(CBS NEWS) – When Earl Melchert spotted a figure moving across the grasslands hundreds of yards away from his property last month, he thought it was likely a deer.
The 65-year-old farmer from Alexandria, Minnesota, hopped in his pickup truck and started driving towards it. That’s when he saw her — a 15-year-old girl running toward him, soaking wet, begging him to call 911.
It only took him a minute to recognize the girl’s face.
The disappearance of the teen (who CBS News is not naming), had been widely publicized on local news outlets and on social media after she. Alexandria police offered a $7,000 reward for information.
“When she came running out of the grass I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got to be kidding,'” Melchert told CBS Minnesota on Sept. 6, the day after her rescue. “[I told her] ‘just get in the pickup, we’re going to help you now.'”
He drove the girl to the nearby community of Elbow Lake, dialed 911 and waited with her until deputies arrived to transport her to Douglas County Hospital, where she was treated and reunited with her family.
Police say the teen had been held against her will for four weeks.
Three suspects, Thomas Barker, 32, Joshua Holby, 31, and Steven Powers, 20, were arrested and taken into custody. All three have been charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment. Barker and Powers were also charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct, and Barker was charged with second-degree assault.
Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels said Barker was a family acquaintance of the teen, and that he “tricked” her last month by asking for her help with a family situation. Since the teen knew Barker, Wyffels said she got into his car and Barker drove her to the home he shared with Holby.
“Once inside, that’s where [the girl’s] nightmare just began,” Wyffels said at a news conference last month.
He said the roommates, and later their friend Powers, “repeatedly assaulted” the girl over the course of weeks. He said Powers came to visit the home about a week after the girl’s abduction and “became a part of it.”
Wyffels said the girl was tied up with zip ties and was moved from Barker’s home to various other locations, including a cornfield and a foreclosed property in Grant County. It was there the girl was able to make her escape.
On Sept. 5, the men traveled to a nearby town for lunch, leaving the girl alone for the first time in 29 days. She ran from the property in search of help. Eventually, she swam across a portion of a lake, and that’s when she ran into Melchert.
“[She’s] an unbelievable young woman. We are all proud of her,” Wyffels said. “We think a lot of her family. Her mom was strong through this whole time and consistent and never gave up. Amazing people.”
At a special ceremony at the Alexandria Police Department on Friday, nearly a month after the girl’s escape, Wyffels thanked another amazing person — Melchert, the man “who made the call everyone was waiting for.”
The department presented him with the $7,000 reward that had been offered for information leading to the teen’s return, but Melchert said he couldn’t accept the money. Instead, he handed it over to the teen he helped save, giving her a big hug in the process.
“What no one expected was the kindness and generosity that came straight from Earl’s heart today,” Wyffels posted on the police department’s Facebook page. “He believes that young lady that came running towards him that September day is the real hero, and without hesitation, Earl handed the reward over to her.”
Wyffels thanked Melchert for his generosity.
“It is people like you that make this world a better place,” he added.
Melchert’s wife, Jody, commented on the post Sunday to thank the community for their support.
“[Earl] would like me to let everyone know how humbled he really has been through this whole experience,” she wrote. “He wishes nothing but the best for [the girl] and her family.”
The Melchert family has not yet responded to CBS News’ request for further comment.