June 09, 2014 12:00 PM

People Exclusive

In June 2000 Frank Hertel was charged with sexually assaulting his daughter Heather Orr when she was 14 in Tucson, continuing abuse that began when she was much younger in Ohio. Before he could go to trial he vanished with Orr’s mother and 9-year-old brother. For 12 years Orr searched for them but found few clues. “She didn’t just want to see her dad behind bars,” says her husband, Daniel, 39. “She wanted to find her brother. That’s what drove her.” Sgt. Gerard Moretz, whose investigation helped send her father to prison in October 2012 and also helped find both parents guilty on civil charges of abuse and neglect, was struck by Orr’s courage: “She’s a real inspiration.” Orr, 31, a mom of four in Evans, Ga., tells PEOPLE’s Jeff Truesdell she’s sharing her story for “myself and other sexual-abuse victims who have borne their pain silently.”

A Dark Secret

My father claimed he did it because he loved me. He didn’t tie me up or lock me in a room or deny me food. He groomed me, and I would do anything he said because I knew he loved me. But as soon as I knew, at age 14, that it was wrong, I told my friend, “I think I’m being abused by my dad.” My parents said, “If you tell, you’re going to be stuck in foster care, your dad will go to jail, and do you really want to be the cause of all this for something that’s really not that bad?” I was a mess. When a social worker interviewed me, I told just enough for it to be documented that abuse was indicated, but I didn’t tell her everything. Most kids don’t. Six months later we moved to Arizona. I knew it was because I told. And I questioned, “Was it okay what my dad did?” Because nothing happened. That’s how he was able to abuse me again.

A Family Vanishes

I graduated at 16 and moved out. I just wanted to go to therapy and fix the problem he created. He was open to fixing it. But then he quit going and wouldn’t pay for it. So I bought a tape recorder, called him over the phone and got it on tape. When I pressed charges, my parents wouldn’t let me talk to my brother K.C. anymore. Everybody thought I was lying, because my dad told them I was lying. After he got out on bond, my mom called me and said, “The rest of your stuff’s on the curb.” Two weeks later I went by and found the house empty. Where in the heck did they go? I thought finally I was going to see justice, and now he’s gone.

Twelve Years in Pursuit

Even though my father fled, the trial continued and he was convicted.

If he had just left on his own, I would have let it go, but I couldn’t. I lost my whole family; I went to bed every night crying about K.C.: Where is he?

I knew my dad’s family was helping him hide. My grandmother and I fought all the time. One time, after about 10 years, she said she could get letters from my brother. She would copy and paste his e-mail, then forward it.

The first was just, “Hi sis, how are you?” His English was bad, but it meant he was out there.

Eventually he e-mailed three photos. One showed him in military costume. The second showed him sitting in a restaurant. The third was him outside, and in the corner was a German symbol for a German brewery. I searched for hours and hours online. Then I typed in my dad’s name again, and this time an article about his father came up—he’d been arrested in London on charges of tax evasion. I messaged all the commenters, and one wrote back saying my grandfather had a German son, and his American wife and son were living with him in Germany. He gave me a website for the restaurant they managed, and the photos matched those from my brother. There was a name, but it was my dad’s brother’s name. I thought, “That’s him. That’s how he’s hid.”

Finally Justice Prevails

I sent tons of e-mails over three months to the U.S. marshal. Finally I heard back, and they were like, “Whoa, you know where he is?” They had to investigate. I was so nervous. I thought, “He’s going to run again, and it’s going to be another 12 years.” Germany fought it for eight months, because they thought my dad was his brother, but eventually they arrested him and sent him to Arizona, where he was sentenced to 20 years. I later learned K.C. had moved back to live with my grandma just before my dad was arrested. When I saw K.C., I didn’t know whether to hug him or just say hey.

Then my dad faced charges in Ohio and pled guilty there last March, where I finally faced him and where he received 19 to 95 years in prison. He’s already announced he plans to appeal in both cases. When I spoke in court on the day of his sentencing, that was the first time my voice was really heard.

I knew my father’s actions were wrong, and I won’t ever forget that. But I can forgive him for being human and making a mistake. Forgiveness is not for him but for me, to be able to move on. I’ve been able to make my own family. I want my children to have the life I didn’t have and to feel safe.

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