Mary McGriff looks like she may blow over in the breeze. The 5 foot-2 inch, 100-pound 60-year-old Vaughn resident walks slowly because of a bad hip. Her shoulder movement is a little stiff and her knees and ankles aren’t what they use to be.
So, it’s common when she’s out doing errands that a well-intentioned passerby offers her a hand.
“I’ll take two, if you got ’em,” McGriff quickly replies as she reveals the prosthetic metal prongs that replaced both of her hands nearly 45 years ago. It’s not the first or the last time she’ll use that joke.
“They usually slink down in embarrassment.”
McGriff appreciates the offers. It’s just that she’s a lot tougher than she looks.
An artistic teen.
At 15-years-old, the former Mary Vincent always had a talent for the arts, and for a talented artist, Las Vegas in the 1970s was a place to stand out.
“My legs made me an amazing little dancer,” Vincent said. She recalls the time she did a solo to open the Miss Universe Pageant broadcast in Vegas when she was 13. “But I could do pretty much anything with my hands,” adding that she did the hair and makeup for her fellow performers.
But where she shone on stage, she was shunned at home. Vincent’s parents were going through a divorce, and she wasn’t getting the attention she felt she deserved.
In the fall of 1978, the teenager hitched a few rides to Northern California, where she thought she could be around other like-minded artists. She stayed in the Bay Area, homeless and living on the streets, until she got a little homesick. She wasn’t ready to go back to her parents, but she did yearn for family. On Sept. 28, 1978, she decided to leave Berkeley and spend some time with her grandpa near Los Angeles. Hitchhiking, especially in California, was a common way to get around then, even for teenagers.
“There was a big group of people all going in the same direction, but it wasn’t like we were all together,” she remembered. Vincent was standing around two other guys who were also looking to get out of town.
As it was getting dark, a blue utility van pulled up alongside Vincent and her two companions.
“I wouldn’t get in there if I was you.”
The warning signs were there early. It was a big empty van with no seats in the back and the middle-aged male driver said there was only room for the female of the group.
“The guys I was with kind of pulled me aside and said, ‘I wouldn’t get in there if I were you.’”
Tired, desperate and anxious to get to her grandpa’s house, against her better judgment the teenager got into the van.
“I should’ve listened to them.”
The first hour was fine. The driver was on the familiar path out of the Bay Area toward Interstate 5 down to Southern California. Satisfied they were going the right way, Vincent felt safe enough to fall asleep. She woke up and noticed they were no longer on a main road. Vincent remembers driving past a fast-food place, and then there was desert. She demanded they turn around. The driver said it was an honest mistake and admitted they were lost.
“It was live or die time.”
When the driver pulled over to the side of the road in an isolated area to urinate, Vincent saw her chance.
“I knew it was live or die time.”
But with no place to hide, she’d have to make a run for it. No problem there, she was a healthy 15-year-old dancer; the driver was an older man who had little chance to keep up. She noticed her shoe was untied, so she quietly snuck out the passenger door, and bent down to the ground to get a tight fit before taking off running. And then — darkness.
Vincent doesn’t acknowledge him by name and only refers to him as “my attacker.” The driver — her attacker — 51-year-old Lawrence Singleton, bashed her skull with a sledgehammer. He tied her hands and violently raped her throughout the night in the back of the van while she was in and out of consciousness.
Singleton used a butcher knife to sexually assault her, and then chopped her arms off – about four inches below her right elbow and six inches below her left. He dragged her naked, motionless, yet full-of-breath-body down a 30-foot ravine and tossed her in a cement drainage culvert. He left her there to bleed to death. No arms meant no fingerprints. Even if she was found, she couldn’t be identified. The perfect crime, he thought.
“Let me go to sleep. I’ll deal with this tomorrow.”
It was chilly in the dark September morning desert near Modesto. No one was within miles of Vincent, still motionless, concussed from the hammer to the head. Colder now that she’d lost half of her blood. Her eyes weren’t open, but she wasn’t dead. She was by herself, but she wasn’t alone.
“I was talking to God the whole time when I was awake,” she said. “Actually, I was screaming at Him saying, ‘Hey, let me go to sleep. I’ll deal with this tomorrow.’”
That wasn’t an option, and something kept reminding her of that.
She mustered up the strength to crawl her way out of the culvert, even with four broken ribs. She didn’t feel cold, she didn’t feel pain. She didn’t feel anything, except the need to stop her attacker.
Vincent clearly remembers somehow seeing Singleton’s itinerary in his van and where he was going next. “I just kept locked in on him because he was on his way to his next victim, which was so gross to think about.”
Even as a 15-year-old, she knew she was dying. It was just a matter of time. Vincent, half-white, half-Filipino, remembered a survival tactic she learned when living in the Philippines for a short time when she was younger.
“I was told that if you’re bleeding and you don’t have anything to cauterize it, stick your wound in the dirt until the blood congeals.” She did that with what was left of her arms. After that, she doesn’t remember how she got up a 30-foot ravine. But she did. And she stood there: maimed, naked, covered in blood, and alone.
“I remember God said to just keep walking. He said, ‘I’ll get you to safety.’ And I listened.”
She listened to God. She listened for cars. She listened for any noise to guide her through the dark desert.
As she approached a main road, she can’t imagine what it must’ve looked like to drivers: headlights shining on a naked woman, covered in blood, with her mud-stumped arms lifted toward the sky. The first car she saw sped right past her, but the second car was a couple on their honeymoon who made the wrong turn.
“They were scared that whoever did this was still out there,” Vincent said. “The first thing I did was tell them they needed to get me to a cop so I could tell him where to go, how to stop him.”
“As they were wheeling me into the hospital, I grabbed a cop and told them to get paper and a pen,” she said. “I started spilling my guts.” She also was able to accurately describe Singleton to a police sketch artist. “I wanted to make damn certain they knew who he was when they saw his face. I described him like you would describe someone to a blind person.”
It worked. Less than 10 days later a neighbor recognized the sketch that led to Singleton’s arrest at his second home in Nevada.
“If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll finish the job.”
Justice against Singleton was swift, but soft.
Just six months after that traumatic night, a jury found Singleton guilty of kidnaping, mayhem (deliberately causing a permanent, disfiguring injury), attempted murder, rape, sodomy and forced oral copulation. Despite the nature of the crimes, sentencing laws in the late 1970s weren’t what they are today. Singleton was sentenced to only 14 years in prison, the maximum allowed at the time.
The teenaged Vincent gathered the courage to testify against her attacker. When asked who did this to her, she was able to point at him with her newly fitted prosthetic arms.
“At that moment, there was no fear, just anger. I wanted to kill him,” she said. “I don’t ever want to feel that angry again. It was horrible.”
But as the pain of her injuries started to subside, the fear started to build.
Like a perfectly scripted line in a horror movie, Vincent said Singleton whispered to her on his way out of the courtroom: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll finish the job.”
No one is safe.
Even with aspirations of dancing, since she was 4 years old all Vincent really wanted to do in life was to be a mom.
“After this I would’ve been lucky to have any kids, my insides were shredded,” she said.
Miraculously, she ended up having two boys in the 1980s.
Singleton was paroled from a San Luis Obispo prison after serving only eight of his 14-year sentence. Fearing her attacker would live up to his promise to “finish the job,” Vincent moved her family from California to the Gig Harbor area in 1987.
“I was terrified. No one is safe around him,” she said. “I had to worry about both of my sons being chopped into little pieces.”
While Singleton lived in Florida, Vincent lived in fear. She even heard that while living in Gig Harbor, Singleton was in Tacoma for work during that time. She was often uncomfortably on the move between California and the Pacific Northwest. That is, until Singleton struck again.
In February 1997, a then 69-year-old Singleton stabbed to death Roxanne Hayes, a 31-year-old prostitute, in his Florida home. Vincent came out of hiding to once again testify against Singleton on Hayes’ behalf.
“If I didn’t come forward, he could’ve been let go and I would be his next victim,” she said. “I wanted him stopped, and I was angrier at the legal system at that point.”
A year later Singleton was sentenced to be executed for Hayes’ murder, but before that sentence was carried out, he died in jail from cancer three years later in 2001.
From tragedy comes change.
The short sentence Singleton got in 1979 for such horrific crimes struck a chord nationally. Vincent and her story became symbols of resiliency and hope — the recipe for change.
Her injuries were a permanent part of her, but they didn’t define her.
Victims’ right advocates said people would listen to Vincent and any new legislation “would be passed lickety-split” with her as the face.
She became a powerful advocate for crime victims’ rights in the 1980s and ’90s, appearing on national talk shows and doing a large number of public speaking engagements across the country. She did all she could to change certain laws and get rid of dangerous loopholes that allowed early release from prison.
In 1998 she went to Washington, D.C., and testified in favor of the “No Second Chances for Murderers, Rapists, or Child Molesters Act,” which encourages states to give lengthy sentences to offenders of those crimes. She also helped pass California’s “Singleton Bill” which stops early releases of criminals who use torture in their crimes.
“I knew I could help make a change,” she said. “I felt the energy (around the need for harsher punishments for violent offenders), but it also took a lot of energy,” she said.
Don’t forgive. Don’t forget. Just let go of the hate.
It took nearly 30 years to get to a comfortable place in life, even after she learned of her attacker’s death. She said during that time she even resented the fact that her own brothers were men. “That’s how hard it was on me. I still don’t trust just any man, or any woman, for that matter.”
It wasn’t until the now Mary McGriff met her future husband 14 years ago, that she started to let her guard down. It wasn’t until then she was able to trust a man.
“The first time I met him I told him he reminded me of my third husband. He asked, ‘How many times have you been married?’ I said, “Twice,’” she joked. It took him a while to understand what she meant.
“I held onto such hate, anguish and sorrow for so long,” she said. “The most important thing people should do is let go of their hate. You don’t have to forgive or forget, but let go of the hate long enough to realize how good it feels when it’s all gone.”
In part two of this three-part series, Mary discusses navigating life with the prosthetic arms she helped design using common household items. Though she classifies herself as disabled, she’s learned to do more with her arms in the last 45 years that most people can do with their hands.
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