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Kidnapped Woman Makes Daring Escape; 2 Arrested

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

When an armed attacker forced Phyllis Muehlbauer inside her car trunk before dawn, the newspaper delivery woman thought she’d never get out alive.

But less than an hour after the 48-year-old mother of two was accosted during her early morning rounds, she ended the terrifying kidnapping with a brave escape. Struggling for air in the dark, Muehlbauer discovered a latch that opened the locked trunk. When her attackers stopped to refuel at a San Clemente gas station, she rolled out to safety.

The ordeal began in the darkness before 3 a.m., when Muehlbauer, who has delivered the San Diego Union Tribune five days a week for 10 years, was loading papers into a newspaper vending machine in her hometown of Escondido.

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A tall man police later identified as Rodney Luckett, 22, emerged from the shadows and forced her into the trunk of her four-door Toyota Corolla at gunpoint.

“The look on my face must have said that I was scared, or that I had seen the gun, because he said to me then, ‘Yeah, this is it.’ ” Muehlbauer said. “Since he’s pointing the gun at me, I thought that meant he was gonna kill me right then.”

With the newspaper delivery woman choking for air, squeezed between piles of newspaper, the two males drove the car to ATM machines and stores, shouting at the frightened woman to give them her bank card’s personal identification number. All the while, Muehlbauer said, the two were laughing and playing her car radio at a blaring volume.

Desperate, Muehlbauer said she began disconnecting wires inside the trunk, hoping that a broken taillight might attract police.

When she began having difficulty breathing, Muehlbauer scrambled to find an air hole. It was then that she felt the trunk latch click in her fingers.

Muehlbauer said she passed up chances to jump out at several stops because she didn’t know if there were likely to be people around. When she heard one of her kidnappers open the gas tank, she surmised the car was at a gas station. When she heard the car doors close and the car began slowly driving, she opened the trunk and rolled to the ground.

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“I finally decided to escape because I would rather escape and get away than just wait in that stuffy trunk until they lifted it up and killed me,” Muehlbauer said of her maneuver at the gas station on El Camino Real.

“It was just something I had to do. I felt I was running out of choices,” she said.

An attendant called 911 as her attackers pulled away in the car, apparently unaware that she had escaped.

Orange County sheriff’s deputies tracked down the car and, after what police described as a short chase, took both occupants, one a juvenile, into custody, Sheriff’s Lt. Lynn Nehring said.

“I’m not gonna do this job anymore, I can’t go back,” Muehlbauer said. “I never was paranoid, I never thought I was in danger ever before this . . . but when it really happens to you, it’s just unbelievable. It’s the scariest thing. You just realize how precious life is.”

Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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