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Alex Heineman was cleared of rape. Why is he still a pariah in his hometown?

Susan Du

Susan Du

I. The poison tree

When Alex Heineman was 16 years old, he stole off into the woods behind the Hudson YMCA with a girl he liked. It was an unseasonably warm May evening, and the YMCA had thrown a special night out for the local teenagers. They ditched their friends, ducked past the skate park, and meandered through the dark toward a playground called Castle Park.

Heineman was a quiet kid with a gangly athlete鈥檚 build, jet black hair that stood straight up, and a slightly sunken gaze. He had learning disabilities that relegated him to the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and a lower rung of Hudson High鈥檚 social food chain.

Home was a disaster. His mother had him young. His biological father was a nonfactor, but his stepfather hated the sight of him. They couldn鈥檛 coexist under the same roof. Heineman was forced to live with his grandparents across town while his mother and stepfather waged a tumultuous divorce and custody battle over his two younger half-siblings. He ran away all the time.

Family strife made Heineman prone to angry outbursts, which didn鈥檛 ingratiate him to many people at school. He was a gym rat who spent most of his time playing pickup basketball at the YMCA. The staff there had made a point to befriend him. The manager, seeing potential in want of opportunity, hired him to coach peewee sports.

The girl he was with that night was a 15-year-old from Osceola. She was another poor kid from a broken home, born to a meth-addicted mother who abandoned her in infancy. Her paternal grandparents adopted her when she was small.

Alex Heineman at 15, not long before he was accused of rape.

Alex Heineman at 15, not long before he was accused of rape. Jan and Don Buchholz

They were similar that way, and shared an on-again, off-again attraction ever since they met through mutual friends. Discreetly, they followed the bike path through the woods. They kissed. He left a conspicuous hickey on her neck. Then they returned to the YMCA and parted ways.

Forty minutes later, the girl鈥檚 biological father told police that his daughter had been assaulted.

According to the criminal complaint, the girl said she and Heineman started kissing consensually, but then he grabbed her shoulders with both hands, pushed her forcefully to the ground, and kissed her neck and chest without permission. At one point, he put his hand down her pants and fingered her against her will. She fought to push him off, the girl claimed.

She went to the hospital, where the hickies on her neck were swabbed for DNA that would eventually match Heineman. She turned down a vaginal exam and declined to write a statement.

The next day, Hudson Police called Heineman in to talk.

His story started out the same as the girl鈥檚. However, he vehemently denied forcing anything on her, and claimed he never put his fingers in her vagina.

Nevertheless, Heineman was soon charged with second-degree sexual assault, a felony punishable by 20 years in prison.

II. Fight and flight

Kristin Heineman, Alex鈥檚 mother, asked him if it were possible he misread the girl鈥檚 signals, given his autism. He鈥檇 struggled with interpreting social connotations all his life. And though she believed him when he swore he hadn鈥檛 coerced the girl, the prospect of 20 years鈥 imprisonment was unfathomable.

She urged him to follow his public defender鈥檚 advice to plead guilty to a lesser charge of third-degree sexual assault.

鈥淚 felt horrible about that,鈥 she says now. 鈥淢aybe we should have done more. Maybe we could have done something different.鈥

Defense lawyer Christopher Petros鈥攚ho鈥檇 been suspended from practicing law in Minnesota and publicly reprimanded in Wisconsin for failing to adequately represent paying clients鈥攄id not respond to City Pages鈥 request for comment.

Heineman鈥檚 conviction triggered a cascade of collateral consequences that derailed his life.

He dropped out of school, registered as a sex offender, and was ordered to undergo treatment at the Eau Claire Academy, a minimum security facility for teens with mental illness. Once separated from family, he deteriorated rapidly. Like many people with autism, he was hypersensitive to harsh light and discordant sounds. The constant slamming of doors rattled his nerves. An untreated cavity decayed in his mouth.

Kristin kept money in Heineman鈥檚 commissary for daily phone calls home. On holidays she鈥檇 pack up her younger children, make a special meal, and sit with him in a locked room.

Heineman made no progress in treatment. In the world of correctional therapy, an unrepentant sex offender lacks the self-awareness required for reform鈥攁 Catch 22 for the wrongfully convicted. Kristin told him to take the path of least resistance and cooperate with his psychologist, but he was defiant. He didn鈥檛 understand why he was there. Yet no one believed him when he protested his innocence.

One day Heineman pushed past the unlocked doors of the Eau Claire Academy and ran into the icy Chippewa River, where he tried to drown himself.

鈥淚 could run out the door real quick,鈥 he recalls. 鈥淭hey chase you down in the van. But I ran and I was like, 鈥楽crew this, no one cares about me.鈥 I was in a dark spot. I started going in the freezing cold river, and I got almost halfway and I couldn鈥檛 move.鈥

Staff fished him out.

Later he brawled with another boy who kept kicking the leg of his desk in class. They exchanged insults. Heineman slugged him in the face hard enough to warrant stitches and a misdemeanor for battery.

No other school would take him after that. He was transferred to Lincoln Hills, a notorious juvenile prison in Irma, Wisconsin.

By the time Heineman arrived there in May 2018, Lincoln Hills had been under criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice going on three years. Authorities exposed an epic tale of abuse. Guards broke inmates鈥 arms, psychologists destroyed rape reports, and nurses ignored medical emergencies. Wisconsin has since paid more than $25 million to settle lawsuits from inmates including a boy who had toes amputated after staff slammed his foot in a door, and another who was stripped naked as punishment. The prison was eventually ordered to close by 2021.

Heineman fought with other inmates and tried to kill himself half a dozen times, the circumstances of which he hasn鈥檛 shared with anybody. After a month, he was hospitalized at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison.

On his 18th birthday, Heineman was released to a halfway house on Randall Street in Eau Claire. His roommates were were grown men in their 30s who scared him. The terms of his probation required he apply for jobs, but he鈥檇 never had to do that on his own before and didn鈥檛 know where to start.

鈥淣o one told me it鈥檚 a group home for sex offenders,鈥 Heineman recalls. 鈥淭here were creepy guys that lived with me. Multiple of them were meth addicts. I didn鈥檛 do no meth. Like these guys would offer me shit.鈥

鈥淪o I was dumb. And I was like, 鈥榊ou know what, I can鈥檛 do this group home anymore.鈥欌

Within 10 days, he cut off his GPS ankle bracelet, threw it in a bush, and went to couch-surf with a friend in Chippewa Falls. No one came for him. A few days later he realized he couldn鈥檛 live on his own and turned himself in.

Heineman refused to go back to the house on Randall Street and opted to serve nine months in the Eau Claire County Jail instead. He was allowed work release in the morning, but had to return to jail each night to sleep in a cell. One day he just walked off.

Police caught up with Heineman in Virginia, Minnesota, where he鈥檇 gone to stay with another friend. For leaving the state without apprising law enforcement, he was convicted of 鈥渇ailure to update sexual offense registry鈥 as well as 鈥渆scape鈥濃攂oth felonies.

While Heineman鈥檚 original conviction of third-degree sexual assault was a juvenile matter and therefore confidential, these charges were very public. WQOW News 18, Eau Claire鈥檚 ABC affiliate, broadcast his sullen, acne-dappled mugshot under the banner, 鈥淪EX OFFENDER FACES NEW CHARGES.鈥 The screenshot journeyed across Heineman鈥檚 hometown of Hudson via Snapchat.

III. A tardy confession

In June 2019, a woman who volunteered as a mentor for disadvantaged youth at the Kinship of Polk County called the Hudson Police Department to report 18-year-old Sierrah Parmeter of Osceola might have falsely accused Alex Heineman of rape.

According to police reports, Parmeter told the mentor she had sex with a boy who wasn鈥檛 her boyfriend, so she was planning to accuse him of rape in order to save her relationship.

The mentor thought of the Hudson incident two years prior and asked Parmeter if it had really happened as she claimed. Parmeter allegedly admitted it wasn鈥檛 a true story.

Reports say the mentor then informed Parmeter鈥檚 grandmother, who was already aware of this new revelation but hadn鈥檛 come forward. The grandmother said she had consulted Parmeter鈥檚 social worker Bobbie Jo Mallery, who worked for St. Croix County, about what to do. Mallery allegedly suggested letting it 鈥渓ie.鈥 The mentor could not.

Mallery, a mandated reporter, did not respond to requests for comment.

Hudson Police interviewed Parmeter. According to the report, she said she and Heineman had been planning to have sex when they went for a walk in the woods on May 5, 2017.

They made out. He started giving her a hickey, and at one point stuck his hand down her pants. She told him to stop, so he did and walked away. She said he never pushed her.

鈥淪ierrah told me she knows right from wrong, but that she knew when he was found guilty that nothing had happened, but she felt like she had to go through with everything after reporting it,鈥 the detective wrote.

Parmeter鈥檚 grandmother told police that her granddaughter underwent psychological testing in 2018 to determine why she acts like a child. She blamed Parmeter鈥檚 behavior on her mother鈥檚 meth use while pregnant, and the neglect she suffered living in a violent home for the first six weeks of her life before the grandmother obtained custody.

According to the report, the grandmother said it was shortly after this testing that Parmeter began telling people how she鈥檇 made up the story about Heineman.

The following month, the St. Croix County District Attorney鈥檚 Office moved to vacate Heineman鈥檚 sexual assault conviction due to actual innocence. Circuit Court Judge Scott Needham apologized. At last, Heineman was scrubbed from the sex offender registry.

IV. Guilty by gossip

When Don and Jan Buchholz settled in Hudson in the 1970s, it was just a small, scenic river town of 5,000. He was a Navy submariner. She taught home economics. The two also ran the historic 300-seat Hudson Theatre on Locust Street and dabbled in local campaigns. The Buchholzes raised three children in Hudson, including Kristin Heineman. Alex Heineman is their grandson.

Jan, a scrapbooker, has compiled volumes of photo albums depicting Heineman鈥檚 unlikely life. He struggled with literacy up through the 10th grade, but had gifts in other areas. At eight years old he started flying two-seat propeller planes. He also had perfect pitch, which was useful in his choir and Mandarin classes.

Each summer the grandparents took Heineman and his siblings on exuberant excursions to Branson, Missouri and Wisconsin Dells. In their photos, he looks clear-eyed and carefree.

鈥淭he boy we sent in didn鈥檛 come out. I鈥檓 not saying he鈥檚 irrevocably changed, but he could be,鈥 says Don. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 think so because there鈥檚 this inner strength that kid has. And he鈥檚 finding his way, but it鈥檚 taken so long.鈥

Heineman left the system a hardened 19-year-old with the body of a grown man and the wisdom of a high school sophomore. For six months he wouldn鈥檛 leave the house. All he鈥檇 do was sleep, refusing to say what happened to him.

It didn鈥檛 matter that he鈥檇 been cleared in court. In Hudson, Heineman couldn鈥檛 shake the reputation of a sex offender. The town became a prison.

People called him from blocked numbers and sent him hate mail from fake Facebook accounts. He deleted his social media. Still strangers came to the door. Someone hurled a slushie at him out of a moving car as he jogged around the neighborhood. At Booster Days, downtown Hudson鈥檚 Fourth of July carnival, a man shouldered into his face, looking for a fight. Recently he went into Arby鈥檚 with a friend, and the server pursed her lips and said, 鈥淵ou know he raped a 13-year-old right?鈥

Kristin Heineman says her friends didn鈥檛 want their families around hers. Once she took her son downtown for lunch, and somebody yelled, 鈥淐hild molester!鈥 across a crowded street.

Don says there have been times he鈥檇 drive with Heineman and people would flip off the car or scream profanities. Clearing brush in the yard, teenagers would come and threaten to beat him up.

Recently retired Hudson Police Sgt. Glen Hartman says in his 26 years on the force, he鈥檚 never seen a rape case as strange as Heineman鈥檚. It鈥檚 the opposite scenario for which law enforcement is usually criticized鈥攗ntested rape kits backed up by the thousands, police insensitivity, and prosecutorial indifference.

Hartman is still haunted by having to tell a woman a couple years back, when the state finally tested her rape exam, that her attacker could have been arrested 10 years prior.

What happened to Heineman was a real outlier, Hartman says. It was the sort of thing he fears for real victims of rape鈥攖he rare false accusation that nevertheless looms large in the minds of people looking for reasons to disbelieve women.

Over the past year, many reports of harassment from Heineman鈥檚 family came across his desk.

It鈥檚 not really cops鈥 job to shake the public of their strongly held misinformation, Hartman says. But occasionally he鈥檇 drop by and talk to Heineman because as his depression spiraled, 鈥淭he last thing we want to see happen is have him hurt himself, and to have to respond to that.鈥

鈥淎lex was treated terribly by obviously people in the public and frankly by law enforcement officers,鈥 Hartman says. 鈥淎nd of course you鈥檙e marked. It鈥檚 the thing books are made of.鈥

Three large millstones deprived Heineman of a real reset.

First, while the local news broadcast his charges, no one ever bothered to report his exoneration. Half a year later, Googling 鈥淎lexander Heineman鈥 would still lead to WQOW鈥檚 story calling him a sex offender. The station removed the story in February only after Heineman threatened to sue, and then the Google image of his mugshot remained online for another month.

Next, because Heineman鈥檚 original conviction was a juvenile matter, it鈥檚 still sealed from public eyes. Anyone attempting to do a rudimentary background check on the Wisconsin Circuit Courts website won鈥檛 find any information about his sexual assault conviction鈥攊ncluding how it was overturned.

What they will find are Heineman鈥檚 adult felonies for 鈥渆scape鈥 and 鈥渇ailure to update sex offender registry,鈥 which imply he鈥檚 a rapist even though he鈥檚 no longer on the registry.

In September 2019, St. Croix County Assistant District Attorney Karl Anderson sent a letter to his counterpart in Eau Claire County, asking that Heineman鈥檚 Eau Claire conviction for violating the sex offender registry be vacated as well.

鈥淭he victim in our case has since recanted and admitted it was a false allegation,鈥 Anderson wrote. 鈥淲hile Mr. Heineman is still technically guilty of failing to comply with the sex offender registry, I believe the interest of justice would call for his conviction to be vacated; but for the false allegation, he would never have been on the registry.鈥

Seven months went by. Eau Claire didn鈥檛 respond.

Wisconsin Innocence Project co-director Keith Findley, an expert on wrongful convictions, says exoneration alone cannot fix all the harm that stems from miscarriage of justice.

Defendants who are totally innocent can still be convicted of ancillary charges like jumping bail and violating probation. The consequences鈥攕ocial ostracism, job loss, public housing denial鈥攁re virtually infinite.

Findley recalls another Eau Claire case, that of Evan Zimmerman, who was cleared of murder after the Innocence Project dug up several pieces of important exonerating evidence. Nevertheless, Zimmerman couldn鈥檛 get work anywhere due to his noxious reputation. Employers insisted he had to have done something wrong to get charged in the first place.

Judges are often willing to clear a record if the district attorney agrees to it, Findley says. But prosecutors are all different. One who loathes to rescind a conviction could argue Heineman was technically responsible for updating his registration at one point in time even if it鈥檚 no longer relevant.

鈥淓verything鈥檚 stacked against you if you鈥檙e trying to correct an injustice like this,鈥 he says. 鈥淐ommon sense is not always captured by the law.鈥

Jan and Don Buchholz were convinced St. Croix鈥檚 letter was merely buried on some overwhelmed Eau Claire prosecutor鈥檚 desk. They compiled their grandson鈥檚 court documents. They were about to drive down to the county courthouse and appeal his case in person when the coronavirus arrived in Wisconsin, forcing them to retreat to their homes.

Now they must wait.

鈥淲e鈥檒l never know all the trauma from Lincoln Hills and all the jails,鈥 says Jan. 鈥淎nd just the fact that all the stuff is just on hold.... It concerns me that St. Croix County hasn鈥檛 pursued anything to see if they even got the letter in Eau Claire.鈥

鈥淏ut we don鈥檛 want to mess it up,鈥 Don adds.

鈥淲e will still go. But why? Why us?鈥 Jan asks. 鈥淲hy doesn鈥檛 the prison system take care of it?鈥

V. The interest of justice

In March, Sierrah Parmeter was charged with two counts of misdemeanor defamation and one count of obstructing an officer.

Alex Heineman, now considered the victim, was invited to attend her first hearing. He brought his mother to help manage the anxiety.

鈥淚magine you have a bear in front of you. Your whole body鈥檚 shaking and you can鈥檛 move. You can鈥檛 even look at the person. All that fear comes down your body. That鈥檚 what it felt like,鈥 Heineman recalls.

鈥淚f she hadn鈥檛 lied, I never would have had to go through any of this. I could have had a normal life. I could have been in college by now. I haven鈥檛 even graduated high school because I鈥檝e been in the system so long, and no one鈥檚 helped me get that education I need.鈥

Parmeter didn鈥檛 respond to requests for comment. Her next appearance is scheduled for May 7 in Judge Edward Vlack鈥檚 court.

City Pages requested an interview with Eau Claire Assistant District Attorney Benjamin Webster, who prosecuted Heineman for violating the sexual offender registry.

Webster eventually responded by email, saying he believed the conviction was 鈥渓egally valid at the time it was entered and remains appropriate at this time,鈥 because Heineman fought in prison and ran off when he was supposed to be under supervision.

As to whether the conviction was just, Webster declined to elaborate. He wrote, 鈥淚 am unable to provide details of Mr. Heineman鈥檚 underlying St. Croix County case and my understanding of the specific facts and circumstances surrounding that incident as it is a juvenile matter.鈥

As a result, Heineman gets rejected everywhere he applies for work. Walmart wouldn鈥檛 take him. College is an illusory dream. His best shot is to get a GED and learn a trade, like pipefitting. But it鈥檚 hard to feel motivated to do anything in a world full of closed doors.

YMCA executive director Chris Kost, who first reached out to Heineman when he was just a 15-year-old regular on the basketball court, says all his co-workers were shocked when they heard he鈥檇 been accused of sexual assault. It was so unlike the boy they knew, he says鈥攁 sad but otherwise 鈥済reat kid鈥 who hungered for purpose and a sense of self-worth.

The YMCA can鈥檛 have felons working with kids. But Kost says he鈥檇 like to have Heineman back as a coach if he ever managed to get his secondary convictions overturned.

鈥淎lex got a raw deal,鈥 he says. 鈥淚 know there are individuals in the community who still see him as a sex offender. But people are cruel these days. They don鈥檛 want to find the truth at all, in most cases. They just assume the worst about Alex. He鈥檚 had that uphill battle. It鈥檚 sad to see.鈥

鈥淸Heineman] appeared to me as a young man who had some mental challenges, but was positive, wanted to help people, gullible, and very honest,鈥 wrote YMCA staffer Daniel West in a letter to the Eau Claire District Attorney鈥檚 Office. 鈥淗e has been through so much already, lost two years of his life and deserves a second chance to be a high functioning part of society and our commodity without a felony on his record.鈥

Recently Heineman went to help the Buccholzes in their yard. Don Buccholz recalls his grandson pulled him aside, broke down in tears, and started unloading some of the things he鈥檇 been through for the first time since he returned home.

Heineman鈥檚 probation agent recommended he join a victim support group at the St. Croix county courthouse. The meetings helped disentangle some of his bitterness and confusion, but they鈥檙e suspended now due to the coronavirus.

There was one silver lining to quarantine. Just before everything shut down, Heineman started dating a young woman he met while out in downtown Minneapolis. For a moment he had his family back, a girlfriend, and a small group of friends who鈥檇 taken the time to hear the whole story. He hoped the truth would take root in Hudson someday. But it鈥檚 not something he can control.

He said this time last year, he hated Parmeter and couldn鈥檛 abide why all she got were misdemeanor charges when he had to live as a felon.

鈥淚鈥檝e had a lot of people do me dirty,鈥 Heineman said. 鈥淚 learned I had to move on. Why can鈥檛 I just forgive some people and not hold this grudge for the rest of my life? It鈥檚 just gonna hurt me back.鈥

Things were falling into place. But then Friday morning around 3 a.m., Hudson Police talked Heineman down from the I-94 bridge connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he鈥檇 been preparing to jump into the St. Croix River. He and his girlfriend had just broken up, and he still hadn鈥檛 been able to find a job. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Amery, Wisconsin and booked under a 72-hour suicide watch.

Heineman was released to his mother Monday afternoon.

鈥淭hat鈥檚 the part that鈥檚 hard, that he鈥檚 still so fragile,鈥 Kristin Heineman says. 鈥淣ormal 19-year-olds go through break-ups, but for him, things just hurt so much more. How do I protect him and still let him experience all the things that young adults experience, the good and the bad?鈥