"I have a lot to live for," Kendra Heuer tells PEOPLE
Kendra Heuer was 18 years old and and just beginning a huge new chapter of her life during her freshman year at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“It was my dream school,” she says. “I got in and my mom went here so that was a huge deal.”
But everything changed on March 16, 2014, when Heuer was sexually assaulted by a fellow student. In PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World in this week’s issue, the now 21-year-old is publicly revealing her identity for the first time.
“If speaking out helps one woman who has been sexually assaulted then it’s worth it,” says the undergrad, whose case made national headlines when her assailant was given no jail time in August. “Maybe someone will realize that what they experienced is assault.”
The assault occurred after what should have been a fun night out celebrating both her best friend’s birthday and St. Patrick’s Day.
On an empty stomach, Heuer had numerous shots of alcohol and didn’t make it home. A fellow student, Austin Wilkerson, told her friends he’d take care of her. Instead, he sexually assaulted her after she drifted out of consciousness.
At Wilkerson’s arraignment on July, 13, 2015 , he plead not guilty to five charges, including sexual assault of a helpless victim and unlawful sexual contact.In May, he was found guilty of sexually assaulting a helpless victim and unlawful sexual conduct. The sexual assault count, a Class 3 felony, carried a presumptive prison sentence of four to 12 years, but in August, Wilkerson was spared prison time and sentenced to jail work-release and probation.
At his sentencing hearing, Heuer read a statement that she spent the entire summer working on.
“The rapist chose to ruin his life,” it read in part. “But like the sexual assault itself, my life has been ruined without my consent.”
She remembers the moment she read it aloud being “very scary.”
“I broke down and cried, but after I was finished it was really empowering. His whole family heard, the judge heard, everyone heard. I got everything out that I wanted to say, which was awesome,” she says.
Moments later, Wilkerson was sentenced to 20 years to life on probation and two years in in the Boulder County Jail on a program that allows him to leave jail during the day to work or go to school.
“I’ve struggled, to be quite frank, with the idea of, ‘Do I put him in prison?’ ” District Judge Patrick Butler said at the sentencing, the Daily Camera reports. “I don’t know that there is any great result for anybody. Mr. Wilkerson deserves to be punished, but I think we all need to find out whether he truly can or cannot be rehabilitated.”
At the hearing, Wilkerson spoke.
“I sexually assaulted (the victim),” he said, the outlet reports. “No words I can say could ever take away the pain and fear that I have caused. Nothing I say can make it better, but I am so sorry.”
Heuer says she was “very disappointed” when she heard he wasn’t going to serve any time.
“I wanted him to physically not be able to hurt anyone so when he only got work release I thought he could be free to rape again in this community,” she says. “I felt like I jumped through all of these hoops reporting it to my school, the police and getting a guilty conviction. It wasn’t a good feeling.”
The Night Everything Changed
Heuer met Wilkerson at a White Elephant party in December, 2013, so when she saw him again the night of the assault he wasn’t a stranger.
They talked and he invited her and her friends to another party.
“He said, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys join?’ We said okay because we didn’t know of any other parties,” she says.
They went to two parties with him and when he suggested they go to a third, they agreed because it was close to their dorm so it would be an easy five to ten minute walk home.
“We did shots of fireball,” she recalls. “I was sick and I went into the bathroom and was throwing up. It was probably around 2 in the morning now.”
After getting separated from her friend, she was left alone with Wilkerson.
“He was like, ‘Let me give you a piggy back ride home,’ ” she says.
But she soon realized he didn’t take her home but instead took her to his place. At that point she says she would have slept anywhere as long as she could rest her head. She remembers him telling her he’d sleep on the couch and she could have the bed.
“I was just about to fall asleep and he said, ‘Kendra, I’m going to take care of you.’ He pulled my face towards his and kept on saying that,’ ” she recalls.
The next thing she knew he was sexually assaulting her.
“I had my eyes closed,” she says. “Actions speak louder than words. If you see someone basically passed out and trying to sleep, you would think they wouldn’t have to say anything. He pulled up my dress and my Spandex shorts.”
While parts of the night are still a blur for Heuer, she remembers the assault because “it was such a an emotional and traumatic thing.”
She adds: “It’s engraved into my brain.”
When she was able to leave his house she was in a state of shock.
Her grades began to drop, she couldn’t bare going to parties and on her 21st birthday she told her friends she had to stay in because she had too much homework.
“When I’m not having nightmares of rape, retaliation, or retrial that goes awry, I’m having panic attacks,” part of her statement read. “Prior to the assault, I never had a panic attack I my life.”
A month after the assault, she tried to kill herself and some days she wasn’t able to get out of bed.
But as time goes on, Heuer is able find more courage and strength to fight her fears.
She’s studying computer science and dreams of working at Google in Boulder.
“I’ve dealt with a lot but I’ve gotten through it,” she says. “I was depressed and I didn’t think I could get through it but I’ve learned a lot. I speak up, my voice is heard. I have a lot to say.”
She adds: “I won’t let him win. I have a lot to live for. I want people to know my story. I didn’t want my name attached to this before but now it’s time. I’m a survivor.”