On March 28, 1991, Dennis James Stehley took a 12-year-old girl to a remote cabin in Catharine Township and raped her. According to court records, he pleaded guilty in Blair County Court later that year.
"This was 20 years ago, and I can still remember every detail," said the victim, now a mother herself.
Angered by Stehley's arrest Aug. 6 on charges he kidnapped and raped a 6-year-old girl, the woman said she wanted to tell her story, something she's only spoken about with family members and a few close friends.
"It breaks my heart as a parent and as one of his victims," she said. "This week it's really been bothering me."
She said Stehley maneuvered himself into a position of trust with her and her family to the point no one thought twice about letting her go places with him.
The day she was raped, Stehley asked if she wanted to ride along with him to Altoona pick up his paycheck from the restaurant where he worked. Afterward, she said "something clicked in my mind" when she noticed he was headed in a different direction than home.
She feared what was coming next, because twice Stehley had forced her to perform oral sex, an act of betrayal she said that had left her so confused and scared she didn't tell anyone.
When they arrived at a cabin near Canoe Creek, "I had that gut-wrenching feeling something was going to happen," she said.
Stehley forced her out of his vehicle and told her to get into the cabin. She refused.
"If you don't, I'm going to shoot you right here and throw you under the cabin and your parents will never see you again," she recalled him saying to her.
Stehley grabbed her by the arms and forced her into the cabin, where he raped her.
"He squeezed my arm so tight I actually had handprints," she said.
Out of fear, she said she promised Stehley she
wouldn't tell, but by the time he dropped her off at home she had decided enough was enough.
"I'm not doing this no more," she said.
She immediately told her mother, and from the start, her parents were behind her in pursuing Stehley's prosecution. It wasn't an easy road. She had to face Stehley at his preliminary hearing and his attorney took shots at her character and her motives.
Stehley, whose arrest record to that point was mainly theft-related cases, was charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, indecent assault, corruption of minors, terroristic threats, statutory rape and deviate sexual intercourse, court records indicate.
As the trial was ready to start, Stehley and the commonwealth, represented by then-Assistant District Attorney Paula Aigner, struck a deal, the woman remembered.
The deal, the woman said, was struck to avoid the chance of an acquittal. "It was a 50/50 shot is what they said," she added.
Aigner, now a magisterial district judge in Hollidaysburg, said she couldn't remember the case but said prosecuting rape cases does pose unique problems for prosecutors, and winning those cases can be extremely difficult.
Case records show Stehley pleaded guilty to statutory rape and corruption of minors in exchange for a 2 1/2- to 5-year state prison sentence, with all other charges, except the indecent assault count that was merged with the corruption of minors count, dropped.
Blair County Judge Jolene G. Kopriva sentenced Stehley on Dec. 3, 1991, to 2 1/2- to 5 years on the statutory rape count with a concurrent sentence of 12 to 24 months on the corruption of minors count, with 147 days' time served.
The woman said Stehley spoke at his sentencing and said despite everything, he still loved her.
"I thought, 'What do you mean, you sicko, you still love me?'" she said, repulsed at his statement.
The sentence was above the standard statutory rape sentence of four to 12 months, according to the sentencing guideline form in Stehley's file, but it seemed too short to the victim.
"I'm mad at the system," she said. "I'm angry at the system that they just let these people keep getting away with it."
After the rape, she said she refused counseling. It wasn't until she was in her 20s, when she felt it was controlling her, that she sought help.
"It haunts me to this day," she said. "But I think it actually made me a better person."
According to a 1999 article in the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington County, Stehley pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, resisting arrest, indecent assault, possession of a small amount of marijuana and driving under the influence. State police stopped to check on Stehley's truck along a road on Oct. 2, 1998, according to the article, and came across a drunk Stehley and a 24-year-old passenger who mouthed "help me" to the troopers.
As the troopers got the woman out of the vehicle, Stehley ran. When police caught up to him, he punched a trooper and was subdued with pepper spray, the news account noted.
For his plea, Stehley was sent to state prison for five to 10 years, court records note. A charge of deviate sexual intercourse was withdrawn, the paper said.
Three days before Stehley's Aug. 6 arrest along Kettle Road, the victim of his 1991 rape was visited by Blair County Sheriff's Department deputies who were looking to serve Stehley with a subpoena related to a protection-from-abuse petition filed by another woman who claimed Stehley had molested her as a child and was now stalking her, she said.
Realizing Stehley was back in the area sent her into "full panic mode," she said, as the memories came rushing back. She had talks with her children about him and kept an even closer eye on them in the days following the visit by deputies.
"That's something you keep pushing down, but it's always there, and when it starts to come out, you have to push it back down," she said.
She said she's relieved Stehley is behind bars but is angry another child had to endure what she did.
"This little girl is going to have to live with this," she said. "That is the hardest thing."
She said she hopes her story inspires others she believes were molested by Stehley but never came forward, either because of fear or shame. "If there's other victims out there, why don't they step up and take a stand," she said.
She said there were two paths she saw for dealing with her rape, neither of which are easy.
"You can let it control your life or you can move on," she said. "I chose to move on."
Stehley, she said, blamed cocaine for what he did, but she never has bought that excuse.
"That's obviously a sick individual," she said, questioning how a grown man can find sexual pleasure in terrorizing a child. "That is a beast and an animal that needs to be locked up in the system and never let out. This man has no remorse. He's the devil in disguise."
Blair County Deputy District Attorney Jackie Bernard, lead prosecutor in Stehley's latest cases, said it was too early to comment on whether Stehley qualifies for Pennsylvania's "third strike" provision of Megan's Law, where if convicted he would receive life in prison since it would be his third sexual assault.
"We're in the process of evaluating all possible sentencing options," Bernard said last week.
Stehley's court-appointed attorney, Mark Zearfaus, said Thursday he has yet to speak with his client. Whether Stehley, due to appear in district court on Aug. 30 for a preliminary hearing, will want to seek a plea agreement or take the case to trial, remains unknown, as does his side of the story, Zearfaus said.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.