SIOUX FALLS | Forty years ago — on Nov. 17, 1973 — she was that girl from Gitchie Manitou.
The one who went out to the woods on the Iowa-South Dakota border east of Sioux Falls one Saturday evening with four teenage friends to sit around a campfire, smoke a few joints and play a little guitar.
The one who survived when the others — Roger Essem, 17; Stewart Baade, 18; Mike Hadrath, 15; and Dana Baade, 14 — did not.
The question never has been completely answered: Why Sandra Cheskey alone was spared after the nightmare that forever transformed Gitchie Manitou from a backwoods setting where people hiked and held underage beer parties to an unholy ground that many insist is haunted today.
But the horror story of that night doesn't change, or the fact that she was only 13 when brothers Allen, James and David Fryer confronted the teens at the nature preserve, posing as policemen, blustering about confiscating their marijuana, ultimately gunning down her four friends before taking her away to be raped and then set free.
And that wasn't the end of it. Afterward, Cheskey would walk with her head down to avoid the media glare. Then it just became easier to keep it down so she wouldn't have to endure the judgmental eyes of those who questioned why a girl her age was even out with boys four or five years older that night. Or the people who wondered whether she survived because she was in on the murders. Or the parents who instructed their children to stay away from that girl from Gitchie Manitou.
"Horrible," the soft-spoken 53-year-old wife, mother and grandmother told the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/1aGBadE ) when asked how her life was after the incident. "Ashamed, alone ... I felt all of that."
But not anymore.
Today, a long-simmering inner strength bubbling to the surface has begun to convince Cheskey that she should tell her story, mainly for her family's sake but also to remind people that she and the others were nothing more than victims that night.
She recently reunited with the former Lyon County sheriff, Craig Vinson, in his Rock Rapids, Iowa, home to reminisce about their time together during that ordeal. On Wednesday, she returned to Gitchie Manitou with her husband and several friends to retrace each terrifying moment and, if possible, to put the ghosts to rest.
She even has started talking about writing a book.
"My grandchildren are going to Google Gitchie Manitou, and they're going to see my name and read horrific stuff that they don't know about," she softly explained. "I have nieces who are 12. They're going to be 13 ... and they're pretty smart these days. I just don't want them to find it and be shocked and upset. I want them to know that it was a huge tragedy, and that Grandma wasn't doing anything bad."
In autumn 1973, "Grandma" was just a schoolgirl, having moved to the Tea area within the previous year from Minnesota and trying to find her way as a seventh-grader in the Harrisburg School District.
Earlier that summer, she had been returning to her car from the concession stand at a drive-in theater in Sioux Falls when, from a distance, "I saw the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life."
Instead of walking by her, Roger Essem stopped, started talking to her and eventually asked her for her phone number. "And that," Cheskey said, "is how we met."
There would be three, maybe four dates after that, she said, and almost always they included Essem's buddy, Stewart Baade, who had a blue van and provided the transportation.
Their age differences — Baade and Essem both went to Washington High School — seemed inconsequential to Cheskey. Her mother had married a man who had little time for Cheskey and her brothers. In fact, he convinced his wife that foster care, and later a mission school in Marty, was the best way to deal with them. All of that meant Cheskey was used to being around older kids.
"I wasn't a bad girl; I just think he made a mistake marrying a woman with four kids and didn't know how to get rid of us," she said of her mother's husband. "I think I grew up faster because I had been in two foster homes ... and then to school at Marty Mission. That was a hard place to be."
On the night of Nov. 17, Essem asked his girlfriend to go to Gitchie Manitou. They had couple of marijuana joints. They were going to build a campfire, and Stewart Baade was bringing his guitar. Baade's little brother, Dana, was coming, too, as was their good Whittier neighborhood buddy, Mike Hadrath.
The four boys in particular were best of friends, said Leland Baade, who lives in Aberdeen and lost his two younger brothers that night.
"They were kids that pretty much kept to themselves," Baade, 60, said. "There were bullies back then, too, so it was the four of them that hung out by themselves, minded their own business. My brothers were into music. Stewart could play guitar pretty good, and Dana was learning to play the bass. Those two were real close."
The elder Baade remembered that his mother was in McKennan Hospital at the time with bronchitis. He stopped by the house that day to ask his brothers what their plans were that night. They were going to this park, they told him, going to build a campfire and play their guitars.
Bill Hadrath doesn't remember whether he knew that his brother Mike, two years younger, planned to go out to Gitchie Manitou with the others — not that it would have been that big of a deal.
"I was probably out there myself at one time or another when there probably were a hundred other kids out there," Bill Hadrath, 57, said from his Sioux Falls home. "There were a lot of parties at that place, a lot of beer parties."
Lynette Hadrath Dahl's memory is that her brother Mike told his mother he was going to spend the night at the Essem house. Nothing unusual about that. Marilyn Hadrath slipped her son a little pocket change that evening and watched as he swung on the clothesline pole on his way through the backyard.
That became an enduring image for Marilyn Hadrath, who often wondered afterward about her son's final moments, said Dahl, now 50 and living in Lake Park, Minn.
"It's a natural thing; the first person you go to in life is your mother," she said. "So she wondered, 'Did he call out for me?' "
When they arrived at Gitchie Manitou, the teens parked the Baade van in the tall grass not far from a stone shelter and wandered southwest down a narrow path. With the Big Sioux River babbling maybe 30 yards behind them to the west, they settled into an opening among the trees, with a natural quartzite wall maybe six, seven feet tall rising up on their south side.
With the wood already gathered, the flames were licking the mild November air.
Stewart Baade strummed his guitar. Essem stood nearby with his arm around Cheskey, and the other two boys huddled by the fire. It was about 10 p.m., Cheskey estimated. They had been there about 20 minutes.
Suddenly, they heard sticks snapping. Cheskey said Essem started walking toward the noise and called out: "Who the hell are you? What are you doing there?"
A gunshot exploded, and Essem fell. In an instant, the Fryers were standing atop the quartzite ledge and fired again, hitting but not seriously wounding Stewart Baade and Hadrath. Everybody dropped to the ground, recalled Cheskey, who can still hear Stewart screaming: "I've been shot. It hurts. It hurts."
Media reports at the time suggested that the Fryers had been at the preserve trying to poach deer. Contacted through the Iowa Department of Corrections at the state prison in Fort Madison, where they are serving life sentences, the brothers all declined to be interviewed for this story.
Quickly moving down from the ledge, they yelled at the teens to come out of the trees, kicking at the feet of those lying on the ground and telling them to quit playing dead. Allen Fryer, the oldest at 29, told them he and his brothers were police officers, and they were in trouble for having marijuana. David Fryer, 24, assured them that Essem would be all right; he had just been shot with a tranquilizer gun.
Cheskey said she believed them.
"I was young," she said. "I watched 'The Brady Bunch.' I watched 'Wild Kingdom' on TV, where they shot animals with tranquilizer guns. So I hear this from one of the brothers, and that made sense to me."
Hindsight, of course, now reveals something different. The Fryers never really have expressed their motivations that night. Bill Hadrath thinks the brothers had been watching the teens and decided they wanted Cheskey. Kevin Kunkel, a former law enforcement officer in Brookings and Minnehaha counties who has been talking with Cheskey about writing a book, has a different theory.
"These guys went pheasant hunting that day but didn't get any pheasants," Kunkel said. "So they went deer hunting but couldn't find any deer. That's when they decided to hunt the one thing they could find — humans."
As the Fryers marched the teens up the path at gunpoint, Dana Baade marched slowly beside Cheskey, who was helping Hadrath walk. Stewart Baade was somewhere behind them. Cheskey still didn't think they were in danger.
Though actually wounded, the boys said nothing and betrayed no signs of fear, she said. If they had, she has little doubt that she would have tried to run and probably would have been killed, too.
"Because they were the ones that had been shot, they knew," she said. "I think they were trying to protect me. And that's what makes them such heroes to me."
Cheskey's hands were bound behind her as she was placed in the Fryers' truck. She figured the others were coming in another vehicle and said the last thing she told them was, "Well, I guess I'll see you in school."
"I really thought we were all going to some kind of detention school," she said.
At some point before driving off with her, Allen Fryer untied Cheskey, telling her she was too young to be busted in a drug deal. As they pulled away, she saw the Baades and Hadrath still alive.
But once they were gone, law enforcement suspect James and David Fryer lined up the three boys in front of the Baade van and executed them.
The miracle that saved that girl from Gitchie Manitou unfolded during the next two hours. As they made their way back into South Dakota, Allen Fryer stopped at a convenience store in Sioux Falls and bought them pop. Cheskey still thought he was a policeman and, had she known differently, she said, "I certainly would have tried to run."
But the night turned much darker soon after. When the brothers met up at a farmhouse near Hartford about an hour later, Allen Fryer got out of the truck and James Fryer, 21, got in, told the girl to take off her clothes and then assaulted her.
"I was a virgin, you know," Cheskey told Allen Fryer after James got out of the truck and he climbed back into the cab. "Nah, no you aren't," she remembered him saying. "I told him, 'I'm only 13.' And that really shocked him, and he would just tell me then, 'I'll do what I can to get you out of this.'"
After the rape, when it came time to get rid of the girl, Allen Fryer told his brothers he would do it. He had a club, Cheskey recalled, and told her they needed to go into the farmhouse to look for and kill a varmint of some kind. She told him she didn't want to go. For whatever reason, he didn't make her.
Having promised to kill her, he took her home instead.
"Allen wasn't the brightest bulb," said Terry Johnson, a retired agent with the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation who spent long hours on the case. "After the boys were gunned down, and it was just him and her in the truck, I think he became aware of her as a person rather than just somebody standing out in the woods. She remained calm and they talked, and he couldn't bring himself to kill her."
After being dropped off at home, Cheskey couldn't sleep, worrying about her friends. The next morning, a Sioux Falls couple out test-driving a new car came upon the bodies in the tall grass at Gitchie Manitou and called police. Cheskey had tried the Essems' phone around 8 that morning, wondering whether Roger was home. When he wasn't, she and a friend hitchhiked into Sioux Falls from her home near Tea and called the Essems again.
This time, one of Roger's brothers told her to stay where she was at, he would come get her. Something bad had happened.
In the chaotic days that followed, as investigators had the girl from Gitchie Manitou poring over mug shots, scribbling down details of the incident and driving along gravel roads trying to find the farmhouse where she said she was raped, the question remained, at least for a time: Was she telling the truth?
Enough of this, one of the officers driving her around finally said.
"They weren't mean to me," Cheskey recalled. "They just thought that I knew the names of the people that did it, and they wanted them. They didn't want to do all this driving around because, in their minds, they thought, 'Why would they let her go? Why did only one of the three rape her?' To them, it seemed unbelievable."
At times, she was so unhappy with their disbelief that she wouldn't even look out the window as they searched for the farm where the Fryers had taken her. Then, one day, there it was, with its big red gasoline tank that she had remembered from the night of the incident.
As she sat in the car with law enforcement, Allen Fryer drove slowly by in the same truck Cheskey had ridden in about 10 days before.
They had their man.
The Fryers had been caught.
There would be hearings and legal maneuverings and a trial, and Cheskey was the star witness. The Fryers were sent away for life, and the 13-year-old girl from Gitchie Manitou went home to relive the horrors every day and every night.
"For years I had nightmares, and my mom would crawl into bed with me, when I was 15 years old still," she said.
But there was no counseling and nothing offered for her wounded psyche. Classmates at Harrisburg shunned her, told to do so by their parents, and she dropped out a few months after the incident.
Though the Baade and Essem families "wrapped me in their arms afterward," Cheskey said her mother was supportive but working two jobs and often gone. The father figure in the house, the man her mother married, offered her nothing, she said, so she spent years walking with her head down — through her teens, her 20s and long after she married at age 26.
Life after Gitchie Manitou was not easy for any of the families left behind. Several of Essem's brothers, still in Sioux Falls, politely declined to be interviewed. But Leland Baade, angry at the fate dealt his brothers, remembered that his mother went to all the court proceedings and trials.
"She was a very Christian woman," Baade said. "She didn't believe her path to heaven would be there if she held animosity. She more or less did her forgiving, but it was just, well, I know the pain stayed with her forever."
To lose a son so sweet and outgoing and athletic changed the trajectory of all the Hadraths' lives as well, Lynette Hadrath Dahl said. Only 10 at the time, she was left with so few enduring memories of her brother. One of the clearest that remains today is a Halloween outing just weeks before his death when he took her and a friend trick-or-treating, but only if she shared some of her candy with him.
"My mom talked about him more than my dad," Dahl said. "My dad was more quiet, but they both had a hard time. They each blamed themselves for individual reasons. For Dad it was like, if he hadn't had to go to work, they would have been hunting and Mike wouldn't have been there that night. And Mom, she just always remembered him swinging on that clothesline as he was leaving. You know, you don't ever get over it."
You do, however, move on, and so they all have. Though Cheskey said she can't listen to the music of the early '70s anymore, to the Grass Roots or Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin — songs that take her back to that terrible time — she finally is learning that she doesn't have to walk with her head down, that she doesn't have to be ashamed, that she was a victim and nothing more.
Recently in Rock Rapids, she hugged the former Lyon County sheriff who used to drive her around Minnehaha County looking for a farm even though he might have had his doubts.
"I never thought you were a bad girl," 94-year-old Craig Vinson told her in between embraces. "And I checked on you through the years to make sure you were doing all right. I'm sure you didn't know that."
"Well, bless you," she responded.
That was good to hear, Cheskey said later as she stood in the woods, at the spot where it all happened 40 years ago, and tried to set her ghosts free. It feels right, she said, to tell her story now, for the sake of her nieces and nephews, sons and grandchildren.
And especially for that girl from Gitchie Manitou.
"It was a huge tragedy, but Grandma wasn't doing anything bad," she will tell her loved ones. "And nobody deserved it out there, what happened. We weren't drugging. We were just going out for a night ... and it was so wrong."