Posts made in November, 2018

Finding the Ocean – Interrupted #2

Before I continue with my “Finding the Ocean” story, I want to acknowledge something pretty big and monumental that happened yesterday. Jared Scheierl, the “other boy” in the Jacob Wetterling case (the one from Cold Spring who was abducted and sexually assaulted just nine months before Jacob), finally got some vindication in his own case.

Yesterday, a Stearns County District Court Judge awarded Jared $17 million in a civil lawsuit against Danny Heinrich. And though Jared will likely never see any of that money since Heinrich has no assets, it was an important win, nonetheless. For Jared, it’s the first time he’s ever had a chance to hold Danny Heinrich accountable for what he did to him on January 13, 1989.

Jared is a good friend and we have been through a lot together on this journey. During the time we were working together and  trying to get answers for both him and the Wetterlings, we knew the statute of limitations had run out on his childhood assault. However, we’d been told there was no statute of limitations on kidnapping, so, all along Jared thought he had a criminal case of his own to pursue. He thought that one day he would have his day in court.

That turned out to be untrue.

In 1989, the year Jared was kidnapped, Minnesota did indeed have a statute of limitations on kidnapping. Unbelievably, it was only three years. On a federal level, the limit was five years. So, either way, the expiration for filing a criminal lawsuit for kidnapping had long since passed by the time Jared and I started looking into his case. That came as a sucker punch when Jared finally learned this hard truth in 2015.

But, thankfully (and somewhat miraculously) he had another option. In 2013, the State of Minnesota enacted the Child Victims Act, a new law that allowed victims of child sexual abuse a three-year window of opportunity to file a civil case, regardless of when the crime had been committed. It was enacted, largely, to address the many cases of clergy abuse that had taken place within the Catholic church. Jared qualified to file a civil lawsuit under this new act, which had a filing deadline of May 25, 2016.

So early in 2016, just months after Danny Heinrich had been arrested on child pornography charges, Jared retained his own lawyer, Doug Kelley, who agreed to represent him pro bono in this case.

That was almost three years ago.

And yesterday, they finally won.

It’s been a long, grueling journey, and I will admit there have been many times I have struggled to understand Jared’s need to move forward with this case. I questioned why he would want to put himself through all the agony if there was no money to be made. But, he was adamant. He wanted his day in court. He felt very strongly that Danny Heinrich needed to be held accountable for what he had done to him.

It took me a long time to understand this, and it probably wasn’t until Jared took the stand in his own civil case that I actually started to get it.

Yesterday’s ruling was important… not only for Jared, but for all victims of childhood sexual assault.

First, it gave Jared some sense of power back. For almost 30 years, he has been a vicim of Danny Heinrich. In 1989, he was powerless to fight back as a 12 year old child, and then, because of ridiculous and outdated laws, he was also powerless to fight back as an adult. That all changed yesterday. Of course, Jared is well aware he will likely never see any of that $17 million, but he can rest easy knowing that Danny Heinrich will never be able to profit from what he did to him, or Jacob, or any of his other victims… not now nor any time in the future.

Second, this ruling sends a strong message. As Minnesotans, it says we will not stand for this. Aside from the physical harm and trauma that results from childhood sexual assault, there is now a clear price to pay for the lifetime of healing these children are forced to navigate and endure. It tells future perpetrators, yeah, maybe you can plea down your sentence or get out early for good behavior, but here’s the deal. You took away an innocent childhood and there is a real, monetary price for that. You brought in darkness, and confusion, and fear where there was once happiness, and wonder, and joy. You have forever altered the path of a child who will now experience a lifetime of hurt as they try to process, adjust, and overcome.

You did that, Danny Heinrich.

And for that, you will pay.

Gotcha.


Next… Finding the Ocean – Chapter 10…

 

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 9

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

 


It was Monday, September 4, 2017 – Labor Day.

By 4:30 AM, I was wide awake and ready to hit the road again. It was dark and I knew the sun wouldn’t be up for another two hours, but I couldn’t lie there anymore.  I pulled the plugs on my self-inflating air mattresses, rolled them up, and put them back in their storage bags. Good riddance. As happy as I was to have them, I never wanted to see them again… at least not for the remainder of this trip. Something had snapped in me the night before, and I’d decided I was done living like a homeless person. It was time to start enjoying this vacation.

The Donner Pass rest area was packed-full of vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Cars, vans, trucks, campers, semis. People had been coming and going all night, and I was grateful to see I hadn’t been blocked-in by some yahoo who had just pulled in during the wee hours and parked all kittywampus.

I moved Zoey into the front seat so I could reorganize my traveling homeless camp. I put all the seats back into their upright positions and immediately felt better about life. I folded my blanket and put it into a neat pile on one of the middle bucket seats, along with my pillow and tightly-rolled air mattresses. Next, I moved my suitcase to the other bucket seat and positioned it so I could easily access it from the back passenger-side door.

I noticed my grocery bag poking out beneath a pair of haphazardly-tossed hiking shoes. I grabbed it and took a quick inventory of my food situation. Yuck. I threw away anything I was sick of eating… which was pretty much everything. Wheat Thins, gone. Scrunched and dented bread, gone. Raisins, gone. I hung on to the peanut butter, my half-eaten bag of Tostitos, and my one remaining jar of homemade salsa.

Next I checked the cooler situation. I pulled out the hummus container and an empty Ziploc bag. My once-frozen strawberries and peaches had leaked into a soupy mess on the bottom of the YETI bag… gross. I tossed them all. I fumbled around and found a roll of paper towels in the seat pocket behind my driver’s seat and cleaned out the cooler as best I could. By the time all was said and done, I was left with two yogurts, a bag of unopened goose jerky, and two slimy ice packs we’d probably acquired from my husband’s knee surgery a year earlier. Classy.

I shook the dog hair off Zoey’s hammock seat cover and re-positioned it over the far backseat. Such a brilliant contraption… I wish I had invented it. “Here Zo-Zo!” My sweet, patient, forgiving black lab bounded back to me and settled into her nice, clean, organized spot. Even she seemed happier about life. Next, I grabbed my freebie toiletry bag out of my suitcase, locked the doors, and went into the Donner Pass rest area to work some miracles.

Good Lord, where to start.

I washed my face and brushed my teeth, then got down to business with some wet wipes, eye drops, and dry shampoo. I put my hair in a pony tail, applied some deodorant, and called it good. Well, good enough anyway.

On to the ocean!

I took Zoey for a quick walk, then loaded her up and hit the road. It was still dark, and I was grateful to have gotten a little sleep before trying to maneuver this mountain pass in the middle of the night.

Donner Pass sits atop the Sierra Nevada mountain range at an elevation of 7,056 feet. I found out later it was named after an ill-fated party of pioneers who were trying to reach California in November of 1846. When they arrived at present day Donner Lake, they found the pass completely blocked by snow, so the settlers were forced to spend the winter there. The conditions were harsh, and when the settlers began dying of starvation, they eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive. Of the original 83 members of the Donner Party, only 45 eventually made it to California. Most of them were women and children.

Around 7:30 AM, I was starving and refused to eat any more yogurt (or goose jerky or Tostitos) for breakfast. I spotted a blue freeway sign that told me there was a Starbucks coming up, so I veered right at the next exit and was soon enjoying a grande latte and a blueberry muffin while Zoey enjoyed her bowlful of Iams.

 

I was at the Starbucks on Pinole Valley Road in Pinole, CA. According to the GPS, I was only about 30 minutes away from San Francisco, and I was all caffeined-up and ready to go. Zoey and I took a short stroll around the beautifully-landscaped parking lot of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Office, then we were on our way. San Francisco or bust!

Less than 15 minutes later, I passed a little brown sign off to my right. “McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. Next exit.” It was my first hint of the ocean, and what luck! A state park! Maybe they had a nice campground where Zoey and I could stay. Even though the thought of sleeping in my car one more night was more than I could process at the moment, the thought of falling asleep to crashing waves and waking up to a beautiful sunrise made it sound all the more appealing.

Just a short distance later, I noticed that this was also the exit for the University of California Berkeley. Oh how fun! First, I would go dip my toes in the ocean, and then, I would go explore the campus of UC Berkeley. (Just look at me being all pre-planny. Such good, solid logic here.)

I pulled off I-80 at Exit 11 and got a glimpse of something I’d never seen before… a homeless camp. At the bottom of the cloverleaf, just before the entrance of McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, was a makeshift camp of some sort, with tarps and pieces of cardboard tented around the base of a tree. It was surrounded by piles and piles of stuff, most of it garbage.

How bizarre. Didn’t this city have any restrictions against this sort of thing? Especially right here, outside the entrance of a state park? My P.R. brain immediately thought of the poor soul who was responsible for promoting this beautiful oceanfront state park, while at the same time, my Journalism brain immediately wanted to park the car and go knock on that tarp. Who lived there? Maybe it was because I felt a certain kinship to these people, now that I’d been living like a homeless person myself for the past four days. Seriously though, I couldn’t help but wonder what drove someone to live like this. What was their story?

Curiosity aside, I decided to stay focused and stick with my quest to go find the ocean. I pulled into the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park and couldn’t wait to stroll along the beach and see the look on Zoey’s face when she lapped up some of that salty water.

I pulled into the park and prepared myself for something wonderful. The first thing I noticed was a sign for a restaurant named “Hs Lordships” that was located somewhere to my left. Cool! A mimosa sounded pretty good at that moment. I wondered what time they opened. But… as I glanced around… my happy thoughts started to turn progressively south.

There was a long pier that went out over the bay, but on closer inspection, it looked a little sketchy. A locked gate blocked my admittance, and just beyond that, a cement building near the entrance was covered in graffiti. Hmm.

I surveyed the parking lot and was shocked to see several cars, vans and RVs with coverings over their windows, and garbage piled outside. Was this another homeless camp?? I took a photo of one of the cars, but immediately got a little paranoid wondering if anyone was watching me. Maybe they thought I was taking pictures of their license plates. What if there were criminals here? I quit taking pictures.

My hinky alert was going off at full tilt. Suddenly, all thoughts of dipping my toes in the ocean or enjoying a mimosa at Hs Lordships were replaced by concerns over my safety. It was about 8:15 AM and I was ready to get the heck out of there. I was curious about the restaurant though. I wondered if it was closed down and boarded up. Seriously, how could it remain open when its parking lot had been taken over by homeless squatters? I decided to go check it out.

As I drove past the restaurant, I could see it had been beautiful once. I imagined weddings and events that had taken place there over the years, with guests enjoying beautiful views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline. How crazy that this entire beautiful place was now in such disrepair. Could it ever be saved and revitalized? Was anyone even trying?

(UPDATE: As it turns out, the historic Hs Lordships closed its doors less than one year later, on July 1, 2018, after nearly 50 years in business. Here’s an article about the closure, along with several photos of the restaurant. Within days, the city of Berkeley evicted everyone at the Hs Lordships homeless camp. Their displacement did not even begin to solve the problem though. It’s a complex issue that Berkeley is working hard to address.)

Before leaving the park, I decided to throw caution to the wind and walk around a bit. This WAS, after all, my first glimpse of the ocean since I’d started my trip, and I wanted to get a picture of it. I decided to leave Zoey in the car for fear of her racing into the water or diving into someone’s pile of treasured garbage. Instead, I walked along the edge of Hs Lordships, and imagined what this beautiful place used to be like back in its heyday. I snapped the following picture as the sun was coming up across the bay, looking toward Northwest Berkeley.

You might notice that the sun looks a little hazy, and I’ll get to that later. For now though, here’s a video of Zoey and me, back in the car, crossing the bay into San Francisco, and going over what I THOUGHT was the Golden Gate Bridge.

Holy mother of pearl, I’m such a dork.

Next time… more signs of Jacob and a perfectly-timed parking ticket…

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 8

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

 


After leaving the Sinclair Truck Stop on the Bonneville Salt Flats with a full tank of gas and a new respect for the desert heat, I was anxious to put Utah behind me and cross the Nevada border. I’d been staring at nothing but flat white ground for the past hour and a half, and I was ready for some new scenery.

Just before reaching the town of Wendover, I had a pretty view on either side of me and was optimistic that I was in for a nice, scenic stretch. These two rocky bluffs on either side of the road were the most beautiful things I’d seen since leaving Salt Lake City.

As I passed through the tiny town of Wendover (population 1,454), it didn’t take long before I hit the state line. And yes, the scenery changed abruptly, with three large casinos announcing my arrival into West Wendover, Nevada (population 4,305).

And just like that, West Wendover was behind me and I was in for the longest, hottest, most boring stretch of driving since I’d started my road trip.

It went on, and on, and on.

Driving along I-80 in Nevada reminded me of driving on the bottom of a dried-up ocean. It was all sand and weeds for as far as the eye could see. On occasion, I would see a herd of cows and wondered how in the world they could survive in the heat. It was 104 degrees, and after my previous mishaps with a flat tire and a near-empty gas tank, I worried what else could possibly go wrong along this long, desolate stretch of road.

I turned up the radio and kept driving.

About an hour and a half later, I made it to Elko, Nevada and stopped at the Food Mart, mostly out of sheer boredom. I topped-off the gas tank (because I was logical and pre-planny now), made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and took the dog for a quick stroll. Before taking off, I decided to check Google Maps to see how long it was going to take me to reach San Francisco. I’d been driving since 6 AM, and though I was anxious to find the ocean, I was determined to find somewhere to sleep that wasn’t a rest area. I wanted a real bed… or at the very least, a shower.

I checked the map. Reno was still four hours away, meaning I’d probably roll in there around 7 PM. After that, it was another four hours to San Francisco. Dang it. That wasn’t going to work. I’d never be able to find a dog-friendly hotel in San Francisco at 11 PM. Well… one thing was for sure. I couldn’t sleep in the car in this crazy heat. At the very least, I needed to get the hell out of Nevada.

I kept driving.

I stopped one more time in Lovelock, Nevada and topped-off my gas tank again. I grabbed another water from the back seat, opened a jar of Ross’s homemade salsa, ripped open a bag of tortilla chips, and started again.

Oh my Lord, the monotony. There wasn’t enough 70s music in the world to pull me out of this funk. I just kept eating Tostitos and driving 80 miles an hour, hoping to eventually find the end of Nevada.

 

FINALLY I made it to Reno. Outside my passenger window, I could see a huge outdoor event taking place. It spanned several city blocks, and there were THOUSANDS of people packed shoulder to shoulder with dozens of tents and food trucks lining the street.

What was happening down there? What were all those people doing? What was I missing?

DANG IT! I wanted to stop.

(I found out later that the big fun thing I missed was the annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off – “America’s biggest free-entry grilling competition,” located at the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, Nevada, just outside of Reno. The six-day event features two dozen of the world’s best barbecuers who serve up more than 240,000 pounds of ribs on Victorian Square over Labor Day weekend each year.)

I REALLY wanted to stop. Suddenly, I wanted a shower, and a bed, and a real meal. More than anything, I just wanted to STOP DRIVING. I was sick of feeling like some kind of homeless convict on the lam.

For a brief moment, I gave some serious thought to sneaking Zoey into a hotel and trying to pass her off as a therapy dog. I looked back at her and wondered. She stared at me in curiosity, then jumped to her feet and thumped her tail in excitement. “WHAT’S HAPPENING?!” Sigh. It would never work. Zoey was just too damn happy and enthusiastic to be a therapy dog.

I kept driving.

Hot. Tired. Hungry. Cranky.

I was seriously starting to hate Nevada.

And then… I saw a pine tree. In the middle of all that heat and sand and sage brush, I saw a PINE TREE. And then I spotted another, and another. Before long, there were pine trees lining both sides of the road, and on the honor of my Christmas-tree-farmin’ father, I can honestly say I have never been so happy to see a pine tree in all my life.

Over the next few miles, the flat, sandy land started to morph into rocky, pine-covered hills. I opened the sun roof and breathed in the cool, pine air.

And then, suddenly…  there I was.

CALIFORNIA.

I had finally made it.

It only got better after that. The difference in the landscape between Nevada and California was so vastly different, it made my head spin and my soul surge. This is what I was talking about. This is what I had in mind.

It was just after sunset when I pulled off I-80 and into the beautiful little town of Truckee, California. I was just north of Lake Tahoe, another place I’d wanted to visit my entire adult life, but in that moment, I didn’t care. I had fallen in love with Truckee.

Photo credit Truckee.com

I cruised slowly down the main drag, looking for an open parking space. There were none. Everywhere, people were seated at sidewalk tables under strings of lights, drinking, eating, laughing, and listening to music. It was finally cool enough that I could leave Zoey in the car, but after a quick look in the rearview mirror, I realized I not only FELT like a homeless convict on the lam, I also looked like one. No problem. I just needed a shower and a place to stay for the night. I started Googling.

I found a listing for Donner Memorial State Park and clicked the “Directions” button. I found it without a problem and fell immediately in love with the place. Unfortunately, it was closed. Oh well. There were two other campgrounds within a one mile radius. I drove by the first one… no vacancy. I drove by the second one… same thing.

Hmm. Well, no worries. By now I had discovered beautiful Donner Lake and realized there were cabins for rent all the way around it. I slowed down for each one. No vacancy. I remembered at that point that it was Labor Day weekend. Tomorrow was Labor Day. I was near Lake Tahoe. No wonder everything was full.

Regardless, I wouldn’t allow myself to give in. I was determined to find a place. I followed Donner Pass Road along the north side of the lake, stopping each time I saw anything that resembled a cabin, resort, or motel. No luck. Everything was full.

It was well past dark and I was feeling pretty defeated when Ross called. I told him about this beautiful little town I’d discovered, and he immediately knew where I was. I told him I wanted to come back to this place some day, to stay on this lake, and eat in this town, and take a moment to just breathe it all in and enjoy it.

That’s when he said, “There’s a nice rest area near there, on Donner Pass.”

I’d heard enough.

I wasn’t a trucker. I didn’t want to sleep in another rest area. I wanted to take a SHOWER, then go back to that little town and order a glass of wine in a REAL GLASS and eat some pasta with a REAL FORK. Then, I wanted to return to my dog-friendly cabin and sleep in a REAL BED and finally get a decent night’s sleep. I would wake up in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, find a charming little place to buy a scone and a latté, then I would be on my way to go find the ocean.

But, instead, I kept driving.

I pulled into the nice rest area on Donner Pass, crawled into the back of my Ford Explorer, and tried to fall asleep next to my snoring dog for the third night in a row.

I fell asleep wondering what all the logical and pre-planny people were doing at that moment. Probably having a glass of wine in a real glass and eating pasta with a real fork. I hated them and hoped they all had to drive back home through Nevada.

Next time… THE OCEAN!!

 

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