Lolita is recognized as a masterwork of 20th-century fiction. The controversial 1955 novel tells the story of a literature professor in his 40s who becomes obsessed and sexually involved with a 12-year-old girl who also happens to be his stepdaughter. The novel was adapted for the screen in 1962, with legendary director Stanley Kubrick behind the camera.
But there was also a story behind the story of Lolita. A bizarre true crime case that captured the public’s attention and inspired Vladimir Nabokov to pen his famous novel.
The awful ordeal that young Sally Horner endured began on June 13, 1948, in Camden, New Jersey. On a dare from school friends, the 11-year-old Horner was determined to steal a five-cent notebook from Woolworth’s. The young girl had the notebook hidden and was exiting the store when an older man grabbed her arm, stopping her. The man told Horner “I am an FBI agent and you are under arrest.”
The man threatened to send Horner to reform school, and the young girl wept and pleaded to be let go. Eventually, the man softened and told Horner he was releasing her and that she was lucky another FBI agent hadn’t caught her. Relieved, Horner went back to her life having learned a valuable lesson.
Sally Horner thought that was going to be the end of the affair, but the next day the man she believed was an FBI agent stopped her as she left school. He told her things had changed and that the government insisted she accompany him to Atlantic City. The man told Horner that she had to convince her widowed mother that he was the father of two of her school friends, and that she was going on a beach vacation with him and his family.
Horner made the call to her mother and left town with the man. But he was no FBI agent. The man was Frank La Salle, a 50-year-old mechanic who was also a pedophile. The two went to Atlantic City and La Salle rented an apartment under an assumed name. Horner called her mother periodically to check in, and she simply thought her daughter was on a summer vacation with a friend’s family. After six weeks, on July 31, 1948, Horner’s mother began to suspect something was amiss, and she notified the police.
When police got to the apartment in Atlantic City, Horner and La Salle were long gone. That’s when Sally Horner’s mother learned the terrible truth. Her daughter was not on a nice beach vacation, but rather in the clutches of an ex-convict who had been released from prison only six months earlier for statutory rape. It goes without saying that La Salle was sexually assaulting the young girl who was now under his control.
Horner and La Salle had fled to Baltimore after leaving Atlantic City. Thus began an almost two-year odyssey across the United States, evading police and living under fake names. The two went to Dallas, where they lived in a trailer park and Horner even attended school. It was in the trailer park in Dallas that Horner made friends with a neighbor, a woman named Ruth Janish. The woman was suspicious of the relationship between Horner and La Salle, and tried, to no avail, to get Horner to open up to her. Horner did, however, tell a friend at school about the ordeal. The girl was shocked and told Horner that the relationship was “wrong” and that she should put an end to it.
Janish and her husband left for California in March 1950 and Ruth began to hatch a plan. She wrote to Frank La Salle in Dallas and told him that he should come to California because work was plentiful. She also wanted to keep an eye on the young girl who used to be her neighbor. Ruth Janish told La Salle that they had even reserved a spot right next to theirs in their new trailer park in San Jose.
So the next stop for Horner and La Salle was San Jose, California. Horner was now on the opposite coast of her worried family, who still had no idea where the young girl might be. She had now been missing for 21 months.
Only three days after arriving in San Jose, on March 21, 1950, Sally Horner’s nightmare ended. Frank La Salle left their trailer for a few hours and Ruth Janish invited Horner over to her trailer. Janish finally got Horner to open up and reveal the truth about her situation, and Horner admitted she wanted to return to her family in New Jersey. Janish told Horner to call her family. Her mother’s phone line had been disconnected, but Horner called her sister Susan’s house. Her brother-in-law Al picked up, and Horner told him she was in California and that he needed to call the authorities.
Police arrived at the trailer and found Sally Horner alone. The young girl was relieved, but also terrified about how Frank La Salle would react. La Salle was arrested, but he insisted he was the girl’s father and was married to Horner’s mother.
La Salle was returned to New Jersey and was charged with kidnapping. He waived his right to a lawyer and pleaded guilty to all charges. Horner was not forced to testify, and La Salle was sentenced to 30-35 years in prison. He died in Trenton State Prison in 1966 at the age of 69.
Tragically, only two years after her terrible ordeal ended, Sally Horner was killed in a car accident on August 18, 1952, in New Jersey at the age of 15.
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