The men in the woods

Hello blogosphere… it’s been a while.

If it seems like things have quieted down a bit lately, I think it’s because maybe they have… at least for me. That’s not to say I’ve given up or shifted my focus, but I will admit that after all the positive energy we helped generate in Jacob’s case last summer, our little rag-tag justice league is feeling a bit… well, defeated.

I know we have definitely shaken the tree. I have talked to many different people, taken copious notes, organized hundreds of tips, and passed along numerous credible leads to Stearns County, the FBI, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Information moved very quickly, and at times, it became completely overwhelming. But I kept at it because we all felt like we were doing something important… like we were making a difference… and that we might be getting closer to finding an answer for the Wetterlings.

And then, the 25th anniversary came and went. On a beautiful fall day, with unseasonably warm temperatures much like they were in 1989, the entire state of Minnesota mourned the passing of the 25th anniversary of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance. Twenty five years… what a blow. It was a milestone none of us wanted to acknowledge, in part because it’s just so unbelievable. How could this child still be missing after 25 years, with no trace and no answers?

Karla Hult from KARE-11 News put together a story that ran on Monday, October 20th, two days before the anniversary. (If you missed it, here’s a link.) It was hard to watch, mostly because I know what the Wetterlings have been through this past year. Usually the anniversary marks a hopeful time when new tips come in and new leads are generated. But this year, October 22nd came and went with still no answers… no feedback about the hundreds of tips we had helped generate, and no acknowledgement of any kind that all the work we had done had made any difference at all. Talk about defeating.

So, now what? Where do we go from here?

Well, for me, it’s back to square one. I was talking to someone just last week who asked me what my motive was in all this. What did I hope to gain by blogging about Jacob’s case? I didn’t even have to think twice about my answer. It’s the same reason I’ve given all along. My goal is simply to keep people talking… to keep “thinking Jacob”… and to get people to share their stories so that someone might possibly remember the one tiny detail that could be the key to solving the case. I’ve been very intentional about who I’ve interviewed, talking only to people who have a direct connection to Jacob’s case. So far, that seems to have worked well.

And so, with all that being said, I have a new story to share.

I was recently contacted by a young man who was the same age as Jacob and rode the same school bus. A few weeks ago, I met up with him and another friend of his from the old neighborhood. Later, they also put me in contact with three other neighborhood friends. This whole group has a pretty amazing story to tell.

In the summer and fall of 1989, this group of young teenagers spent nearly every day biking or riding go-karts through the woods just north of the site where Jacob was abducted. They also knew about the “party spot” in the woods, which I first heard about from Kevin back in 2013. (See my previous post, “A few answers… many more questions“) However, according to these young men, there wasn’t just one party spot in the woods; there were four.

Back in 1989, woods covered much of the area to the north and west of the abduction site. That land has since been developed into single-family houses, but back then, it was a popular hangout spot for the under 21 crowd.

The following map was created for me by one of the young men who used to live in the neighborhood. The green area shows where the woods and bike trails used to be. The blue area used to be a big open field, and the red circles show where the party spots were. (Note, I’m still waiting to hear back on the location of the fourth party spot.) The orange circle shows the abduction site.

Green areas were wooded and where bike trails located - Blue open field - Red party pits

In the days preceding Jacob’s abduction, this group of boys was riding along the trails on the west side of 16th Avenue, and happened to notice an older man who was sitting alone, off in the brush. He appeared to be writing things down in a notebook.

Right away, I asked the young men if this was the art student who had been seen sketching in the area. They didn’t know what I was talking about, so I clued them in. Not long after the abduction, police asked for the public’s help in finding the driver of a red compact car who had been seen in the neighborhood and acting suspiciously. After an article ran in the St. Cloud Times which included a composite sketch of the suspect and a description of the red compact car, a young man came forward and admitted to being in the area making sketches for his art class. He was later cleared.

The young men I talked to don’t believe this was the same guy. Their guy was older, in his 50s, with balding gray hair.

After they came forward with their tip, two FBI agents showed up at their school and took them to the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department to make a statement. They were asked to create a composite sketch of the man they had seen in the woods, and were taken to separate rooms. Each boy worked with his own sketch artist, and after all was said and done, their sketches appeared almost identical.

I asked them if their sketches had ever been released to the public, but they weren’t sure. I don’t ever recall seeing a sketch or hearing about this particular lead, and I’ve read nearly every issue of the St. Cloud Times from October 23, 1989 through 1990. So, I decided to give Stearns County a call and ask if I could get a copy of the sketches. As usual, I was told I could not… because it is still an open investigation.

So, all I can tell you about the two sketches (based on what I’ve been told) is that they very closely resemble the sketches of all the other mean-looking bald men that were released in this case. Maybe that was their reasoning back in the day for not releasing these sketches… because they felt it would be confusing to the public. Who knows, but that would make some sense.

As it turns out, this gray-haired, note-taking bald man was not the only suspicious character the boys saw in the woods during that timeframe. On a different day, one of the boys also witnessed a younger man, late 20s or early 30s, who was up in a tree with a clipboard. He was fairly skinny, with dark brown hair and a baseball cap. They were riding go-karts that day, and when they came back through the same area about an hour later, the guy was in a different tree. They didn’t think much of it at the time, assuming he was a student from St. John’s who was working on some kind of class project.

Again, I asked if the guy in the tree was the art student, and again, the reply was, “I don’t know.” However, another tidbit this young man remembers is that the guy’s car (or, what he assumes was the guy’s car) was parked on the edge of the woods, near what is now Klinefelter Park. It was not a red compact car, but a wood-paneled station wagon.

If you remember, I also wrote a blog post about three suspicious cars that were seen by neighbors around the Tom Thumb in the days and weeks before Jacob’s abduction. One of them was a wood-paneled station wagon. Read that blog post here

So, now I’m left with a lot of questions, and probably, you are, too. Go ahead and leave your comments, and maybe together we can find some answers.

As always, thanks for following along and #ThinkingJacob.

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