St. Paul day care operator convicted of criminal sexual conduct

  • Article by: PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2008 - 10:50 PM

In the end, it really came down to the word of a 6-year-old girl against the word of a grown man.

A jury in Ramsey County District Court believed the girl and convicted the man, Gene Hegerman, 54, on Friday afternoon of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Two days earlier, the girl had burst into tears outside the courtroom door, but minutes later walked to the witness stand hand-in-hand with her mother and grandmother. Under questioning from prosecutor Jill Gerber, the girl said she'd been a ladybug for Halloween, then told the jury that the man she knew as "Grandpa" or "Papa Gene" had touched her "culito," Spanish slang she used to refer to her private parts.

Hegerman and his wife, Linda, operated a day care center out of their home in the 1400 block of Iglehart Avenue in St. Paul that the girl and her older brother attended from October 2005 to December 2007. The girl said she was 4 and 5 years old when Hegerman would take her into a bathroom, close the door and then touch her.

He told her "pinky swear don't tell anybody," the girl testified.

The girl's mother, who also testified, didn't find out about the abuse until the girl blurted it out to a child protection worker who had come to the house to interview them about another investigation into the day care.

During the trial, jurors saw a videotaped interview between the girl and nurse Sara Wirkkala at Midwest Children's Resource Center (MCRC) in St. Paul. The girl bounced into the exam room and squirmed happily in the chair until she began talking about the abuse. Then she became serious and still.

Hegerman took the witness stand in his own defense Thursday and said he was "dumbfounded" when he learned of the allegations.

"I'm like, where did this come from? I couldn't in any way rationalize it," he said.

Defense attorney Blair Buccicone pointed out inconsistencies in the girl's story and criticized how the police handled the case. He urged jurors "not be a part of this modern-day witch hunt."

During deliberations, jurors asked to see the videotaped interview done at MCRC and to hear an audiotape made by the child protection worker.

Hegerman closed his eyes briefly but showed no other emotion as the verdict was read about 3:30 p.m. Friday.

District Judge Salvador Rosas ordered Hegerman taken into custody until his sentencing Dec. 19. State sentencing guidelines call for a minimum sentence of 12 years.

At the sentencing, Gerber, the prosecutor, will argue for aggravating factors, which will allow the judge to impose a longer sentence. Those factors include the victim's particular vulnerability because of her age, that Hegerman was in a position of authority over her, and multiple acts.

In most cases, a jury would determine whether there were aggravating factors. Hegerman waived that right and will let the judge decide.

Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551

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