'Can I strangle you?' Survivor shares story of rape, brutal attempted murder, frustration with legal system
01/10/2018 2:02 pm PST
Karen Widdoss should not be talking. She should not be walking. In fact, after the horror she faced, she shouldn't even be alive.
But miraculously, Karen Widdoss lived to tell the tale of a gruesome attack perpetrated by someone who once claimed to love her.
Widdoss sits down with Crime Watch Daily's Kim Goldman, revealing for the first time the horrific details of her ex-lover's near-fatal obsession.
It all started so sweet and innocent, at 13 years old, Karen Widdoss struck up a young romance with 17-year-old Leonard Tilton.
"He was constantly 'I love you, you're beautiful,' and so at 13 years old, you know," said Widdoss.
But Karen's mom Betty says early on she felt there was something odd about her daughter's boyfriend.
"He just didn't seem like boyfriend material to me," Betty Widdoss tells Crime Watch Daily.
Did Karen ever share any concerns with you that she may have had over his behavior?
"She said he was creepy. She didn't want to be around him at times," said Betty.
And after two years together, when Karen was 15, the teen lovers broke up.
"I wanted to have friends again, and anytime that I would mention hanging out with a friend from school, getting a new girlfriend, he exploded," said Karen Widdoss.
Widdoss says despite his controlling ways, Leonard Tilton seemed to be OK with the break-up. She soon began dating another guy, and she thought Tilton had moved on as well.
"Every so often he would call me, though, and just touch base, 'Hey, how you doing?' It was like he wanted to still remain friends," said Widdoss. "He didn't seem jealous at all, everything seemed fine on the surface."
But things were far from fine. Under that seemingly smooth surface, deep trouble was brewing.
"It was around that time that I started receiving hang-up calls. It was odd because he always called from a payphone," said Widdoss.
And those nuisance crank calls quickly escalated to menacing behavior.
Did you ever see him out stalking you?
"Yes," said Widdoss. "There was one time I had an early dismissal from school. Nobody knew I was getting out early. And as soon as I got in the house, I shut the door, that quick, somebody knocked on my door. So I opened the door and it was him. And I asked him right away, 'Why are you here?' 'Oh, I was just in the neighborhood,' and he lived about 45 minutes away from my house."
Karen Widdoss says Leonard Tilton's behavior worried her, but not enough to call police. Then about a year after their break-up, Tilton announced he was moving across the country.
"He came up with this idea of telling me that he was moving to California," said Widdoss. "Immediately I knew that wasn't true. He actually came over to my house and he hugged my mom goodbye."
And one day, her suspicions were confirmed.
"My boyfriend at the time and I were actually on a bus and the bus went right by his house, and there he was, on a payphone," said Widdoss.
Then the creepy crank phone calls got worse, so many that Karen's mom Betty had to change their phone number. With no way to contact Karen, Leonard resorted to writing letters, supposedly from California.
"He told he met a girl named Karen who was the same exact height as me, the same exact weight as me, about how she was now pregnant and he was going to be a daddy," said Widdoss.
Then another tortured letter, in which Tilton admitted to lying about a move to the West Coast and professed his undying love for Karen.
"It had been a year and four months at the time that we had been broken up, and I had moved on. I had this new boyfriend, life was great. I figured life was great for him," said Widdoss.
At that point Tilton returned home from his so-called California trip and resumed his friendship with Widdoss.
"We were together for almost two years, and from the time of being 13 to 15, that's a huge part in my life, and I shared it with him," said Widdoss.
So with her guard down, she invited Tilton to hang out with her and her new boyfriend on a night when nearly everyone in the nation was glued to their TV sets.
"The week of June 12th, when your brother and Nicole were murdered, that's all that was on TV, and he was over at my house a few times that week and he, I remember him turning to my mother, saying 'Do you think he did it?' meaning O.J. And my mom, everything was so new. It just happened, it just came out. I didn't even know who O.J. Simpson was, I had no clue. I couldn't have cared less, and we watched the whole chase from beginning to end, and as soon as the car chase was over, he left immediately right afterwards," said Widdoss.
She recalls that after a few days passed she got a strange call from Tilton telling her he dyed his hair black, and she just had to see it.
"He took the bus down to my house to show me his dyed black hair. I couldn't believe it. I thought it was the craziest thing. He looked evil," said Widdoss. "And as I walked him to the door, he just looked at me straight-faced and said 'I could kill you, because nobody knows that I'm here.' And I shut the door. I locked the door. My gut instinct took over. I knew he was going to kill me."
It was a bone-chilling feeling that Karen Widdoss tried desperately to shake.
"I said to myself, 'You're being stupid, no he's not.' I knew better but I chose to ignore it," said Widdoss.
That would be a near-fatal mistake. Just a few days later, on an early morning in June, Widdoss hears Tilton throwing rocks at her window. He motions for her to let him in.
"I was just more or less talking to him from the door and he basically walked in," said Widdoss. "I said 'You're not supposed to be here.' He was just like 'Yeah, you know, just give me a few minutes, I'll leave, whatever.'"
But when he didn't leave, Widdoss became flustered and called her grandmother, who lived a few doors down.
"I just kept fighting with him to leave. And he wouldn't. So I went back upstairs and I shut my bedroom door and I laid back down in bed," said Widdoss. "My grandmom, she came down to the house and she actually searched the entire house and couldn't find anybody."
In her bedroom, Widdoss dozed off, only to wake up to a strange sensation.
"He was at the foot of my bed and he had his hands underneath the sheets and he was caressing my feet," said Widdoss. "I jumped up out of bed and I screamed."
Widdoss says she ran downstairs with Tilton on her heels. She tried to remain calm, asking him again to leave.
"I looked at him and I said 'Are you ready to go?' And he said 'Yes -- can I strangle you?' as he was putting his hands around my neck," said Widdoss. "And then he lifted me up off of the ground and held me in the air over his head by my neck."
She passed out. When she regained consciousness she noticed Tilton had removed her clothes and put her in a dress. But now her chest was covered in blood.
"When I looked over at him he was kneeling on the floor beside me, and he raised a 14-inch serrated butcher knife over his head and jammed it into my chest," said Widdoss. "It was like he was prying my ribs open, and he was hissing and making awful grunting sounds.
"I remember thinking 'I am never going to see the sun again.' My mom was at work and I just wanted to see my mom before I died. And then he took the knife and he wrapped it in a towel and he threw it underneath of the bed, and then he got down on the floor next to me and he kissed me on my lips and told me that he loved me.
"He shoved me underneath of my sister's old bed and covered me up with sheets, and then he left the room."
Karen Widdoss was literally left for dead.
"As I laid there with my hand on my chest, feeling myself die, I knew I had to get out," said Widdoss.
A Pennsylvania teen thought it was over between her and her high-school boyfriend. But he had other ideas. And his obsession with her went from creepy to criminal during a vicious late-night attack.
Karen Widdoss, a pretty 16-year-old, was brutally attacked.
"He pulled the knife out and blood went everywhere," Karen Widdoss tells Crime Watch Daily.
Her ex-boyfriend Leonard Tilton had beaten, stabbed and strangled her, wrapped her body in a sheet and stuffed her under a bed and left her for dead.
But against all odds, Widdosss managed to survive.
"I kind of just with my right hand over my chest, I kind of squeezed my way out from underneath of the bed and then I staggered into my bedroom and I called 911," said Widdoss. "The dispatcher answered and I said 'I'm being murdered.'"
As Leonard Tilton was leaving he overheard Karen's desperate cry for help. He ran back to finish her off.
"He grabbed me by my face and he knocked me off my feet onto the floor, and then he told me 'Just die, Karen, let yourself go. Let yourself die,'" said Widdoss.
Karen Widdoss was dying. But despite deep wounds within an inch of her heart, miraculously, she survived. Her attacker left, this time for good.
"I just kept saying to myself 'He's not going to kill me, he's not going to win,'" Widdoss tells Crime Watch Daily.
Somehow she managed to drag her bloody and half-naked body out of her house and over to her grandparents' home a few doors away.
"I walked up their steps and into their house, and my grandfather and grandmother jumped up and my grandfather grabbed me and I collapsed in his arms," said Widdoss.
Police officer Jim Goodchild lived across the street. He jumped into duty when he saw the horror unfolding just feet from his home.
You see your neighbor walking down the street. What goes through your mind?
"The main thing was to find out if he was still in the area," Goodchild tells Crime Watch Daily. "She was able to give me a good description while I was on the phone with police."
Bleeding severely and hovering on the edge of death, Karen Widdoss was able to tell cops they could find Leonard Tilton at a nearby bridge, where he told her he was going to kill himself.
"He was in fact on the Tacony Palmyra Bridge about to jump, and they said that when they arrested him he had a photo in his hand," said Widdoss. "I actually kind of asked 'Can I see who it is?' because they didn't know who it was, and I said 'That's me.' I was beaten so badly that they couldn't recognize me from my photo."
Cops nab Tilton before he could jump. Meanwhile, Widdoss was fighting for her life, but still conscious. She was rushed to a hospital.
"They made an incision and inserted a chest tube because I had a collapsed lung. At that point they didn't know if my heart had been stabbed," said Widdoss.
Doctors had little hope she would make it through the night.
"Once they had me stabilized, they allowed my family to come in to basically say goodbye to me. The police were just basically waiting around the hospital, waiting for the time of death," Widdoss said.
But unbelievably, she lived -- only to learn something horrific: Leonard Tilton had also raped her.
"It changed everything. Everybody knew that I was raped but me. I was literally the last person to know," said Widdoss. "And I remember the first words out of my mouth was 'Does my mom know? Does my grandparents know?' And yeah, they did."
District Attorney Debra Naish remembers the very moment the case came across her desk.
"It was such a vicious assault," Naish tells Crime Watch Daily. "And I have actually prosecuted and seen homicide cases where the injuries were much less than what Karen sustained."
But Tilton was not charged with attempted murder. Instead he faced charges of rape, aggravated assault and possession of a weapon.
Even at the preliminary hearing, he continued to terrorize Karen.
"I gave my testimony of what happened that day, all while my attacker was staring at me from across the courtroom wearing the same exact boots and shorts and everything that he had on that day, and as soon as I was done giving my testimony and stating what he had done to me, he mouthed the words 'I love you' to me," said Widdoss. "And I told the judge, and the judge told me to just ignore it."
After the hearing, Tilton's bail was set.
"The district attorney, the D.A., he wanted to raise his bail, and they said 'Oh, well, he can't afford it anyway, so we'll just keep it at that.' And he actually was able to make bail, and he got out on bail," said Widdoss.
Shockingly, Karen Widdoss was never notified that Leonard Tilton was out of jail, and only found out when she went to her mailbox.
"As soon as he was released he wrote me a letter," said Widdoss. "And he went on to tell me that I was the only girl that he ever loved, and he's sorry, and 'How could he could do this to me?'
"When the letter came, my mom, we opened it together and we both frantically read the disgusting words that this maniac -- it's like, it's almost like he thinks he's above the law."
Leonard Tilton did indeed appear to think he was above the law. He skipped his bail hearing, and after he was arrested, eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges including aggravated assault and rape.
Did that surprise you that it was aggravated assault?
"Yes, very much, 'cause it was clearly murder," said Widdoss. "I mean he was telling me to die, he stabbed me multiple times, he strangled me multiple times. He beat me in the face until I was unconscious, over and over again, telling me to die. That's murder. I felt like the system was failing me already."
Tilton was this time back in the slammer for a while. But even a cement cell couldn't stop him from terrorizing Widdoss.
"It was my birthday, and I answered the phone and all I heard was 'Don't hang up.' And as soon as I heard that voice, I fell to my knees and I just began screaming and I told him 'Shut up.' He then proceeded to tell me that prison wasn't at all what he expected. Instead it was more like a rest home."
Tilton's plea deal got him sentenced to 15 to 40 years in prison, which means after serving 15 years he's eligible for parole. And under current law, that's not once every five or 10 years -- that happens every year.
So Karen Widdoss is forced to relive her nightmare each time she fights to keep Leonard Tilton locked up.
"It's just something I have to do, whether if I want to or not, I have to," said Widdoss. "I want him dead. I want him dead more than anything in the world."
Now Karen Widdoss is fighting to get legislation called "Karen's Law" passed, which would prevent violent sexual predators from being able to apply for parole.
"For my own safety and for, you know, everything that I've been through, but for everybody, you know, for any victim that's going through anything even remotely close to what I'm going through," said Karen Widdoss.
And Karen's mom Betty Widdoss is convinced that if Tilton ever walks the streets again, he will back come for her daughter and finish the job.
"I'm very afraid because I feel that he will find her, he'll want to finish what he started, and I'll do everything in my power to stop him," Betty tells Crime Watch Daily.
If Leonard Tilton is granted his freedom, are you afraid for your safety?
"Yes," said Karen Widdoss. "I may not be sure of a lot of things, but that gut instinct that I used to feel, with that I feel that stronger than ever. He spent an hour trying to murder me. It's not over for him."
While Leonard Tilton has been in prison, he has continued to write Karen Widdoss letters, professing his love and saying he is going to commit suicide. He has also included drawings of skulls. And until she can get a law passed to prevent it, Widdoss vows she will be at every parole hearing to make sure Tilton stays locked up where he belongs.