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Memory of Fallen Friend Leads Sheila Wysocki to Fight For Safety of Others


After helping to solve the 26-year-old rape and murder of her college roommate, this Tennessee mother is working to prevent others from a similar fate

It required becoming a private investigator, overcoming dyslexia and breaking through an unhelpful Dallas police department, but the persistence of Sheila Wysocki led to solving the 26-year-old murder of her friend and former college roommate, Angie Samota. The remarkable story is soon to become a book, movie and hour long documentary special on Dateline NBC. Now, this mother from Brentwood, TN is hoping to prevent others from experiencing a similar fate as her friend. "If we had the knowledge in 1984, we would have saved her life," says Wysocki.

Wysocki first met Samota when the two were roommates as freshmen at Southern Methodist University. The pair could not have been more opposite: Wysocki was the daughter of a working class mother and attending school on scholarship; Samota was rich, beautiful and one of the few female computer majors in the country. But the pair eventually formed a close friendship that continued even when Samota decide to move off-campus.

However, one night in 1984 changed the course of Wysocki's life forever, when a stranger knocked on Samota's apartment door in the early morning hours. "He said he needed to use the phone and the restroom and because she was kind, she let him in," says Wysocki. Realizing that she had made a mistake, Samota called her boyfriend, but her attacker had already cased the home.

Angie Samota was raped, murdered and stabbed 18 times. The murder scene was so gruesome that investigators initially believed that Samota's heart had been ripped out. The death of her friend proved to be a crushing blow, leading Wysocki to ultimately drop out of college. "It was so out of anything that I understood in my safe little world," says Wysocki. "I just didn't know that evil existed. The death was traumatic enough, but the manner in which she died was life altering."

Wysocki spent the next two years speaking with detectives and even regularly met with suspects in the case. Even when she tried to distance herself from the murder, the death of Samota continued to hang over her head. "When I'd be out at restaurants or parties, I would look at someone there and wonder if they had anything to do with it," says Wysocki.

The introduction of DNA evidence in O.J. Simpson's murder trial in 1995 began to get Wysocki thinking about exploring the case once more. But when she eventually gave birth to her two children, their medical conditions left her powerless to do anything. Both of them suffered from environmental poisoning, with her sons were making weekly trips to the hospital. When their conditions stabilized in 2004, she was able to consider exploring the murder once more. "I thought the police were the ultimate authority in my 20s," says Wysocki. "Years later, I started questioning things and beginning to think they could have been done differently."
However, it was a Bible study session that year which led to Wysocki seeing a vision of her fallen friend, a clear sign to continue moving forward in finding answers to the murder. "I was sitting at my bed and at the end of my bed, I saw her smiling and could see what she was wearing" says Wysocki. "And as crazy as it sounds, I knew then that it was time."
She contacted the homicide division at the Dallas Police Department, who informed her that no one had called about Samota's murder in 20 years. For the next two years, she called for updates on hundreds of occasions, but was given the run-around by the department. They had no interest in reopening the case.  "I just couldn't understand how hard it was to pull the file and pull the DNA, but obviously it was for them," said Wysocki.
Wysocki eventually spoke with the owner of the security company in her gated community, who said her best bet was to become a private investigator. Suffering from dyslexia, Wysocki had her then 13-year-old son read her the book with all the laws that she was required to learn. Once she passed the exam, she contacted Skip Hollandsworth, a writer for Texas Monthly, and he offered to walk her through the politics of Dallas police.
With her P.I. badge in tow, she reached out to the Dallas police once more, but found them to be just as unreceptive. "The credentials did nothing," says Wysocki. It just let them know that I wasn't going away and was going to become a bigger problem unless they started working on the case."
After four years and hundreds of phone calls, she finally got a call from a female detective who was assigned to "investigate" the case. Wysocki felt the homicide department was patronizing her. At one point in the investigation a former detective proved to be her most upsetting moment in the search for answers. "He told me that some cases weren't meant to be solved, this was one of them and that I needed to back off," she recalled. "I can't tell you how angry that made me." The case was later selected to appear on an episode of Crime Stoppers, but after getting into a heated argument with a detective who asked whether or not Samota was "loose," they ended up pulling it from the program. "They still blame the victim in situations like this and it makes me so mad, but I learned that I have to bite my tongue to get what I want, regardless of what my feelings are," says Wysocki. 
Detectives eventually relented and agreed to reopen the case in 2008. When they tested the DNA, they found a perfect match in five-time convicted serial rapist Donald Bess. Bess was ultimately detained and sent to trial, where he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death in 2010. It was the only cold case that received a death sentence that year. And with that, Wysocki promptly retired her P.I. license. "I had worked some other divorce cases and helped friends out, but there was only one case I had gotten my license for and truly cared about," says Wysocki.
But Wysocki continued to get signs that her calling was perhaps not done yet. When she spoke at seminars, people would send letters or come up to her afterwards and confess their own experiences with rape, asking her to help find their perpetrators. Deciding that no one should ever go through the terror of being assaulted, Wysocki researched a self-defense program in Dallas and incorporated a similar model in the Nashville area.
She started Without Warning: Fight Back in July 2011, a program which educates both male and female children and adults on self-defense through awareness, prevention and training. The end goal is to develop a program in school systems where children are taught "stranger danger" and how to protect themselves, ultimately incorporating a curriculum in schools across the US. "I don't need to create the curriculum, but people get complacent, so somebody like me has to push it," says Wysocki. 
Her investigating days may not be done yet either. Wysocki is now in the process of renewing her P.I. license with her youngest son reading the current handbook to her.  And she's finally gained closure in the death of Samota, revisiting the SMU campus for the first time since the murder when her oldest son chose to attend college there.
But while the mystery of Samota's murder has drawn to a close, Wysocki says she has now made a lifelong commitment to solving and preventing similar incidents. "I feel like if I'm not supposed to be doing this, a barrier would go up," says Wysocki. "That hasn't happened yet."

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This June Dateline NBC will be airing an hour long documentary special on Sheila Wysocki. Wysocki's stupefying story has caught the attention of many. It will also soon be released as a book and a movie.

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