The Crazy (True) Story Of How Car Trunks Got Emergency Release Handles

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 

If you’ve watched enough Criminal Minds episodes, you’ve probably once or twice considered what you would do if you were in the victim’s shoes. Would you know the secret trick that meant the difference between life and death? Would you be able to think fast enough to save yourself and your loved ones?

I’ve asked myself that question, and my answer is always I don’t know and hope I don’t ever have to find out. But one woman did. She found a way to save herself and then made sure other women had a way to save themselves too. Thanks to her and her wild story, since 2002, all cars are required to have a glow-in-the-dark emergency release handle in the trunk.

Janette Fennell’s story and her subsequent battle to ensure all cars are equipped with car trunk emergency release handles first appeared on Atlas Obscura, a website committed to telling extraordinary stories in 2015, and then recently resurfaced on Reddit, in a TIL (Today I Learned) post.

But Janette’s story started two decades earlier.

Shortly before midnight on the night of October 29, 1995, Janette, her husband, Greig, and their nine-month-old son returned home from a friend’s house. They parked in the garage and her mind was already whirring with the things she still had to do to prep to teach at her church’s Sunday school the next morning. It’s an easy scene to imagine for any new mother trying to get anything done over the weekend. There should have been nothing out of the ordinary about the night.

There was.

As the garage door slid closed, two men rolled underneath the garage on their sides. As if that visual alone isn’t frightening enough, they also wore masks, one which pictured a sinister werewolf on its face.


Getty Images/iStockphoto

The men held Janette and her husband at gunpoint and ordered them into the trunk. The kidnappers had no idea the Fennells’ baby was still strapped in his carseat in the car until the two new parents heard one of the kidnappers say, “there’s a baby.” After that, there was no mention of the baby, and they had no idea what had or would happen to the infant.

The kidnappers began to drive and the Fennells kept an ear out for sounds from their son to determine whether he was safe. They could hear nothing.

As the car navigated the streets of San Francisco and onto a highway, Janette began pulling on the carpet in the trunk. Somehow, she managed to expose wires, and thought there was a chance lights might flicker or act up enough to attract the attention of someone who might be able to help them. As the car drove on, bottoming out at times due to the weight of two adults in the trunk, no help came.

“We were basically saying our last goodbyes,” Janette said in an interview with NPR.


Getty Images

Then, the Fennells felt the car exit the highway, then the paved roads. When the car stopped, the kidnappers opened the trunk and made their demands. Janette tried to escape, but one of the men hit her in the head with his gun.

The kidnappers demanded money, bank cards, and pin numbers. After the Fennells turned that information over, the kidnappers locked them back in the trunk and said they’d return to kill them if the pin numbers failed.

Janette and her husband were left alone in a locked trunk with no light, and still no idea if their baby was safe or not.

And then Janette reports that she saw a light. In the area where she’d ripped the wires, she saw an impossible-to-be-there light shining on a little piece of wire. According to Janette and the story she told to Atlas Obscura the words she said next were not her own. She said, “I think I found the trunk release.”

Greig pulled the wire Janette had led him to and the trunk popped up. They scrambled out of the car and checked the backseat. No baby. No car seat.

Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty

CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

Using an emergency key, they drove back to the city, called 9-1-1 and finally, finally, learned that their baby was safe. The kidnappers had left him sitting in his car seat outside the house.

Janette’s story could have been over there. Though the kidnappers have never been caught, she’d saved herself, her husband, and her son. She’d done the thing that was only supposed to happen in episodes of Criminal Minds. But Janette’s story doesn’t end there—and we owe her a debt of gratitude for it.

Janette collected data and began researching the issue. She lobbied lawmakers to pass a law that would require automakers to outfit vehicles with glow-in-the-dark emergency release handles. She undoubtedly saved lives.

“We have not been able to uncover one case of a person dying in a trunk since those releases were put in. We have plenty of stories of people getting put in the trunk by a thief, and taken to the ATM. But they found the release and jumped out,” Janette told Atlas Obscura.

And Janette isn’t done saving lives. She’s gone on to champion other safety issues related to vehicles.

Because for Janette, the way to heal from her trauma was to act—and keep others safe from having to live through what she endured.

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