Believe Me: The Abduction of Lisa McVey is appropriately named, because Lisa McVey’s story is almost unbelievable. At age 17, McVey was abducted by Bobby Joe Long, a serial killer and rapist that terrorized the Tampa Bay area in 1984. It was by her sheer wits and tenacity that she was able to not only escape with her life, but in the process she mentally gathered and retained enough information to help catch Long and lock him away for good.
McVey — believing she was going to die — made a concentrated effort to leave as much physical evidence as she could to help ensure that Long would be proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. Long — who assaulted and murdered at least 10 women — had held McVey captive for 26 hours, raping her repeatedly and holding her at gunpoint.
McVey was miraculously able to talk Long out of killing her, and after her escape she went to the police with memorized details about Long’s car, his apartment, and the route he drove during her abduction. Through her quick thinking and incredible attention and retention of detail, she saved not only her own life, but also the potential lives of even more women, had Long continued his reign of terror.
The cinematic dramatization of her story — the aforementioned Believe Me: The Abduction of Lisa McVey, starring Katie Douglas as McVey and Rossif Sutherland as Long — was released on Showcase (Canada) and Lifetime in 2018, but has recently landed on Netflix. The response has been staggering — reaction videos have gone viral on Tik Tok, with some earning millions of views.
“It was very much this sort of grassroots thing, of people finding the movie and having a reaction and telling their friends,” explains Believe Me’s producer, Jeff Vanderwal, “And it just sort of grew and grew and grew and surprised all of us.” Though the made-for-TV movie was first released in 2018 and was quite popular in Canada (earning it the Canadian Screen Award for Best Writing and Best TV Movie), its recent addition in Netflix’s library has opened it up to a whole new audience.
“It was young women who were really responding to it,” Vanderwal continues, “Young women who were relating to the message and then sharing it and talking about it, and sharing what Lisa goes through, finding her experience real and relatable, and it grew from there.”
“I think that’s what really got people, was the genuine emotional response to this story,” agrees the film’s writer, Christina Welsh, “I did not expect it to explode three years later.” With both Believe Me: The Story of Lisa McVey and their newest project, Left for Dead: The Ashley Reeves Story, the films focus not on the killers (or would-be killers), but on the survivors, which is an important perspective to share in the realm of true crime.
We all recognize the names of real-life murderers, but rarely do we know the women and men who survived. Those who triumphed over their attacker. “I think their names are more important in some ways,” considers Welsh, “So I think for us, keeping it in their point of view, what they experienced, what their story is, you know, their truth coming out, I think is very important.”
Of course, along with this focus on the survivor’s truth comes a focus on her as a real human being. “I think it was always important to Jeff and I to tell the story from [McVey’s] point of view,” Welsh notes, “We never really leave her point of view in the movie. There was a police procedural angle that you get a little bit of, because it’s tied in with the serial killer, but it’s really staying with her focus and her experience, and I think that that’s the emotional impact.”
This, perhaps, is part of the reason why it has resonated so clearly with its audience. “A lot of movies through the years have been — like they call — under the male gaze,” continues Welsh, “But I think that so much of that has been through a certain point of view. And now in some of these stories, we’re seeing points of view from the women.”
“That’s it. And I think that, at least for me, the stories that are the most compelling are the ones that ultimately become about people achieving agency,” agrees Vanderwal, “And in both Believe Me and Left for Dead I mean, essentially, they’re stories about young women achieving agency in the world and what they have to go through to do it is terrifying and harder than it should be.”
Ultimately, the films are about these young women overcoming horrific challenges and discovering their own invincible strength in the process. As Vanderwal says, “It’s about them being able to claim their piece of the world. And I think that’s relatable. I think that that struggle is relatable.”
Vanderwal and Welsh both passionately felt that this story needed to be told, and McVey’s strength needed to be shared. “The one thing that we kept coming back to — and you can see it in the title of the film — is the fact that [McVey] went through this horrible ordeal and wasn’t believed and had to fight for that acknowledgement and fight to get the truth out,” noted Vanderwal, “And that was a story that — even though it took place in 1984 — still felt so contemporary for us today. And so important today, that really was a lot of the driving force behind it, is that it felt just as relevant, and just as significant.”
Welsh — who, through the process of writing the film, developed a friendship with McVey — agrees. “I was amazed the 17 year old girl had such poise and such courage in the moment,” she marveled, “I mean, I was thinking, at my age, my experience, what would I do in a moment like that? I can’t imagine responding like she did.”
For both Believe Me and Left for Dead (which follows the true story of Ashley Reeves, who was brutally attacked and left for dead in the woods, where she remained freezing cold, gravely wounded, and paralyzed for 30 hours before she was found), it was important that the real life survivors were involved in these depictions of their story.
“When we take on these projects, we want to be collaborators with the person whose story we’re telling,” Vanderwal explains, “I want to work with them, I want to do it justice, I want them to be happy and pleased and know that we’ve done everything that we can to bring it to life.”
“Obviously, there’s challenges in trying to take these stories that are so big and so important, and then get them into a 90 minute movie,” he continues, “But I think that the survivors themselves are always our greatest resource just because they bring so much to the process.”
McVey — who now works as a police officer — was quite a helpful presence to have on the set of the film, for more than just the telling of her story. “She came and visited and was hanging out on set, and actually one of the scenes she was in town for was the arrest,” Vanderwal recalls, “And so she was hanging out with us behind the monitor, and was watching while we were getting ready to film the arrest sequence and — because she’s a real police officer — she helped to show the actors how you snap the handcuffs on people properly. She was like Jeff, should I go show them? Like absolutely you should go show them! And that’s how at times hands-on she was with us.”
For Welsh, her time meeting and working with McVey was also quite hands-on. “When I went to visit Lisa in Tampa, she took me on the journey that her kidnapper took her on,” she shares, “She had me close my eyes at certain moments. And she took me to the tree and made me close my eyes because she was blindfolded. To have that experience.”
Meeting McVey, Welsh was able to build that personal connection and identify the personality behind the character she was writing. “Even as an older woman, I could still hear what must have been her personality, you know, trying to figure things out, trying to stay above all the trauma going on,” she pauses, “I guess that her voice really stayed with me as I wrote her character and her dialogue, because I thought, even though she was going through something as a 17 year old, that person is still very much that same smart, savvy, really empathetic woman.”
The strength that McVey and Reeves possessed during these moments of pure, true horror can act as an inspiration to us all. Their stories are important to share, and it’s no small wonder that young women have been able to relate so strongly to their experiences.
True crime has always been popular — going back to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in 1966, Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me in 1980, all the way back to William Roughead’s essays about murder trials in 1889. But the genre has drawn some recent attention due to a shift in its main demographic.
Believe Me and Left for Dead serve a bit of a dual purpose. Yes, they’re fascinating stories that are almost too crazy to believe, but they’re also cautionary tales that remind us to stay alert and stay safe. They remind us of the perseverance of the human spirit, and the fight we can find inside each and every one of us. In the worst case scenario, they’re a reminder to keep sharp and pay attention. It may just save your life.