Left for Dead in the Woods: A Student’s Survival Story

Ashley Reeves was a 17-year-old high school junior in 2006, living in Millstadt, Illinois, with her parents and younger sister Casey. She was a typical teenage girl – she did well in school, had a bunch of friends and a boyfriend named Jeremy, whom her parents adored. Graduation was ahead of her, and Ashley was eagerly awaiting the milestone event.

Jennie Garth and Anwen Odriscoll / Ashley Reeves / Samson Shelton / Ashley Reeves.
Source: YouTube

Who knew that within a year of walking across the stage and accepting her diploma, Ashley would experience the unthinkable and yet live to tell her tale? Even more shocking is the fact that the person who attempted to take Ashley’s life was her teacher. It’s not every day that a teacher tries to take the life of a student… and fails. This girl is a real fighter…

She Said She Would Be Home by 10

On April 27, 2006, a Thursday, Ashley told her parents that she was going to a job interview in Fairview Heights, about 20 minutes away from home. She said she was planning to play basketball after the interview and should be home by her 10 p.m. curfew.

A portrait of Ashley Reeves.
Ashley Reeves. Source: Flickr

She packed a change of clothes and left at 3:30 p.m. in Jeremy’s car, which she borrowed for the day. By 10:30 p.m., her curfew had come and gone, but there was no sign of Ashley. So, her mother Michelle asked her youngest daughter, Casey, if she had heard from Ashley. But Casey hadn’t heard from her sister all day.

Something was fishy…

They Found the Car, but Where Was Ashley?

Michelle and Casey called Ashley a number of times and left her a bunch of text messages, but she wasn’t responding, which was uncharacteristic of her. Michelle’s maternal instinct told her that something was wrong, which prompted her to call the police at St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office.

Ashely Reeves is dressed to go out.
Source: Tumblr

After that first call, the officers said they felt confident that Ashley was out with her friends and had probably just lost track of time. But the red flags started waving when, eight hours into the investigation, Jeremy’s car was found abandoned in Laderman Park, Belleville, 15 minutes from Ashley’s home. It was now clear that something really did happen to Ashley. The cops immediately checked out the vehicle.

First Things First: Ask the Boyfriend

The detectives found Ashley’s bag inside the car, containing the clothes she would have worn if she had actually gone to play basketball. It became quickly apparent to the detectives that this wasn’t some rebellious teen defying her parents’ curfew – this was a missing persons investigation, and time was of the essence.

A still from a video of Jeremy doing sports.
Source: YouTube

First things first: the boyfriend. Detectives immediately brought Jeremy in for questioning. But it didn’t take long for him to be cleared of any involvement with his girlfriend’s disappearance. Jeremy told the detectives that he lent his car to Ashley for the same reasons she gave her parents – job interview and basketball.

He Loved Her “to Death”

During his interrogation, Jeremy claimed that Ashley was driving his car because he was out of town. The kid showed genuine concern throughout the questioning; he was cooperative, and his alibi checked out. “Believe me; I seriously am giving you my 100% all, telling you the truth,” he asserted.

Footage of Jeremy during the interrogation.
Source: YouTube

He told them that he “loves her to death. I’ve never – I have cried, but I mean, I’m just so horrified.” The last time he spoke with her, as he confirmed, was when she texted him to call her if he got a moment. But he didn’t call back until it was too late. “I wish I would’ve called her.”

One Suspicious Phone Number

Detectives were asking why Ashley would drive so far to play basketball when there was a court in her own neighborhood. That is unless she was seeing someone else. Was there a secret boyfriend in the mix? While the detectives were doing their thing, so was Ashley’s mom.

Night view of the streets.
Source: Tumblr

Michelle called the phone company. Since Ashley was only 17, her account was in her mother’s name, meaning Michelle could get access to her phone records and, thus, all of her incoming and outgoing calls. Going through the records, Michelle noticed that there were several calls from one specific number. Could this be the possible secret boyfriend?

Who Is Samson Shelton?

Michelle called the number, and Samson Shelton answered. Michelle asked if he had seen or heard from her daughter. He said no, and before she had the chance to ask something else, Samson hung up the phone. That alone was suspicious.

A portrait of Samson Shelton.
Samson Shelton. Source: Flickr

Luckily, Ashley told her friends about her private life. But when Michelle heard what her daughter’s friends had to say, she felt a chill go down her spine. According to Ashley’s friends, the teenager was romantically involved with an older man. Yes, that man was 26-year-old Samson Shelton. The pair would often meet to play basketball together.

They Called Him “The Teacher”

That also means that Ashley was on her way to meet Samson on the day she went missing. Samson made a living as a driver’s ed teacher and a gym coach at a nearby high school (not Ashley’s). He also dabbled in pro wrestling on the side.

A headshot of Samson Shelton.
Source: St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department.

Samson’s nickname was “The Teacher.” While some of Samson’s female students thought of him as the “cute” teacher, others thought he was pretty weird and kind of full of himself. Detectives learned that Samson was actually Ashley’s teacher once, five years prior, in 2001 while she was in the seventh grade. (Creepy? Yes.)

He Lived With His Mom and Grandma

The teacher and student reconnected in February 2006, a couple of months before she went missing. They would typically meet in Belleville, where Samson was living with his mother and grandmother — close to Laderman Park, where Jeremy’s abandoned vehicle was found.

A sign to Laderman Park.
Source: Tumblr

By the time Friday night rolled around, Ashley had been missing for a full 24 hours. Her mother was dreading the worst, helpless to the harrowing thoughts that crossed her mind: Was she cold? Was she hurt? Was she suffering? Was she alive?

What the detectives did next was locate Samson at the high school where he worked and brought him in for questioning.

He Said They Were “Just Friends”

They could tell almost immediately that he was somehow involved in Ashley’s disappearance. At first, he kept a cool and calm demeanor. He was polite and cooperated with the officers. However, as they slowly uncovered more and more of his lies, his true colors started to show. When questioned about his relationship with the 17-year-old, Samson said they were “just friends” who would occasionally meet to play basketball.

A view to the interrogation room.
Photo by Michael Williamson/The The Washington Post/Getty Images

But the investigators weren’t buying it. Jeremy, by the way, did buy it. Apparently, he knew of the guy, but he genuinely didn’t think there was anything more than just a friendship between the pair. He didn’t believe that Samson could or would harm her.

Then His Story Changed

Samson insisted that his relationship with the girl was strictly platonic, that is up until he was confronted with statements that Ashley’s friends made about their relationship being romantic and sexual in nature. That’s when Samson changed his story in a desperate (and pathetic) attempt to victimize himself.

Samson is walking to the station.
Source: YouTube

Samson told the detectives that Ashley grew infatuated with him. He started to frame the story as an obsessed teen with a crush on an older dude, calling him at all hours of the day and night. He then said that he had been avoiding her for days, hoping she would leave him alone.

Samson’s Side of the Story

Several hours into his interrogation, Samson admitted that he had had sex with his former student. He also revealed that he was with her on April 27, the day she went missing. According to Samson’s account, he was driving when he and Ashley got into an argument.

A still from Samson’s interrogation at the police station.
Source: YouTube

He said he wanted to end the relationship then and there, but Ashley started screaming at him. So, he pulled over, unbuckled her seatbelt and told her to get out. When she refused, he got up, went over to her side, pulled her out, and left her on the side of the road.

Yeah, He Really Cares…

Samson insisted that Ashley was alive when he last saw her – that there was no way he could have harmed her since he had a “very weak stomach.” He expressed his concern for the girl; he cared for her and wanted to know that she was okay. This is coming from the guy who apparently left her on the side of the road…

The camera records Samson heading to a local bar to dance.
Source: YouTube

Samson couldn’t have cared that much since phone records showed he never even tried to call her afterward to see if she was okay. What he did instead was head to a local bar to dance the night away.

12 Hours In, He Cracked

Samson changed his story so many times that detectives stopped believing a word he said. Ashley had now been missing for about 30 hours – the authorities needed answers, stat. When they mentioned the young man’s grandmother, and the disappointment she would feel towards his actions, Samson started to cry.

View to the road and the end of school sign.
Source: Tumblr

12 hours into the interrogation, Samson cracked. During his cold and disturbing confession, he described in detail exactly what he had done to Ashley and where he left her to die. The videotaped confession shows Samson telling detectives that what he told them earlier wasn’t the truth…

He Tried His Best to Choke Her

It turns out that he didn’t just pull Ashley out of the car; the part-time wrestler put the teen in a chokehold and dragged her out. He then heard a loud pop, which is when Ashley went limp. He realized that he had snapped her neck and that sent him into a panic.

View of the woods where Ashley was left to die.
Source: Pinterest

He then dragged her into the woods and proceeded to choke her with his bare hands. Since Ashley was still breathing, he started choking her with his belt. He put the belt around her neck and pulled as hard as he could. Then there was another pop.

He Left Her for Dead

This time, the belt snapped. He continued to choke her for a third and final time with his hands before getting up and leaving her to die alone on the cold, hard ground of the woods. All of this was relayed in his confession, in which Samson agreed to lead detectives to her body.

The welcome sign to Citizens Park Forest.
Source: Tumblr

Citizens Park, a 45-acre forest in Belleville, is located 12 minutes away from Ashley’s home. But it had rained overnight, so once they arrived at the park, Samson couldn’t remember exactly where he had left her. Or so he said.

They Found Her Lying There With Her Tongue Out

With flashlights, the detectives frantically searched for Ashley. They started to wonder if it was all a ruse by Samson, but then there she was – Ashley was found lying on her back, her hands on her chest and her tongue sticking out of her mouth.

Blue lights shine on a patrol car at night.
Photo by Jens Büttner/picture alliance/Getty Images

She also had hundreds of insect bites covering her body. The detectives assumed she was dead. Then, suddenly, her hands started to move, and her chest began to rise. Ashley was breathing. She was alive.

Miraculously, She Survived

In a miraculous turn of events, after being strangled and left for dead in the cold forest for over 30 hours, Ashley survived. Paramedics were immediately called and rushed her to a hospital, where she was put into a medically induced coma.

Ambulance arrives at the crime scene.
Source: YouTube

Samson was then arrested and charged with first-degree attempted murder. When he was taken into custody, he requested a private bathroom. Apparently, he suffered from a urinary stress disorder – he would be “miserable” if he had to urinate in front of others. Of course, his request was quickly denied.

He Pleaded Not Guilty and Was Let Out on Bail

Samson showed no empathy or remorse for his actions. Even though he confessed and gave a detailed description of the crime, he still pleaded not guilty and has never apologized to Ashley. Believe it or not, Samson was released on bail and put on house arrest.

Police escort Samson as he heads to his trail.
Source: YouTube

That’s right: A man who had snapped a teenage girl’s neck, viciously strangled her three times and left her for dead was allowed to live in the comfort of his own (mother’s) home for an entire year as he awaited trial. (Join me in saying, “what the f***?)

He Tried to Go Out His Way

Before Samson went to court for attempted murder, his mother Susan called the police to tell them that he attempted to commit suicide by swallowing a deadly cocktail of prescription pills and alcohol. When paramedics arrived at their home, he was found seemingly unconscious with the words “do not resuscitate” written on his chest.

An open bottle of prescription pills.
Photo by Tom Kelley/Getty Images

Regardless, the EMTs tried to revive Samson and succeeded. He woke up and started attacking them with punches. He was then taken to the hospital, where he reportedly made racial slurs towards a nurse and even kicked her in the face.

Sent to 20 Years Behind Bars

The judge questioned Samson’s mental state, but prosecutors argued that his suicide attempt was simply a dramatic way to gain empathy from the jurors. A month later, after his psychiatric evaluation, a psychiatrist declared Samson mentally competent to stand trial.

Barbed wire at the County Prison.
Photo by Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

However, Ashley’s family decided that they didn’t want her to suffer through a retelling of her horrific attack. They signed off on a plea deal. Samson accepted the deal and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. As reported by the Illinois Department of Corrections, his scheduled parole date is April of 2024.

Where Is Ashley Reeves Now?

Ashley was placed into an induced coma because they feared that she would be paralyzed from her internal injuries. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Still, she had to spend three months in medical and rehab centers to learn how to walk, talk, move her limbs, and swallow again.

Ashley Reeves sits for an interview at a restaurant in Freeburg.
Source: Post-Dispatch file

Ashley made a near-complete recovery and was able to graduate from high school in 2007, with her original class, too. During Samson’s sentencing hearing that same year, she remarked that she was “glad it’s over with. I just want to continue with my life and not worry about it.”

What About Ashley’s Parents?

When Ashley was recovering in the hospital after the attack, Michelle and her husband took lengthy leaves from their jobs to take care of their daughter. They were outraged by the fact that while Ashley was fighting for her life, Samson got his bond reduced, paid it, and was out on bail.

Ashley Reeves’ reflection on a glass window.
Source: FOX News

Michelle told Belleville News-Democrat, “I was surprised as anyone that this happened. I did not think that he was the kind of person to do something like this.” When the subject of Samson’s bond hearing came up, she added, “I think I cracked a tooth; I was clenching my jaw so hard.”

They Created a Sign Language

During the months that Ashley was recovering, she and her family came up with a sort of sign language in order to communicate with each other. Michelle had to change her diapers for a while, so she was very happy to hear the doctors tell her that she was recovering well.

Ashley lies in a hospital bed accompanied by her family.
Source: YouTube

Mike stood by his wife and quietly watched as Michelle handled the media and interviews. Like the rest of the family, Mike and Michelle prefer to stay as far away from prying eyes as possible and keep their private lives to themselves.

She Really Is a Fighter

True to her word, Ashley has since lived her life away from the spotlight. She began volunteering at a center for violence prevention. In 2017, she visited the site of her near-death as part of a Crime Watch Daily episode.

A portrait of Ashley Reeves sitting on a wheelchair during her recovery.
Ashley Reeves. Source: Pinterest

“It’s kinda hard to believe that this is actually where I was for that long and in that condition,” Ashley said. “It makes me feel like maybe I am as tough as everybody says I am. I’m a fighter, and I just keep wanting to push myself harder and harder.”

Left for Dead: The Ashley Reeves Story

Lifetime made a TV movie recently about this story called Left for Dead: The Ashley Reeves Story, and it stars Jennie Garth (from Beverly Hills: 90210). Anwen O’Driscoll, who portrays Reeves in the film, reached out to Ashley while preparing for the role, but she didn’t want to be insensitive by grilling her about the experience.

Anwen Odriscoll impersonates Ashley Reeves during a trial in a still from the movie.
Anwen Odriscoll. Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Lifetime

“I wouldn’t want to come at her with this super heavy subject matter,” the actress recalled. Ashley is now in her early-30s and has two kids. According to the credits of the Lifetime movie, she’s raising her family in Illinois and working as a caregiver.

Where Is Samson Shelton Now?

When Samson was given a chance to address the court or apologize to his victim, he flat-out refused. Today, he’s 41 and incarcerated at the medium-security Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg. He is supposed to be eligible for parole in the spring of 2024.

Outside view of the medium-security Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg.
Source: Galesburg Register-Mail

His original discharge date was April 22, 2027, meaning his sentence was reduced for some reason. Samson also had charges of attempted battery for attacking the responders during his alleged suicide attempt, but those charges were dismissed in 2010. It’s unclear whether Samson is still unremorseful or if he gained perspective after all these years in prison.

Every Mother’s Worst Nightmare

Jennie Garth is the actress who signed on to portray Michelle Reeves. “The story of Ashley is honestly every mother’s worst nightmare,” Garth told Parade. Garth, who is a mother of three daughters, remarked on how she has nothing but praise for Anwen O’Driscoll for her role as Ashley.

Jennie Garth as Michelle Reeves in a still from the movie.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Lifetime

Garth said that meeting the real Michelle wasn’t an option for her. She explained that the producers had met with Ashley and felt that it was best to go without the family’s guidance. “I really went off the script and just immersed myself in this awful nightmare that this woman had to experience,” Garth remarked.

Ashley Spoke to Elizabeth Smart

Ashley spoke to another famous victim of a kidnapping, Elizabeth Smart. The two women talked about Ashley’s attack and her recovery. Ashley said that when she finally worked up the nerve to watch police footage of being discovered in the woods, it was painful.

Elizabeth Smart / Ashley Reeves
Source: YouTube

“It was just extremely upsetting to me and kind of heartbreaking. Because I always thought of Sam as my friend,” she stated. “And to have everybody tell me what happened and what he did, and then to see it, was just kind of almost overwhelming.”

Samson in the Movie

In the Lifetime film, we see that Samson impresses young Ashley. The gym teacher’s standard line, which he uses with other young girls in the film, is telling them that they’re special, and it seems to work on Ashley.

The way it plays out in the film is that under the pretext of an upset stomach, Samson gets Ashley to come over to his house, where they become intimate. Of course, it’s meant to be kept a secret, and so he convinces her to keep it hush-hush so as not to lose his job.

Anwen Odriscoll and Jennie Garth in Samson trial scene in a still from the movie.
Anwen Odriscoll, Jennie Garth. Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Lifetime

We’ll never know for sure how their real conversations went down, but Ashley Reeves has suffered from memory loss revolving around her attack. We wish her and her family the best.