PAYNESVILLE, Minn. (KMSP) - The arrest of Danny Heinrich as a "person of interest" in the Jacob Wetterling abduction has shined a bright light on an uncomfortable past for the small town of Paynesville.
It was in Paynesville in the mid to late 1980s that several boys were attacked and assaulted, but newly-released court records show Heinrich was a suspect in those cases well before Wetterling's kidnapping. One of those victims blames police for not doing more to stop a potential child predator.
'If you don't be quiet, I’ll kill you’
Troy Cole remembers every second of that bike ride home.
“The only thing he said was, 'If you don't be quiet, I’ll kill you,’” Cole recalled
It was November 30, 1986. It was a Sunday, a school night. Cole was 13 and he had to make curfew after hanging out with friends at a downtown Paynesville pizza joint. He was a block from his family's house on Stearns Avenue when he was grabbed from behind, ripped off his bike and dragged into some pine trees.
“I pretty much thought that i was going to die that night,” he said. "I was petrified.”
Cole never saw his attacker, but he remembers the guy had a knife, he threatened to kill and he grabbed the frightened teen's private parts. The last thing the man did was cut off a clump of Cole’s hair, took the boy's stocking cap and disappeared.
"He told me to lay in the trees for 10 minutes. Otherwise, he would come back and kill me, so I don't even know how long I laid there. Ten minutes -- that is an eternity,” he said.
The Paynesville 8
Cole and his dad reported the assault to the Paynesville Police Department. It would be one of at least eight similar incidents around the small city's downtown between 1986 and 1988. Cole explained that the he and the other victims were in a small circle of friends, and felt they were being stalked or watched. All of the attacks seemed to involve the same suspect description: short, heavyset man, the raspy voice, face obscured, hiding in darkness before pouncing.
Federal authorities recently detailed the assaults in a search warrant application connected to Heinrich. The question: Was Heinrich the person of interest now identified in Jacob Wetterling's gunpoint abduction, getting more and more brazen in his hometown?
Those documents reference Heinrich's close resemblance to the suspect descriptions. His his then-apartment sat right in the heart of what's now known as the “Paynesville Assault Cluster,” and modern day DNA recently linked Heinrich to a brutal kidnapping and attempted rape of a young boy in nearby Cold Spring during the same time frame.
"There are too many questions unanswered that should have been answered 29 years ago,” Cole said.
‘You never forget’
Court documents show the then-Paynesville police chief suspected Heinrich in the unsolved attacks in his community. Cole recalls knowing Heinrich back in the 80s, describing him as a bit of an odd guy who hung around downtown always wearing camouflage and a ball cap. Cole, now 42-year-old and a dad, admits he isn't sure that it was Heinrich who attacked him. He recalls the suspect disguising his voice, making it “static-y” to shield his true identity.
"It's something that sticks in your head. You never forget,” he recalled.
Cole explained that perhaps he never wants to know who exactly caused him so much pain. He remains frustrated that his community appeared to minimize the significance of the assaults when they were first reported, remembering people mockingly dubbing the attacker "Chester the Molester." With the Wetterlings still so desperate for answers a quarter century later, he wonders why police didn't do more to crack the Paynesville cluster in time to possibly stop a monster.
“They probably could have prevented it from happening,” Cole said. "They wear a badge that says ‘To protect and serve.’ Why didn't they? They didn't do anything.”
Cole said the only time he spoke to an officer or a detective was the night of the assault, which adds to his frustration. He claimed officers never even went to the scene of his attack.
The former Paynesville police chief said he just doesn't remember either the time period or the names involved. Heinrich, for his part, has denied any involvement in the Wetterling case, and is right now only charged with possession of child porn.