Nora G. Hertel, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
WAUSAU, Wisconsin - Heidi Wolfe is angry that she could never set fire to her grandfather’s old leather chair, to burn away her painful childhood memories.
It was Grandpa’s big upholstered recliner with an ottoman. He touched her in that tan-colored chair, she said, and he did the same thing to her cousin. It sat in the living room, next to a coffee table where he kept his newspaper. He would watch Brewers games there, and decades later his grandchildren would say he committed sexual assault there, too.
The chair did burn — in a June 2013 house fire. But that didn’t give Wolfe the satisfaction she wanted. She’d hoped to inherit that chair when her grandfather died and destroy it herself.
(Photo: Photo courtesy of Heidi Wolfe)
Wolfe was in elementary school when her grandparents would occasionally babysit her, and she said Edward Heckendorf would take her to that chair, put her in his lap and touch her beneath her underwear.
After Wolfe told her mother, around fifth grade, Heckendorf stopped molesting her, she said.
She kept those memories secret, withheld even from her husband, who knew only that Wolfe wanted to keep their children clear of her grandfather.
Then in summer 2014, Heckendorf and Wolfe crossed paths at her father's house and Grandpa reached down her shirt, she said. In the following week, Wolfe went to the police and told them everything — the repeated visits to his chair, the summer groping. After Wolfe, two of her cousins came forward.
When the first charges were filed against him, Heckendorf was 90.
Heckendorf, a retired carpenter and Wausau native, is now in the Marathon County Jail and could stay locked up for the rest of his life. In February, a jury convicted the 92-year-old on eight counts of first-degree sexual assault of a child involving Wolfe’s cousin, who was between ages 8 and 11 when the molestation happened. He is eligible for a sentence of up to 160 years.
He was scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday, but the hearing moved to July 5 . The same day, he has review hearings for two separate fourth-degree sexual assault cases, including the alleged groping of Wolfe two summers ago.
"I definitely want to see Edward behind bars forever," said Wolfe’s husband, Ross. When first he learned of the alleged assaults of Wolfe as a child and an adult, he said, "my natural reaction was just to want to go over there and beat the crap out of him."
But he supported the route Heidi Wolfe wanted, the route through the justice system.
Wolfe and her cousins reported molestations by Heckendorf dating back to the 1980s.
Heckendorf cannot be tried for the crimes that Wolfe alleges from her childhood, because they are past the statute of limitations, a time limit for prosecution that has since changed in Wisconsin. That statute of limitations expired by the time Wolfe was about 16 or 17, six years after the alleged assaults, based on state law at that time.
Edward Heckendorf, 92, sits through a trial on Feb. 17, 2016. He was convicted by jury on eight counts of sexual assault of child under 13. (Photo: T'xer Zhon Kha/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
Compared with other states, Wisconsin's criminal statutes of limitation on child sex abuse are favorable for victims, said law professor Marci Hamilton at Yeshiva University in New York City. She tracks changes to those statutes nationwide. Wisconsin and 36 other states have no criminal statute of limitations for first-degree sexual assault of a child.
States have been dismantling statutes of limitations over the past few decades, she said, in recognition of the fact that victims often take decades to work up the courage to come forward. A typical age for revealing childhood molestation is about 40 years old, Hamilton said.
Wolfe is 42 now. She was 41 when she first came forward to report Heckendorf.
Heckendorf is one of the oldest known perpetrators of sexual assault tried in the United States. He’s the oldest prosecuted by Marathon County Deputy District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon.
During Heckendorf’s trial, Wolfe and other family members testified as "other acts" witnesses, a classification that allowed them to share details of alleged crimes that took place too long ago for separate charges and trials.
Wolfe calls herself a whistleblower, and she opened up to tell her story to her family members, police and the media. First, she said, she wanted to protect her daughters, now 13 and 15, from Heckendorf. Second, she wanted to encourage other victims to come forward and hold their abusers accountable.
As Heckendorf aged, he seemed less of a threat to Wolfe. But when he groped her, she realized he was still active, she said. She didn't want him near her children once that crystallized in her mind.
Years of silence
Wolfe had issues dating as she grew up. She struggled to feel good enough or pretty enough. Those insecurities didn't stop her from becoming a cheerleader at Wausau East High School and pursuing a degree at Northcentral Technical College.
Wolfe said she developed an independent spirit in spite of the abuse she experienced as a child.
But she still spent time around her grandfather at holidays and family events. He seemed always to need to be dominant or superior, she said. Heckendorf ate first at the holidays and spoke up if the meal started late or the food was a little burned, she said.
He would always tickle or poke women in the family, Wolfe said, and she tried to avoid him. Her cousin did as well, according to a police report.
Growing up, Wolfe knew vaguely that others in the family had bad experiences with her grandfather, including multiple generations of women, she said. But those experiences weren't shared openly.
‘Society’s lack of tolerance’
People who experience sexual assault as children often are reluctant to report the crime until years later, if ever.
The older a crime, the harder it is to defend against. Memories fade, witnesses die or become hard to find, evidence disappears. In the case of Heckendorf, potential evidence burned down with his leather chair.
Old cases also are hard to prosecute, and for the same reasons. But district attorneys can choose whether to charge a case based on whether they believe they have enough corroborating evidence. Defense attorneys have to react to those charges.
For murder, a suspect can be tried in Wisconsin no matter how much time has passed. As of today, no child sexual assault committed before July 1, 1989 can be brought to court. For crimes after that date committed against children under 13, the statute of limitations lasts the life of the victim.
Wisconsin lawmakers have progressively lengthened those limits on different degrees of sexual assault, against children and adults, over the past 25 years. It used to be that Wisconsin officials could not prosecute child sexual assaults committed more than six years before they were charged.
The length of a statute of limitation on any particular crime shows "society’s lack of tolerance for that behavior," said Ian Henderson, the director of legal and systems services for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Henderson said longer statutes of limitations are good for public safety, because some molesters harm multiple victims. Plus, the more time after the crime to prosecute, the longer a victim can take to come to terms with an assault and approach the authorities.
"Like anything in the law, it cuts two ways," said Dick Lawson, a Wausau-based attorney specializing in criminal and traffic defense. A long charging period can be good for victims who have repressed memories, but old sexual abuse cases become harder to defend, he said.
Lawson is not involved in the Heckendorf case.
Heckendorf’s attorney, Peter Rotter, would not comment for this story, because all of Heckendorf’s cases are still unfolding. Rotter said his client would not comment, either.
More charges pending
Wolfe's mother helped deliver Wolfe's oldest children. The two would grocery shop together as adults. They were best friends.
And since Wolfe's mother died unexpectedly in her sleep 13 years ago at age 49, Wolfe has struggled with returning to her childhood home.
But in the summer of 2014, she stopped by to borrow her dad's trailer and clear some wood out of it for him. She had a surprisingly enjoyable time, joking around with her father, her son, who's now 11, and even her grandfather, as she tells it.
Heckendorf was staying at the house, displaced by the same fire that burned his leather chair, and Wolfe hoped to avoid him.
But as she prepared to leave, while her father and son climbed into the truck nearby, Heckendorf reached down her shirt and groped her, she said.
He has been charged with but not convicted of assaulting Wolfe that day.
"My dad and my son were within 10 feet," Wolfe said. She knew, at family gatherings, she wouldn't be able to watch her kids at every moment. "I had to do something to protect my girls."
First, she stopped by her aunt and uncle's place to tell them what happened. Then she called a close friend, a police chief, for some guidance.
Wolfe took time off work and reported the crime officially. She got a restraining order against Heckendorf.
And as she talked the matter over with a cousin, that cousin decided to come forward. Another followed.
Still, Wolfe struggled privately after the groping, she said, and she struggled throughout her pursuit for justice.
"I took my foot scrub and was just scrubbing my chest. I just felt so dirty," Wolfe said, cinching up her shoulders, disgusted.
That was the beginning of two challenging years for Wolfe and those closest to her. She has trouble sleeping, becomes distant sometimes and other times buries herself in work, said her husband.
"Heidi is nowhere near being herself again," he said. "This has really taken a toll on her and the family."
‘Our word, against his’
Heckendorf will face Judge Michael Moran for sentencing on July 5, for the eight guilty convictions of crimes dating back more than two decades.
Heckendorf’s attorney, Rotter, said in his closing argument the case against the aging man was unfair. The house and chair where the alleged molestations took place are destroyed. Heckenforf’s wife has died and cannot testify, Rotter said.
"The loss of the house deprives Ed of one piece of physical evidence that would have cleared his name," Rotter said, according to a court transcript. He pointed out that sight lines could have shown the house was too open to conceal molestations while other adults were nearby.
"We were up against a lot," Wolfe said. "He is a 92-year-old man, so, age. There was no DNA. There were no witnesses. So it was really our story, our word, against his."
Old sexual assault cases often come down to a "he said, she said," said Nina Ginsberg, a defense attorney in Alexandria, Virginia. Motivations are hard to pin down years after the event, whether it's the accused's motive to commit the crime or the victim's motive to report it. And it's really hard to reconstruct events and corroborate stories.
"It's almost insurmountable," Ginsberg said, of the defense. It's hard for prosecutors, as well. "It's very unusual (for the prosecution) to bring a really old case," she said.
These cases can play out in civil court, without a state attorney involved at all. If guilty, the defendant could owe damages but wouldn't end up in prison. States have different sets of statutes of limitations for civil and criminal charges.
Reported sexual assaults end up in a database, whether or not they're prosecuted. And that information can be used by police and prosecutors if perpetrators strike multiple times. A lack of DNA doesn't mean the charge is too old to pursue.
"The testimony is the evidence," said Deputy District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon, who prosecuted the Heckendorf case. "We look for other corroborating facts."
And those "other acts" witnesses of other alleged crimes can help prosecutors give a motive for the crime at hand.
The morning Wolfe testified as an other-acts witness, she went for breakfast at a downtown Wausau diner, but her stomach churned. She was so nervous to face her molester and a skeptical jury, when she arrived at the courthouse she threw up.
Her biggest fear: the 12 jurors wouldn’t believe her story or her cousins’ stories of abuse.
At least 1,000 kids were sexually abused in 2014 in Wisconsin, according to Child Protective Services records. Much of that abuse was at the hands of a caregiver and about 80 percent of the victims were girls.
Heckendorf and his wife were babysitting Wolfe when he molested her in that leather chair and another chair in the basement, she told police. He did it when the two were alone, away from her grandmother, over the course of third through fifth grade, according to a police report.
Her grandfather laughed at her when she shook, her body’s reaction to the abuse, Wolfe said.
After she learned in health class that it was not appropriate to be touched like that, she told her mother. They were sitting on the swings. She was about 11 years old.
Wolfe doesn’t know how, but her mother put an end to the abuse against her. And her mother told her, "if it happens again we’ll take it to the authorities."
That’s why she went to the police when Heckendorf groped her two years ago, Wolfe said.
It's hard for victims to come forward because shame and secrecy are hallmarks of sexual assault.
It’s particularly difficult to come forward with allegations against a family member, said Jessica Lind, sexual assault victim services program coordinator with The Women’s Community in Wausau.
The reporting and trial process has brought some extended family members closer in the Heckendorf family, but it’s also created some rifts. Ross Wolfe said his family might never speak to some relatives again.
Heidi Wolfe said some of her family members could have done more to support the victims. Only two of Heckendorf's four sons came to the trial, she said. "All the aunts were there for us girls."
Not an easy road
When Wolfe entered the police station to report her grandfather, she was nervous. It was tough to have to write and re-write her testimony. When she faced the paperwork for a restraining order, she felt overwhelmed by the options and legalese on the forms.
A Wisconsin law passed this year allows victims to have an advocate by their sides during legal and medical proceedings.
Wolfe recommends that victims write out their testimony before going in to report. She recommends they "stay the course" and take care of themselves throughout the whole process.
"It is a long road," Wolfe said. "For us, it was a roller coaster."
It’s important for victims to get emotional support, said Lind with The Women’s Community.
The Women's Community offers one-on-one counseling, peer support groups and a 24-hour crisis line. There are similar groups around the state and country.
"It’s never too late to tell. It’s never too late to seek support," Lind said. "I feel like it’s so important to know that you don’t have to live with that secret."
Wolfe’s husband has struggled with how to help her over the past two years. He received advice from a therapist.
"A guy doesn’t know what to do," he said. "The best advice is just to be supportive. … It’s hard."
Wolfe thought she would feel victorious as the judge read the jury’s verdict in February.
She and her cousins were nervous, crying, and Wolfe thought Heckendorf seemed calm.
As she remembers Judge Moran reading the verdict on charges one through eight, guilty on all counts, she chokes up.
"There was a weight lifted, I would say," she said. "But yet, there’s also a part of me that kind of died in that courtroom. You know, because you carried it for so long. You masked it and now that it’s out there, now I can try to figure out who I really am."
On a small level, the conviction offers the relief that Wolfe never has to host Heckendorf again and cater to his particular requests for coffee a certain way and meals at a certain time, she said.
"Everybody makes their own coffee," she said. "I'm done making coffee."
Wolfe donned teal ribbons on her fingernails throughout April to mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month. She’s on a mission to educate people about sexual assaults. That’s why she’s opened up with her story.
She may have taken some missteps in her quest for justice, she said, but she hopes her daughters will recognize why she pressed the matter. As a mother, she wanted to shield them from the bad experiences she endured.
People tell her that she’s strong for what she’s done.
"I hope someday I really feel that strength," Wolfe said.
Nora G. Hertel: firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-845-0665; on Twitter @nghertel.