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A victim no more: Miss Arkansas USA's encounter with a serial attacker

Rylie Wagner.jpg
Rylie Wagner.jpg
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It was a story that swept the country. A beauty queen found dead in her Russellville apartment. It's been nearly 17 years since Nona Dirksmeyer was brutally murdered. The man tried twice for her murder, but never convicted, Gary Dunn, now sits in prison for his encounter with a different beauty queen in the same town. Miss Arkansas USA 2022 Rylie Wagner is sharing her story for the first time about her encounter with Dunn. She says her awareness of her surroundings saved her life and now she wants to help other women.

Wagner, 22, says being crowned Miss Arkansas USA was the culmination if a long pageant career.

She’ll now compete for Miss USA in October.

"I told my mom as a child that I was going to be on that stage one day, and now I'm going to be and it just feels like a dream still,” Wagner said.

A dream that for Wagner seemed so far out of reach just a few years ago.

An 18 year-old from Ozark leaving home for the first time and going to Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. She joined a sorority and made friends. But soon her path would cross with the fate of another Arkansas beauty queen.

It was 13 years earlier when Arkansas Tech University student Nona Dirksmeyer, a Miss Arkansas contestant, was found murdered in her off campus apartment in 2005.

Gary Dunn was charged with her brutal beating.

"I actually had grown up hearing about that because I do compete in pageantry and that was something my mom always warned me about was to be extra cautious because I do compete in pageantry and she just always instilled in me to be aware,” Wagner said.

Dunn's criminal history is long and storied. H was sent to prison for attacking a woman on a Russellville jogging trail in 2002. After getting out, he was charged with Dirksmeyer's murder in 2006. He was tried twice for that crime with both trials ending on a hung jury. Dunn was then arrested for unrelated weapons charges and sent back to prison. In 2018 he was released on parole, but in less than four months he would try to strike again in the same town.

It was the evening before final exams. Returning from errands, Wagner was driving in her car headed to her dorm to study. She noticed someone was following her.

"I remember thinking to myself how absurd it was because of closely he was following me,” Wagner said. "And that's when I started paying attention to the kind of vehicle he was driving and I noticed it was a man in the car. And I really just started observing everything because I had a feeling that something wasn't right."

She pulled into a parking space.

"That's when I noticed he had blocked me in,” Wagner said.

With his car blocking her in, she was trapped and alone.

"That's when he tried to force me out of the car and told me get out of the car. For a moment I froze and I wasn't sure what to do because everything was happening so fast, it was so surreal. I was in shock,” Wagner said. "And he kept trying to open my car door, but I had already locked it as he was approaching my vehicle."

Wagner says Dunn saw her dialing 911 through the window and left.

"And he chose to turn left and drive slowly in front of me and just stare me down. And that's when he sped off and went later to try to abduct other victims,” she said.

Less than 17 minutes later police would receive another call from a woman in a Russellville church parking lot claiming Dunn had gotten even bolder by attempting to force her into a vehicle. She was able to break free. Dunn was arrested that night for attempted kidnapping. Later some chilling details emerged.

"That is when we found out he actually had ropes and knives in his vehicle,” Wagner said.

Wagner says being aware saved her life.

"I just think I'm very lucky I got away from the situation and that I was paying attention and aware of my surroundings whereas I just think there could have been a different outcome,” Wagner said.

What could have been is something she's fought to overcome.

"I struggled with insomnia, post traumatic stress, and I would also have night sweats. And after I took time to really work through all of the things that were happening to me, I asked myself how I can turn this from a negative situation to a positive situation,” she said.

She is now lobbying for victims' rights and working on a bill to protect victims information. She's also concerned with the alarming trend of repeated offenders attacking again.

"I would really just like to see repeated violent offenders get stricter sentencing. I know that the justice system charges the crime versus the history but a lot of these other women that have been getting abducted, their offenders are repeated violent offenders too,” Wagner said.

And she's made it her mission to speak to women about staying aware and effective self-defense.

"Even if my story only reaches one person, then that's one life potentially being saved. That makes it all worth it to me,” she said.

Dunn was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempted kidnapping. He only has to serve a third of that sentence and he's eligible for parole next year.

Prosecutors chose not to try to Dunn for a third time in the murder of Nona Dirksmeyer, so that is still an open case with no conviction.

Wagner leaves next week to compete in the Miss USA competition. It will take place on October first, streaming on FYI and Hulu.

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