ST. CLOUD – Jared Scheierl finally got to tell the world Friday what Jacob Wetterling's killer had cost him.
With his voice trailing off at times, Scheierl testified in a Stearns County courtroom that he was just 12 years old on that January night in 1989 when he was out having a butterscotch malt with some friends in Cold Spring, Minn. The group broke up and headed home in separate directions when a stranger grabbed him from the sidewalk, shoved him in the back of a car and said he had a gun and wasn't afraid to use it.
The stranger took him to a remote location and molested him before letting him go, warning that if police ever came looking for him, he'd hunt Scheierl down and kill him.
Scheierl said that the events of that night have haunted him for nearly 30 years, plaguing him with recurring nightmares, depression and anxiety. His obsession with seeing his attacker brought to justice and his hypervigilance over his three children destroyed his marriage, he and his ex-wife, Lacey Scheierl, testified. His mistrust of others and his constant struggles to find his attacker hampered his social interactions and interfered with his jobs in the construction and plumbing industries.
"It gets to the point where the anxiety becomes toxic," he said, quickly wiping his eyes.
Scheierl voiced his pain in a two-hour court hearing stemming from a suit he filed two years ago against his alleged attacker, Danny Heinrich. In it, Scheierl alleged that his sexual assault and false imprisonment left a legacy of serious suffering and emotional distress.
Police had targeted Heinrich, now 55, as a potential suspect in the attack on Scheierl three days after it occurred. Tragically, they couldn't firm up a charge against him, and nine months later, Heinrich kidnapped 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in nearby St. Joseph, Minn., and molested and murdered him.
It took law enforcement 27 years to find Jacob.
They finally did after Heinrich, as part of a plea bargain to federal child pornography charges, admitted to killing Jacob and led them to the boy's remains.
Heinrich is now serving a 20-year term in federal prison. He is incarcerated at the Devens Federal Medical Center in Ayer, Mass., and did not appear in court Friday.
'A man had taken me'
Scheierl's testimony before District Judge Andrew R. Pearson came at a default hearing in which he is seeking unspecified punitive damages.
It's unlikely, however, that Heinrich would ever be able to pay it off.
Pearson said at the conclusion of Friday's testimony that he will take the matter under advisement before issuing a ruling in the case.
In the two hours of testimony, Scheierl recounted the attack in chilling detail, at times seeming to lose focus before his attorney steered him back on track.
He said when he got home the night of his assault, "All I could say at that point was, a man, a man had taken me." His parents swept him up and took him to the police station, he said, and his father handed his brother a loaded shotgun and said if anyone came through the door, to shoot.
Scheierl said he worked with police for months to find his attacker. After Jacob was kidnapped in October 1989, he said, investigators quickly came back to him to ask about his case.
He was interrogated by two officers several weeks later, he said, and they seemed to challenge his credibility, "indicating I knew who did it. Was it my grandfather? Was it my uncle, somebody else I knew?"
He said they seemed to imply that he had information about Jacob's kidnapper and relented only when he broke down in tears.
It wasn't until a month or so ago, Scheierl said — after the investigative files in Jacob's case became public under state law — that he learned that law enforcement had concluded from the interview that he was telling the truth.
"I understand now why they did it but I came out of that room pretty baffled," he testified.
He said investigators clearly believed at the time that his attacker was the same person who took Jacob.
As a result of that interrogation, Scheierl said he mistrusted authority figures.
In 2004, Scheierl said he was contacted by a TV journalist who got his name from a Cold Spring newspaper reporter as a victim of a sexual assault. That led to a radio interview, and two days later, he said, Stearns County sheriff's investigators contacted him and asked him to go back over the details of his case.
He said he wasn't aware at that time that Heinrich also was suspected in a number of earlier sexual assaults that had taken place in nearby Paynesville, Minn.
Then in 2013, Joy Baker, a blogger, contacted him and began asking questions about those attacks as well as his own. Duane "Dewey" Hart, a convicted pedophile, was a suspect in those cases and a close friend of Heinrich's brother David.
Scheierl said after discussing the cases with Baker he became convinced that his attacker also was involved in the Paynesville cases. He said he became more obsessed than ever with finding what he called "the perpetrator."
"The research became more important than my time at work," he said. "I always felt that finding out the identity of this perpetrator was more important than anything I was doing."
That obsession led to more pain — a separation from his wife in August 2013 and their divorce two years later.
"I think that I lost my marriage because of what happened 29 years ago, and I think I lost my marriage because of it all coming back out," Lacey Scheierl testified Friday, choking back tears.
Cory Eskelson also shed tears Friday as he recounted the toll it took on his friendship with Jared.
The two had been "like brothers" since they were 5, and he was one of the boys who was with Scheierl the night he was assaulted.
Before the abduction, Eskelson said, Scheierl was "just a happy-go-lucky kid." Afterward, Eskelson continued, "His whole demeanor changed. … This has and continues to consume him — to the point that we would be together, but he wasn't there."
Never got his day
Scheierl said that in 2014 that he learned from one of Hart's sexual assault victims that Hart had bragged about bombing a post office.
Scheierl reported the crime to authorities, and the FBI sent investigators to speak with him. That led to an FBI cold case investigator reopening his own case, he said.
Using new genetic testing, investigators re-examined the DNA gathered from his sweatshirt the night he was attacked and hit a match with Heinrich.
That ultimately led to a search warrant that found volumes of child pornography at Heinrich's home, and his plea to federal charges in September 2016.
Because Heinrich was never charged with a crime against Scheierl, however, Scheierl never got his day in court.
"It wasn't fair," Scheierl testified. "There was a sense of revictimization."
Scheierl said he left the courtroom when Heinrich spoke at his sentencing two years ago. "I chose," Scheierl said, " not to hear anything he had to say."
Patty Wetterling, Jacob's mother, testified that she has known Scheierl since 2004, when he gave his first interviews about his assault. She said she and her husband, Jerry, sort of adopted him.
"He was carrying the weight of a lot of victims besides his own," said Wetterling, who shared a warm embrace with Scheierl before the testimony began. "He really put himself out there believing that he could help us find Jacob — and he did."