Vanessa Lutz is a poor, illiterate teenage girl living south of Los Angeles. Her mother, Ramona, is arrested in a prostitution sting, and her stepfather, Larry, is taken into custody on drug and child abuse charges. Social worker Mrs. Sheets comes to take Vanessa away, but Vanessa handcuffs her ankle to a bed and runs away. She takes Mrs. Sheets' run-down car and plans to go live with her grandmother in Stockton. Along the way, Vanessa stops to see her boyfriend Chopper Wood, a local gang member, to tell him about her trip, and he gives her a gun to sell upon arriving at her destination. Minutes after Vanessa leaves, Chopper is killed in a drive-by shooting by rival gang members. Later, Bob Wolverton, a counselor at a school for boys with emotional problems, picks her up on the side of the highway after her car breaks down and offers to take her as far as Los Angeles, where he is headed.
Over the long drive, Vanessa comes to trust Bob, and confesses to him the details of her painfully dysfunctional life, including being sexually abused by her stepfather and foster parents. At one point, Vanessa shows Bob a photo she keeps in her wallet of her biological father (whose picture, unbeknownst to Vanessa, is of mass murderer Richard Speck). That evening, Bob attacks Vanessa and reveals that he is a serial killer of young girls – known in the press as the "I-5 Killer". He tries to kill Vanessa when she refuses to give in to him. The tables are turned, however, as Vanessa eventually pulls out her gun and berates Bob before shooting him several times and escaping. She goes to a local restaurant where her blood-stained appearance attracts attention from the patrons and staff. They call 911.
Leaving the restaurant, Vanessa is arrested and questioned by two police detectives, Mike Breer and Garnet Wallace, who write her off as a carjacker, even though she insists Bob had tried to kill her and had told her about his crimes.
Bob survives, but the bullet wounds have left him severely handicapped and facially disfigured. Vanessa is put on trial, with everyone believing that Bob is the innocent victim he claims to be since he has no criminal record, while Vanessa has a long record and is a veteran of juvenile detention centers. Vanessa goes to prison, while Bob and his socialite wife Mimi, who knows nothing of his crimes, are treated like heroes.
Initially scared, Vanessa makes friends in prison that include a heroin-addicted lesbian named Rhonda and a brutal Hispanic gang leader named Mesquita. Vanessa plots to escape to her grandmother's house and fashions a crude shiv from a toothbrush, a skill she had learned from her stepfather. During their transport to a new maximum security prison, Vanessa and Mesquita escape after killing a security guard and they go their separate ways.
While re-examining evidence, the detectives realize that Vanessa was telling the truth. They search Bob's home and find violent child pornography and human remains in a storage shed. Horrified, Mimi runs upstairs and commits suicide. Evading the police at his home, Bob travels to Vanessa's grandmother's home in a trailer park, using the address written on a picture Vanessa had showed him.
Posing as a prostitute, Vanessa steals a car from a prospective john and drives to her grandmother's trailer. Vanessa finds Bob in bed wearing her grandmother's nightgown and nightcap with the covers pulled up to his nose. Bob reveals himself and Vanessa sees her grandmother's dead body on the floor. A struggle ensues, culminating in Vanessa strangling Bob. Breer and Wallace arrive and find the bodies of Bob and Vanessa's grandmother. Outside, Vanessa sits in a chair in a daze, then asks the detectives if they have a cigarette. They smile, and Vanessa responds in kind.
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