GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Years after he says he was sexually assaulted by a neighbor, a Hudsonville man is sharing his story in the hopes that other survivors will come forward.
Andrew Vanderwal, 29, escaped while free on bond for a sexual assault case involving a young boy in Colorado. When he was captured in Mexico, he was teaching little league baseball.
“I was devastated,” Matthew Nienhuis said of learning about Vanderwal’s case in Colorado. “Devastated for everyone else that he was able to harm. One of the first feelings that set in for me was guilt that I should have come forward 15 years ago.”
Nienhuis, who grew up with Vanderwal in Hudsonville, says Vanderwal attacked him years ago.
“This story hasn’t really made it to Michigan much,” Nienhuis said. “Andrew Vanderwal was born and raised in Hudsonville. After he left for the Air Force, he’d come back a lot to Hudsonville. I believe there are many more survivors here in West Michigan and I want them to know they’re not alone.”
Vanderwal was sentenced Friday to between 24 years and life in prison for the Colorado case. Nienhuis went there to speak at the sentencing hearing.
“Your honor, I have come here today from Michigan to tell you about how this monster here today has profoundly changed my life,” he told the judge.
Nienhuis said he broke down in court. It was the first time he told his story publicly.
“I was 12. He was 13. We were friends,” he explained in his victim statement. “He lived just a few houses away.”
Nienhuis says he was sexually assaulted by a Vanderwal in the early 2000s during a sleepover at Vanderwal’s home.
“I woke up that night, naked, bound to his bed, with him naked on top of me,” Nienhuis recalled.
He says there were four assaults. Afterward, he said, he felt ashamed and embarrassed. He said when he finally told his parents, they didn’t believe him.
He says the trauma has stuck with him.
“There’s some nights I wake up screaming in terror and my kids wake up because of it scared and afraid because they don’t know what’s happening, and they come running in the room and watch my wife holding me down to prevent me from harming myself because of the thrashing,” he said.
Counseling has helped, but talking about it publicly has set him free.
“If you don’t allow this conversation to happen, that’s how you allow these monsters to continue,” he said. “You allow that darkness to continue and allow those survivors to live in the darkness.”
Neinheius says his goal is to keep Vanderwal behind bars for life.
The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office has an open case against Vanderwal. Any victims or anyone with information is asked to call the sheriff’s office at 616.738.4000.