Investigators: Starting over - KMSP-TV

Investigators: Starting over

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A decade ago, a Twin Cities teenager escaped the stranger who kidnapped and sexually assaulted her -- but her life changed dramatically afterward. For the first time, she is sharing her story with FOX 9 Investigator Jeff Baillon.

Heather Fitzgerald was a 16-year-old growing up in Edina when a stranger abducted her outside a fast food joint.

"The guy walked up to the car and knocked on it," she recalled.

Memories of that night saturated her soul, like the permeating chill of a cold rain.

"The whole time, my heart was pounding like I knew something bad was going to happen," Fitzgerald said.

Both she and her boyfriend at the time were taken hostage. At first, the man wanted their money and their wheels. Then, he wanted her.

"The guy ended up pulling me into the front seat, telling my boyfriend to continue to drive," she said. "I just remember like, sitting there, balling and crying -- asking my boyfriend, 'Help me. Help me.'"

When the kidnapper was done having his way, he grabbed the car keys and walked into the night.

"We just ran and ran," Fitzgerald said.

Minneapolis police caught the man hours later. He admitted to the crimes and served time, but Fitzgerald said she kept running from the terror for the next five years.

"Within a month after my kidnapping, everything completely changed," Fitzgerald told the FOX 9 Investigators. "I wasn't just smoking a bowl here, taking a shot there. I was using massive amounts of drugs every single day."

Fitzgerald barely finished high school. Instead of college, cocaine addiction became her future. At 19, she became pregnant.

"I couldn't believe that I had given birth to my first child high on cocaine," Fitzgerald admitted. "I mean, I was using that day."

Snorting the drug destroyed the cartilage in her nose and even burned a hole in her brain.

Dave Carlson was there when Fitzgerald was eventually arrested on a burglary charge. She was living in a hotel room piled high with garbage at the time.

"The girl that came into our booking room that night was not the girl that I knew or the girl I'd seen before," Carlson told the FOX 9 Investigators. "[She] looked like a totally different person."

That night, her life began to make a dramatic detour.

"I said, 'If you want help, I'll help you,'" Carlson recalled.

Help was also coming from afar. While serving as a marine in the Iraq War, Dan Hanson saw his colleagues get ripped apart by explosions and bullets. When he returned to Minnesota after his 8-month tour, the war was still raging inside.

"I was screaming, I was swearing at everything, picking fights with anybody," Hanson recalled.

Hanson's younger brother, Travis, was also an Iraq veteran struggling with his own demons.

"On March 23, 2007, my brother who was also in the Marine Corps, he hung himself in the basement of his home," Hanson said. "At that point, I decided I was going to do whatever I could to avoid pain."

Hanson bared his soul before Congress in an effort to get more help for veterans haunted by post-traumatic stress.

"The night tremors, I call them," Hanson said. "They're the worst."

Hanson told lawmakers about his own spiral out of control, leaning on alcohol and drugs along a path of destruction that eventually cost him his marriage, and very nearly cost him his life.

"I was in and out of jail, getting picked up for DUIs," Hanson admitted. "Eventually, I attempted my own life. I tried to overdose on pills and woke up in an ambulance on my way to St. Cloud Medical Center."

Although their stories are different, the same deep, dark heartache is a common thread weaving through the addiction narratives for both Hanson and Fitzgerald -- but so is redemption.

"He was literally the last person that had any faith or hope in me that I could actually change my life," said Fitzgerald of Carlson.

Fitzgerald refers to the Edina officer who busted her as her "guardian angel."

"I said, 'You've got your whole life ahead of you. You don't have to live like this,'" Carlson recalled. "She told me -- she looked me right in the eye and told me, 'I don't want this anymore. I don't want to live like this.'"

Carlson believed she was sincere, so he pulled some strings. Instead of jail, Fitzgerald went to rehab. After spending a year at the faith-based recovery program Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, she has now been sober for four years.

"It's like a fairy tale, honestly," Fitzgerald said.

Now, she is happily married to Hanson, and the couple has a new baby.

"I never thought that I could be married to a man who treated me with respect, who didn't hit me, didn't spit in my face," she said. "He's an amazing dad."

He's also a man who understands the day-to-day challenges of staying clean. In fact, they share so much in common -- a dark path and the bright light of recovery -- that it seems natural the two would start their lives over together.

"I was doing a lot of work at Teen Challenge, speaking at different galas and speaking at different conventions. We'd run into each other and then she started stalking me," Hanson laughed. "I'm just kidding."

It is hard to find a couple more committed to helping others battle addiction. Hanson volunteers with veterans' groups, speaking publicly about how faith pulled him from alcoholism.

"My life is way better than I could have imagined it," Hanson said while speaking on a radio about his experiences.

Now, Fitzgerald works full-time for teen challenge. She visits schools to tell her story to children who are about the same age she was when she started using.

"I'm missing six teeth -- my back teeth are all shattered from all the ecstasy I've done, from all the chattering of my jaw and the grinding," she explained to a room full of students.

Everything is in the open -- the kidnapping, the drug abuse, the child she gave birth to while high on cocaine.

"I think, for so long I was stuck in my addiction, that I didn't actually think she was ever going to come," Fitzgerald admitted. "I didn't think she would actually be here today. I hate the person that I was."

As for that little girl, despite her mother's drug use during pregnancy, she's a healthy and happy 6-year-old in the couple's blended family.

Someone else feels like family too.

"We've kept in contact and I want to make sure she stays where she's going, and I have every reason to believe that she's going to," Carlson.

In Carlson's office, there's a wall plastered with the mug shots of repeat offenders -- but next to his desk, there's a gift from the girl who learned from her mistakes.

"She brought me that when she graduated," Carlson said. "Keep them safe both day and night, give them strength and courage to fight."

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