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'It simply wasn't my time to die': Woman survives sex assault near South Platte River

Vanessa Ursini said in a Facebook post that she was walking her dog along the South Platte River in Littleton on a loop that she had walked countless times before when the unthinkable happened. She wants to use her story of survival as a message to help others.

Editor's note: This story contains graphic photos that some viewers may find disturbing.

The victim of a sexual assault Wednesday morning wants to use her experience as a reminder to others: fight -- and be vigilant.

Vanessa Ursini, 29, said she was walking her dog along the South Platte River on a loop that she had been on countless times before when the unthinkable happened.

She said a man who she thought she recognized from being on the same trail the day before cut into the woods and then got behind her with a rope in his hands.

“He strangled me from behind and drug me into the woods about 15 feet off the trail where he removed almost all of my clothes,” Ursini wrote in a Facebook post that has since been shared hundreds of times. “He continued to choke me using his hands, the rope and with a bandana of some sort.”

Credit: Courtesy Vanessa Ursini
Vanessa Ursini

Ursini wrote on Facebook that the man “threatened to kill her." She said in an interview with 9NEWS that he tied her up from her neck, to her ankles, to her wrists.

But Ursini said she fought back, too.

"I screamed. I kicked. I scratched. I threw his glasses off," she said. "I did as much as I could to get away."

Ursini said the suspect searched for his glasses.

"I tried to talk to my phone. You know how you can say, 'Hey Siri,' but I realized it wasn’t in the bag that I had," she said. "I just noticed he was gone for an extra amount of time."

She said she was able to reach the knot around her ankles and free herself, though she had to leave her dog behind.

“I had no choice at that point but to run for my life as fast as I could,” she wrote. “… I made it to the bike path almost completely naked, screaming for help.”

Credit: Courtesy Vanessa Ursini
Vanessa Ursini

Littleton Police Department Cmdr. Trent Cooper said passing bicyclists found her and rode down the trail, where they found a man matching Ursini’s description of the perpetrator in a wooded area.

"[I] picked up two other cyclists who were there in the crowd and we rode off and cornered the guy," said witness Mark Jennings.

Those bicyclists kept an eye on the man, since identified as Johnny Dewayne Harris, until police could take him into custody.

Police said they did the right think by keeping their distance until officers got there.

Harris, 38, is being held at the Arapahoe County Detention Center and faces charges for sexual assault and kidnapping. He is a known sex offender who is also accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman in March.

RELATED | Known sex offender wanted out of Denver arrested after woman sexually assaulted in Littleton

In Ursini’s Facebook post, she shared photos of bruises on her neck and an apparent black eye. Police said she has since been released from the hospital.

“I feel like I was hit by a freight train,” she wrote. "But I am lucky to be in good hands today with friends and family.”

Credit: Courtesy Vanessa Ursini
Vanessa Ursini

Ursini said she was able to find her dog, who is home safe.

"This is the worst day of my life but I knew I had to fight, it simply wasn't my time to die," Ursini wrote.

She said she wanted to make sure other people know her story.

“Even if you have been on your local path, your grocery store parking lot, or anywhere 100 times, danger can exist anywhere,” she wrote. “I am lucky to be alive, so please have a plan in place to protect yourself from whatever may be out there.”

A GoFundMe page set up to help Ursini has already raised more than $18,000 towards its $20,000 goal.

If you or someone you know has also been the victim of a sexual assault, there are resources:

Tap/click here for a list of additional services in Colorado.

Here is Ursini's Facebook post: