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Crime News Dateline

Colorado Woman Unwittingly Moves in With Her Rapist Years After Violent Attack

Amber Smith moved in with some friends in 2015 to try to heal after a violent rape two years earlier, but she had no idea her rapist was hiding in her midst. 

By Jill Sederstrom

Amber Smith lived through something more horrific than most could even imagine. 

How to Watch

Catch up on Dateline: Unforgettable on Peacock or the Oxygen App.

After being violently raped, strangled, and beaten, she was left for dead in a Fort Collins park in August 2013 by an unknown attacker, according to Dateline: Unforgettable

The attacker’s DNA was found on her body and on the red duct tape he used to bind her head, arms, and feet — but police couldn’t link it to a suspect. 

In the months that would follow, a terrified Amber was afraid to go out of her home and was suspicious of every man who looked a little too long. 

Then, two years after the attack, in an attempt to reclaim her life, she moved in with a group of friends, who offered her a safe place to land as she healed. 

But she never could have imagined her rapist was among her new roommates. “Sometimes good guys and bad guys are hard to tell apart,” Dateline Correspondent Keith Morrison said of the terrifying case. 

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What happened to Amber Smith?

In August 2013, Smith was a 20-year-old single mom, working to make ends meet at a local 7-11 in the bustling college town of Fort Collins, Colorado. 

On the night of the attack, Smith was enjoying a night off with her friend, Aric Vanagunas. The two shared some drinks at Rossborough Park, but after consuming too much, Amber fell asleep at a picnic table at the park. 

When she regained consciousness, she was bound with duct tape and a man was on top of her. 

“I remember waking up on my stomach on the floor, and my hands and my feet were bound with duct tape and my mouth was bound with duct tape, but my eyes were not,” she said. “I knew I was in danger, so I started to scream through the tape as loud as I could and I was trying to break free from the tape.” 

Amber couldn’t see the man’s face and remembers him bashing her in the jaw, before placing a rope around her neck and strangling her until she lost consciousness. 

In her final moments before passing out, Smith remembers thinking of her 3-year-old son, Gabriel. 

“I can’t leave my son behind. That’s my baby, that’s my world, like I gotta be strong, I gotta pull through this for him,” she said. “I can’t die, that was not an option.” 

The next thing she remembers, she woke up, naked, bound, and bleeding at another park, Cottonwood Glen Park, on the edge of town around 4 a.m. People who heard her agonized screams for help, called 911.

Rookie cop Dane Stratton was the first to arrive at the scene and followed the harrowing screams to a service road at the park, where he found Smith fighting for her life.

“It’s a horror story on the best day,” he said of the disturbing scene. “It was beyond anything I would imagine. She had been strangled and left here for dead.” 

Amber Smith's Injuries

Smith was rushed to the hospital, where doctors tried to stabilize her injuries. Detective Siobhan Seymour remembered seeing her in the emergency room.

“She had suffered from a broken jaw, a brain bleed. One of her eyes was almost swollen shut. She had these ligature marks on her neck, where you could tell she had been strangled,” Seymour said. “She had a hard time speaking because her jaw hurt so badly.”

Who was suspected in the brutal attack?

Although Smith’s memory of the attack was hazy, Seymour knew one of the first people she needed to talk to was the friend Smith had been hanging out with at the park.

She tracked down Vanagunas at his church. He told Seymour that after she fell asleep, he was unable to wake her up and left her. After a few minutes of driving around, he started to worry and returned to check on her.

“I came back and she — she just seemed fine. So, I thought that it would be ok if like — like I left her there,” he told Seymour. “I didn’t feel too good about it.”

A mugshot of Stefan Moon

Vanagunas also offered to provide his DNA. 

Due to the violent nature of the attack, investigators believed the assailant may have struck before and were hopeful they’d find a match in CODIS, the national database of those who’ve been arrested or convicted of a felony. 

Yet, they were discouraged to discover the DNA found at the scene did not match Vanagunas or anyone in the CODIS database.

“I just felt sick. I felt like how could this be?” Seymour said. “We don’t have a suspect, like how do we not have a suspect? Who is this guy? Where is he?” 

Amber Smith crosses paths with her attacker

Without an arrest, Smith was terrified her rapist could still be somewhere on the streets. She slipped into a depression and blamed herself for the brutal attack.

“I’ve always felt responsible or like it was my fault,” she told Morrison through tears. “If I wouldn’t have been intoxicated or at that park that night then none of this would have happened, you know.”

She was afraid to leave her house, but in 2015, a friend she met through her boyfriend offered her a safe place she could stay as she healed. 

One of the other roommates at the house, Stefan “Sam” Moon became a good friend and was always there for her anytime she needed to talk about the attack.

“Stefan was real, real supportive,” she said of her quiet, considerate friend. “He said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and you know, ‘would you like a hug’ and ‘you should never have to go through that.’"

Who attacked Amber Smith?

By 2017, Smith had moved into her own small apartment with her son and was putting the pieces of her life back together. She’d come to make peace with the idea that she may never know who attacked her that brutal night four years ago. 

But investigators were just about to get the break they’d been waiting for. After a man was arrested for stealing a bike and lying to a pawnbroker about the item’s origins, a felony in the state of Colorado, his DNA was taken and placed in the system. Surprisingly, it was a match to the 2013 rape. 

Seymour was elated, but she could never have imagined the man was someone Smith knew. She rushed over to Smith’s apartment to tell her about the match.

“I was overjoyed, I was like yes, this was a start of a new beginning,” Smith said.

But she was stunned when Seymour showed her the suspect’s picture and she realized it was Moon, the same man who had once comforted her after the attack.

“I said what, like I no, no, I was like there is a mistake,” she said. “This is not real, this is not right, this is not accurate. My whole world was flipped upside down.”

Smith believed she first met Moon in 2015, but she had no idea they had really crossed paths two years earlier. 

Shocked, she agreed to call Moon in a recorded phone call and confront him with the DNA match. "Yeah, so, the, um, the police contacted me and said, um, your DNA matched up,” she said in the call. 

“What?...Oh my God, Amber. Um, I—I—I—i—i don’t know what to say,” Moon stumbled. “I did not hurt you.”

Moon later told Smith and police that while he had sex with Smith that night, he never hurt her and claimed he found her at the park after she posted an ad on Craig’s list offering free sex, in one last horrifying attempt to disparage her name. 

The DNA evidence at the scene, however, discredited his story. His DNA was not only found inside Amber’s body, but it was on the duct tape, her neck and other places he touched her that night. After subpoenaing records from Craig’s List, investigators could also find no evidence of a post like the one he had described. 

Where is Stefan Moon now?

Moon was arrested and charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, sexual assault and other related charges. His case finally went to trial in 2019.

“There was a tremendous amount of pressure to get it right,” Seymour said of taking the stand. “It was almost as if I was fighting for a sister to be able to find that sense of closure so that she could move forward with her life.” 

Shock ripped through the courtroom when Moon was acquitted on the attempted murder charge against him, but he was found guilty of kidnapping, sexual assault, and the other charges against him.

He received a maximum sentence of 128 years behind bars and is incarcerated at a Colorado prison. 

Today, Smith is determined to use her experience to help others. 

“I feel more at peace now, I feel like I can finally move on with my life,” she said. “It doesn’t define me anymore, I’m not a victim.”