PAYNESVILLE, Minn. -- He was a 13-year-old biking home from the pizza place downtown, his only worry whether he'd make his 9 p.m. curfew.

Troy Cole was just a block away from his front door that night in November 1986, when he was yanked off his bike. A man, his hand reeking of cigarette smoke, covered Cole's mouth as he pulled him into some pine trees. Shut up or I'll kill you, the man said, his voice rumbling from behind Cole's head as he unzipped Cole's jeans. He said he had a knife.

"I thought I was going to die," Cole said recently, recounting how the man used the knife to saw off a chunk of his sandy blond hair, a sick souvenir.

The terror of that night has haunted Cole, now 42, for decades. Even worse, Cole said, is feeling that law enforcement didn't take it seriously — not his case nor those of at least six other boys who were approached or accosted in this central Minnesota town.

"I felt like they abandoned us, like 'who cares, you know, they're a bunch of kids, they'll get over it,' " Cole said. "But to tell you the truth, we haven't."

Authorities are now exploring whether the string of assaults in Paynesville may be connected to more serious crimes that followed: the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 12-year-old boy in Cold Spring and the unsolved abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in St. Joseph. The revelation has residents in the region questioning whether a stronger police and community response to the Paynesville attacks could have prevented the more horrific ones.

"Sadly, I don't think they were heard," Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling, said of the Paynesville victims. "It's a devastating thing that happened to them and they've had a very long time of not being believed."

While a more serious look at the Paynesville cases might have prevented further attacks, "that's looking backward," she said. "And we can't go backward."

A former Paynesville man who lived within blocks of the attacks is now considered a "person of interest" in the Wetterling case, authorities have said. Daniel James Heinrich, 52, was charged last month in federal court with receiving and possessing child pornography. DNA evidence has linked Heinrich to the Cold Spring case, and didn't rule him out from a Paynesville attack, though it ruled out 80.5 percent of the populace.

Authorities said last month that a search of his house uncovered nothing to connect him to Wetterling.

Heinrich has denied any involvement in the October 1989 abduction of Wetterling, when a masked man with a gun approached three boys on a rural road, telling two to run before kidnapping Jacob.

'You already got me'

Cole's assault and at least one other before it didn't cause much concern in town, residents said.

A Paynesville Press article from December 1986 described two incidents in which 13-year-old boys were attacked and verbally threatened, one sexually assaulted. "Neither of the victims were seriously harmed," the article said. Police cautioned parents to keep their children inside after dark.

Several more attacks followed, many with the same characteristics:

Victims described the attacker as a white male with a husky build, his face obscured. He sometimes approached kids on bikes or in groups. His voice was raspy and he often made threats.

In May 1987, two boys were riding bikes home when a man "showed up from nowhere, from behind some pine trees," said one of the boys, who is now 42 years old. The man knocked the other boy off his bike and groped his testicles. That boy had been attacked before.

"You already got me," he yelled. The man took off running, the friend said last week.

Another time, the friends were camping by the river when one went to get a soda and tripped on a log. He landed on a man, lurking. He threatened the boy with a knife, according to court records, telling him to "shut up or I'll kill you." The boys stayed up all night, afraid to fall asleep, said the 42-year-old, who asked not to be named.

Living in Paynesville then, with "a lurking, shadowy figure" on the loose, was terrifying, he said. The fear was made worse by the community's indifference. "I remember feeling like nobody would listen to us. Nobody was taking it seriously." The school didn't get involved, he said, and teachers said nothing.

"It was a different time," he said last week. "Denial and indifference prevailed. It seems to me that sexual violence against males is just now … becoming OK to discuss."

Even today — even to one another — most of the victims don't talk about what happened, said the 42-year-old, who now has three daughters. Adults "need to listen to kids," he added. "It's hard enough for a boy to admit some kind of sexual assault, much less to have so few advocates. Kids don't make that stuff up."

Chester the Molester

Mark Stern was nervous about riding his bike home from downtown on a September night in 1987, knowing boys had been accosted.

Near his house, he saw a figure cross an alley and he raced back downtown to get his brother; he didn't want to be alone.

When the two approached their darkened patio, he heard furniture move. He turned and ran, yelling to his brother, "Run! I think it's the molester!"

When Stern looked back, he saw a short man with his face obscured. "I couldn't make out any facial features whatsoever," he said.

Stern, who still has nightmares 28 years later about someone peering into his house, thinks local officers "did the best they knew how to do." They weren't used to handling such incidents, he said. People didn't speak openly about them and boys themselves were ashamed to have been selected by the stranger whom their peers were calling "Chester the Molester."

Joy Baker began blogging about Jacob's abduction after visiting that rural road in St. Joseph. But her research soon brought her 25 miles southwest, to Paynesville.

In 2013, searching through archives of the Paynesville Press, Baker found a front-page article from May 1987: "Local police seek help in accosting incidents." Boys were being attacked in public places, after dark, by a chunky man sometimes wearing a mask. They were told not to turn around or "I'll blow your head off," the article said.

She showed the article to Jared Scheierl, the Cold Spring boy who had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted in 1989, just months before Jacob disappeared. "Right away, we thought, man, that sounds a lot like Jared's abductor — and Jacob's abductor," Baker said.

After Baker posted the old article to her blog, people began contacting her. "Oh, I know another guy, or that happened to me, or to my little brother, or my cousin. …" she said.

Court documents out last month — which detail eight incidents dubbed the "Paynesville assault cluster" — include some attacks she had never heard about but not others in the 12 she's recounted on her blog. "It was all just so brazen. And the fact that it went on for years. That's what's astounding."

She traces some of the apathy around town to the fact the victims were boys. "I think there would have been a huge outcry if there had been little girls that were being molested."

In 1990, then-Paynesville police chief Robert Schmiginsky told Wetterling investigators that his city had endured a year of molestation episodes, and that he believed Heinrich should be considered a suspect in those molestations, according to the court documents.

Reached at his home last month, Schmiginsky said he didn't recall the incidents: "I can't even remember the kids," he said. "It's been so many years."

Reached again last week, Schmiginsky declined to comment.

Retired Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza, who has written books about police investigations, said small departments such as Paynesville could have asked other departments for help.

"If they were really interested, they would find a way, no question," Bouza said. And, he added, "if the police don't take it seriously, why should the community?"

Different today

Nathan Olmscheid remembers Paynesville being "one of those towns where you don't need to worry much." But that changed when he was 12.

After wrestling practice, as he waited for his dad to pick him up, he noticed a beat-up green car slowly circling, once, twice, again. A man appeared. Olmscheid walked away; the man followed. Finally, Olmscheid ran to his cousin's house nearby and through the window saw a man in a black facemask. "I just got the shivers," he wrote in an essay for English class a few years later.

When his dad picked him up, they went straight to the police sergeant's house. The cop was supposed to meet him again to get an actual statement, but never did, Olmscheid wrote then.

Paynesville Police Chief Paul Wegner declined to comment on the cases from the 1980s, as "none of my officers or myself were around when these attacks occurred."

The files have been destroyed.

If a string of assaults was to occur today, the police department would likely send out alerts through calls, text messages and e-mails to about 2,000 people, Wegner said.

"You snap your fingers, and it's out there."

Looking for closure

Cole, now a father working in a Paynesville factory, said it's hard to measure that night's impact.

After his attacker left, he ran home hysterical.

His father drove around looking for the guy, and they reported the attack to Paynesville police. An officer took his report, he said, but as far as he knows police never went to the scene.

For about a year after the attack, he said, he was afraid to stay out after dark: "I was so scared to do anything. That's your childhood. You're supposed to have fun."

He didn't tell his friends until a few months later, when a buddy revealed that something similar had happened to him. Eventually, every one in his group of five friends recounted similar incidents, he said.

"We all hung out with each other. That's how I think he stalked us."

Cole said he still looks over his shoulder when walking outside at night.

He decided to speak out because he wants law enforcement to take such reports seriously, and he hopes telling his story will help solve the Wetterling case.

"There's so many unanswered questions that could have been answered 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 10 years ago if they would have done their job," he said. "I hope they catch the guy that took Jacob. … I hope, you know, to put closure on that finally."