Court awards $17 million to victim of Jacob Wetterling's killer

Jared Scheierl talks to reporters after testifying in court.
Jared Scheierl talks to reporters in St. Cloud in October after the civil trial against Danny Heinrich, who kidnapped and assaulted Scheierl when he was 12. A judge awarded Scheierl more than $17 million in damages in his civil lawsuit against Heinrich, including $10 million in punitive damages.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Updated 1:20 p.m. | Posted 11 a.m.

Jared Scheierl was a 12-year-old Stearns County boy in January 1989 when he was abducted and sexually assaulted by Danny Heinrich — the man who nine months later would abduct and kill Jacob Wetterling.

Scheierl survived his attack, although it left him emotionally scarred. As an adult, he made it his business to find out who attacked him and other boys in the area then, and who killed Wetterling. His efforts helped reopen the cases and led to Heinrich's confession in 2016 that he killed Wetterling after sexually assaulting him.

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On Thursday, Judge Andrew Pearson awarded Scheierl more than $17 million in damages in his civil lawsuit against Heinrich, including $10 million in punitive damages.

Scheierl is unlikely to see much or any of the money, as Heinrich is in a federal prison on a child pornography charge. The judge noted in his order that Heinrich "got away with kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder. This judgment is the only punishment Mr. Heinrich will ever receive for assaulting Mr. Scheierl."

In an October court hearing, Scheierl detailed how on Jan. 13, 1989, he was walking home alone from a local cafe in Cold Spring, Minn., when Heinrich pulled up and asked him for directions.

Heinrich got out of the car, grabbed him and forced him into the back seat, telling him he had a gun and wasn't afraid to use it. He drove Scheierl to a remote area, sexually assaulted him and later let him go. Heinrich told Scheierl if the authorities ever got close to finding him, he'd kill Scheierl first.

In the decades following, Scheierl said he suffered from nightmares and fear that his perpetrator was still out there. Exacerbating the effects of the trauma was a feeling that law enforcement didn't believe him.

The judge's order on Thursday noted that Scheierl's efforts to pursue justice in his case and the others led to the case being reopened. DNA from Heinrich's hair was compared to DNA found on the clothing Scheierl wore the day of the attack, which Stearns County had retained as evidence.

That opened the door for prosecutors to pursue Heinrich, who eventually confessed to the attacks and Wetterling's killing.

The investigation into the attacks in the 1980s, including Wetterling's abduction, have been roundly criticized in retrospect, with many raising questions about why law enforcement never successfully connected the dots between the attacks on boys in Stearns County, where Heinrich fit the description of the attacker, and the Wetterling abduction.

Pearson in his order Thursday noted that the attacks against boys were so well known in the Stearns County town of Paynesville in that period, the attacker was known by the nickname "Chester the Molester" and that Heinrich fit the description.

In September, Stearns Country Sheriff Don Gudmundson delivered a brutal assessment of the cascading errors and internal friction among law enforcement that let Wetterling's killer stay free for decades even as the clues pointed overwhelmingly to Heinrich.

Doug Kelley, Scheierl's attorney, called the judge's decision gratifying.

"The most important thing here is this is the first time Danny Heinrich was held accountable abducting and abusing Jared Scheierl," he said.

Kelley said he believes it's either the largest or one of the largest punitive damages award in Minnesota history. He said the award "signifies to Jared that what Heinirch did was very wrong, and that's an economic way to measure it."

Scheierl felt like the criminal justice system had left him behind, Kelley said.

Heinrich couldn't be criminally charged for Scheierl's assault because the statute of limitations had expired. And Scheierl didn't receive any restitution when Heinrich was convicted on the child pornography charge, because he wasn't a victim in that case.

Kelley said he hopes the award brings some closure to Scheierl. But he said it's unlikely that Scheierl will receive any money. Heinrich filed for bankruptcy in 2011, Kelley said.

"I don't think there's any money to be had," Kelley added. "It's mostly for Jared having his day in court and having the legal system recognize Heinrich's responsibility to him. So Jared wasn't really expecting money at all."