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‘Is this really happening?’

By Staff | May 2, 2014

Rugby High School junior Elizabeth Blessum fights off Ryan Ziliak, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent and Sherwood police officer, during a self-defense course at Rugby High School on Tuesday.

Ryan Ziliak is a pretty likeable guy, as a group of 15 Rugby High School girls found out Tuesday in the school’s library.

Ziliak, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent and Sherwood police officer, visited the school as a self-defense instructor. He combined his self-defense knowledge from 24 years in law enforcement with a little humor, genuine emotion and serious messages. The officer, about double the size of each girl, even let the students kick and punch him.

Ziliak wore a full-body, padded suit at the beginning of the course and asked for volunteers to fight him as he played the role of an attacker. RHS junior Jessica Blessum was the first volunteer and started the demonstration on her back with a shirt over her face. Ziliak instructed her to do whatever she needed to in order to escape his grasp, except for hitting him in the face because he wore a mask with steel bars.

Despite knowing it was a fake attack, Blessum fought furiously until she got both feet against Ziliak’s torso to kick herself away. She then pounced on his back, although escaping was the more encouraged route as the seminar progressed.

Blessum left out one key part of fighting off a predator.

Rugby High School junior ReeAnn Christianson acts out a scenario with Ziliak.

“You got to scream, folks,” Ziliak said. “This is a fight for your life. You don’t know what this guy is going to do.”

Blessum’s cousin, junior Elizabeth Blessum, was next. Elizabeth stepped on the mats for the ensuing combat, but allowed Ziliak into her personal space with his arm around her shoulders. He made small talk for about a minute while also addressing the audience and then BAM! Lulled into complacency by Ziliak’s calm demeanor and small talk, Elizabeth found herself tackled to the mats. She told Ziliak the first thing she thought was, “Is this really happening?”

“It’s crazy how it quick it happens,” Elizabeth said.

Ziliak explained that if a girl is being followed by someone, whether an acquaintance or stranger, and that person gets too close, the girl needs to be loud and firm about the other person backing off. ?”If you walk with confidence and you’re confident with yourself, they’re gonna tend to leave you alone,” Ziliak said.

He explained that guns, knives, pepper spray and stun guns can be effective, but those weapons are often stowed in purses and can be useless if an attacker grabs hold of a purse or backpack. Ziliak encouraged the girls to carry their keys in their hands when walking alone in parking lots, malls and even their own neighborhoods. He urged them to avoid talking or texting on their cell phones because it makes the girls less aware of their surroundings. Keeping a whistle on their keychain was described as the best defense.

“Your public is going to turn around and see who is blowing this thing,” said Ziliak, while emphasizing that whistles cost just $4.

To describe the effectiveness of the whistle, he recalled working the Minot intersection of Burdick Expressway (Highway 2) and Broadway (Highway 83) during the state fair parade. Everyone at that busy intersection stopped and looked upon hearing the whistle.

“The presentation was really good and helped me get rid of some stress,” junior Kayleigh Gayle said. “Bad guys may follow you, but you can have keys in your hand and be ready.”

Ziliak broke down in tears on two occasions when recalling the high-profile North Dakota and Montana murder cases involving the abductions of Dru Sjodin (2003) and Sherry Arnold (2012).

Ziliak’s tears welled when urging the girls to take on the same mentality he has every morning.

“I walk out of my house with one thing on my mind,” he said. “I’m going home to my wife, my son and my daughter tonight. Your job is to go home too.”

The tears struck a serious note for the audience.

“It caught me off guard and made me realize this is a way bigger deal than we may think,” RHS junior ReeAnn Christianson said.

Luis Coca, Ziliak’s former sergeant with the Ward County Sheriff’s department, joined the conversation and reminded the girls that many sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. The pair told the audience to have fun when they go to college, but to always be aware of their surroundings and to protect their drinks from any drugs if at a party.

Toward the end of the presentation Ziliak drove home the point of being vigilant about self-defense with a story of woman who took his course two weeks before being attacked in Mohall.

“She was walking home from the bar and was jumped half a block from her house. The male attacker had her underwear down to her knees,” Ziliak said. “She screamed, she kicked, she poked, she punched and took him out.

“She listened, she paid attention and she fought because she said remembered me saying, ‘I’m going home tonight.’ “

Niewoehner Funeral Home paid for the travel costs for Ziliak’s visit.

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