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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8 Comments

  1. Stacey Fenner |

    Joy,
    Thank you for updating me on the story. I was in St. Cloud in my final year of college when this happened. I did my student teaching in 6th grade at the school where Jacob attended prior to this. I remember how they had decorated his locker and posted notes and pictures all around. I often think of him and wonder. I hope some day that his parents will find the answers to all questions.

  2. Susan Dressel |

    Joy, no kidding. Lots of questions are in my mind. One question is this: How did the abductor know there were going to be kids coming down the dark road at that exact time? He needed to collect his “gear” (mask, gun, dark clothes) AHEAD OF TIME and position himself BEFORE the boys got to that specific location. Did someone from the Tom Thumb call ahead to the abductor? Someone KNEW they were headed to the store and waited for them to come back. This case is SO STRANGE. Thank you for helping to keep this case alive.

  3. Hi Joy,

    I, like you, have had this case amongst others in my head for months. When I was 5, a man tried to coax me out of our town’s public library. My gut instinct saved me, but some 25 years later, the other stories of missing children continue to haunt me. This case is so very strange – you have witnesses, you have another boy who was seemingly taken by the same man and returned, and still – no Jacob. I am thankful to you for keeping this story alive – we need more people to do this every day for those who are still missing.

  4. Wow, this is so distressing. I only just wish that the law is served.

  5. The woman working at the Tom Thumb that evening, a student from the nearby college, most certainly did not conspire with Jacob’s kidnapper. The woman was tortured by thoughts of Jacob and being that last adult to see him that night. She and Patti were interviewed together — upon their first meeting many years ago by a local news outlet. Phone records, from the land line and pay phones, from the Tom Thumb would have been easily obtained by law enforcement. This is before widespread cell phone, even widespread pager usage. St. Joe’s is a very isolated area, and may have been without service even if the technology was available to conspirators to use. Land lines without caller ID was high tech back then in St. Joe’s.

  6. I had heard that dogs tracked JW’s scent up the driveway. Do you know how far that scent went before it was lost, say, in feet from the roadway?
    ~ mvh + kk

  7. Great mapping and photos.

  8. Caseys is not the old Tom Thumb. The old Tom Thumb is now the St. Joseph Vet Clinic. I’ve always wondered if two vehicles may have been involved maybe one to stalk/watch boys down road and maybe another in different location. Could they have been using CB or walkie talkie?I thought I read there was dead end street by woods and trail through it where high school parties. Where supposed man was in trees sketching? You had old map to compare. I believe it showed wooded area behind the abduction site, now housing new houses that back up to Klinefelter park. If you walk the trail you can see the edge of woods of abductuction. Was there a trail near this pond? Did they search this area or just across near Rassier farm?

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