The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A daughter worried when her 80-year-old mom didn’t text her Wordle score. A man was holding her hostage, police say.

Denyse Holt, 80, center, with her two daughters, Jennifer Holt, left, and Meredith Holt-Caldwell. (Courtesy of Denyse Holt)

Denyse Holt fell asleep alone Saturday evening. She woke up hours later in the dead of night to a naked stranger standing just feet away.

Armed with scissors, the man got into bed with the 80-year-old in the Lincolnwood, Ill., house she had owned for a half-century, Holt said, and then gave her a warning: “If you talk, if you yell or you scream, I’m going to cut you.”

A calm came over Holt, something she said she never would have expected. She told the intruder she wouldn’t do any of those things, that she would obey him.

Holt looked at the clock — 1 a.m. Sunday. For the next 20 hours, the stranger who had broken in would hold her against her will, according to accounts from Holt and the Lincolnwood Police Department. From the first moments, Holt kept cool, calculating her actions based on what would give her the best chance of survival. Even so, she feared her efforts would fail.

Holt thought she was about to be brutally murdered in her own home.

As Holt told the intruder she wasn’t going to scream or fight him, she could see he was shivering and bleeding profusely, she told The Washington Post during an interview Wednesday night. The man said he was cold and needed all her blankets. As promised, Holt obliged.

When he asked her about phones, Holt said she had a cellphone on her and landlines in the bathroom and kitchen. That prompted another warning. Holt said he told her: “Don’t lie to me, or I’ll cut you.”

Holt, whose story was first reported by WBBM, pushed back, telling him that his threats scared her. “Okay,” the intruder replied, throwing the scissors across the room. “I will not harm you or molest you.”

Still shivering under the blankets, the man said he needed to get in the shower and took Holt with him, she said. When that didn’t warm him up enough, he made Holt, still dressed in her nightgown, lie on top of him in the tub.

“I said, ‘Listen, you are the captain, and I’m on your team. Whatever you say, we will do.’ ”

His reply: “I like that.”

After considering several options, the man locked Holt inside the small bathroom in her basement.

And there she waited for hours. It was “so, so cold,” and Holt was still wet from the shower and bath with her intruder. He had denied her request for toilet paper. Without her medication, she was in pain, and although she had access to water, the stranger in her house had apparently forgotten his promise to bring her food. She lost track of time.

Things felt bleak.

Then, Holt motivated herself with some “tough love” by thinking of the suffering others had gone through: Prisoners endured the horrors of concentration camps for years during the Holocaust. Climber Aron Ralston cut off his arm more than five days after a boulder had fallen on it.

“They managed to stay alive, and you’re going to act up for one god---- night or two nights in the basement?”

Holt rallied around an idea: “I don’t want to die like this, and I don’t want my kids to hear that their mother was murdered.”

She started doing the meditative breathing her daughter had taught her. She marched around and stretched every 20 to 25 minutes.

At one point, the man opened the door, Holt told The Post. “He says, ‘I see you didn’t sleep,’ and then he closes the door again.”

How long had she been in there at that point? “I’ve not a clue,” she said. How long was she in the bathroom after he came by? Holt didn’t know that, either.

“I had no idea of time,” she said.

Holt considered her options. She thought about sneaking up the basement stairs and quickly escaping out the back door. But if the intruder heard her, he might come after her with the knives he had complimented when they were in her kitchen. She decided not to risk it. Holt scoured the bathroom for weapons, finding only the porcelain lid from the tank of her toilet. She could lure him to the bathroom and hit him with that. “Or I could miss, and he could whack you,” she thought.

In the end, she didn’t try to escape or fight. She stayed put, despite feeling that, the longer she and her kidnapper stayed in the house together, the less likely she would survive.

What Holt didn’t know was that, while she was locked in her basement bathroom, a rescue effort was gathering steam thousands of miles away from her home in a Chicago suburb.

Her older daughter, who lives in California, had gotten a little annoyed that her mother hadn’t texted her score from that day’s Wordle, a daily puzzle in which solvers have to figure out a five-letter word in six guesses. Her other daughter, who lives in Portland, Ore., was confused that her mother hadn’t responded to, or even read, some texts she had sent — again, unusual behavior.

After talking with each other Sunday night, the sisters tried to contact their mother. Holt didn’t pick up her cellphone, and the daughters couldn’t leave a message because her inbox was full, which was odd. Trying her landline resulted in a message that it had been disconnected. When they called Holt’s good friend who was supposed to accompany her to a matinee in Chicago earlier that afternoon, the friend told them Holt hadn’t shown.

The daughters suspected something was wrong: Their mother had fallen, had a heart attack or suffered some other medical emergency. They called a neighbor, Dave, and asked him to check in on Holt, which he did. Dave rang her doorbell — no answer. But, he told Holt’s daughters, her car was at the house.

That led the daughters to call Lincolnwood police to request a wellness check. The first voice Holt heard was Dave’s. Then she heard the police officers shouting, “Anybody home?”

That was Holt’s cue. “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here in the basement!”

Officers found and freed her. It was 9:40 p.m. She had been trapped in her cold, tiny bathroom nearly 20 hours and held captive for almost 21.

Around the same time, officers came across a man, whom they identified as 32-year-old James H. Davis III, in an upstairs bedroom. According to a statement, he was armed with several knives. After unsuccessfully trying to Taser him, police called in the regional SWAT team. Just before 3 a.m. Monday — about 26 hours after Holt said she woke to find a stranger standing over her — police used “less than lethal options” to arrest Davis.

Davis, who police believe was going through a mental health crisis when he allegedly shattered a window and broke into Holt’s house, has been charged with four felonies: home invasion with a dangerous weapon, aggravated kidnapping while armed with a dangerous weapon and two counts of aggravated assault against a peace officer. Records show Davis is being held in the Cook County jail without a bond; The Post was unable to contact him for a response.

Having escaped a situation in which she believed she might die, Holt has been told it’s only a matter of time before she breaks down. She said that’s not going to happen. But, Holt added, she won’t be staying in the house where she lived for decades, reared two children, hosted family and friends, threw parties and settled into retirement after teaching middle-schoolers for about 25 years.

Holt did go back briefly after Davis was arrested. She found blood splashed across every wall, each bed and all the floors. She knows she can have the house cleaned up, but that won’t restore it as the home she created.

“I came back, and it didn’t look like my house. It just looked disgusting. … It just made me terribly sad, because I like my neighborhood. I like my neighbors. I like my house. And I know I couldn’t live there anymore. That’s just taken away from me,” she said.

“In one night, it is just all washed away by one person.”

Despite that “trauma,” Holt got out of her ordeal with more than she thought she would and said she’s grateful for that.

“I still feel lucky to be alive,” she said. “I never thought I would come out of that alive.”

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