A farmer in rural Minnesota was stepping into his truck Tuesday when something caught his eye in the grassy fields behind his property. Hundreds of yards away, he spotted what he thought was a deer.
It was actually a teenage girl, walking toward him wearing no shoes or pants, he told WCCO. She was sopping wet. He immediately recognized her face.
“Oh my gosh, you got to be kidding me,” the farmer said.
The 15-year-old’s face had been plastered on missing posters in the area for nearly a month. He asked if she was the girl missing from the nearby town Alexandria, and she said yes. The girl asked him to call 9-1-1.
“I’ve been kidnapped,” the girl told him, she later recounted to television station WCCO.
Police said that for 29 days, the girl had been held captive in a mobile home by three men who restrained her with zip ties, threatened her with guns and repeatedly raped her. They treated her “like an animal,” prosecutors said in charging documents, according to Fox 9, holding her against her will in a closet and trying to kill her on multiple occasions.
When the men finally left her alone for the first time, she managed to escape, running door-to-door to nearby properties seeking help, Alexandria Police Chief Richard Wyffels said in a news conference Wednesday. Then, she swam across a portion of a 150-acre lake, shedding her shoes and pants in the water. She sprinted through a field until she reached a residential area and came across the farmer, who was not identified by local news outlets.
Although some news sources have identified the 15-year-old girl, The Washington Post is withholding her name because she is a victim of sexual assault.
The teen waited with the farmer in his pickup truck until deputies arrived.
“I was getting her out of the pickup to put her in the deputy’s car, and she says ‘There’s the car, there’s the car’,” the farmer told WCCO. She had spotted a vehicle belonging to one of the captors driving right past the home. The man, identified by police as Steven Powers, 20, of Mankato, was immediately stopped and arrested.
Soon after, officials arrested Thomas Barker, 32, and Joshua Holby, 31, both from Carlos, Minn. All three are charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment. Barker and Powers also face charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, and Barker faces an additional charge of second-degree assault.
The three men made their first court appearances Thursday. The case remains under investigation, Wyffels said.
After a grueling search for the teenage girl, and “29 harrowing days,” she has now been reunited with her mother, Wyffels, the police chief, said.
“We are all proud of her,” Wyffels said, calling the girl an “unbelievable young woman” who exhibited great strength and bravery.
It was about 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 when Barker, an acquaintance of the family, lured the girl away from her home, police said. He was her friend’s dad, the Associated Press reported. And the girl trusted Barker — she even recognized the sound of his vehicle, Wyffels said.
Barker asked the girl to help talk to his son, who was not behaving, according to a criminal complaint cited by the Star Tribune. She agreed to go with him, and followed him into his car, leaving her cellphone behind.
“He approached her house in a friendly way,” Wyffels said. “He tricked her.”
Within three hours, the girl’s mother reported her missing.
Barker took her to a mobile home in the neighboring town of Carlos, where he lived with Holby.
“Once inside,” Wyffels said, the girl’s “nightmare just began.”
Barker tied her up with zip ties, threatened her with a handgun, and raped her, police alleged. He kept her in a bedroom closet for most of the 29 days, occasionally feeding her fast food and water, Wyffels said.
“I was usually in a closet and I usually stayed quiet because I was scared they might hit me or do something,” the girl later told Fox 9.
In two different instances, Baker allegedly attempted to drown the girl in a bathtub. On another occasion, the girl was forced to stand on a bucket with a rope around her neck, according to court documents cited by Fox 9. Holby then allegedly forced her off the bucket, making it impossible for her to breathe for a period of time, the girl told police.
Powers, a friend of Barker’s, showed up at the home about a week after the girl’s kidnapping. Barker told him not to enter his bedroom while he staying at the house, Fox 9 reported. But one day, he decided to take a peek, and found the girl in the closet. He never freed her or contacted police.
The girl told police Powers forced her to snort a line of “white powder,” the AP reported, citing a criminal complaint. The girl also told investigators Barker forced her to have sex with him four times, and perform oral sex on him about 10 times, WCCO reported.
On Aug. 30, a deputy arrived at the trailer to investigate a stolen property report, the Star Tribune reported. No one answered when authorities knocked on the door. The men then chose to leave the house with the girl, putting her into a duffel bag and shoving it into the back of a truck.
They took the girl to a cornfield and then broke into an abandoned property about 30 miles away. They left her there to get food, telling her they would be back in an hour.
It was from there that she fled the scene, eventually jumping into a nearby lake and swimming to a residential area.
“I’m not a good swimmer,” the girl told WCCO.
Her mother added: “It was the longest 29 days of my life.”
“I think she’s a warrior,” the teen’s mother told Fox 9. “She’s probably the strongest person I have ever known.”
Barker, who has cerebral palsy and is physically-impaired, told police he did not know the girl, and denied picking her up, according to the AP. But he admitted using methamphetamine and alcohol.
Barker’s sister, identified only as “Brittany” by Fox 9, told the station that she had helped with the search for the missing teen.
“I donated T-shirts to her mom,” she said. “I’m not going to not believe it. … I’m sorry to her family.”
The day of the girl’s escape was supposed to be her first day of freshman year in high school, Fox 9 reported. She plans to start classes next week.
She feels good, “sometimes,” the girl told Fox 9. But other times, she has nightmares, and is scared to sleep.