Betty Perez, 20, has changed since being sexually assaulted a month ago near Jordan.
Growing up just south of the Minnesota border in Iowa, she was quiet, timid and shy. When she got to college at Rochester Community and Technical College to get her photography certificate, she blossomed.
“I was happy and excited about things,” she said. “I smiled a lot, I talked to everybody. I’d say ‘hello’ to random people. And I would help people when they needed help.”
Perez got a job at Valleyfair this summer playing various Peanuts characters and found cheap housing in a government-owned SCALE facility near Jordan.
On Aug. 7, she was back at her place and on the phone with her boyfriend after an after-hours “ride night” at Valleyfair, where the park stays open later for employees.
“I hadn’t had time to talk to my boyfriend that much, so I called him, not just for safety reasons, just to call him,” she said.
She noticed a man authorities now say was Austin Jones, 26, next to a tree by her car outside the SCALE Facility. Perez thought he needed help and approached him. That’s when she was attacked.
She told prosecutors a belt was tied around her neck. When she tried calling out for help, the belt got tighter.
“I thought someone was trying to take me and kidnap me,” she said. “I was scared when I couldn’t breathe, that’s what scared me a lot.”
Authorities found Jones about a mile away, slumped over in a pickup. He said he’d been sleeping. He was arrested, but initial DNA tests came back negative. After 48 hours, Scott County had to release him because they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him. Additional DNA testing continued.
Perez didn’t know for sure it was Jones who assaulted her.
“When they told me that his test came back negative… I was just so scared that that person might have been out there,” she said. “I didn’t believe that it was him (Jones) for those two weeks.”
Jones was previously convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2012 for the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl in December 2010, when he was 18 years old. He spent 90 days in jail, mostly on work release, and was ordered to serve probation until 2027, according to court documents.
“I don’t know what it’s like to watch someone walk away that did something to hurt you,” Perez said of that case.
She is angry and upset that Jones was only sentenced to 90 days and served little time despite multiple probation violations. He was convicted of marijuana possession, burglary and underage drinking. He was ordered to serve 90 days in the Carver County Jail for violating his probation in 2014 and 2016.
Perez decided to speak out to advocate for herself and the woman Jones assaulted in 2010.
“I’m upset that he did it again,” she said. “I’m not speaking out to just speak out. I’m speaking out to help me and someone else.”
Support of strangers
Since going public with her story, Perez has gotten messages and calls from strangers voicing their support.
She’s not close with her family, and has found support through her boyfriend and one of her close friends.
“To people who say that they support me… I really appreciate it,” she said. “But there’s people that will message me on Facebook and text me telling me their stories, telling me someone else’s story.”
That triggers her. One woman messaged her about her daughter’s kidnapping and sexual assault. She told the woman that it wasn’t her story to share and said it was a trigger that could be harmful. She said she wasn’t trying to be rude.
“I didn’t know that I’d become a person that everybody would tell their story to and I appreciate people telling me their stories, but it’s really hard to hear,” she said. “And that’s something that people like me don’t need to hear.”
Perez is now a preschool tutor and said the children are a good distraction. In the future, she wants to be an elementary school teacher.
Still, when she is left alone with her thoughts, the sexual assault quickly comes to mind.
“I’m going to get better,” she said. “I’m going to be happy again. I am happy, it just shows a little less. People have said that my smiles aren’t the same and that they’re not as big. They’re just forced now.”