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It could have been her.
Eileen Biernat was just three years younger than Mary Stauffer, a missionary and former high school math teacher who was kidnapped and repeatedly raped by a former student. The connections between the women's lives sent shivers down Biernat's spine.
The Biernats—Eileen, her husband, and their ten-year-old son and six-year-old daughter—watched the 10 o'clock news in the family room together. They learned that a mother and daughter and a six-year-old boy were missing.
"We thought, 'Oh my god, there's a pedophile taking kids,'" Biernat recalls.
As the weeks unfolded and details of the crime were revealed, Biernat learned that Ming Sen Shiue had kidnapped his high school teacher and her eight-year-old girl, held them for 53 days, and murdered a six-year-old boy who witnessed the abduction.
Biernat lived in New Brighton, two miles away from where the Stauffers were taken. She worked a mile away from Hazelnut Park, where the little boy was kidnapped. Every day on her way to work on County Road D, she drove by Carmen's Beauty Salon, which the Stauffers visited minutes before the abduction. Biernat was active in the PTA at Valentine Hills Elementary School in Arden Hills and knew the little Stauffer girl's third-grade teacher. The little boy across the street was in the same third-grade class.
"It was really relevant there, it was kind of right in your face," Biernat says. "The dichotomy between how common, ordinary lives are going on and you realize how quickly something like that can turn your whole life around."
Biernat, now 64, followed Shiue's kidnapping and murder trials until he was convicted and locked up in 1981—and then her life moved on. She worked as a legal secretary and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in counseling. As she studied, she kept thinking of the bizarre case of Ming Sen Shiue, wondering what had caused him to become so obsessed with Stauffer.
In February 2008, Biernat retired. She and her husband put their tennis shoes on and started walking in shopping malls.
"After about eight days of doing that I said, 'I'm going to have to put my head under a delivery truck if this is what it is for the rest of my life,'" Biernat recounts.
She needed a hobby. So she decided to look up what had become of Shiue. Biernat headed down to the Ramsey County records department to print out sheriff's reports, FBI records and police reports.
"Two days later, with carpal tunnel syndrome, I had two three-ring binders," Biernat says.
She did the same in Anoka County, where the murder trial had taken place.
When Biernat started digging into the case, she realized with alarm that Shiue would be up for release in July 2010. "I thought, 'Oh my God, what about Mary?'" she recalls.
Biernat paid for access to an online people-finder database, and within a few clicks she had Mary Stauffer's current address. She was horrified by how easy it was.
"I thought, 'This guy's a genius. If in 1980, this guy could find her, follow her, and keep track of her, what would happen if he gets out of jail?'"
That's when she decided to write a book. She requested $1,300 worth of documents from the federal kidnapping trial, paying for them with her $600 George W. Bush tax refund. Her husband threw in his $600, too.
Biernat collected 11 thick three-ring binders full of documents and began making her way through 5,000 pages.
"There were certainly times when I was reading that I would have to say, 'No more. What this guy did was just too icky,'" Biernat says. "I'd have to put down the reading and go outside and work in my garden."
Starting in July 2008, she interviewed everyone she could: the former Ramsey County sheriff and the investigators who had rescued the Stauffers, the former Ramsey County district attorney, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the federal kidnapping case, and Shiue's defense attorney.
Biernat contacted the Stauffer family, the Shiues, and the Wilkmans, the family of the little boy who was killed, but they did not respond to her interview requests.
Biernat wrote her book, Stalking Mary: One Man's 15-Year Obsession with His High School Teacher, in a year and a half. She sent it around to a few publishers, but didn't get much response. Then, in a class at the Loft Literary Center last June, Biernat happened to meet Milt Adams, founder of Beaver's Pond Press, a local self-publishing company. Within a few weeks, Biernat signed.
As she was wrapping up her book, Shiue was facing a hearing to determine if he should be released from prison or civilly committed—locked up for life—as a sex offender. The hearing on civil commitment is March 8.
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