Last month, according to authorities, a 15-year-old girl escaped from a weeks-long captivity after being abducted near her home and then physically and sexually assaulted while held against her will.
Last week, the 65-year-old Minnesota farmer who came to the frightened teen’s aid during her escape accepted a $7,000 reward in the case — and then promptly gave it to the girl, whom police say he called the “real hero.”
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Earl Melchert said in an interview with the New York Times.
He was presented on Friday with a check for the reward money — which included $2,000 from the girl’s family — after which he went to dinner with them, according to the Times.
“What a retirement present,” he said, “to hand over some money to people that really need it.”
“The family needs the money,” he explained. “To me, yeah, that’s a lot of money, but they need it way worse than I do.”
Melchert, who has retired since he found the escaped girl running across a field on his property in Alexandria, Minnesota, reportedly said he wasn’t even supposed to be home that afternoon, on Sept. 5, but had returned from work to retrieve a gas can.
As he prepared to head back, he spotted something moving in his field about a half-mile away. “I thought at first it was a deer,” Melchert, whom PEOPLE could not reach on Monday, told the Times.
But he soon realized it was no animal — it was the 15-year-old girl who had vanished on Aug. 8 from her Alexandria home.
“I could make out her face, and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the gal from Alexandria that’s been gone for 29 days,’ ” Melchert told the paper. “It’d been on the news, it’d been online. It went national. It was on posters, in stores, her face, her picture. Right away, I recognized her.”
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Melchert called authorities and the teen told them she had been abducted several weeks earlier. She then led detectives to her alleged captors: Thomas Barker, 32, Steven Powers, 20, and 31-year-old Joshua Holby.
All three have been arrested and charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and assault. They are being held without bail. They have not yet entered pleas or retained attorneys who could comment on their behalf.
The girl told police that she’d escaped from an abandoned house, near Melchert’s property, where the three suspects allegedly kept her for the previous few days.
When they went to buy some food, she made her escape, she said. After knocking on the doors of several homes and not getting any responses, she swam across a lake to Melchert’s land.
Police said in a previous statement that, according to a preliminary investigation, the teen was approached by Barker, whom she knew, outside her home around 11 p.m. on Aug. 8 “on the pretense that he needed help with a situation.”
“She offered to assist and entered Barker’s vehicle,” police said.
At that point, Barker allegedly drove her to his home, where “he restrained her with zip ties, repeatedly assaulted her and threatened her with weapons,” police said.
Barker and Holby were roommates, according to investigators, who suspect Holby also “took part in the assaults, as did Mr. Powers, who arrived at the home about [two] weeks following the abduction.”
The assaults happened regularly over several weeks, police allege.
During her captivity, the girl was also taken from Barker’s residence to “various locations including a cornfield and a foreclosed property in Grant County,” police said.
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The teen told police she spent much of her captivity locked in a closet.
Alexandria Police Chief Richard Wyffels called her “amazing” and a “young lady with a lot of strength,” according to the Times.
In a Facebook post after Melchert received his reward on Friday, Wyffels wrote:
“What no one expected was the kindness and generosity that came straight from Earl’s heart today. He believes that young lady that came running towards him that September day is the real hero and without hesitation, Earl handed the reward over to her, followed by a big hug.
“Thank you Earl, it is people like you that make this world a better place.”