It was a scorching afternoon in Berkeley, California, on the 29th of September, 1978. 15-year-old Mary Vincent was a promising dancer. Having worked front stage at the Lido de Paris in Las Vegas, as well as in Australia and Hawaii, her future was certainly looking bright. On that fateful afternoon, Mary decided she was going to run away from home. Her parents were going through a divorce and she needed some time alone. Los Angeles was the destination, she decided.
As she pointed her thumb towards the hazy California sun, a blue van rolled to a halt beside her. Behind the wheel was former merchant marine seaman, Lawrence Singleton, a relatively unsuspecting looking man with grandfatherly features. Singleton offered to drive Mary to Interstate 5 to which she readily accepted.
As they approached Interstate 5, Singleton continued to drive. When Mary realised that he had passed the turn off, she grabbed a pointed surveyor stick that was sitting beside the passenger seat and demanded he turn the car around. Singleton told Mary that it was an honest mistake and turned the car around to head back towards Interstate 5.
A few miles down the road, Singleton pulled the car in at the side of the road and told Mary he needed to use urinate and that he couldn’t wait to the nearest gas station. Mary decided to get out of the car for a breath of fresh air. As she was tying her lace, Singleton crept up from behind and cracked her over the head with a hammer.
After brutally raping and sodomising the teenager, Singleton severed both of her arms with a hatchet. He then threw her down a 30 foot culvert in Del Puerto Canyon in Stanislaus County and left her for dead. As Singleton sped off, he believed that he had killed Mary and that nobody would ever be able to find her. He was wrong.
The following morning, two women came across a ghastly sight: Mary Vincent was stumbling down the road, nude, holding what remained of her mutilated arms up in the air. “She was holding up her arms so that the muscles and blood would not fall out,” read the court documents.1
She was rushed to hospital where she was able to provide a detailed description of Singleton. The composite sketch was so realistic that Singleton’s neighbour recognised him and called police immediately.
Under the ridiculously lenient laws at the time, Singleton was sentenced to just 14 years in prison which was the maximum sentence allowed. After serving just eight years and four months of that sentence, Singleton was paroled for “good behaviour.”2 Shortly before his release, his psychiatric evaluation read: “Because he is so out of touch with his hostility and anger, he remains an elevated threat to others’ safety inside and outside prison.” In addition, while incarcerated Singleton had written several letters to Vincent’s lawyer wherein he threatened her. After his parole, Vincent was terrified that he would come back to finish off what he started.
While Mary survived, she didn’t feel like a survivor. After the attack, she fell into a deep depression. She had hopes and dreams of becoming a dancer but her reconstructive surgery rendered her unable to dance ever again. She spent numerous years shuddering at the very thought of that afternoon. She suffered from relentless nightmares and drifted from place to place. She was unable to find a job and couldn’t even afford to have her prosthetic arms fixed; she filed for bankruptcy.
“I never smiled one in 21 years,” Mary said in 1999. By now, however, Mary had met a man named Tom and duo got married. Mary went on to have two sons and she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. While she once considered herself a victim, she became a survivor and a victim’s advocate. Beforehand, the very thought of her ordeal traumatised her. But now, she was now willing to speak publicly about that fateful afternoon in the hopes that it would prevent other young and impressionable teenagers from hitchhiking.3
While Mary could dance no longer, she discovered a new talent: drawing. “I couldn’t draw a straight line. Even with a ruler, I would mess it up. This is something I woke up with after the attack, and my artwork had inspired me and given me self-esteem,” said Mary.4
So what became of Lawrence Singleton following his release? He moved to Florida after Californian citizens shared their disdain at the thought of him being released back into their community. In fact, numerous protests of his parole were staged across the state. “Drop Dead, Larry” and “Get the maniac out,” read some of their banners.5
A couple of years after his release, a painter called police after witnessing something gruesome through a window of a home he was walking past in Tampa, Florida. The horrified caller said that he saw a nude man raising his arm again and again over a bloody woman who was slouched over his couch. He told police he heard “bones crushing like chicken bones breaking.” When police arrived, they were met by none other than Lawrence Singleton. It was his home and he was covered in blood.
On the sofa inside the living room lay the lifeless body of Roxanne Hayes, a 31-year-old sex worker who had arranged a date with Singleton; he had agreed to pay her $20 for sex. Singleton had stabbed the mother of three to death with a boning knife.6
As news of the murder reached Mary, she knew in her heart that she had to face Singleton once again. While she wasn’t required to testify at his trial, she felt as though she had to. This time she would see that justice is served. “I was raped. I had my arms cut off. He used a hatchet. He left me to die,” Mary told the stunned court room as she pointed towards Singleton with her prosthetic hook.7
Assistant State Jay Pruner said that the brutality of Singleton’s attack on Mary and the violent murder of Roxanne are the reason that it was recommended that Singleton be sentenced to death. “Twenty years ago Mary Vincent got into Mr. Singleton’s van. Some 20 years later, Roxanne Hayes got into Mr. Singleton’s van. She, unlike Mary Vincent, did not survive her meeting with Lawrence Singleton.”
Mary’s testimony helped send Singleton to death row where he passed away from cancer in 2001. “I wanted to look into his eyes,” said Mary. “But now I won’t be able to find out whatever I was looking for. I feel like I was cheated again.”8
Singleton became a national symbol of the shortfalls within the criminal justice system. If laws had been less lenient then Lawrence Singleton would never have been released and Roxanne Hayes would still be alive.
- San Francisco Chronicle, 1 August, 1988 – “Quiet Wedding for Hatchet-Rape Victim”
- Slate, 15 November, 2011 – “Not Guilty by Reason of Neuroscience”
- The Orange County Register, 21 October, 1999 – “The Power of Love”
- Ventura County Star, 1 May, 2009 – “Crime Survivor Speaks”
- Contra Costa Times, 1 January, 2002 – “Lawrence Singleton Dies of Cancer in Florida”
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 11 JAnaury, 2002 – “Singleton Deserved to Die Lonely and Despised”
- The Tampa Tribune, 25 February, 1998 – “Mutilated Victim Faces Singleton”
- The Miami Herald, 17 January, 2002 – “Victim Feels Cheated By Attacker’s Death”