Posts made in October, 2010

A trip through St. Joseph

When, where, how… why?

As I mentioned in my last post, “Thinking Jacob”, I haven’t been able to get Jacob Wetterling off my mind lately. He’s the 11 year old boy who was abducted from the small town of St. Joseph, Minnesota on October 22, 1989. Last July, investigators from the F.B.I. and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension arrived at the home/farmstead of Robert and Rita Rassier with a search warrant. For several days, they searched the farm and hauled away truckload after truckload of dirt and ash they’d collected from the home’s burn pile.

Could it be? After all these years, Jacob Wetterling had been less than two blocks from his family home all long? Could it possibly be that simple?

Here’s the story. Robert and Rita Rassier were on a European vacation at the time of Jacob’s disappearance. However, their son Daniel, who was 34 at the time, also lived with them at their house. He was introduced to us as a “Person of Interest” in the Jacob Wetterling case during the search of the Rassier family farm. We’d never heard of Dan Rassier before this.

Earlier this month, Julie Nelson from KARE-11 News in Minneapolis did a two part interview with Dan Rassier. Click the play button below to see the video in its entirety.

Dan Rassier Interview

After watching this interview, I found myself wanting to know where this farm was, where Jacob lived, and where the Tom Thumb was.

So, here’s a map put together by the St. Cloud Times newspaper that shows where each of these places is, in relation to each other, along with a general account of the events that took place that evening:

Map of abduction site

As you can see, the abduction took place right at the driveway of the Rassier home/farmstead. However, what this map doesn’t show you are the woods that secluded the home from the road, or the long driveway that leads back to the house. In reality, you cannot see the house from the road at all. And it’s at this spot in the road, where there are heavy woods on either side, that the abduction took place.

This aerial photo from Google Earth shows the area a bit better:

Google Earth Map

On the day I drove to St. Joseph, I came into town on County Road 2, entering from the west. The College of St. Ben’s was on my right… wow, what a beautiful campus. I’d never seen it before. Google told me to stay on County Road 2 onto East Minnesota Street, then to hang a right onto 16th Ave. SE.

Once I was on 16th Avenue, I knew I was on “the road.” This was the exact route Jacob had taken 21 years ago, almost to the day, when he was abducted at gunpoint. I drove slowly, snapping photos out the windshield as I went.

16th Avenue SE, heading south

16th Avenue SE, heading south

(At this point, you may be asking yourself why I didn’t bother to just get out of the car and take some decent photos. As you recall, I was there last Saturday, October 23. Jacob was abducted on October 22. I figured neighbors and townspeople would already be a little on edge since it was so close to the date of the abduction, so I didn’t want to alarm anyone. As it was, I was already feeling a little creepy and stalker-ish.)

As I neared the edge of town, the new blacktop ended and so did the city street lights. I figured I must be getting close.

End of city streetlights and new blacktop

End of city blacktop

I drove slowly, imagining myself to be 11 years old, on a bike and approaching this spot when the city lights ended and a long dark stretch of road loomed ahead. But, they were so close to home at that point, it was probably no big deal at all. Only two more blocks. That’s it. Two more blocks, and they’d be home.

And then, as they neared the driveway to the Rassier home, they saw a gunman dressed in black and wearing a face mask appear out of the ditch and tell them to stop. It was right here. At this point in the road. That’s the Rassier’s driveway on the left.

Rassier driveway on the left

Approaching Rassier's driveway

The boys were told to put their bikes in the ditch and lay face down, right here, on my right. When the gunman let Trevor (Jacob’s brother) and his friend Aaron go, he told them to run toward those trees in the background and not to look back or he’d shoot.

Site of abduction

Abduction site

About two more blocks, the road ended and turned right. Two small cul-de-sacs were on my left; the Wetterlings lived on the second one. I saw some kids playing in one of the yards, so I didn’t go down the road for fear of creeping anyone out.

I turned around and drove back toward town, this time in search of a convenience store that was within a mile of the house. Thinking like a mother, I figured it had to be in a location close by that didn’t require the kids to have crossed any major roads. I drove back down 16th Ave SE, and after a few twists and turns, ended up at a Casey’s General Store, at the corner of County Road 75 and 4th Avenue. I’m wasn’t entirely sure this was the former Tom Thumb (it wasn’t), but I filled up with gas and took a few photos.

Casey's convenience store

Casey's on County Road 134

I hit my trip reset button and took one more trip down 16th Avenue to see if this Casey’s was about a mile from the Wetterling home. (From the news stories, I knew the convenience store was about a mile away.) As I neared the Rassier farm, I passed a police car and wondered if they were now running my license plate. (I get the feeling strangers are eyed with a lot of suspicion in St. Joseph these days, especially around October 22 each year.)

I turned around once again, and headed out of St. Joe, into St. Cloud. I was surprised by how close it was… something else I never realized. I continued on to Barnes and Noble, got my birthday present and a cup of Starbucks, then headed to the library to look up some old articles in the St. Cloud Times.

My head was full of questions… SO many questions… but I’ll save those for next time.

As you can imagine, this has been a hard story to write about, and I’m thankful for everyone who’s followed along with me. It’s not easy to re-live this tragedy, especially if you’re from Minnesota. But, I encourage you to keep “Thinking Jacob”… keep thinking… keep wondering… keep praying. Someday, I hope we can get an answer.

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Thinking Jacob

Maybe, just maybe…

October 23, 1989

As I mentioned in my last post, for the past few months I haven’t been able to shake the story of Jacob Wetterling from my brain. Suddenly, it’s all I think about. So, rather than fight it, I decided to dive in and learn all I could about the Jacob Wetterling case. Of course, I’m not so vain to think I might be able to discover something that the world’s best forensic investigators may have missed. It’s not that. It’s just… this feeling… a hopeful feeling that maybe they’re getting close to an answer. And maybe if we could all just “think Jacob” hard enough, maybe we can somehow help.

*Eye roll*

Yes, here we go once again. I’m sure you’re wondering why I suddenly care about something that happened 21 years ago to a family I know nothing about. And, once again, the answer is I don’t know. I can’t really explain it. All I know is, I can’t stop “thinking Jacob.”

So, I started Googling.

For those who don’t know Jacob’s story, here’s a little background. On the evening of Sunday, October 22, 1989, 11 year old Jacob Wetterling was home with his friend Aaron Larson (also 11), his 10 year old brother Trevor, and his 8 year old sister. His parents had been invited out to a dinner party in Clearwater (about 30 minutes away), and his oldest sister (13) was staying over at a friend’s house.

[Right away I wondered why the kids were having sleepovers on a school night, but it turns out they had Monday off for the state’s annual teacher’s conference.]

It had been a beautiful fall day, with sunny skies and a high in the upper 60s. Sometime before 9pm, Trevor called his mother to ask if the kids could ride their bikes to the Tom Thumb convenience store (about a mile away) to rent a movie. Patty Wetterling said no; it was past dark and she was concerned about cars not being able to see them. After she hung up, the boys revised their plan and called back, this time asking for their father, Jerry Wetterling. Jacob told his father he would wear an orange reflective vest, Trevor would carry a flashlight, and Aaron would wear a white sweatshirt. They also mentioned that their younger sister didn’t want to go, so they’d asked their 14 year old neighbor to come over and babysit her while they were gone. Jerry thought it was a sound plan. He also knew Jacob had had a tough day at hockey tryouts earlier in the day and could use a lift in his spirits. He relented.

So, off the boys went; two on bicycle, and one on a scooter. They made it to the Tom Thumb, rented the movie Naked Gun, then started on their way home. Around 9:15pm, as they neared a particularly dark stretch of road, a man with dark clothing, a face mask and a hand gun suddenly appeared out of the ditch and told them to stop. He had a low, gravely voice and told Trevor to turn off his flashlight, then told all the boys to throw their bikes in the ditch. Next, he told them to lie face down in the ditch, then asked each of them how old they were. After the boys replied, the masked man told 10-year-old Trevor to get up, run toward the woods, and not look back or he would shoot. Next, he turned the two 11-year-olds over and looked at their faces. He grabbed Aaron, Jacob’s friend, and told him the same thing he’d said to Trevor. Run toward the woods, and don’t look back or he’d shoot. He then grabbed Jacob by the elbow and began dragging him away. When Aaron caught up to Trevor, the two boys looked back to see that Jacob and the man had vanished. Neither one had seen a getaway car.

Aaron and Trevor ran the remaining two blocks to the Wetterling home and told the babysitter what had happened. She called her father, and he called 911. He also was the one who called the Wetterlings and told them they needed to come home. They left the dinner party immediately, without even saying goodbye.

Within six minutes of receiving the 911 call, a sheriff’s deputy was on the scene. He saw the boys’ bikes in the ditch and immediately called for backup, including help from the F.B.I. Throughout the night, officers searched for Jacob with flashlights, and a State Patrol helicopter searched the dense woods with a flood light. No luck. The search was called off at 3am.

The search resumed at 8am the next morning [8am??] and DNR officers used six ATVs to search the abduction site within a two mile radius. Bloodhounds from Minneapolis tracked Jacob’s scent from footprints on a gravel road that ended near some fresh tire tracks. The assumption was that Jacob had been taken away by car, and the focus quickly turned to existing sex offenders. Over 70 investigators were assigned to the case, following up on thousands of leads.

Weeks, months, then years went by. Still, there was no sign of Jacob.

Then, in 2003, a local man came forward to say he’d overheard the original call on a police scanner the night of the abduction. He drove to the scene, arriving before most police officers. He admitted to unknowingly driving across the crime scene, leading investigators to believe that the fresh tire tracks appearing in the driveway belonged to his car, and not a getaway car. This changed the entire way the investigators looked at the case. Suddenly, they realized the abductor most likely escaped on foot, making them switch their focus from outside suspects to local ones.

Another promising development came in 2004 when a 27 year old man named Jared (last name withheld) came forward and talked publicly for the first time about his abduction and sexual assault which took place in Cold Spring, a town just 12 miles from St. Joseph. The assault had taken place just 9 months prior to Jacob’s abduction, and the similarities between the two cases were chilling.

Jared was 12 at the time and had been walking home from a local cafe on a January night. A car approached him, and a man with a low, gravely voice stopped to ask Jared for directions. The man pulled Jared into his car, drove him to a remote area, and sexually assaulted him. On the way back to town, the man kept asking Jared if he recognized him. When the boy repeatedly answered no, the man let him out of the car, told him to run and said not to turn around or he would shoot him.

The details are eerily similar, and to this day, investigators wonder if the two cases are connected. <” target=”_blank”>(Jump ahead and read Jared’s full story here.)

Next time… a photo tour through St. Joseph gives me the lay of the land.

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Where are you Jacob?

Twenty one years, and still no trace

Jacob Wetterling, age 11It was 21 years ago yesterday, October 22, 1989, that 11 year old Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a stranger while riding his bike home from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minnesota.

Twenty one years.

I think everyone in Minnesota knows and remembers Jacob. I was 22 years old and had just graduated from the University of Minnesota when this story broke. I remember the constant media coverage, the white ribbons, the “Missing” posters… and I remember seeing Jacob’s parents on the news, begging for their son’s safe return. My heart broke for them.

Composite sketch of possible suspectWe all wanted to help. There were composite sketches of a bald headed man with piercing eyes. And then we learned of a white work van with no windows. For weeks, I scoured every white van on the road, hoping to find a scary bald man at the wheel. To this day, when I see a white work van with no windows, I think of Jacob.

I remember going to a Minnesota Vikings game with my mom just a week or two after Jacob’s disappearance. Everywhere you looked, there were posters and banners with Jacob’s picture on them. The Vikings even dedicated the game ball to Jacob. It was so sad, yet we all remained so hopeful. Surely by splashing Jacob’s photo across the national media, we’d find him. Surely this exposure would help develop a viable lead.

Vikings vs. Rams, 1989It didn’t. Jacob remained missing. Weeks passed, then months, then years. As a state, a nation, and a generation, we were shook. Jacob’s abduction changed the way we raised our children. We taught them to be wary of strangers, to be home before dark, and to scream and fight back if someone ever tried to pull them into a car. Our parents didn’t need to have this conversation with us; but this is how we live in the post-Jacob years.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Jacob lately. This case has stuck with me all these years, and like many I’m sure, Jacob and his family are never far from our thoughts. Then, out of nowhere, last summer we learned that a farm property was being searched, near the spot where Jacob was abducted. Investigators from the F.B.I. and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension were on the scene, hauling away dump trucks full of dirt and ashes for forensic testing. A “person of interest” was identified in the case… someone we’d never heard of before… the single, middled-aged son of the elderly couple who owned the farm. It seemed a little too obvious… but maybe, just maybe…

No go. The results were inconclusive. Back to square one.

Lately, I just can’t seem to shake Jacob’s story from my head. Even before the investigation, it’s been stuck on me. I’ve prayed… pleaded… for an answer for Jacob’s family. Maybe if I just prayed hard enough… maybe if I reviewed the details of the case… maybe if I blogged about it… maybe, just maybe…

So today, I did something crazy. I was on my way to St. Cloud to buy a birthday present, when I decided to drive through St. Joseph. I ended up driving right past the exact spot where Jacob was abducted, and I even stopped at a Casey’s convenience store to fill up with gas, assuming that might have been a Tom Thumb back in 1989 (it wasn’t). I re-traced the path Jacob and his friends would have taken, just to get a feel for how far it was, and whether I would have allowed my boys to ride their bikes after dark to go rent a movie. (The answer… absolutely not, but that’s just how we helicopter mothers deal now in the post-Jacob era.)

I’ll share the full story in the next few chapters. I even took some photos, which I’ll share. The truth is, I still hope for a happy ending to this story, as impossible as that may seem. Maybe if I pray hard enough, if I look hard enough, if I think about it long enough… maybe, just maybe…

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Why I live in a small town

Dedicated to Private First Class, Ryane G. Clark

You may or may not know this, but my small town of New London, Minnesota lost a soldier last week. He was 22 year old Ryane Clark, a 2007 graduate of New London-Spicer High School, where he was a wrestler, and an Eagle Scout.

Today, Pfc. Ryane Clark returned home. His remains were flown to Willmar Municipal airport, and from there, began a 20 mile memorial procession, ending at the funeral home in downtown New London.

Eight soldiers with the Army’s 27th Engineer Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., carry the casket containing the body of Army Pfc. Ryane Clark after it arrived Thursday at Willmar Municipal Airport. Photo courtesy of West Central Tribune.

I never knew Private Clark, nor his family, but I know of them. Everyone knows *of* everyone in a small town. Even if you haven’t met them directly, you know someone who’s dated their daughter, goes to the same church, works at their auto repair shop, or went on vacation with them last spring. Everyone knows OF everyone here.

I happened to be working at a client’s office in Willmar today, so I decided to leave early in order to pay my respects along the procession route. Even though I didn’t know Ryane, I wanted to be there for him. He was a wrestler; my boys are wrestlers. He lived in New London; I live in New London. He died to protect our country. I live in this country.

I wanted to be there.

So, as I drove home along MN State Highway 23, I noticed people already beginning to line both sides of the road. Just outside the electric cooperative, employees had gathered on the center median, between four lanes of busy, fast-moving traffic. They waved flags as I passed. I waved back with tears streaming down my face. Behind them, crew members had backed one of their high wire repair trucks into the ditch, and extended the hydraulic arm, raising a flag in Ryane Clark’s honor. The back of my throat tightened, and an unexpected sob snuck out of me.

Flag raised at Kandiyohi County Power Cooperative

My thoughts turned to the Clark family, knowing they were not far behind me. They’d be passing this exact spot just moments from now. If I was this choked up, how would they feel?

As I got closer to Spicer, (our neighboring city, just four miles north of New London), more and more people were gathered along the route. I wondered how long they’d been waiting there. Rounding the corner and pulling into town, I noticed the entire parking lot of Jahnke’s grocery store was full. People were lined up, waiting in their cars, ready to move out to the road once the procession got closer. I stopped at the red light and noticed a woman at the corner, sitting in her wheelchair scooter. She was by herself, holding a flag… waiting. I wondered who she was; why she cared.

Someone had thought to tie yellow ribbons and an American flag to every light post in the center of the road. There were flags and people everywhere… at Town and Country Tire, the Dairy Queen, along the bike trail, and in front of Mel’s Sport Shop. More tears, more choked-back sobs.

I neared the turnoff to my house and wondered if I had time to grab my camera. This was an amazing sight, and I wanted to save it in my memory. But, did I have time? I listened to Q102 as Mary Elin Macht gave an update on where the procession was in Willmar. I decided it wasn’t worth it. It was more important to pay my respects than to preserve the memory.

I drove into New London and first noticed the gigantic tower erected at the concrete plant. Was it a truck? I wasn’t sure… how could any hydraulic arm get that high? And proudly displayed atop the tower… a flag. I slowed down and prepared to turn left onto Highway 9… the road that runs right through downtown New London. And there, on either side of the main drag, were two fire trucks with their ladders extended, forming an arch over the road. A gigantic American flag was draped from the end of each.

The bawling started… I couldn’t go down that road. There were people lined up along the entire street. I moved back into traffic and took the back way into town. As I pulled into the driveway of our creative studio, I took a deep breath, said a little prayer, and got out of the car. God, help me through this. Help this family. Help our town.

The schools had let out early so all the grades could attend the procession. Even the elementary kids had walked over from the grade school. The Color Guard from the American Legion was parked on the road beside me. The plan was for them to lead the procession by foot once it turned onto Highway 9, and continue all the way down Main Street, to the funeral home. I looked at the members of the Color Guard, wondering if they could even make it that far. They looked to be in their late 70s, or maybe even their early 80s. But I could tell no one would question the logic. They were soldiers, a band of brothers, and they had lost one of their own.

As the procession neared, we heard a helicopter overhead. Channel 11 news out of Minneapolis was covering the procession. Hmm. Wasn’t sure what I thought about that. It was loud and obtrusive, but then, I guess this story was newsworthy.

And then, around the corner, I saw the Color Guard heading our way. Every grade school child along Main Street put their hand over their heart and said nothing. Not a word. Not today.

God bless you Ryane Clark, and thank you for your service to our country.

Click to view a quick clip of the procession from my cell phone…

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Villa Am Meer, Chapter 15

A few final thoughts…

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

I’ve been writing about Villa Am Meer for about seven months now. In that time, this beach house has become like an old friend to me. I’ve imagined what it would have been like to have stayed there, listening to the waves crash on the shore, sipping a cool glass of Chardonnay at sunset, and snuggling around the wood-burning fireplace after sundown. I’d like to imagine there were no TVs allowed here, and that guests were asked to leave their cell phones at the door. I imagine soft music playing, an acoustic guitar, and dancing on the rooftop patio under the moonlight.

I’ve been told of family Christmases at Villa Am Meer, with delicious Italian food and homemade ravioli. I’ve been told of summertime parties with friends, sangria, brie cheese and strawberries. And, I’ve been told of the “little house” – a one level, two bedroom guest house on the northeast corner of the property. It had a tiny fish pond in front of it, and a wrought iron bridge you had to cross in order to get to the front door. The “real magic” took place here, from what I’ve been told.

As one might imagine, the family is very private. I guess I would be too, especially if some crazy midwestern woman with no earthly connection to the house suddenly started blogging about it. But, I do hope to connect with them one day. I hope that by sharing the history of this house, I haven’t caused them any distress. That was never my intent. Those who know me would tell you I’m not that kind of person.

So then, what WAS my motivation for writing about this house? In the past seven months, I’ve been asked this over and over, and the answer is both simple and complicated.

I guess it all boils down to this… it got me writing again. I’ve always loved writing, and it seems to come naturally to me. However, a few years ago, I became hell-bent on writing something in order to get it published. I wrote a few children’s books, a middle-grade novel, a screenplay, and even a corporate gift book. Nothing was published. This didn’t surprise me; I knew the odds. But, I have to admit, it was hard on my ego. I wasn’t used to failure.

So, I quit writing. I decided if I couldn’t make my living as a writer, then what was the point. I went back to what I knew and saved myself the heartache.

For two years, I wrote nothing at all. I turned 40, took up snowboarding, and became obsessed with tracking down every branch of my family tree. When I ran out of branches on my own tree, I started tracking down my husband’s branches. Anything to keep from writing.

Then, last March, I was walking along the beach with my husband, on our way to The Colony to have a margarita. I spotted my favorite little beach house amidst a rumble of big rig construction. It appeared war-torn and vacant, and I was certain it was about to be torn down. I ran back to our condo and grabbed my camera, determined to preserve this little nugget of Longboat Key history. I knew nothing about the property or its owners, but for 15 years that little beach cottage had piqued my curiosity, and since it appeared to be on its final death throes, I decided to ask a few questions. And that’s how this whole journey started.

But, truthfully, why did I keep on? (And on, and on?)

Well, I guess because it just felt good. It felt good to be writing again, and I loved the instant feedback that blogging provided. People were commenting on my posts, adding to the story, encouraging me to go on. And so… go on I did.

There was also that moment, while I was on vacation in Montana, when I first learned of Elena’s death. The news hit me hard, and the synchronicity of that event seemed absolutely uncanny. At that point, the story seemed to take on new meaning… like it was bigger than me and just ached to be told. I can’t explain it really… it just seemed like continuing the story was the right thing to do.

One final thing.

On August 1, I began reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Ironically, I’d given this same book to an artist friend of mine a few years ago, never assuming it would ever apply to me. I was a writer after all, not an artist.

I was wrong.

The Artist’s Way has changed the way I look at the world. I’ve now realized that the reason I kept on writing about Villa Am Meer is because I was finally writing for the right reasons… not to gain fame, wealth, or success… but simply to enjoy the process. “Creativity is God’s gift to us,” Julia Cameron writes. “Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” The refusal to be creative is counter to our true nature.

I must admit, I’ve been lost for a while, manically trying to busy myself with other pastimes while my one true passion has been stuffed inside a storage locker made of gray matter. And now, I feel like Simba, staring into the water and hearing the reflection of Mufasa telling me, “You are more than what you’ve become, Simba.” Yes, Mufasa, you’re right. I am more than what I’ve become.

And so, starting January 1, my business partner and I have decided to take a two month sabbatical to “be still.” For twenty years, we’ve run a small ad agency together… a company we started just out of college. It’s been a crazy ride… turbulent, exhilarating, and often scary. But through it all, we’ve grown up together, raised our families, and remained best friends. And after twenty years, we’ve decided the best gift we could give each other is two months off. Imagine it… two months of peace and art. Groovy, baby.

I do hope to continue writing about Villa Am Meer, if any new information should trickle in. In the meantime, feel free to follow me on my journey.

(UPDATE: Skip ahead to Chapter 16 to learn the outcome of Hermann Kohl’s and Norda, Inc.’s bootlegging trial.)

Next time… a new story piques my interest…

View all the updates to my Villa am Meer story when you browse by category…

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