VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Kelli Worst is a survivor, but it took her years to feel like one.

“This is something that will always be with me, but I do feel like a survivor now more than a victim,” she said.

Worst’s long journey to survivorship began on the sand at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront in the early-morning hours of Dec. 29, 2019. That morning, 22-year-old Najee Bullock lured her onto the beach and tried to sexually assault her. She made a series of smart decisions that ultimately saved her physically — but the emotional scars of that night were much harder to heal.

“I have learned and know now that the only reason for an assault is the assaulter. It was not my fault. I didn’t ask for that to happen to me. Nobody asks for that to happen,” she said.

Bullock pleaded guilty to abducting Worst with the intent to defile her in December 2021. He was sentenced to 30 years with 15 years suspended — well above the recommended sentencing guidelines of 10 years and seven months in prison.

For Worst, the high prison sentence feels like justice.

Kelli Worst’s advice to other survivors about healing, pursuing prosecution:

“I understand why victims are afraid or don’t want to go through the legal process,” Worst said. “It was hard. But, thankfully I was in therapy, and still am, and had a lot of support. But, it was hard to see him that many times in court.”

It isn’t only the years of therapy, support from loved ones, and the prosecution of her attacker that have made Worst feel like a survivor. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she became a survivor that terrible December night when she fought for her life on the sand.

“It’s taken a while to come to those realizations myself. I think it’s important for victims to seek therapy. I’ve gone through extensive therapy and have learned to see those moments that I did do well, because intially you just want to blame yourself,” she said.

The hours leading up to the attack were happy ones. Worst was enjoying a Saturday night at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront with two good friends from high school. The girls stayed out until last call, drinking, dancing, and enjoying each others company.

“We were just having a blast to be honest. It was a really good girls night out,” Worst said.

Worst and her friends called for Lyfts to come pick them up after 2 a.m. With safety in mind, one of Worst’s friends stayed with her until her Lyft arrived. The women said goodbye and went their separate ways.

“As far she knows, I got into my Lyft, but as I was reaching for the door handle is when this man [Bullock] approached me that looked normal and nice and asked me to help him find his phone,” Worst said.

Thinking she could help him quickly, Worst asked her Lyft driver to wait while she helped Bullock look for his iPhone.

“He said he was in the military and not from here, and I just immediately thought of my brother, who’s in the military,” Worst said. “I figured he probably has to report somewhere in the morning. He’s going to be in trouble if he doesn’t get there. I just felt bad for him and wanted to help him, and honestly when he told me he was in the military I felt a sense of safety.”

Worst and Bullock crossed the street, looking for the iPhone in the bushes and grass. He gave her a number, which she repeatedly called, but no one answered. When she tried to put the number into the Find My iPhone app, it wasn’t valid.

Worst was distracted by trying to find the iPhone, and Bullock led her onto the sand.

“I handed him my phone, and I said, ‘You type it in yourself, because you’re either not spelling it right, or I’m typing it in wrong. Here, you do it,'” she said. “And that’s when I finally got a bad feeling, because he was holding my phone and his hand had swiped off the app, and he had no idea how to navigate an iPhone.”

With one hand holding her iPhone, Bullock began making sexual gestures toward Worst with the other. Thinking quickly that she needed to escape, Worst asked him for her phone back so she could try to call his again. With her device in hand, she tried to walk away.

“I turned around and walked away and probably got about 5 steps away from him and that’s when he came up to me and covered my mouth and nose and tackled me to the ground and had me pinned face down in the sand,” she said.

She tried and failed to escape twice. The louder she screamed, the harder Bullock pinned her down. That’s when she made the decision to use a feature on her iPhone to get help.

“I still had my phone in my right hand, so I activated the SOS feature by holding the side button and the power button and then swiping across, so from that point on 911 was able to hear everything that was going on,” Worst said.

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Activating the SOS feature on iPhone

Depending on the model of the phone, there are two ways to call emergency services by activating the SOS feature on an iPhone.

On an iPhone 8 or newer:

  • Press and hold the side button and one of the volume buttons until the SOS slider appears on your screen. Then, slide a finger across the slider to call 911.
  • If you hold the buttons but do not drag the slider, an emergency alert will sound and a countdown will begin. Then, the iPhone will automatically call 911.

On an iPhone 7 or earlier:

  • Quickly press the side or top button five times until the SOS slider appears on your screen. Then, slide a finger across the slider to call 911.

You can also update your settings to provide an emergency contact. When the SOS device is activated, your emergency contact will receive a text message with your current location.

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A 911 dispatcher was on the line, listening to Worst as she pleaded with Bullock not to hurt her. Worst tried to give as many clues as possible to the dispatcher, telling Bullock she didn’t want to move closer to the ocean so officers would know she was on the beach. Later, police would tell Worst that her clues led them to the sand instead of a nearby hotel that they were originally going to check.

“He told me that he had a knife. He said, ‘I don’t want to have to use it. I just want to assault you. Just let me masturbate, and I’ll let you go,'” Worst said.

Worst doesn’t know if Bullock saw her phone screen or heard the dispatcher on the phone, but he took her iPhone away and hung up on 911.

“At that point, I honestly thought I could die out here,” Worst said.

At that very moment, Virginia Beach Police Department officers arrived on scene, the lights of their squad car illuminating the beach. Bullock took her phone and ran north on the sand, while Worst told an officer she’d been attacked.

“That was like a moment of, I just finally knew that I was going to be ok,” she said.

“My phone in my hand and knowing how to activate the SOS feature is what saved my life,” she added.

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Activating the SOS feature on Android

To activate the emergency SOS feature on Android, you must first turn it on in settings. To activate the SOS feature you must:

  • Press the power button at least five times quickly.
  • The SOS feature will automatically send first responders your phones location when you dial or text an emergency number.

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Worst survived using quick thinking and the SOS function on her phone, but her walk off the beach that night was just the start on the long road to healing.

Over the next three years, Worst would do hard work in therapy to confront the shame she felt connected to the assault. She also appeared in court multiple times and testified against Bullock at a preliminary hearing before he pleaded guilty to attacking her.

“Justice was finally served, as long as it took, but I had to be there at a lot of hearings. I had to testify against him at the preliminary trial. I did have to do some difficult things,” she said.

Over time, Worst has begun to look at herself as a survivor. She hopes telling her story will allow other survivors to share theirs.

“I hope that telling my story inspire other victims to tell their story, whether its to a therapist, to someone. It helps to share, because initially it feels like this secret burden, like you’re ashamed,” she said.