One week ago, Patty and Jerry Wetterling hosted a community meeting for the residents of Paynesville titled, “Paynesville: Moving Forward.” It was meant to serve as a night of healing and sharing for both the Wetterlings and the Paynesville community who both found themselves “thrown together in a state of chaos” after the arrest of Danny Heinrich on October 29th.
It was a powerful night, and important on so many levels. It gave Paynesville Police Chief Paul Wegner a chance to instill confidence in his community, promising that what happened 30 years ago in Paynesville would not happen today. It gave Paynesville residents a chance to hear from Captain Pam Jensen of the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, who gave a brief update and spelled out the kind of information they were looking for to help their case. It gave Jared a chance to see the amazing amount of support he has from the people in his community. And, it gave Patty a chance to do what she does best… to connect with people and advocate for a better, safer world.
It truly was a win-win for everyone involved.
That same night, I had also been asked by Jenna Ross, a reporter from the StarTribune, to sit down and share some thoughts for a follow-up article about me and my blog. I had previously commented on an article Jenna had written about the Paynesville victims, and they wanted to use some of my additional comments from that story for another article.
I knew I’d be busy the night of the meeting, so in an effort to save time, I decided to just write some quick answers to a few of Jenna’s questions. However, as I wrote, I quickly realized that none of her questions had a quick or simple answer.
I’m posting what I sent to Jenna below. I’m amazed that she was able to take what I wrote, along with input from Patty, Jared, and others, and craft it into a story that reveals how much Jacob’s case has meant to me over the past five years. This was truly a monumental task, given the sheer amount of reluctance and ambivalence I had going into this.
Thank you, Jenna, for your time, talent, and compassion. Thanks also to Renee Jones Schneider for her wonderful photos and videography.
The full story can be found here:
How I got started blogging about Jacob…
In 2011, I turned 44 years old and found myself teetering on the edge of a full-blown mid-life crisis. I was happily married, the mother of two teenage boys, and co-owner of my own business. Life was good, but like most 40-somethings, I started to question whether I was doing the right thing with the gifts I’d been given. I wanted to use my talents to make a difference in the world. The more I thought about it, the more it bugged me.
Writing has always been “my thing.” I graduated from the U of M in 1989 with a degree in Journalism and was hell-bent on getting a copywriting job at a big downtown ad agency. It didn’t happen. I ended up taking a job at a recruitment ad agency writing help-wanted ads. It was awful. After less than a year, I quit and had no idea what to do next.
Long story short, a college friend of mine invited me out to Spicer to do some freelance copywriting for her graphic design business over the summer. A few months later, I bought into the business and we co-founded our own ad agency. We did that for 20 years, and in 2011, I finally said… I need to write. I sold my half of the business, took a leap of faith, and waited for the net to appear.
By then, I had already been blogging for about a year and had found a huge passion for it. My first blog story was about a mysterious beach house I discovered on Longboat Key, Florida called “Villa am Meer.” It turned into an epic tale, and I gained several new followers as the story unfolded online.
Not long after that story came to a close, I was looking for a new mystery to write about and started wondering about Jacob. I had just begun researching his case when all of a sudden there was breaking news that authorities were digging at a farm property just up the road from the Wetterling house. The timing was so uncanny, I decided it must be a sign. I began researching the case with renewed interest. The big farm search yielded no new information, so on October 23, 2010, one day after the 21st anniversary of Jacob’s disappearance, I decided to drive up to St. Joseph to “get the lay of the land.” I’d never been there before in my life, even though it’s only a 40 minute drive from my house. I visited the site where the kidnapping took place, and felt… well, all kinds of things. I was sad, angry, horrified, confused. I thought about my own boys, and my heart absolutely ached for the Wetterling family. I stared at that spot and suddenly felt this overwhelming urge to understand exactly what happened there. I thought if I could just go back to the beginning and talk to people who had a direct connection to the case. maybe, just maybe… it might somehow help.
So, that’s what I did. I began blogging about Jacob’s case, and people started chiming in. I worked very hard at getting the facts straight and making sure the people I interviewed had a chance to review the information before I published it. Some were more receptive to talking to me than others. But, the more I wrote, the more people started noticing. One story led to another, and eventually I started to earn people’s trust.
How I met Patty…
I met Patty Wetterling at a charity fundraiser I attended for work. In November of 2012, I took a new job as the head of marketing and public relations for a local hospital. Much as I loved blogging, I quickly learned it didn’t pay the bills. My new position afforded me a way to continue doing what I loved and still put my sons through college.
Patty was the keynote speaker at the annual “Hope for Tomorrow Gala and Auction” for Safe Avenues in Willmar. Safe Avenues provides emergency housing for families of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. I introduced myself to Patty just as she was preparing to leave. We exchanged cards and then spoke on the phone the next day. And that’s when everything got really “real.” I found myself on the phone with Jacob’s mom, trying hard to assure her that I was just a nice, normal person who cared very deeply about finding out what happened to her son. Even to myself, it sounded ridiculous. I hung up and thought. oh my God, she probably thinks I’m a stalker.
I was right. She did.
It wasn’t until after I found Jared that she finally put her foot down and went into “mama bear mode.” She was very honest with me about how it felt for her and her family to have a relative stranger come into their lives and start questioning people all around them. She was absolutely right… it made me feel like a real creeper. But, I didn’t know how to fix it. By then, I had already met Jared and shown him the article about the Paynesville incidents. He was all fired up and wanted answers. I had barely met Jared by then, but I could already tell there was no stopping that train.
But what to do about Patty. The only thing I could think to do was to tell her the truth. I wrote a very long email message that explained who I was, how I got here, and why I cared. Truth be told, I didn’t even know myself why I cared so much. All I knew is that what happened to Jacob, Jared, and all those Paynesville boys was NOT OK. It was simply NOT OK with me that someone had gotten away with this for all these years, and that they were STILL getting away with it. At the risk of sounding like a stark raving lunatic, I went on to explain that I felt I was somehow meant to help with this. I sent the message and waited for a restraining order.
Working with Jared…
Slowly, I started to earn Patty and Jerry’s trust. In time, I began to understand why they were so protective of Jared, because I suddenly found myself in the same boat. I became very protective of all the victims, wanting to protect their anonymity and their privacy. The last thing I wanted to do was re-victimize these young men, many of whom were still trying to make sense of what had happened to them.
Jared was the key to making this work. Whereas I tended to tread lightly, he was much bolder in his approach to finding victims and getting them to share their stories. He introduced himself as victim himself. He bravely laid it all out there, and people began responding to him. My role suddenly went from captain to scribe. He would make the initial contact, then refer people to me for follow-up. I took copious notes, and together we started to realize there were a lot more than just those original five incidents that were reported in the 1987 article of the Paynesville Press. I reported our findings on my blog on October 22, 2013… the 24th anniversary of Jacob’s abduction. However, it wasn’t until I put together a Google map showing all the different locations of the Paynesville incidents that things started to feel increasingly significant. And important.
Jared began working in earnest with investigators to try and get answers. My blog article about the Paynesville incidents led to an unexpected frenzy of news coverage. While investigators were quick to explain that the Paynesville incidents had already been investigated, it was evident that most people… including the Wetterlings themselves… knew nothing about them. I scoured archived newspaper articles and the only mention I ever found of these incidents was in the Paynesville Press itself. As far as I could tell, they were never mentioned by any other news media, neither before nor after Jacob’s abduction.
Where things are now…
Today, it’s hard to know what to think or do. Many people I’ve talked to over the past few years have reconnected with me recently to try and make sense of Danny Heinrich’s arrest. We are all rehashing what we know, and trying to connect dots that might somehow reveal a bigger picture. It’s paralyzing, really… this feeling that there’s nothing more I can do, and I must simply wait for the wheels of justice to turn slowly and agonizingly. But, I know there’s at least one other person who feels exactly the same way I do, and that’s Patty Wetterling. In fact, that’s how this community meeting with the residents of Paynesville came to be. It was an idea hatched from the simple need to do SOMETHING. One thing I have learned about Patty over the years is that she is not one to sit back and wait for things to happen. Instead, she MAKES things happen. She views “hope” as a verb, not a noun. and with hope, comes action. So, today, I continue to hope… and pray… that the answers will come. #ThinkingJacobRead More