A great article from the Marshall Independent

A few weeks ago, I came across a great article written by Jenny Kirk from the Marshall Independent. It was written as a four-part series to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction. Jenny interviewed Jacob’s parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling, as well as Aaron Larson, Jacob’s best friend who was with him the night he was abducted. She also interviewed Brian and Annette Swanson, the parents of Brandon Swanson, a 19 year old from Marshall, Minnesota who went missing in 2008.

I have read A LOT of articles about this case, and I have to say, this is one of the best ones I’ve ever read. Kudos to Jenny Kirk for taking the time to research the case in depth, sticking to the facts, and reporting the story in a responsible yet compelling manner.

I’m reprinting the four-part story here, in its entirety, with the permission of the Marshall Independent. Again, thank you to Jenny Kirk for her time and dedication in writing this story.

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‘Everything changed that day’

October 22, 2014
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series on the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. Stories will include interviews with his parents, local law enforcement, Jacob’s friend, Aaron, who was with him the day he was abducted, and the parents of Brandon Swanson of Marshall, who went missing in 2008.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling’s abduction. And time has done nothing to ease the pain of his absence for loved ones, as the excruciating hurt is still there, etched on their faces and in their hearts.

Since Jacob’s abduction on Oct. 22, 1989, Patty and Jerry Wetterling have spent every day — 9,125 of them — wondering what really happened to their son and where he is today. They live day-to-day with countless questions and frustrations regarding his absence. No trace of Jacob has been found since the 9:15 p.m. abduction on a rural road near picturesque St. Joseph.

Photo by Jenny Kirk. Patty and Jerry Wetterling are shown at their home recently. The Wetterlings sat down with the Independent last week to talk about their missing son, Jacob, and how their lives have changed since the day he was abducted, 25 years ago today.

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Patty and Jerry Wetterling are shown at their home recently. The Wetterlings sat down with the Independent last week to talk about their missing son, Jacob, and how their lives have changed since the day he was abducted, 25 years ago today.

“For the media and other people, it’s a once-a-year thing,” Patty said. “For us, it’s like every day, every day, every day. It’s the ongoingness. So in some ways, the date is less significant, but at the same time, it smacks you in the face.”

The Wetterlings will spend the 25th anniversary of the abduction today with family and friends.

“Our family was always close, and that’s what you’d hope that Jacob would tap into,” Patty said. “We don’t know what happened. It’s just mind-boggling. And everything makes me cry these days.”

Eleven-year-old Aaron Larson and 10-year-old Trevor Wetterling were with Jacob that evening, as they headed to and from the local Tom Thumb store to rent a video. On their way back to the Wetterling home, a masked gunman emerged from the darkness and forced the boys off their bikes and scooter. After commanding the boys to lie down in the roadside ditch, the man asked for their ages. Terrified, the three boys did as they were told. Eventually, the abductor grabbed Jacob and told Aaron and Trevor to run and not look back or he would shoot. And from that moment on, everything in the community, the state and even the nation changed. The tranquil, simple life – a time when people rarely locked their doors or hesitated to let their children roam free and play outdoors – was shattered. The kidnapping of Jacob proved that bad things can and do happen in small towns and to good people.

THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS

For the Wetterlings and Larson, now 36 and living in southwest Minnesota, life would never be the same after that day.

“I think I’ve lived my whole life knowing that Trevor and I were the last ones to see Jacob,” said Larson, whose eyes also reveal years of pain and frustration in them. “He looked at our faces. He was looking for something. I don’t know. We looked pretty similar. We were the same size and the same age, and it was a pitch-black, dark night. That’s something I’ve always lived with.”

As the man of the house, Jerry tried to stay strong for his family. Emotions rushed to the surface on Friday, as he recalled how difficult those early days were.

“The first thing that hit me right away is that you try to have a certain amount of control in your life, but this totally threw that out the door,” Jerry said. “You felt you had control of nothing. Trying to be there for the rest of our family and still keeping the search going was hard.”

Law enforcement and supporters invaded the Wetterling home, all hoping to provide answers and ultimately, bring Jacob home. Jerry was the local chiropractor, while Patty was a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s four children — Amy, 13, Jacob, 11, Trevor, 10, and Carmen, 8 — at the time.

“It was crazy,” Patty said. “We were lucky that our family helped out a lot with our other kids. We were here, but we were in and out. It’s not like we abandoned them, but we’d get pulled out for interviews with the FBI or investigatively. My sister came from California and stayed quite a bit. My mom was up the first night. We had a lot of support for our other kids.”

As time went on, each member of the family dealt with Jacob’s absence differently.

“Carmen was eight, and she’d go to school and everybody wanted to be her best friend and sit next to her,” Patty said. “She got a lot of attention. Amy was 13 and went to the high school. Nobody knew what to say or do, so they’d often just leave her alone. Trevor lived in the shadow of being Jacob’s brother. He loved being Jacob’s brother, but as you grow and develop, you are your own self. You’re greater than that role.”

Patty said that Trevor and Aaron both talked very little about the trauma they went through, besides what they told investigators.

“Imagine Aaron, dealing with the loss of his best friend,” she said. “It was a very lonely time for him. Trevor, too. They didn’t talk about it for years.”

Along with having so many questions, the close-knit family ached to have Jacob back home with them. It was challenging and emotionally draining, they said.

“We miss him,” Patty said. “It’s the reality that there were four children and the simplicity of our lives back then and who we were. You had dreams and hopes for the future. And everything gets thrown up in the air, and you try to grab pieces and put some order to it as it falls. But absolutely everything changed that day, for everybody.”

REMEMBERING JACOB

To adults in the state and across the country, Jacob is the smiling 11-year-old boy wearing a bright yellow sweater in the photo that circulated nationally. His story touched the hearts of people everywhere, though to friends and family, he was so much more than that.

Jacob Wetterling was a happy, kind-hearted and active 11-year-old. He was very athletic and loved sports, especially hockey.

“Jacob got me into hockey,” Larson said. “He played goalie. He ended up on a traveling team, and I didn’t make it. I was better at basketball, actually. Trevor and I ended up being on the same team.”

The Larsons had moved to St. Joseph from southwest Minnesota, where there was little opportunity to play hockey or tennis.

“The Wetterlings got me into tennis and into a lot of sports,” Larson said. “I went to state in tennis and played in college at St. John’s. I loved tennis.”

Less than a week after meeting Jacob, Larson knew he’d found a good friend.

“We became friends right away,” Larson said. “I think the first week we met, I ended up staying overnight at his house. We were always up to something, as far as sports and being outside. We were together a lot. He was always the nicest, kindest one. That was his personality. His whole family is like that.”

Patty also remembers Jacob and Larson, who both have February birthdays, quickly becoming friends.

“Aaron was kind of new to the area, and I remember Jacob saying he had a new best friend,” she said. “He said we’d like him. It breaks my heart. He said he’s really smart and likes sports. It was cute.”

THE EARLY DAYS AFTER THE ABDUCTION

Aaron recalls being at the Wetterling home a great deal after the kidnapping, though he admits he didn’t talk much about it to anyone except law enforcement.

“The Wetterlings have a close-knit family and so do we,” he said. “After it first happened, everybody was at the Wetterling house together and supporting each other. I knew my parents (Fran and Vic) were there for me, but we never had a time where I sat down and talked about it with them. Obviously, me and Trevor were there, so we knew what happened. It was constantly on the news, too. I was 11, so that’s old enough to know what was going on.”

Larson also remembers being interviewed over and over by investigators. Though he knows the fault lies with the abductor, he couldn’t help feel like he should have done more to help Jacob.

“The biggest thing is that it shouldn’t have happened to anybody,” Larson said. “It’s not anybody’s fault except the person who was messed up enough to take a child. Law enforcement was really good. I deal with the local, the FBI, national, and so forth. I think I always looked at it as wanting to do whatever I could to help bring him back. So the more questions I answered, the better.”

Larson said his parents shielded him from unnecessary media attention, finding a good balance between being cooperative and still being protective.

“You always think about what you could have done differently,” Larson said. “But now when I see an 11-year-old, and you compare an 11-year-old to a grown man with a gun, it makes you take a step back and realize there’s not much you could have done. It just never should have happened.”

While law enforcement quickly ruled out the Wetterlings as suspects — they were at a dinner party 20 minutes away when the abduction occurred — there were people who wanted to believe that the parents were somehow connected.

“Jerry’s a guy, so sometimes they’d look at us questioning,” Patty said. “There are people who want to put a reason on it, so if we did something wrong, then their kids are safe and it won’t happen to anybody they know.”

Being in the public spotlight was difficult for the Wetterlings, who say they led a quiet, simple life before that day in 1989.

“It’s like all of a sudden, a light gets shone on you,” Patty said. “A light gets shone on your personal life, everything about you. They’re going to interview all your friends and relatives and suddenly, everything is public. Our world is more like that now with the Internet but not back then.”

Jerry noted that people in the community didn’t really know how to react to seeing them, especially in the first few months after the kidnapping.

“We’d go into a store and because of all the TV exposure, people would recognize us,” he said. “What a way to take the mood out of a room. They’d see us, and everything would change.”

Soon after Jacob vanished, though, Patty and Jerry worked to establish the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, pass legislation to assist law enforcement investigations and help educate the public on child safety. Today, Patty is symbolic of missing children advocacy across the nation. To many, she is an American hero. She currently serves as the Minnesota Department of Heath’s Sexual Violence Prevention director as well as the board chair for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“Back then, everybody knew Jerry because he was the local chiropractor, but I was a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “Nobody knew me. It’s so different now. Every aspect of our lives is different. I had just interviewed for a job to get back into teaching junior high math, but it didn’t happen. It’s just hard to grasp and make meaning of.”

THE AFTERMATH OF THE ABDUCTION

Like a bad, reoccurring dream, those closest to Jacob began celebrating the dreaded first Thanksgiving, first Christmas and first birthday with no trace of him to be found. Gradually, the anniversary of the abduction became a grim reminder of Jacob’s absence.

“It’s one of those things you’re thinking about all the time, but obviously, that day is kind of like a bad birthday,” Larson said. “You think about it more during that time. Other people are usually talking about it. It obviously shapes who you are.”

Though it can be difficult, Larson said he doesn’t mind answering interview questions about his experience.

“After 25 years, I’ve answered a lot of the same questions,” he said. “It’s good that people don’t forget. That’s the way I look at it. It’s worth it to sit down and talk about it because it brings Jacob’s story back, and hopefully, other kids, too.”

Over the years, Larson, who now lives in Slayton and works in Currie and Tracy, has carried a great deal of baggage with him from the experience, though he’s been able to channel most of it into positive directions.

“It changed me completely when I was 11, from a carefree kid to being scared of the dark,” Larson said. “It also changed how I dealt with relationships. I went from having my best friend, to not wanting to have a best friend again because what if something happens again? It affects you obviously, when you’re a little kid but also shapes your relationships, with letting people in and with trust.”

After high school graduation, Larson moved to South Carolina to attend college for a year. He then spent time in the Army Reserves. Eventually, he moved back to St. Cloud area and attended St. John’s University.

“I went and did different things because you just have to get away for while,” he said. “You get tired of being known as the person that was with Jacob. I have other qualities, too. Sometimes, I just wanted to be able to live without people knowing who I was and to be able to succeed on my own.”

When he moved to rural southwest Minnesota, more people than ever knew who Larson was. Though nobody ever did it in a negative way, the label wore on him for a long time.

“I got introduced as the person who was with Jacob about a million times,” Larson said. “It drove me nuts because I have other characteristics. But it’s a big deal for people, I guess. I know Jacob’s story really touched so many people.”

Now married and the father of a 7-year-old son, Larson said he has come to terms with the experience, as much as anyone in his situation could. Though few likely suffer from survivor’s guilt, Larson knows that everyone faces some degree of loss or some type of struggle in their own lives. He also knows he’s not alone.

“At some point, you have to start living life, as far as being happy and being OK with being here,” he said. “My wife and son have a big part in that. I have things to live for and be happy for. Something bad happens on different levels to everybody throughout their life. It’s just a matter of how you handle it and overcome it.”

Larson sympathizes with his own parents, knowing now how difficult it must have been to let him out of their sight after Jacob’s abduction. He admits he’s probably overprotective of his own son, though he tries to find a healthy balance.

“It’s interesting because my son knows who he is named after (his middle name is Jacob),” he said. “It’s a fine line. You don’t want him to be afraid of every stranger, but you want him to be aware of his surroundings. He’s only seven and 99 percent of the time, he’s within sight of me, but he’s going to grow up (and want more freedom). I’m sure it was hard for my parents, to be that close to losing your kid. It would freak you out. So I guess it’s natural that I’m beyond overprotective. You never know.”

Trevor Wetterling moved to Colorado after high school graduation, while sisters Amy and Carmen remain in the Twin Cities area. Along with grandkids, Patty and Jerry say their children are doing well today. Years back, Jacob’s siblings worked together with six other siblings of abduction victims to write a book about their experiences. The book is called, “What About Me? Coping with the Abduction of a Brother or Sister.” They also teamed up to share their feelings in a video in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Our kids are absolutely amazing,” Patty said. “And Aaron has done a lot of sorting, but he’s done well, too. He’s still a kind, generous, wonderful man. He and Trevor went through something unprecedented for kids, and neither one of them ended up in the criminal justice system or bitter, angry or mean. They’re wonderful human beings.”

The Wetterlings credit the support system around them for helping them all navigate through the challenges of day-to-day life.

“Our kids and grandkids are doing well,” Patty said. “We’re grateful. But we didn’t do it alone. We were held up by this community and by people all over the world.”

The criminal case

October 23, 2014
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series on the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. Stories will include interviews with his parents, local law enforcement, Jacob’s friend, Aaron, who was with him the day he was abducted, and the parents of Brandon Swanson of Marshall, who went missing in 2008.

There has been no shortage of leads regarding 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling’s abduction by a masked gunman 25 years ago, though unfortunately, none have brought him home or his kidnapper to justice.

The reality of that is frustrating for Jacob’s family, friends, St. Joseph area community members and law enforcement officers.

Photo by Jenny Kirk. Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling at the end of a neighbor’s driveway along a rural road near St. Joseph in 1989. Jacob’s footprints stop near the second telephone pole. Despite hundreds of thousands of leads, it is as if Jacob and his masked abductor simply vanished.

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling at the end of a neighbor’s driveway along a rural road near St. Joseph in 1989. Jacob’s footprints stop near the second telephone pole. Despite hundreds of thousands of leads, it is as if Jacob and his masked abductor simply vanished.

Jacob’s case triggered the largest manhunt in Minnesota history and quickly gained national media attention. Over the years, more than 50,000 tips have been received in connection with the investigation. Unfortunately, with little evidence, false leads and false sightings, there are still more questions than answers.

Current Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, who has been in office since 2002, addressed the issue recently with WCCO, reassuring everyone that his department would never stop trying to solve the Oct. 22, 1989, disappearance.

“A tremendous amount of work has gone into this case, from the local and state level, to the national level. And it is an unbelievable frustration that we can’t provide the family and community with the answers they want and need,” Sanner said.

A DARK PART OF SOCIETY

Jacob’s parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling wish that they never had to know about the horrific side of society in which predators seek out children. The thought of child sexual abuse typically makes people extremely uncomfortable, but the fact is that it does occur, and unfortunately for our nation’s children, it’s happening at an alarming rate.

Crime Victims Center statistics reveal that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. The average age of the first abuse is 9.6 for girls and 9.9 for boys.

“I learned early on about this world I never knew about,” Patty said. “Very few people knew a lot about sexual abuse of children back then, and they knew less about boy victims. Boys didn’t tell, typically.”

The Center estimates that less than 10 percent of child sexual abuse is reported to the police, which often allows the abuse to continue.

Ninety-three percent of juvenile sexual assault victims are said to know their attacker, with 34.2 percent being a family member and 58.7 percent being an acquaintance. Only 7 percent of the perpetrators were strangers to the victim.

In addition to those numbers, Patty Wetterling is bothered by the knowledge that people choose to protect friends or family members over a child.

“We’ve been begging since the beginning to come forward, and so many people have,” she said. “But this past year has been troubling because we know of people who are really more mindful of protecting their family. I don’t understand that. I remember telling the FBI at the beginning that I would turn in my mother if I thought she had information.”

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), law enforcement agencies across the country have also seen a dramatic increase in cases of sexual exploitation of children since the 1990s. In 2006, U.S. attorneys also handled 82.8 percent more child pornography cases then they did in 1994. Child sex trafficking has also dramatically increased.

“(The perpetrators) are often hard to find because we don’t think like they do,” Patty Wetterling said. “Some have crazy ideas or behaviors that may seem rational to them in the crazy circumstances they might be living in. It makes it difficult to find people like them.”

Jacob’s story received national exposure, on television programs such as “Nancy Grace,” “America’s Most Wanted” and just recently, “The Hunt with John Walsh.” Still, the key tip to bring closure to the case has not surfaced.

“Tips from the public solve cases. And we’re always hopeful that the next call will be the missing puzzle piece that we’ve been waiting for,” Sanner said.

A LONG LIST OF SUSPECTS

Early on, law enforcement believed the kidnapper was a stranger who quickly escaped the abduction site with Jacob in a vehicle. The boys reported that they neither saw nor heard a vehicle, but it was an extremely dark night so a vehicle nearby was still a strong possibility. Investigators found a tire impression, thought to be that of the abductor, at the site. It wasn’t until 2003 that the driver of that vehicle, a young man named Kevin, came forward, admitting that he had likely left the tire prints. After hearing the report on his scanner, Kevin and his girlfriend showed up on the scene in 1989. He reported speaking to an officer before leaving, but that conversation was never passed along.

The revelation changed the way law enforcement looked at the crime, realizing then that the predator was more likely to have been on foot. And local.

“Law enforcement simply didn’t know enough at the time,” Patty Wetterling said. “We do know now, so we have to look at it from a different lens.”

Hundreds of people have been investigated, including Duane Hart, a convicted pedophile from Belgrade; Vernon Seitz, a Wisconsin barber who, after his death, was found to have suspicious items in his home; and the Bahner family. Richard Bahner, Sr., (now deceased) was charged with having sexual intercourse with a minor female between 1984 and 1985. His three sons, Richard, Jr., Michael and Alan (now deceased) were all charged with felony criminal sexual conduct involving sodomy and other sexual abuse of a 7-year-old boy in 1990. The Bahner’s sister lived close to the abduction site in 1989.

Matthew Feeney, who held jobs such as a local youth minister, camp director and talent agent, admitted to being in the vicinity within an hour of the kidnapping, having dropped off a student in the neighborhood. Feeney was convicted in 1992 of molesting three children. He was also scheduled to appear for court in 2013 for abusing brothers, ages 9 and 15, from 2007 and 2009.

Unknown to local police at the time, there were also halfway houses in the St. Joseph area that housed sex offenders upon their release from prison.

“It is baffling and troubling,” Patty Wetterling said. “It was hard to find out there were a lot of people who could have done this. We didn’t know about that element of society. Nobody wants to know about that.”

There was also Phillip Meemken, head of the Police Explorer program, who mentored young people interested in law enforcement. Beginning in 1982, Meemken spent 18 years with the Stearn’s County Sheriff’s Office. He later faced 25 criminal charges, including criminal sexual conduct and furnishing alcohol to minors.

Nearby Saint John’s Abbey was also found to have housed a large number of monks who likely offended against minors over the course of decades. A recent article reported that by 1989, more than 200 incidents of misconduct had taken place by monks at the Abbey. At least two dozen perpetrators were identified, having preyed on students without consequence for decades, though time and lack of evidence made determination of guilt difficult in some cases.

An official statement released by the Abbey on Dec. 9, 2013, included 18 names. Seven monks were deceased (Andre Bennett, Robert Blumeyer, Cosmas Dahlheimer, Othmar Hohmann, Dominic Keller, Pirmin Wendt and Bruce Wollmering), while two men (Francis Hoefgen and John Kelly) have been dispensed from their religious vows and are no longer connected to the Abbey.

Michael Bik, Richard Eckroth, Thomas Gillespie, Brennan Maiers, Finian McDonald, Dunstan Moorse, James Phillips, Francisco Schulte and Allen Tarlton complete the list, though there is no way to truly know the extent of the abuse.

While disturbing and deserving of investigation, Patty Wetterling instinctively believes the clergy were not to blame for Jacob’s abduction.

“It’s been a constant, because we get calls and letters, telling us to look at the monks and priests,” she said. “I feel like, and maybe it’s false, but, they didn’t need to abduct a child. They had access to all the kids in the world, unfortunately.”

Convicted murderers Delbert and Tim Huber were also on the radar because of violent outbursts reported by others in the Paynesville community in addition to the eerie resemblance to sketches made by a young Cold Spring victim (named Jared) who was sexually assaulted nine months before Jacob’s kidnapping.

Cold Spring is 10 miles from St. Joseph.

Minnesota blogger Joy Baker alerted police to a potential connection regarding a series of unsolved sexual assaults on boys in Paynesville, 30 miles from St. Joseph, two years before Wetterling’s abduction.

“I don’t want to say it’s frustrating on the law enforcement side because it was just a different day and age as far as communication and so forth, but it’s obvious that there were things that they didn’t know, like with all the stuff that came out with Joy Baker breaking all the stories,” said Aaron Larson, who was with Jacob at the time of the abduction. “If they’re all somehow related, what if something could have been prevented before it was Jacob? It’s frustrating to think about.”

In her research, Baker uncovered a 1987 Paynesville Press article that revealed five attacks on young boys, ages 12-16.

“Joy has become a friend,” Patty said. “She’s a good person. She’s very accurate, and she really researches. She’s found stuff we didn’t even know.”

In 2011, the Hubers were convicted of murdering Albertville man Timothy Larson, who reportedly accused the father and son of being involved in Jacob’s kidnapping. Both men denied the accusations. A day after WCCO-TV’s Esme Murphy interviewed him in prison, 83-year-old Delbert Huber died of natural causes.

“We don’t know for sure how old the abductor was,” Patty Wetterling said. “If he was 50, then he’s 75 now. When they interviewed the guy in prison, and he died right after, I said, ‘OK, you guys (law enforcement) have to kick it into gear because we’re losing people. And we want answers. We deserve answers. The whole world does. We’ve certainly fought long and hard to get them.”

In 2010, authorities searched the family farm — the closest to the actual abduction site — of one of the Wetterling’s neighbors. Jacob was reported to have been abducted near the driveway of Robert and Rita Rassier, who live on the farm with their adult son, Dan Rassier. Neighbors say the elder Rassiers were out of the country at the time Jacob was taken, but that Dan Rassier, an elementary band teacher, was home.

“Obviously, somebody out there knows what happened,” said Larson. “It’s just a matter of getting to the right time or moment to get them to come forward, whether it’s a family member, a friend or somebody that saw something. Somebody knows. You don’t just do something like that and nobody else knows about it.”

There are countless others who have been looked by law enforcement over the years.

Many of the people questioned in connection with the abduction have been cleared, while others remain a person of interest. For everyone’s sake, the hope is to finally find the person or persons responsible, bring them to justice and clear those who were not connected in any way.

“I think law enforcement always had the best interests in mind,” Larson said. “Their goal was always to find Jacob, and it still is. So many people got personally involved. It’s like a punch in the gut when you can’t find answers.”

Anyone with information is asked to call the Stearns County Sheriff Department at 320-259-3700 or the NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling continue to work to help families of missing children, 25 years after the disappearance of their son

October 24, 2014
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a series on the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. Stories will include interviews with his parents, local law enforcement, Jacob’s friend, Aaron, who was with him the day he was abducted, and the parents of Brandon Swanson of Marshall, who went missing in 2008.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling are ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary tasks in the aftermath of their son Jacob’s abduction in 1989.

Through their pain and experience, the Wetterlings have become tireless advocates for the past 25 years, helping countless families of missing children. In addition, the couple — who still have more questions than answers regarding the unsolved kidnapping of their 11-year-old son — have successfully pushed for laws to help keep children more safe.

The board chairperson, Patty Wetterling, has served on the board for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) since 1999. Since opening in 1984, the organization has served as the nation’s clearing house on issues relating to missing and sexually exploited children. In the last 30 years, the NCMEC has handled more than 3.9 million calls.

“We learned quickly, through letters and phone calls, that we had tapped into this river of victimization we knew nothing about,” Patty Wetterling said. “Child sexual abuse and exploitation wasn’t in my vocabulary. I knew nothing about it. Then you hear about all these other victims and it’s like, ‘whoa.’ So we saw a bigger picture. It was bigger than Jacob.”

FOUNDATION IN JACOB’S NAME

According to Patty Wetterling, her husband was pivotal in forming the first foundation for Jacob, called Friends of Jacob. An office was established in the basement of a local bank.

“There were about 10 people, townsfolk, that were wanting to do something,” Jerry Wetterling said. “Besides their regular jobs, they were kind of meeting and organizing events and getting fliers out. The first big mailing was on Patty’s birthday, November 2.”

California native David Collins, whose son Kevin went missing from a bus stop in 1982 and has never been found, also became a resource for the Wetterlings, as did Minnesota snowbirds.

“We printed fliers and had everybody bring stamps,” Jerry Wetterling said. “It was astronomical what we were spending. And there were a lot of snowbirds who would take fliers out to Arizona or Florida when they went.”

Eventually, the volunteer effort became too much for those involved. So four months after Jacob’s abduction, the Wetterlings formed the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, an advocacy group for children’s safety and announced it on Jacob’s birthday – Feb. 17, 1990.

JWF was later changed to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, whose vision is to end all forms of child abuse, neglect and exploitation through training, education, advocacy, prevention and awareness in addition to providing care and treatment for children, families and adult survivors.

“In the beginning, law enforcement was asking questions, like is there anyone who liked Jacob too much?” Patty Wetterling said. “Does anybody take him anywhere or buy him anything? So they knew about predators. They were sort of educating us.”

LEGISLATIVE PUSH INTO LAW

Unfortunately, it often takes tragic events to change laws. This is certain true regarding the safety of children. At the time of Jacob’s kidnapping, there was not a comprehensive list of sex offenders for law enforcement to utilize in their investigation.

“It was chaos because there were no databases at that time,” Patty Wetterling said. “They’d have to go to every county jail or city jail in the state. It was a nightmare. It takes time, and you don’t have time when it comes to missing children.”

When the Wetterlings learned of this, they decided to take action, leading to Minnesota’s Sex Offender Registration Act in 1991.

In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Act was passed in Minnesota, marking the first law to mandate sex-offender registries in every state. More strict requirements were subsequently implemented on a national basis when the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act was included in the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

The law was designed for investigative purposes, Patty Wetterling said, though later, it became more public. Amendments followed, starting with Megan’s Law, named for Megan Kanka, who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by a twice-convicted pedophile living across the street, in 1996. Megan’s Law requires law enforcement agencies to release information about registered sex offenders that are deemed dangerous to the public.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes tragedies to bring about changes,” said Rob Yant, Marshall director of public safety. “It’s such a benefit, though, when parents try to do things to keep it from happening again. They make a difference.”

The Pam Lyncher Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act, requiring the FBI to establish a national database of sex offenders to assist law enforcement agencies in tracking sex offenders across state lines, was also passed as an amendment in 1996. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 then broadly updated and strengthened various areas of law regarding the protection of children, including increases in mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenders, increases in sentences for Internet crimes against children and upgrades in sex offender registration and tracking stipulations.

While there are a variety of controversial issues, Patty Wetterling said she is most concerned about juveniles convicted of sexual offenses because the law, she believes, was not designed for children.

MANAGING SEX OFFENDERS

Effective Jan 1, 1997, the Minnesota Community Notification Act requires assignment of a risk level for offenders subject to registration as a predatory offender before they are released from a state prison or treatment center. According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, about 8,000 of the state’s 17,400 registered predatory offenders are required to have a risk level assigned.

The MDC estimates that 58 percent of the offenders are considered Level 1, which are deemed low risk to the public. About 29 percent are Level 2, classified as a moderate risk to the public, while 13 percent fall into the Level 3 category and are considered the highest public risk. As of 2013, there were 272 Level 3 offenders living in Minnesota communities.

“Sex offenders used to just be released when their sentences were done,” Yant said. “But now, the biggest thing is that they established a follow through with the classifications. It’s for public safety. The classification is based on the likelihood of the person to re-offend.”

Yant noted that Marshall has one Level 3 offender, which the public was notified about.

“His issue was that he couldn’t follow the rules when he was released,” Yant said. “If they’re out on parole and they don’t follow those guidelines, they can be returned to jail. It keeps people accountable.”

Yant said monitoring sex offenders is now considered part of the job for local detectives.

“We assign it to our detectives to do as part of their duties,” he said. “We have 60 people we are currently monitoring. The goal is to keep them from re-offending.”

OTHER EFFORTS

The AMBER Alert System began in 1996 and has since helped save the lives of 495 children nationwide, according to the Department of Justice. AMBER stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and was created in honor of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bike in Arlington, Texas, and then brutally murdered. By 2005, all 50 states adopted similar AMBER Alert plans.

“There are certain criteria that have to be met and if it does, it goes into an AMBER Alert,” Yant said. “It’s a relatively immediate thing. With the criteria and refinement, there isn’t a lot of false reports going out. It works pretty well.”

Established in 1998, Team HOPE (Help Offering Parents Empowerment) offers a parent-to-parent mentoring program for mothers and fathers of missing children. In 2004, the group officially became a part of the NCMEC, continuing to be a vital lifeline for families.

PREVENTION IS KEY

As director of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Sexual Violence Prevention program, Patty Wetterling wholeheartedly believes in prevention. The organization’s goal is to create a culture where sexual violence is unthinkable. The program works to change the social norms and attitudes that support, condone or ignore sexually violent messages and behavior, which contributes to the problem. Those sexual violence norms include destructive gender socialization, uses of sex for power and control, exploitive images of women and children in the media and narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity.

Not only does sexual violence damage victims, it’s also financially expensive. Department statistics report that in 2005, costs of sexual violence in Minnesota totaled $8 billion – 3.3 times as much as alcohol-impaired driving costs in the state.

“I know people can heal, but I also know the challenges with that and how hard it is,” Patty Wetterling said. “It’s an ongoing thing. And most of the parents I’ve worked with over the years wish it never would have happened in the first place.”

Hope in their hearts

October 25, 2014
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a series on the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. Stories include interviews with his parents, law enforcement, Jacob’s friend, Aaron, who was with him the day he was abducted, and the parents of Brandon Swanson of Marshall, who went missing in 2008.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling are living every parent’s worst nightmare, having had their 11-year-old son Jacob snatched from them 25 years ago near their rural St. Joseph home. Jacob and the masked gunman who took him have never been identified.

Photo by Jenny Kirk. Aaron Larson, who was with his friend Jacob Wetterling when he was abducted 25 years ago, says “you always hold out that hope,” Jacob will be found. “You never know. I always wonder when we’ll get some answers.” Larson now lives in Slayton and has a son of his own.

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Aaron Larson, who was with his friend Jacob Wetterling when he was abducted 25 years ago, says “you always hold out that hope,” Jacob will be found. “You never know. I always wonder when we’ll get some answers.” Larson now lives in Slayton and has a son of his own.

Marshall residents Annette and Brian Swanson are facing similar heartache since their 19-year-old son Brandon went missing six-and-a-half years ago when he was returning home after visiting friends 30 miles away. While Brandon’s vehicle was found the following day, no trace of the young man has ever been found.

Jacob and Brandon are two of the 476 missing persons recorded in the FBI/National Crime Information Center for Minnesota as of Dec. 31, 2013.

“That’s why I think it’s good to keep doing stories,” said Slayton resident Aaron Larson, who was with Jacob and Jacob’s brother Trevor the night of the abduction. “It helps keep Jacob’s story out there and it’s good for other kids because you can never give up. So the more you keep it in the public eye, the less it’s going to happen and the more likely the cases can be solved.”

As the families and friends of Jacob and Brandon cope with the painful absence of their loved one and the lack of answers in their disappearances, they’re bound by one common thread — hope.

“If there’s no hope, there’s no reason to get up in the morning,” Patty Wetterling said. “There’s no recipe for doing this. Either way, if Jacob’s alive, we need to bring him home. And we have no evidence to show he’s not, so that will always remain a possibility in my mind. If he’s not alive, then who did this and where is he? What happened?”

The Swansons would also like answers to their many questions.

“The not knowing where a loved one is, not knowing what happened, is awful,” Annette Swanson said. “Ultimately, you’d like an answer. You know they’re not where they should be, but you have no idea where they are. You don’t know if they’re living 50 miles away from you, or if they’re dead. You don’t know if something horrific happened to them, or not. You don’t know if they’ve had an accident, lost their memories and are living a life someplace else not knowing somebody is looking for them. You just don’t know.”

THE SEARCH FOR JACOB

In the two-and-a-half decades that Jacob has been missing, more than 50,000 leads have been received, though everyone is still waiting for that key piece to come in so the case can be solved. Even after 25 years, the Wetterlings trudge forward, searching for answers.

“There’s been a lot of activity going on this year,” Jerry Wetterling said. “We’ve been, in a sense, more directly involved in some of the investigation stuff than in other year, and it wears on you.”

For that reason, no large-scale celebrations were planned this year on the Oct. 22nd anniversary. Instead, the Wetterlings spent the day surrounded by friends and family. The previous week, six billboards that included photos of Jacob at age 11 and age-progressed to age 36, were put up around the St. Joseph area in hopes of sparking new leads.

“You just hope it can lead to something good with him and maybe lead to something good for other missing children,” Larson said. “I think this is the first time where I really feel like something could happen, as far as some answers. There have been different things going on. I just feel like something is bound to happen. I think we’re going to get some answers.”

There were times Larson learned about remains that were found, but he never had the feeling they were those of his best friend.

“When I was a kid, they’d find something, but I never felt it in my gut,” he said. “They’d find bones and one time, there was a body in the Mississippi, but it never felt right to me. I guess we’ll have to just wait and see.”

Patty Wetterling, who serves as the Minnesota Department of Health’s Violence Prevention program director, and is the board chairwoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), was pleased to have the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, FBI and Stearns County Sheriff Office together to kickoff the billboard campaign recently.

“It forced the three agencies to be working together again,” she said. “The National Center made those billboards happen. They called everybody together, so it was a good thing.”

Patty Wetterling has become a national spokesperson and advocate for missing children, something she never intended on becoming.

“Looking back, we could have never written this as a script for our lives,” she said. “Some good things have happened, but it’s all for the wrong reasons, so it’s kind of confusing emotionally.”

Unintentionally, the Wetterlings feel responsible for bringing Jacob home. They know that law enforcement efforts can fade over time, so they feel like the ball gets thrown back in their court.

“I feel like it’s on our shoulders to find Jacob and it’s a heavy load,” Patty Wetterling said. “We’ve been pretty creative, trying to generate leads, but I don’t know what to do next. What haven’t we done?”

THE SEARCH FOR BRANDON

While the search for Brandon is nowhere near the quarter century mark like in Jacob’s abduction – Brandon was born in 1989, the year Jacob was kidnapped – his friends, family and community don’t want to reach that same grim anniversary.

“Jacob’s case is a little more defined in that they know somebody took him, but you don’t know in so many of these case, where the people are,” Annette Swanson said. “They’re not where they’re supposed to be. You don’t know what happened to them. And you don’t know until you know. You have to go find them.”

Through coordinated efforts of local law enforcement agencies, including Lincoln, Lyon and Yellow Medicine counties, a number of searches have taken place for find Brandon. The Swansons have also reached out to additional resources on their own, noting that as parents, they needed to do everything possible in their power to bring their son home.

“As a family, when you’re left to your own devices, which we were, you start trying to find your own resources, because as a parent, you’re going to do everything you can until you’ve exhausted what you can do,” Annette Swanson said. “To leave stuff undone, I can’t live with that. This is my child. I can’t live with that thought.”

Extensive searches have revealed very little. Besides Brandon’s car, a single footprint near the river’s edge and possible hits – though somewhat contradictory – by search dogs, there is no sign of Brandon.

“We’ve had a lot of different search dog teams,” Swanson said. “We learned there are different types of search dogs, too, with different abilities. And the environments they work in are different, too. Wind is a huge factor out here that they haven’t experienced before. It’s been difficult for them to read.”

One final tract of land yet to be searched will likely be the last attempt to get answers. Efforts are currently under way to search the area this fall.

“There is a farm site that we couldn’t get on before, but this fall, it’s going to get searched,” Brian Swanson said. “Our search coordinator is setting it up. I think this is pretty much the last place to search. Early on, I think I went out every time because I felt the need to be there. But we won’t be going out this time with them.”

Annette Swanson said thought of the impending search brings forward an array of emotions for the entire family.

“We want them to be able to search this area because it’s part of the area and it hadn’t yet been done,” she said. “It’s that piece of trying to do everything you can do. So we want to do this. But at the same time, we don’t. It upsets this universe that we’ve got going on, that we can function in. We know how to live here and work in this. And when the day comes where we finally get answers, we’re not going to know how to live in that place. We’re going to go through a whole bunch more stuff.”

HOPE, IN THE FORM OF OTHERS FOUND

On the heels of the child abductions and murders of 6-year-old Etan Patz, 29 children from Atlanta, Georgia, and then 6-year-old Adam Walsh, John and Reve Walsh established the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children to serve as a national resource for other families.

As the effort to protect children has grown – including the enactment of the Missing Children’s Act in 1982, followed by the utilization of the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database and the establishment of the NCMEC in 1984 – more and more children have been located. In 1990, the Outreach Center merged with NCMEC. And with better public awareness, training, laws and technology, the recovery rate of missing children has jumped from 62 percent in 1990 to more than 97 percent today.

“At this point, I haven’t seen otherwise (to suggest that Jacob is not still alive),” Larson said. “You see other missing people come home after many years, which is great. I guess that’s what keeps you going. It could happen.”

More long-term missing children are also being recovered. The NCMEC has never stopped searching for Jacob or given up hope of finding him, National Director John Ryan said recently at a St. Cloud new conference.

Jaycee Dugard was 11 when she was abducted at her bus stop near South Lake Tahoe, Calif. In 1991. After 18 years in captivity, where she gave birth to two children fathered by her kidnapper, Dugard was returned to her family.

The recovery of other children – Steven Carter after 34 years, Carlina White after 23 years, three Ohio women (Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight) after 10 years, Steven Stayner after seven years, Shawn Hornbeck after four years and Elizabeth Smart after nine months – keeps hope very much alive for other friends and families of missing persons.

“People always ask if I want closure, but I don’t know if knowing one way or the other is better,” Larson said. “Obviously, the hope is to find him. You see all the time now where it’s been 10, 20 years and somebody comes home. So you always hold out that hope. You never know. I always wonder when we’ll get some answers.”

WHAT THE FUTURE MAY HOLD

Despite their worlds being turned upside down, the Wetterling and Swanson families have defied the statistics and have kept their marriages and families intact.

“I can see why marriages don’t survive,” Annette Swanson said. “We’ve worked really hard on communicating with each other and understanding and respecting what the other person feels and where they’re at in their process. I was in a way different place than Brian was, but just talking about it, being willing to share where you are, what you’re feeling and thinking, and have the other person just acknowledge it and respect it is helpful.”

The Swansons said feelings fluctuate, from anger to sadness and everything in between. But they just try to keep working through it.

“It’s better now than it was, but life will never be the same,” Brian Swanson said. “Going to work helps. If you’re not doing something, then you start thinking about it even more. You always think back and wonder what you could have done differently. You can’t go back, but because of your emotions, you do.”

A lot of the time, Brian Swanson said he keeps his defenses up, to help shield him from the pain.

“Sometimes you think about all the fun things you did with Brandon,” he said. “Sometimes that doesn’t work, either, so you try to get your mind on something else. You just never think something like this will happen to you.”

Annette Swanson said she, too, purposely keeps busy. In addition, the couple’s daughter Jamine, who was 17 when Brandon went missing, and grandson Eli keep their spirits up.

“Jamine and Eli are part of what gets us through every day,” she said. “You also need the everyday, mundane part of your life, to get you through. You need to distract your brain. There are still moments where you just break down and cry, but you don’t do it every hour, or every day or every week anymore.”

Patty and Jerry Wetterling remain close with their other three children – Amy, Carmen and Trevor, who was 10 and with Jacob when he was abducted – and six grandchildren.

While life has had its struggles, Larson tries to follow the Wetterlings’ lead. He recalls how difficult it had been for his own parents (Fran and Vic Larson) to cope with the experience.

“My family is very close-knit,” he said. “Obviously, this freaked them out. I think it freaked out the whole area. Nothing is ever supposed to happen in small town. You think your kids are safe. When I got older, even in high school, I know it was hard for my parents to let the leash out a little bit.”

Larson is working hard to find his own balance with his son Anikan Jacob, who is nearly 8 years old.

“You still have to be able to live your life to some extent,” Larson said. “The experience is always going to be with you, and I’m sure I’m overprotective, but I try to keep moving forward and stay positive. I don’t ever want to let my guard down, but it doesn’t have to completely shape you. I think as a parent, you’d never stop looking for your kid. If something happened to my son, I’d do the same. You never give up on your children.”

Reprinted with permission from the Marshall Independent

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