Jared Scheierl sat in the back row of the courtroom Thursday and took a long look at the man who authorities say snatched him from the street: Daniel James Heinrich.
Since that night in January 1989, when he was 12, Scheierl had been waiting to see his attacker in court.
“That was always the goal,” said Scheierl, now 39. “To put a name with the face, finally, that’s kind of the surreal part of it.”
Heinrich, 52, appeared in federal court Thursday on charges of receiving and possessing child pornography — hours before federal and state authorities named him as a “person of interest” in the abduction of Jacob Wetterling. Those charges delve into Scheierl’s assault, calling him “Victim A.”
Investigators have long explored whether Wetterling’s disappearance in October 1989 could be connected to Scheierl’s kidnapping months before. Heinrich consistently has denied any involvement in Wetterling’s abduction, both soon afterward and again recently.
A public defender who appeared in court with Heinrich last week did not return a phone call Monday evening.
He was arrested in Scheierl’s kidnapping in February 1990 — but released and never charged. Authorities have now linked Heinrich to Scheierl’s sexual assault through DNA testing of the sweatshirt Scheierl was then wearing.
In recent years, Scheierl told his own story publicly, pressed investigators for progress and urged other victims to come forward. The DNA match gives Scheierl his answer, he said. But he was never seeking closure for himself alone.
“The whole reason I kept on continuing this was for the sake of the Wetterlings finding answers,” Scheierl said Monday. “I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful.”
‘100 percent match on DNA’
On that night in 1989, Scheierl had been walking home from the Side Café in Cold Spring, Minn., when a man in a car approached with a question. He got out of the car, forced Scheierl into the back seat and told him to cover his face with his stocking cap. He warned that he had a gun.
After driving for 15 minutes, the man stopped on a gravel road and sexually assaulted the 12-year-old. After releasing him, the driver told the boy “not to look back or he would be shot,” the criminal complaint said.
The sweatshirt turned out to be the key. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s crime lab tested it for DNA and found a match to Heinrich. That match “would not be expected to occur more than once among unrelated individuals in the world population,” according to the criminal complaint.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said at a news conference Thursday that they were not charging Heinrich in the case because the statute of limitations had expired.
But Scheierl said he’s not angry that there will be no charges. “I don’t need a confession from him,” Scheierl said. “I know he’s a 100 percent match on DNA.”
The car Scheierl described to investigators — a blue four-door car with automatic transmission and a scanner in the front — matched the Mercury Topaz Heinrich owned at the time, court documents say. The man he described — in his 30s, pudgy with a “beer belly” and ears that stuck out — fit Heinrich’s appearance at the time.
“The fact that the car, the sketch, other details I noted through the years, they’re spot on,” Scheierl said. “I did considerably well for a traumatized 12-year-old.”
Within weeks of Jacob’s disappearance, Scheierl’s description of the man who kidnapped him became investigators’ “prime suspect” in Jacob’s abduction, according to a Star Tribune report in December 1989.
“It’s the guy we believe took Jacob,” FBI agent Byron Gigler said then.
At that time, investigators described the similarities: Scheierl had been abducted at 9:45 p.m., Jacob at 9:15. Scheierl’s kidnapper claimed to have a gun, Jacob’s showed one. Both boys were returning home from public places where they had been playing with other boys.
Investigators interviewed Scheierl for hours and had him view a dozen lineups. Having to talk about his assault “time and time again” might have helped somehow, Scheierl said. “I just got comfortable, myself, talking about it.”
He paused, sighed. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel ashamed,” he added. The graphic details in last week’s criminal complaint “still bother me,” he said.
For more than two decades, Scheierl thought he was the only victim.
But then he met Joy Baker. Baker, of New London, Minn., had begun blogging about the Wetterling case in 2010 and asked Scheierl whether he was the Jared kidnapped in Cold Spring. On her blog, she shared his story.
Digging through newspaper archives, she came across reports in the 1980s of attacks on boys in Paynesville, Minn., about 30 miles south of St. Joseph. Court documents out last week detail eight attacks against seven Paynesville boys between 1986 and 1988.
All occurred within a mile of Heinrich’s residence at the time, the charges say.
One boy was knocked off his bicycle and groped. The attacker fled on foot and left behind a baseball cap. The crime lab tested that hat and found a mix of DNA from three or more people. Heinrich “could not be excluded from being a contributor,” the charges say. “The lab report noted that an estimated 80.5 percent of the general population could be excluded.”
After Baker brought him news accounts of the Paynesville attacks, Scheierl became convinced that he “wasn’t the only case” tied to his attacker, he said. “Turns out, there’s a 80 percent chance I was correct.”
Scheierl believes that his experience might help fellow victims. He’s in the beginning stages of setting up an organization, called Embracing the Past, which could help others “understand healthy ways or life tools that help you recognize anxiety” before it leads to destructive behaviors. The organization could make use of Scheierl’s family property in Paynesville, 80 acres on the river, where his family moved after Cold Spring.
In the years following the attack, Scheierl would sit by the river, “thinking and processing without everyday noise.” Perhaps he could share that spot with others, he said.
“It’s my own little sanctuary,” Scheierl said. “It has been a great spot for me to heal.”