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Women pack defense seminar

DULUTH - Kathie Thompson was inspired to sit through a 90-minute seminar on self-defense Monday night by a single, ubiquitous word:

Meredith.

The tragic fate of the murdered 24-year-old hiker from Buford weighed heavily on a mostly female crowd in a Gwinnett Convention Center ballroom - a group concerned by the possibility that predators are real threats, as evidenced by Meredith Emerson's abduction two weeks ago.

It's unlikely the estimated 1,000 people on hand would have found the time to hear grisly rape statistics and defense-tactics talk on a Monday night without being scared into it.

Thompson's husband convinced her to come.

"I just hope to be a little safer when I'm alone," said Thompson, a sales manager from Loganville.

The free seminar is the brainchild of a local radio station and Atlanta-based martial arts gurus. In the wake of the Emerson tragedy, it's proving quite a hit; more than 1,700 people have attended this and similar events around metro Atlanta since last weekend. Seminars will continue this week in McDonough and Acworth.

Atlanta radio station Q100.5 FM's The Bert Show and Atlanta Budokan owner and marital arts instructor Shawn Forristall partnered to bring the seminar locally. It opened Monday with 30 seconds of silence for Emerson, whose body was recovered Jan. 7 in Dawson County.

The seminar was less brawn than brains. It dealt more with useful pointers for women than martial arts trickery.

"Self-defense is all in the mind," Forristall told the crowd. "You can be the best martial artist around, and if you're not alert, it doesn't matter."

Forristall and assistant instructor Bill Reynolds admittedly used scare tactics - courtesy of some particularly alarming U.S. Department of Justice statistics - to drive the point home.

For example: About one-third of American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. About a fourth of all assaults take place in public places, especially in parking garages. One in every four college females will be sexually assaulted, they said.

The good news? Studies show survival odds are 86 percent higher when women fight back during an attack, Forristall said.

"The number one best defense is to have a strategy," he said.

Reynolds said women who abide by attackers' demands and enter a stranger's vehicle are "99 percent dead."

"You've got to be smart," said Reynolds. "You can't be afraid to embarrass yourself."

The duo's safety tips ranged widely. They covered topics such as shrubbery (never more than 18 inches high near windows of a home) to door jambs (use at least 3-inch screws to secure hinge plates) to parking lot etiquette (always use a buggy, which can act as a buffer, and don't be afraid to scream).

The message resonated with Sugar Hill resident Sherry Wiggins.

"The idea that someone will help me, show me a technique to keep me safe - that's why I came here," Wiggins said. "In the society we live in now, people are not as loving and harmless as they used to be."