I was the intended target of one attack in 1987. The perpetrator was never officially named, arrested, or charged. However, our cases were included in the complaint against Danny Heinrich.
I will never forget hearing Jacob Wetterling was abducted. My reaction was a flashback, along with intense panic and anxiety, as I wondered if it could be the same man who had tormented my friends and me a couple years earlier.
Since then, Jerry and Patty Wetterling have maintained poise and dignity through agonizing decades, searching tirelessly for answers, advocating for awareness, and helping innumerable children and families in the process. The Wetterlings have not journeyed alone. People from everywhere support their efforts for children and in the search for Jacob. The response was, and is remarkable.
To some of us, it is no surprise the answers about Jacob finally came from Paynesville.
What started in my hometown decades ago has come full circle. For healing and hope, here is one perspective.
In 1986 and 1987 there was a series of attacks and attempts in which boys were stalked, chased, accosted and, in most instances, molested. Presently, these are referred to as “The Paynesville Attacks” or “Paynesville Incidences.” The boys involved; more accurately — we — are called “The Paynesville Victims.”
I was the intended target of one attack in 1987 and present at another attempt the same year. The perpetrator was never officially named, arrested, or charged. However, our cases were included in the complaint against Danny Heinrich.
He is a DNA match in the sexual assault on Jared Scheierl. In heart-wrenching irony, Scheierl moved to Paynesville after the assault to be in a safer place. He and his family had no knowledge of the attacks, and he learned about our cases years later.
Heinrich’s arrest was a shock to most of us involved. We had long given up hope that law enforcement would ever fully investigate our cases, let alone find out who it was.
I want to underscore some points about the connections and investigations in the cases.
First, no information about our cases was new to law enforcement agencies. I met the Wetterlings in 1990, hoping to assist in their investigation, and possibly catch the man who attacked us in Paynesville. I felt speaking with them was critical.
The attack on us and Jacob’s abduction were astonishingly, hauntingly similar, including that we were riding our bicycles when he attacked us, like Jacob later. Authorities knew all of this. Further, in addition to filing the original Paynesville police reports, many of us spoke to Stearns County Sheriff’s Office investigators and the FBI following Jacob’s abduction.
Nothing came of it for almost 30 years until recently.
Throughout recent months there has been much commentary about how times were different back then, and how law enforcement did not communicate the same way as they do now, that technology has changed, and so on. All true. However; there were several suspects in the Paynesville cases, including Heinrich.
Given an opportunity, many of us would have participated in a lineup or met as a group with law enforcement to discuss the cases. Despite the possible connections — now proven — neither of these happened.
Thanks to the Wetterlings and advocates like them, many things have changed for the better. This includes how law enforcement responds to sex crimes against children. The Wetterlings never gave up hope.
Jared Scheierl’s tenacity, with Joy Baker’s help, pushed law enforcement to re-examine what many of us suspected all these years. It paid off. Danny Heinrich confessed to killing Jacob and led authorities to his remains, right near Paynesville.
The news conference following Heinrich’s confession was distressing. It confirmed what I always believed, but questioned — if it was the same person. My heart goes out to the Wetterlings with a mix of deep sadness and relief. They finally got the answers they have longed for so many years. Patty did not make her remarks solely about herself or even her family; hers were about hope, community, something bigger.
As the maelstrom of emotions begins to settle down, it gives me pause to consider the good that has and will continue to come from tragedy.
Looking back, for example, even while the possibility of attacks loomed over us in Paynesville, Sergeant Bill Drager — “Uncle Bill” to me — worked diligently to capture the man who we now have every reason to believe was Heinrich.
Darlene Thyen of The Paynesville Press ran articles to bring attention to the attacks. Many of my friends’ families let me stay with them for safety when my dad worked nights.
After Jacob’s abduction, the public response and the Wetterling’s subsequent positive impact nationally cannot be overstated. Jared Scheierl has brought the Paynesville community together unfathomable ways. Today, adults are more likely to listen and act when children talk about abuse. Children, especially boys, are more empowered than back then to talk about abuse cases; and talk until someone listens.
The attacks in Paynesville, Jared’s assault, and Jacob’s abduction permeated many lives, mine included. While we may have been victims, I now see survivors, caring men, dads with children and families, meaningful lives and purpose.
Over time, much good has replaced what used to be abject terror. I am grateful Patty Wetterling and Jared Scheierl mentioned us in the news conference following Heinrich’s confession.
Over the last two years, they, unlike anyone before, gave us something we never had; a voice. She may not realize this, but in just a few words, Patty said what many of us painfully longed to hear for so very long; that our stories were heard, that we matter.
Paynesville native Kris Bertelsen says he was a victim of Danny Heinrich. He now lives in Little Rock, Arkansas