Earl Melchert was offered a $7,000 reward for helping rescue a teenage girl who had been kidnapped and missing for nearly a month. He settled for dinner with the teen's family instead.
Melchert, 65, was given the reward money during a news conference last week for his role in finding Jasmine Block, the 15-year-old girl from Alexandria who vanished Aug. 8 and was allegedly beaten and abused by her captors during her 29-day disappearance.
Without a second thought, Melchert turned the money right back over to Block's family, who along with an anonymous donor had offered the reward in hopes of getting Jasmine back.
"I was not interested in the $7,000 reward, it wasn't a big deal," Melchert said during a phone interview with the Star Tribune Monday. "I wanted to give it to the family. They need it more. It went to a good place. I hope Jasmine is OK."
Melchert's act of generosity has gone viral in recent days and got his recent retirement off to a rousing start. It was just 10 days ago that he quit working at a fertilizer plant he managed in Elbow Lake, a job that played a key part in the rescue.
Melchert had gone home during the middle of the day on the day after Labor Day because he had forgotten something in his shed. As he sat in his pickup getting ready to go back to work, he looked out over a grassy field behind his house in Barrett, Minn., and noticed a dark spot about 300 yards away.
At first, Melchert, who is a hunter, thought it was a deer. Then the "dark spot" started moving and getting closer. That's when he realized the spot was a young girl walking toward him. Not just any young girl, but the girl who had disappeared 29 days earlier from her home in neighboring Douglas County.
"It was, 'Oh my gosh, this is the girl from Alexandria that has been missing,' " Melchert recalled. "I'd seen her picture on the internet, in newspapers, in bulletins and on signs. I recognized her right way."
Melchert loaded the "frantic and crying" girl into his pickup and called authorities with the stunning news.
"I got dispatch on the line and told them I had the Block girl in my pickup and that she is alive and looks fine," Melchert recalled. "There was silence [on the other end], like it was a dropped call. Then they said, 'Don't get off the line, don't hang up. We'll send help.' "
Block had been moved from place to place by her captors and on Sept. 5 was being held at a foreclosed property in Grant County. When the three men left her alone and went out to get food, it was the first time Block had been left alone during her monthlong nightmare. She had been repeatedly assaulted, locked in a closet and tied up with zip ties, said Alexandria Police Chief Richard Wyffels.
Block managed to escape and went door to door seeking help. Finding nobody, she swam across Thompson Lake and ended up in the field near Melchert's property.
Melchert found her just in the nick of time. While deputies from two counties raced toward Melchert's property, a black car driven by one of the three men arrested in Block's abduction drove by Melchert and the girl. Block recognized the car.
"They were looking for her right in front of my place," Melchert said.
Three men — Thomas Barker, 32, Steven Power, 20, and Joshua Holby, 31 — have been charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and assault.
On Friday, Wyffels presented Melchert with the reward money and called Melchert a hero.
"Today we witnessed an incredible example of kindness," the chief wrote on Facebook. "What no one expected was the kindness and generosity that came straight from Earl's heart today. He believes that young lady that came running toward him that September day is the real hero and without hesitation, Earl handed the reward over to her, followed by a big hug."
But Melchert did accept the Block family's invitation to dinner.
"The good Lord placed me there that day; I would not have come home," Melchert said. "To give her family the reward money, what a retirement present."
His good deed has touched people across the state and country. One woman even started a GoFundMe page for Melchert.
"He donated the reward money, $7,000, to her and her family. I think it would be wonderful to raise some money for him and his family to help with their transition to fixed-income living," the posting by Sharon Suzanne of Bradenton, Fla. said. "He is a true kindhearted HERO."
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768