Warning: The following story describes potentially triggering descriptions of an attempted abduction, including physical violence.

First-year pre-biology major Esther Hernandez walked along the Lagoon trail between Manzanita residence hall and Depression Beach. It was pitch black — no lights heading the trail, the moon faintly lighting the sky behind a cloud of fog. On her phone, she took photos of the coast and trail flowers.

Esther Hernandez looks out across the lagoon to where the assailant attacked her. Kyra Karatsu / Daily Nexus

It was about 8:30 p.m. when something felt wrong. Hernandez’s gut feeling, which is usually “pretty good,” told her a presence was lurking. She saw a shadow grow from behind, but thought it might’ve been someone walking or running, as people often do on the trail. An alumni event was playing out on the beach the trail overlooked, too. But she turned around again, and the shadow was closer. 

All of a sudden, she felt the urge to run. 

That’s when hands flew and grabbed Hernandez in a bear hug. They put a small rag coated with hydrogen peroxide over her mouth. Hernandez froze– and shut her eyes tight as she thought the assailant was going to spray something, instincts working quickly. Instantly, he slammed her into bushes nearby, where the claw clip holding her hair in place met hard ground and crammed into the back of her head. 

How she acted in those next split-seconds saved her life. 

On April 20, a man hid on the Lagoon Trail with apparent intent to abduct someone. It is the only reported instance of attempted abduction since 2022, when a man attempted to abduct four UCSB students in one day.

The suspect is reported to be an “adult Hispanic male, 5 feet 6 inches tall, with a stocky build, broad shoulders, and weighing approximately 170 to 200 pounds,” according to a UCSB Timely Warning. He has brown eyes and eyebrows that have naturally grown out, and he was dressed in all black including black gloves and a black ski mask when he attacked Hernandez.

He remains at large.

Hernandez, the survivor, is 18 years old and the oldest of her two siblings. A pre-biology major and member of the UCSB Pre-Medical Society, Hernandez hopes to attend medical school after graduating. On the weekends, she volunteers at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

“[Then] it kicked in me. There was no way I could pass out because I don’t know what his intentions are.” 

“I want to go into the medical field, I want to help people, I want to offer research because I know so much stuff happens in low-income areas,” she said.

Hernandez described herself as first-generation, of mixed race and the first of her siblings to go to college. Her mother grew up as Afro Hispanic and faced “many hurdles in life.” Herndandez’s grandparents were immigrants from Honduras and Salvador, and her father immigrated from Guatemala.

Hernandez hails from San Bernardino, where she attended Cajon high school and played soccer and ran cross country. She graduated a year early, in part to escape her home life. 

“I’ve worked really hard to get here just to escape from my environment from my house,” Hernandez said. “I’d want to enter a place that has more prestige, [that’s] more safe. You expect things to be better when you move to somewhere like this, but clearly, from what happened, it wasn’t all that. I got too comfortable in this new environment.”

At home, she grew up suffering domestic violence. Hernandez has autism, anxiety and Sensory Deficit Disorder, which she says impacted her upbringing and her day-to-day. 

“It’s so hard to talk to people and things like that and with something like this, it makes things even harder,” Hernandez said.

At UCSB, her beach visits helped alleviate her pent-up stress. She started going in the fall quarter, around seven to eight o’clock when it was dark.

“I would go to see sunset or go to see the moon, [the] beach. It’s a stress reliever. And I’ll just be like ‘God.’ Just speak my own thoughts because that’s what I’ve done. It’s like an autistic trait that I guess people do sometimes,” Hernandez said.

On the night of the incident, Hernandez said she went to the trail because she hadn’t seen the beach for some time and wanted to “destress.” She had spent around 30 minutes on the trail before the assailant grabbed her.

“It was so violent,” she said. “Just the idea of him grabbing me or touching me.”

“Inside, I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s probably a friend or something.’ But then it clicks so fast. This is not a friend. I’m in danger,” Hernandez continued. “Before I knew it, he slammed me to the ground in the bushes.”

Immediately, the assailant put his arms on Hernandez and pressed the rag against her mouth. The bushes she fell into scratched her, and the assailant left bruises on her arms. 

“I had my mouth closed so I wouldn’t inhale anything. But I started feeling dizzy immediately. And I was like losing consciousness,” Hernandez said, tearing up. “[Then] it kicked in me. There was no way I could pass out because I don’t know what his intentions are.” 

She tried to poke the assailant in the eyes and kick him as one of her arms was pinned down. The assailant was closer to her upper body, which “made it harder” to fight back.

“I think I lifted my back a little bit trying to get away from him and I was able to poke him in the eye and he got up. And I was able to get up for like a split second because it happened so fast,” Hernandez said.

She saw him “get into a stance” and, seeing people gathered at the nearby Depressions Beach, she screamed at the assailant loud enough for them to hear, “What the fuck are you doing!”

Once he noticed her turn her attention to the bystanders, he ran away down a path toward the inner lagoon. 

“Thank God there were people there,” Hernandez said. “I was so shocked from it, I don’t remember if I walked or ran. I don’t remember because my head was hurting and it still hurts right now,” Hernandez said.

From there, she went to the group — who were UCSB alumni — who alerted the police. By her estimate, about two minutes elapsed between her initial encounter and escape. It was 3 a.m. by the time she finished giving her police report and went home.

“It was so quick and when you see it in movies, you would think it shouldn’t or couldn’t happen — but it was scary, it was really terrifying,” Hernandez said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

Hernandez suffered a concussion from her fall and battle. Since the incident, she began seeing a therapist and has reached out to her professors and friends for support. Now, she doesn’t feel safe walking at night, much less around campus during the day.

“Something like this, it makes things even harder, just to know that I can’t walk in my own area or my own escape,” she said. “It’s so frustrating that there’s been nothing done to prevent this or monitor campus safety more.

She tells her story now because she doesn’t want the same thing to happen to someone else and implores the campus to increase its safety measures. At the site of the attempted abduction, there are no trail lights, cameras or blue light emergency stations. At the time of the investigation, the UC Police Department did not close off the trail.

“Luckily, people are able to escape, but [I] just want to have a conversation going. And that’s why I’m speaking out,” Hernandez said. “And I don’t want to forget about it later because if we forget about it, nothing happens.”

According to a statement to the Nexus, university spokesperson Kiki Reyes said “UCPD is actively investigating the case and is providing increased high-visibility patrols with police officers and student safety partners on University property.”

As the suspect remains at large, students can reach out to the CSO Safety Escort Service at 805-893-2000 if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe walking alone.

To report any information that can aid the investigation, UCPD says to call the UCSB Police Department at (805) 893-3446.  

Hernandez is currently working with parties with contacts in the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s office to implore the University to respond to the incident by installing cameras and lights around dark areas of campus.

Michael Zhang contributed to this reporting.

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Lizzy Rager
Lizzy Rager (she/her) is the Assistant News Editor for the 2024-25 school year. She can be reached at lizzyrager@dailynexus.com