach

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Tanya Kach was a troubled 13-year-old when she started confiding in the security guard who worked at her middle school. Her parents had split up, her mom left home, and her father moved his girlfriend in. The 37 year old guard, Thomas Hose, was much older than Tanya, but he was a sympathetic ear who often joked with her and didn’t treat her like a kid. He bought her cigarettes and candy and soon the pair were sneaking kisses in secluded areas of the schoolyard.  

In February 1996, Tom proclaimed his love for Tanya and encouraged her to run away from home and come live with him. But life at his suburban Pittsburgh home was not the idyllic “honeymoon” the young girl expected. Hose lived with his parents and kept Tanya hidden away in his upstairs bedroom. Much of the time she was locked in his closet with a bucket to use as a toilet. Tom threatened to kill her family if she made a sound. She was taken downstairs once a week for a shower when his parents were asleep.

After four years, Hose introduced Tanya to his folks as “Nikki,” his girlfriend, and she was “allowed” to move in with him. Tom now allowed Tanya out of the house occasionally to run errands for him, and the owner of the neighborhood deli suspected something was not quite right about the frightened teenage girl with the much older boyfriend who kept her head down whenever they came into his store. One day Tanya managed to speak to the owner privately for a few minutes, giving him her real name and begging him to phone for help. A few hours later police arrived at the Hose house, ending her 10 year captivity. 

Tanya Kach is still estranged from her parents but is engaged to be married. Thomas Hose was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison and was denied parole in 2012.

4. Steven Stayner

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Seven-year-old Steven Stayner was walking home from school in Merced, California, in 1972 when convicted child molester Kenneth Parnell approached him. Posing as a minister, Parnell asked Steven if his mother would be willing to donate items to his church. When the youngster answered in the affirmative, Parnell invited him to get into his Buick, saying that he’d drive him home.

Instead Parnell drove Steven to a cabin in Catheys Valley, where he molested the youngster and told him that his parents had made him the boy’s legal guardian because they couldn’t afford to take care of him and his four siblings. He re-christened the boy “Dennis” and began passing him off as his own son. The duo moved around to various parts of California, and Parnell allowed the young boy to drink liquor and to live without a lot of rules.

He continued to sexually assault Stayner until he reached puberty, whereupon he kidnapped a new, younger victim—5-year-old Timmy White. Stayner was upset at the prospect of such a young child being subjected to the same treatment he’d sustained for the past seven years, so he escaped with White one night while Parnell was at work. They went to a Ukiah police station where Stayner told officials “I know my first name is Steven, I think my last name is Stainer (sic).”

Steven Stayner got married in 1985 and had two children with his wife. Sadly, he died due to injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident in 1989. Amazingly, due to the laws in place at that time, Kenneth Parnell was only sentenced to seven years and was paroled after five. 

5. Erica Pratt

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The word on the street in the southwest Philadelphia neighborhood where 7-year-old Erica Pratt lived was that her grandmother had just received a very large sum of money from a life insurance settlement after the shooting death of her husband. Edward Johnson and James Burns devised a plan to help themselves to some of that cash: They would kidnap one of the Pratt grandchildren and demand $150,000 in ransom.

On a July afternoon in 2002, Erica happened to be closer to the curb while outside playing with her 5-year-old sister Naliyah when the kidnappers showed up. They drove her to a house about 12 miles away and left her locked in the basement with duct tape binding her hands and legs and covering her eyes.

The spunky youngster spent the long hours that followed chewing her way through the tape on her hands. Once they were free, she removed the tape from her eyes and felt her way to the stairway. She hopped up the steps and, finding the door locked, punched a wooden panel out of the door and wriggled through it. Erica was stymied yet again when she reached the living room; the door was locked and the key was missing, and the windows had bars covering them. She found a heavy object and broke the glass between the bars and screamed for help. Two boys playing across the street heard her and contacted police. Twenty-four hours after her ordeal had begun, Erica Pratt was free; a scratched cornea was her only injury.

Edward Johnson was sentenced to 10 to 37 years in prison, while James Burns was given 14 ½ to 49 years.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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