Utah teen shares her story of sex abuse to empower others
As Jaime Heiner drove past Stephen Niedzwiecki's home in Kaysville one night in the fall of 2012, she glanced over and saw that only his bedroom light was on.
Immediately, a thought came. It was likely irrational, she admits, but nonetheless it flooded her mind: What if he was in his room sexually abusing a teenage girl like he had done to her?
Up to that point, she had never told anyone about the year of abuse at the hands of her former junior high teacher and basketball coach.
"I thought that since I was the only one hurt by it, I could deal with it on my own," Heiner said in a recent interview. "He told me if I did come forward, it would destroy my family, so I didn't say anything for a really long time ... [But] I knew if I didn't say anything in that moment, I wouldn't have the courage to later. So I pulled out my phone and contacted my bishop."
Heiner, then 16, met with her Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints bishop, and confessed that she had been "dating" her former teacher, who was 17 years older than she, and that their relationship had become sexual.
The bishop called police. Niedzwiecki was arrested and charged in 2nd District Court in December 2012 with eight counts of forcible sodomy, one count of attempted rape all first-degree felonies along with two counts of second-degree felony forcible sexual abuse.
In January 2014, Niedzwiecki, 34, pleaded guilty to a number of reduced charges. Heiner said she plans to tell him at his Friday sentencing that he no longer has power over her, that she plans to accomplish all her goals without him holding her back.
That moment will end a long and confusing journey for Heiner a journey that began two years ago when she was 15 years old and her teacher kissed her in his car during a disc golf outing.
The Salt Lake Tribune does not generally name victims of sexual abuse, but is doing so in Heiner's case, with her permission, because she has gone public with her experience and is using it to encourage other victims to speak out.
"On a roller coaster" • Heiner, now 17, said her relationship with Niedzwiecki began innocently enough: He taught her science at Jefferson Academy in Kaysville. She often stayed after school to work on an extra-credit project in his class, and they spent even more time together after she joined the girls' basketball team, of which he was an assistant coach.
Heiner said that after their first kiss, Niedzwiecki began to study her LDS faith. He was invited into the Heiner home under the pretense that he wanted to learn more about their church, yearned for family and hoped to mentor Heiner and her brother.
Heiner said her parents were initially curious about what this grown man wanted to do with their family, but they softened as Niedzwiecki sought information about the Book of Mormon and other tenets of their faith.
"My parents kind of thought, 'Here is someone who wants to be good and be part of a family,' " Heiner said. "We have the opportunity to help him and introduce him to the gospel."
Heiner now doubts that Niedzwiecki's intentions were ever truly based on learning about her faith, and believes they were rooted instead in getting closer to her. Their relationship progressed and became sexual in May 2011, though her parents still believed the married teacher was interested in her only as a mentor.
"When it first started, I felt like I was on a roller coaster," Heiner said. "I didn't really know what was happening and I was just kind of along for the ride ... I was really confused a lot, just because he was really manipulative, so I couldn't keep what was reality straight.
"I would say, 'You kissed me first,' and he would say, 'No, that's not how it happened. This is how it happened.' And you know, he's 17 years older than me, and I didn't have any way of saying that's not true. Really, whatever he told me became reality."
Heiner said she was always uncomfortable with the sexual acts that occurred between them, but said she went along with it because she thought if she didn't, he would do what he wanted with her anyway.
Beyond their physical connection, Heiner said, Niedzwiecki had a psychological hold on her throughout their 15-month relationship.
"He told me if I ever came forward, his life would be over," she said. "He could never teach again and he would go to prison for the rest of his life. And my life would be over because all it would take was one Google search and a future employer would find out. At that time, I wanted to be a teacher, and so he was like, 'What school is going to hire a teacher who has done this with her teacher?' "
Breaking point • Heiner said she tried to break off the relationship several times, but ultimately it was an announcement during the fall 2012 LDS General Conference that finally gave her a way out.
Up until that point, she had resigned herself to marrying Niedzwiecki when she turned 18 "I figured, who else would want me now?" she said. But when it was announced that the female missionary age had been lowered from 21 to 19, she decided she wanted to serve a mission.
She texted Niedzwiecki and told him her plan.
"He said, 'Well, my biological clock is ticking. If you do that, I'm not going to be in your life,' " she said.
The relationship was officially over.
Several months later, Heiner had the meeting with her bishop, which set in motion a yearlong court process. During a May 2013 preliminary hearing, Heiner testified against Niedzwiecki, detailing their sexual encounters.
In late January, Niedzwiecki pleaded guilty to four third-degree felonies two counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor and two counts of unlawful sexual activity with a 16- to 17-year old. Prosecutors said at the time that because the inappropriate acts happened after Niedzwiecki was no longer her teacher, they could not prove that he held a "position of special trust" with the teen, which had initially allowed for the first-degree felony charges to be filed.
Instead of a possible life term in prison, Niedzwiecki faces, at most, up to 20 years behind bars which infuriated Heiner.
"I came forward so he couldn't have access to kids anymore, and here he is not being held accountable," she said.
In January, prosecutors argued that Utah statutes and recent Utah Supreme Court rulings made it clear that in order for Niedzwiecki to be convicted of the more serious violation of holding "a position of a special trust," the sexual activity would have had to occur while Heiner was still his student. She was his student the first time they kissed, but Heiner said their relationship didn't become sexual until after she graduated from the charter school.
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings has said that he felt the prosecutor, Cristina Ortega, made the right decision to offer the plea deal.
"[Her] plea negotiation was based on a valid assessment of fact and law," Rawlings said. "It is a disservice to victims to give them erroneous information, false expectations or go to trial when we cannot prove all elements of a particular charge."
Activism • While Niedzwiecki's case wound its way through the legal system, Heiner said she coped with her feelings by making blankets for the Children's Justice Center. It was quiet "grief work" done behind closed doors, she said.
One day, she came home to flowers left on her Kaysville doorstep by a student from a nearby high school involved with Backyard Broadcast, a high school program that brings awareness to child abuse and human trafficking in the United States.
This act of kindness and reassurance that she was not alone, and that others had gone through similar experiences inspired Heiner to start a Backyard Broadcast chapter at her high school, the Northern Utah Academy for Math Engineering and Science.
But it wasn't until Niedzwiecki took that plea deal in January that she went public by advocating for Prevent Child Abuse Utah and starting her own victim-empowerment organization, I Am.
"My biggest thing is abuse awareness and victim empowerment," she said. "Throughout the time I was being abused, I didn't know what abuse was. I thought I was the only one and that kept me silent for a really long time because I didn't realize that one in three women are sexually abused."
Heiner said she hopes I Am helps others.
"As a victim, we're told so many things that we're not by our abusers," she said. "That we're worthless and broken. But I think it's important to emphasize all the things that victims are."
Heiner feels she is not a victim. She's a survivor.
The 17-year-old is slowly but surely moving on with her life. She is dating, and tries not to let her past overshadow her future. Already a sophomore at Weber State University, she is studying communications with a legal advocacy emphasis and hopes to go to law school to be a prosecutor or civil attorney working with sex abuse victims.
"Despite the hell [Niedzwiecki] put me through, I intend to live a beautiful life," she said. "I can have all the things that he promised me, but on my own terms with somebody who loves me."