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GRAND MARAIS, Minn. - Beth Kennedy first heard the stories 34 years ago.

Not long after she moved to Grand Marais with her husband and 11-year-old daughter, people in the community told her that older men were pursuing and having sex with high school girls.

"We started hearing about these 20-, 25-, 30-year-old men who were constantly at football games, around the teenage girls, and who somehow believed that it was a great thing to be sleeping with virgins," she said. "And I was aghast."

Kennedy couldn't help but think of those warnings after the December 2011 courthouse shooting in Grand Marais shocked the small town, and spurred a statewide debate about courthouse security. Shortly after a jury convicted Daniel Schlienz of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, he opened fire, wounding three people.

The jury had found Schlienz, 42, guilty of having sex with a 15-year-old girl several years earlier, when he was in his mid-30s. After falling sick at the St. Louis County Jail, he died Dec. 27 of a bacterial infection.

The consequences of the shooting continue to unfold in Grand Marais, the scenic town on the North Shore, where Schlienz's conviction and death exposed a rift in the community over a long history of older men sexually pursuing teenage girls.

"NOTHING WAS DONE"

Some are upset that people in the community didn't do enough to protect girls.

Beth Kennedy has felt that way since the late 1970s, when her daughter approached high school age.

"It wasn't that it was acceptable with all of society," she said of the relationships older men had with teenage girls. "It's just that nothing was done about it. People knew about it, and nothing was done."

But some men of that generation say people in the community did know that older men pursued teenage girls, and tolerated it.

"Back in them days, it was acceptable," said Perry Wilson, who is quick to defend his friend Schlienz. "That's the way it was - 16-, 17-year-old girls; that was their boyfriends back then was a 25-year-old guy."

In Grand Marais, most people know Wilson by his nickname, "Proof," short for "Hundred Proof."

Wilson, now 53, arrives at a local cafe unshaven, in sweatpants and a jacket. Over coffee, he said that in his 20s he could have been jailed for his own exploits with teenage girls, during what he calls his "heyday." But he stops short of admitting to criminal sexual conduct.

Wilson also is adamant that he and other adult men did not pursue the girls. He said the girls pursued them.

"That's the way it's always been since man was born. The younger girls chase the older guys. Everybody thinks it's the older guys chasing younger girls, [but] that's wrong," he said. "It ain't that way. In this town, all you need to pick up a 16-year-old high school girl is a nice-looking truck or a nice car."

Between them, Wilson and Beth Kennedy capture the consistent yet conflicting message from more than two dozen people who spoke to MPR News -- including law enforcement, county officials, parents, and young women from Grand Marais who admit they had sex with adult men while in high school.

In short, there's little dispute that high school age girls had sex with adult men who were much older. The dispute is over whether it was acceptable.

Minnesota law is complicated. There is no absolute law prohibiting adult men age 18 and older from having sex with girls in high school. But state law does generally bar anyone more than two years older than a girl who is not yet 16 from having sex with the girl. It is always against the law if the man is more than 10 years older than a girl under 16.

Parents and authorities in Grand Marais say they tried to stop older men from having sex with all high school girls, whether they were younger or older than 16. But for a variety of reasons, they say such efforts failed, and the behavior persisted for decades.

There's little data to gauge whether the relationships between adult men and teenage girls that occur in Grand Marais are unusual, or how the pattern took root. It's also unclear whether a similar pattern is common in other Minnesota communities.

ALCOHOL, CARS AND GIFTS, THEN SEX

None of that mattered to Beth Kennedy. When her daughter was a student at Cook County High School, she and other concerned parents pushed for a rule banning non-students from school dances and other functions. They wanted to reduce the number of opportunities for older men to pursue girls.

But adult men didn't need school events to find girls to have sex with.

They met at several places away from school, among them an old gravel pit several miles outside of Grand Marais. When high school students came there to party, older men often would arrive, alcohol in hand, after the bars closed.

"You could do things like drink underage and not get caught," said a young woman who asked not to be identified for fear her past may make employers reluctant to hire her.

The woman, now in her 20s and a college graduate, grew up in Cook County and came to a lot of "pit parties" when she was in high school.

The woman said she had sex with older men, and that at least five of her friends also had sex with older men.

At first, she was reluctant to spell out how many sexual partners she had in high school.

"There was quite a few," she said. "Not that it was any big relationship or anything special."

Eventually, the woman revealed in emails to MPR News that before she turned 16, she had sex with about eight older men in Grand Marais. She said almost all her sexual partners were in their 20s, some 10 years older than she was. Under the law, those encounters - consensual or not - likely counted as criminal sexual conduct by the men.

She also said she had sex with several more men when she was 16 and 17.

MPR News confirmed the woman's story with a family member.

She acknowledges instigating some of the sexual encounters, and said she found the attention from older men enjoyable and flattering.

"That's exciting," she said. "And then you're looking for that even, just for that feeling."

Victim advocates in Grand Marais say there is a pattern to the encounters. A man would meet a girl at a party, buy her alcohol, give her a lift in his car, and perhaps later give her some spending money and buy her gifts. Then, he'd ask her for sex.

The woman said eventually she almost felt obligated to have sex and that made it hard to say "no."

"I think it's a lot harder also -- it was for me -- to identify the difference then of new and exciting, and, 'I'm scared; this isn't OK,'" she said.

THE DIFFICULTY OF PROSECUTING

But the woman said she never thought of pressing charges against the men.

For years, no one did.

Annie DeBevec, who retired about five years ago as the Cook County social work supervisor, said rumors flew about older men having sex with underage girls. But she said girls were never willing to come forward.

"It was always so frustrating, because we could never get anyone to admit it," she said.

DeBevec said the girls didn't want to get in trouble. Often, they were ashamed of their behavior. They knew that in a small town, everyone would find out what they'd done.

"So it was very difficult," she said. "You can't do anything with rumors. You can't prosecute. You can't take it to the county attorney."

But people in the community were angry and pressured authorities to intervene and protect the girls, said Steve Borud, who came to Cook County as a probation officer in 1986.

"I remember one particular call in the middle of the night where a stepfather was threatening me -- if I didn't find his daughter out there in this sea of wilderness, because she was running with a well-known adult," he said.

Since then, Borud has talked to many women who admitted being involved with older men when they were teenagers, and to parents whose daughters had such relationships. He said peer pressure - a fear of being branded a "squealer" - helped breed a culture of silence that no one would break.

"This is a small town," he said. "And that's what you might be remembered by at your 20th year class reunion. Were you the one who told about the keg party? Why did you come forward when some of the rest of us were with the same guy, and we never came forward?"

Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell and Sheriff Mark Falk tell the same story. Without evidence, they say, there's little they can do.

That's why it was such a breakthrough when, in 2006, three girls pursued criminal charges against Dan Schlienz. Scannell said that while some people questioned the decision to prosecute, he received a lot of encouragement.

"The overwhelming and massive response was support for the prosecution," he said. "Almost a sense of, 'Thank God! Finally.'"

By this time, Scannell and other law enforcement officials were well aware of Schlienz, who in 1995 had violated a restraining order obtained by a high school girl's parents.

But the girl decided later not to follow through with criminal sex charges.

That's not uncommon, Scannell said. It takes a huge toll, especially on teenagers, to become a prosecution witness.

"You are shining a bright light on yourself, and you're putting yourself in a position where you're incredibly vulnerable, after already being victimized," he said. "So it's no small thing."

Faced with three other girls who were willing to testify against him, Schlienz pleaded guilty to three counts of criminal sexual conduct with juvenile girls in 2006. He served a year at the Northeast Regional Correction Center in Duluth, Minn., but then fought for years for a retrial, which finally took place in December.

ACKNOWLEDGING A REALITY

The shooting that followed, and then Schlienz's death in jail, have rocked Grand Marais and thrust the issue of older men preying on underage girls into the forefront.

Reactions to the courthouse shooting, Schlienz's death - and discussions of older men having sex with teenager girls - varied widely.

Few people who spoke to MPR News defended Schlienz. But there was an outpouring of support and sympathy for him when he died. Some residents, like Nancy Belding, say Schlienz paid his debt to society after his initial conviction.

"He served his sentence for that. Then he came back," she said. "This is his home, and it was made very hard for him. He was living in a place of his mother's because he couldn't find a place to live. He couldn't find a job."

Others feel he was unfairly singled out for prosecution in the first place.

After the shooting, Schlienz's sister, Bev Wolke, told the Cook County News-Herald, "I can name 20 other guys who are doing the same thing."

The Schlienz family declined to be interviewed. But Perry Wilson, or "Hundred Proof," laughs at that number. He said it's an understatement.

"Guaranteed, there's more of that going on than you would ever believe, and he was singled out, no doubt about it," Wilson said.

ISSUE WAS "SWEPT UNDER THE RUG"

The issue has divided people in Grand Marais, said Jane Howard, associate editor at the Cook County News-Herald.

The split, she said, is "between people who are appalled that statutory rape takes place, and between people who knew Dan Schlienz, and others who have engaged in that kind of relationship with minors."

Howard said it's also been hard for the town to deal with an issue that no one has really talked about much.

"That has been sort of swept under the rug by the community," she said.

Borud, the probation officer, said another factor may have helped preserve a culture of silence.

"When these guys say that these young gals were eager, I believe that," he said.

But even though the sex may be consensual, Borud said, that doesn't make it legal.

DISTURBING EFFECTS

Research shows that having intercourse with older men can have damaging physical effects on girls. It leads to increased rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Such relationships also can have serious mental health consequences for girls, according to a new study led by University of Minnesota sociologist Ann Meier.

Meier compared the mental health of teens who had sex with a partner at least two years older, and that of teens who had sex with partners of about the same age.

"We did in fact find that teens who had sex with an older partner reported higher levels of depression and lower levels of self esteem," she said.

A Grand Marais doctor bore witness to those problems in a letter to the judge who initially sentenced Schlienz in 2007.

"I help these girls and the women they become deal with mental health issues, chemical dependency, unwanted pregnancies, single parenting and sexually transmitted diseases," wrote the doctor, who urged the judge to impose a harsh sentence. "I see dreams, potential and hope - shattered."

For some women in Grand Marais, the shooting and the Schlienz case have triggered painful memories, said Jodi Yuhasey, director of the Violence Prevention Center in Grand Marais. Since the trial, she's fielded calls from local women who were involved with older men when they were younger.

Yuhasey said the women have been thrown back into turmoil by the trial, the shooting, Schlienz's death and their aftermath.

"It brings it all back," she said. "And it's, 'How do I deal with this. I thought I was done.'"

Yuhasey said the women often are angry at having to relive experiences that made life more difficult and have a common reaction: "I thought it was a chapter of my life that had closed, and here it is again."

It's hard for Yuhasey to talk about how women are wrestling with such memories. She was among those who were at the courthouse during the shooting in December. She fights back tears when talking about it.

Like many others, she worries that her community will be portrayed in a negative light.

Grand Marais has a lot going for it. Set on Lake Superior and full of charming galleries and cozy restaurants, the town of 1,000 has a beautiful setting. Its high school graduation rate is well above the state average. Cook County's education levels mirror the state's, and unemployment in the county, while seasonally volatile, has been falling closer to the statewide average over the long term.

So it's not surprising that people in Grand Marais say they doubt the town is unusual. After all, they say, teenagers elsewhere have sex with older partners.

But Grand Marais may be different, given that some teenage girls there have had sex with much older men.

It's much more common for girls to have sex with teenage boys, not older adult men, said Jennifer Manlove, a senior researcher at Child Trends, a Washington D.C. nonprofit. Manlove has studied sex involving girls under 16 with partners at least three years older, which is illegal in many states.

"What we found was that most of these sexual relationships were between young teens and older teens," she said. "So relatively few of these relationships were between young teen girls and males in their 20s and 30s."

In Grand Marais, though, the pattern residents describe involves men in their 20s and 30s.

It's unclear to what extent the activity still goes on.

OUT IN THE OPEN

Still, in the wake of the Schlienz case, the topic has taken on urgency, and Grand Marais residents are frequently speaking out. The local radio station has been hosting call-in shows.

There's been a dialogue that residents say didn't take place before Schlienz's conviction.

Kathy Jo Thompson, whose daughter was the key witness in the Schlienz trial, said her family's life has been hell for the past six years.

Her husband was the second victim shot in the courthouse after testifying against Schlienz.

But Thompson said her daughter testified because, as Thompson puts it, she didn't want any other little girls to get hurt. Now she believes that message is spreading.

"My boss told me that even in her household, they have talked a lot with their boys over these last few weeks," said Thompson, who works at the Ben Franklin store in Grand Marais. "This whole situation in Grand Marais has made their house have lots of discussions, good discussions."

Things are slowly returning to normal at the Cook County courthouse, where the blood-spattered carpet has been replaced. Prosecutor Tim Scannell is back at work, less than two months after being shot three times at point-blank range.

Days after he underwent a second surgery, Scannell displayed on his desk the bullet that doctors removed from his leg, and the staples used to close up his chest. He said he feels great and that his energy is coming back.

Scannell, who has been prosecutor for several years, said only since he was shot has he begun to understand the historic pattern of behavior in Cook County, where older men pursue teenager girls. Before the trial, he didn't think Grand Marais was different than anywhere else. He thought older men targeted younger girls everywhere.

"What I've learned is that Dan Schlienz was sort of brought into that approach with girls by some other adult males," Scannell said. "So I think it is a longer-term problem than I realized on the front end."

Scannell worries about the divide Schlienz's conviction and the shooting that followed have exposed in Grand Marais. But for some, the tumultuous events have also led to healing.

The woman who spoke to MPR News said she fell into a long pattern of abusive and unhealthy relationships. Since the courthouse shooting, she has reconnected with friends who have had similar experiences. She said she talks with them about events in her past that she hasn't talked about to anyone before.

"Just talking about it and getting it out, getting out how we felt then, how we feel about it now, and just having that connect with each other I think has been really nice, and healing together," she said.

By Dan Kraker, MPR News
MPR News can be heard on 91.1 FM in the Twin Cities or online at MPRnews.org

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