Jared Scheierl knows he likely won’t ever see the $17 million awarded to him for the suffering he endured from a stranger’s sexual assault on a frozen night in Cold Spring, Minn., nearly 30 years ago.
But that was never the point in taking legal action, he and his attorney said Thursday.
A judge’s decision to award such a large sum of money to Scheierl, molested at age 12 by the same stranger who months later kidnapped, assaulted and killed Jacob Wetterling, is likely the only form of justice the 42-year-old will see for the crime that has haunted him in the decades since. It led to nightmares, anxiety and depression that destroyed his marriage, interfered with his work and hampered his social interactions, he and others have said.
Perpetrator Danny Heinrich, now serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for child pornography, admitted to molesting Scheierl and killing Wetterling as part of a plea deal in late 2016. But so much time had passed since he had assaulted Scheierl that Heinrich couldn’t be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run out.
Scheierl filed a lawsuit against Heinrich several years ago, hoping to hold him accountable for his actions. The $17 million judgment handed down by a Stearns County judge this week brought some relief, Scheierl said, even though he understands Heinrich likely has few assets and won’t ever be able to pay.
“Unless Danny Heinrich wins the lottery, I won’t see it,” Scheierl acknowledged Thursday.
But, he said, it was important “to seek some type of justice ... to help you move forward. That was a big part of it for me.”
‘Anxiety becomes toxic’
Scheierl was walking home after ice skating and enjoying a butterscotch malt with some friends in Cold Spring in January 1989 when Heinrich pulled up in his car and snatched the boy off the street, threatening that he had a gun.
He assaulted Scheierl in the back seat of his car.
Nine months later, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a masked stranger as he biked home from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn., with his brother and best friend. Wetterling’s fate remained a mystery for 27 years.
Authorities suspected Heinrich early on in Scheierl’s case, and later believed the two cases — separated by about 10 miles — were connected.
But for decades they failed to bring charges.
Then, in 2015, new DNA testing matched Heinrich to material on the sweatshirt Scheierl was wearing the night of the attack.
Heinrich, later jailed on child pornography charges, admitted to both assaults and to killing Wetterling.
He led authorities to Wetterling’s remains in a pasture near Paynesville, Minn.
At a hearing before Judge Andrew Pearson in October, Scheierl testified that for decades his life was consumed with finding the predator, and that he was plagued with nightmares, depression and anxiety.
“It gets to the point where the anxiety becomes toxic,” he testified. “I always felt that finding out the identity of this perpetrator was more important than anything I was doing.”
In a 10-page ruling issued this week, Pearson addressed the difficulty of assigning damages for Scheierl’s decades of quiet suffering.
“How does this court put a value on the diminished quality of life that Mr. Scheierl lived as a result of Mr. Heinrich’s act?” he wrote. “It’s been said that a human life is worth more than all the treasures of the world.”
In the end, the judge agreed with a proposal from Scheierl’s attorneys and found Heinrich liable for $10 million in punitive damages, pointing to the seriousness and intentional cruelty of his crime, the length of time that he concealed it and the fact that he will never be prosecuted for Scheierl’s sexual assault or Wetterling’s assault and murder.
Other damages include $5 million for pain, suffering, embarrassment and emotional distress, and more than $2 million in compensatory damages for lost income, future lost earning capacity and counseling fees.
His day in court
Scheierl said Thursday that he felt some relief when he learned of the judgment and that it will help him move forward.
“There was just a lot of bitterness on my part just having gone through the investigation and working with everybody involved with it and then coming to that moment where I was told statutes of limitations existed,” he said. “Although I ... completely rejoiced when we found the whereabouts of Jacob, there was a bitter aspect of just not having justice in regards to my case or it not being recognized in a court of law or some type of accountability for almost 30 years of pain and suffering.”
Attorney Doug Kelley, who represented Scheierl for free, said the punitive damages are among the highest issued in a Minnesota personal injury case.
“It’s very fulfilling to Jared to finally hold Danny Heinrich accountable for what he did and to have a significant sum awarded to him for Heinrich’s behavior,” Kelley said. “Jared just wanted to have his day in court, and he got that.”
Scheierl said he learned a lot through the years, including how many victims are suffering from the trauma of assaults that are never prosecuted. He said he hopes to continue speaking about trauma and advocating for other victims.
“This is just another step in moving forward,” he said. “That’s what you’ve got to keep doing.”