Even in the light of day, the ragged field in Dickinson, Texas, has a sinister look about it. There’s a coarsely mown area with ramshackle soccer goals made of sticks surrounded by scrubby trees and expanses of weeds.
But despite its lack of scenic appeal, Jennifer Schuett visits the field frequently. She doesn’t come to see; she comes to remember.
“This could have been my final resting place. I come here to remind myself how grateful I am to be alive,” Schuett told NBC News’ Jeff Rossen in a story that aired Wednesday on TODAY.
Schuett was just 8 years old when she was raped and left to die in that field, her throat slashed from ear to ear. That was nearly 20 years ago, on Aug. 20, 1990.
Schuett remembers it all. For years, it was because she didn’t want to forget anything that might lead to the arrest of the man who did such a horrible thing to an innocent little girl. During all that time, she made sure investigators never let the case go cold.
Her motivation was simple. It was, she told Rossen, “Thinking of children, adults, anyone that could be getting victimized by him.”
Schuett’s determination finally paid off. Last year, new DNA technology allowed samples to be taken from evidence collected at the scene 20 years ago. Back then, DNA traces were too small to produce a result. Today, scientists can get a DNA profile from a single human cell.
Consulting an FBI database, Dickinson Police found a match. The suspect was a 40-year-old welder from North Little Rock, Ark., with a wife and three kids. His DNA was on file because he had been charged in 1996 with kidnapping, sexually assaulting and threatening to kill a woman in Arkansas. He was convicted of the kidnapping charge and spent three years in prison, earning parole in February 2008.
The man’s name was Dennis Earl Bradford. Under questioning, he confessed to kidnapping, raping and trying to kill Jennifer Schuett.
“There is not a day that goes by, not a single day, that I don't see that baby,” Bradford told police in a voice cracking with emotion.
He then summed up his heinous crime in just a few sentences. “I pulled that little girl from her window. She was freaking out. She was crying for her mother. I told her everything was going to be all right. I took that little girl out and I raped her and I cut her throat,” he said on interrogation tapes aired for the first time on TODAY.
Left to die
It is the same story Schuett had been telling for 19 years. As an 8-year-old, she was afraid of the dark and preferred to sleep with her mother. But on the night of the crime, she told her mother, “Just because I love you, Mom, I'm going to sleep in my own bed tonight.”
She fell asleep with the light on, making the interior of her room visible from the street. Soon, her peaceful sleep would be shattered.
Schuett doesn’t know what happened next, but picks up her narrative in the field.
“The next thing I remember after that is him dragging me through this field by my ankles,” Schuett said. “Apparently, he had choked me unconscious or strangled me unconscious. Raped me. And then he slit my throat from ear to ear and left me in this field to die.”
She was naked and lying on her back on top of a fire-ant nest. Some 14 hours later, she woke up, covered in fire ants, but when she tried to move she couldn’t, her strength drained away with her blood. She tried to scream, but no sound came out; her voice box had been slashed.
Rossen asked if she thought she was going to die.
“I knew I was going to die,” Schuett replied.
But the little girl was tougher than anyone could imagine. Kids who came to play in the field found her. She was rushed to a hospital in critical condition. A scar low on her neck marks the place where a breathing tube was inserted to keep her alive.
Doctors told her she would never talk again. Three days later, she was speaking.
“The doctor said that I would never speak again. And that couldn't be further from the truth because these days it’s hard to get me to be quiet,” she said with a laugh.
She grew up and went on with her life, but she kept coming back to the realization that her attacker was still free. She even went on “America’s Most Wanted” in an effort to bring him to justice.
As soon as she was able after the attack, she had given police artists a detailed description of Bradford. The picture that they drew turned out to be remarkably accurate. But no one ever found Bradford until the DNA match was made.
People who knew Bradford told reporters that they couldn’t believe he was the same person who could commit such an unspeakable crime. His employer told reporters that Bradford had worked at the same company for 10 years and had “changed his life.”
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Schuett can’t understand how he could live so long with such a secret.
“It just makes me wonder how he couldn't have confessed sooner,” she said. “And why would you want to live with a secret like that. I would think it would drive someone crazy.”
Message to her attacker
Although Bradford was in custody and had confessed, one last loose end remained. Schuett’s ability to have children naturally was destroyed when she was raped. Her life had been changed forever. She desperately wanted to face him in court at his sentencing and unburden herself.
She had even written her victim’s impact statement.
“You chose the wrong little, 45-pound, 8-year-old girl to try and murder,” she wrote. “Because for 19 years, I've thought of you ever single day, and helped search for you. And every year that's passed has given me more strength and drive for when I finally would be face to face with you, as I am today.”
Rossen asked what she hoped to accomplish.
“To show him that he didn't win, and that I'm a strong survivor, and that his intentions of killing me weren't followed through with,” Schuett replied, fighting back tears. “And to show him how strong I am and to show other victims that no matter what obstacles you come across or how long you have to wait, that as long as you're strong and determined you can get the justice that you want.”
In the last violent act of his life, Bradford hanged himself in his cell last week before she had a chance to tell him how he’d failed to extinguish either her life or her spirit.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints