A Serial Killer's Sole Survivor

UPDATED 06/29/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/29/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

It was Labor Day weekend, 1997, at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and Holly Dunn's world seemed full of possibilities. She was a popular sorority sister, and the 20-year-old had a new boyfriend, a theater major named Chris Maier. That August night, the couple took a midnight stroll to the railroad tracks and kissed under the stars. Suddenly a man appeared; he was holding what looked like an ice pick. Terrified, Chris offered him money. "No, I don't want that," the man said as he tied up the couple. A moment later he picked up a rock and smashed it against Chris's skull, killing him; he then raped Holly and bludgeoned her with a wooden board, breaking her jaw and eye socket. "I was screaming in my head," Holly recalls. "Then I was unconscious—I don't know how long. I just remember appearing in someone's front yard."

By a hair's breadth, Holly escaped death at the hands of Angel Resendiz, better known as "the Railroad Killer," a predator who authorities say may have murdered at least 14 people, many in the Southwest in the 1990s (PEOPLE, July 12, 1999). Her world shattered, Holly spent years rebuilding her life and found the best way to heal was to help other victims of sexual violence. Today, at 32, she's the head of nonprofit Holly's House in Evansville, Ind., a converted library where police detectives interview victims in a nonthreatening environment. Since last fall the center has facilitated statements leading to 20 arrests, often for sexual crimes against children. As the center's public face and informal counselor, Holly, says cofounder Det. Brian Turpin, "shows other victims there's a light at the end of the tunnel."

In the attack's aftermath, she wasn't sure there was. Still aching from her injuries after a five-day hospital stay, Holly jumped back into college classes and tried to pretend nothing had happened. But as the one-year anniversary of her attack approached, her grades began to slip, she broke up with a guy she really liked and she started having panic attacks. "Any time I'd hear a train, I'd break out in a cold sweat," Holly recalls. "I felt broken." Joining a support group, she bonded with other rape victims. After graduating from college in 2000, she volunteered with a rape-crisis hotline and later started speaking around the country on behalf of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an advocacy group. Another turning point: finally facing Resendiz in a Houston courtroom at his May 2000 trial for another murder; he was convicted and executed. "I got this close to fainting," Holly recalls of testifying. "But it was my time to take back control."

She knew that many victims gave up seeking justice because of the trauma it entailed, such as being treated insensitively by law enforcement in a bustling police station. Raising $500,000 from grants as well as corporate and private donors, she worked with police to get six detectives moved into Holly's House. Holly has spread the word by speaking to community groups, and police or social-service workers direct victims to Holly's House. There, immediately after an attack—or, in the case of children, sometimes years later—victims from Evansville and surrounding counties give their statements. Amy, an Indiana mom with two daughters she says were molested by a relative, tells how Holly helped put her girls at ease the day they gave their statements. "She plopped right down on the floor with them," recalls Amy, who says the relative has since been charged with child molestation. "She was a sweetheart."

And with every victim she helps, Holly gets a little more of herself back again. Happily married to hotel manager Jacob Pendleton, 32—the guy she'd broken up with in college—she can finally walk by railroad tracks or hear a train rumble by without feeling alarmed. "With Holly's House," she says, "I'm serving my purpose in the world. I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to do."

Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com

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