Jennifer’s story

In the fall of 1989, Jennifer was 22 years old and a senior at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota. She had picked up a part time job at the local Tom Thumb convenience store, and worked there from 6pm until midnight a few nights a week.

On October 22, Jennifer was working the night Jacob, Aaron, and Trevor came into the store to rent a video. She is the last person to see Jacob before he was abducted.

This is her story.

Jennifer’s parents didn’t like her working at the Tom Thumb so late at night, and her bike ride home took her along a particularly long, dark stretch of road. She figured she should be able to pick up a waitressing job somewhere in town, so ironically, Jennifer had just given her two week notice to her manager that very day.

There was another young man working with her in the store that night. The two of them worked their shift just like any other night… nothing seemed unusual or concerning.

When Jacob and the two other boys came into the store, Jennifer remembers them picking out some candy and a video. Major League had already been rented, so the boys decided on The Naked Gun instead. Jacob signed his name on the video rental receipt, Jennifer put their Blo-Pops in a bag, and off they went. Just another transaction on the cash register… no big deal.

It wasn’t until about 11:25pm when two local FBI agents came into the store that Jennifer and the other young man on staff had any idea something was wrong. The officers didn’t come right out and say that a child had been kidnapped, but Jennifer definitely got the impression that’s what had happened given the nature of the questions they were being asked.

I asked Jennifer whether she remembers seeing any police cars go by that night. She said she remembers seeing police cars go by, but does not remember hearing any sirens or any helicopters all night long… even after returning home. She remembers waking up to the sounds of helicopters flying low over their campus the next morning, but she didn’t hear any the night before.

I also asked Jennifer if she remembers seeing the “scary bald guy” in the store who witnesses say had been skulking around and scaring customers around the same time as the boys were there. She said no, she doesn’t remember that… if those accounts are true, they didn’t come from her. She also doesn’t recall anything about Kevin coming into the store and talking to a “medical cop,” but she said it could have happened if the other young man working that night had been the one at the counter at that time. She may have been in the back or in the bathroom when that exchange took place.

Jennifer’s part in all this really takes place two weeks later. It was Sunday, November 5th, and it was her last day of work at the Tom Thumb, since she had just given her notice two weeks earlier.

The store was filled with pictures of Jacob, missing posters, yellow ribbons, etc. There was also a collection jar for donations on the counter. Everyone was on high alert, and Jennifer had been very active in all the prayer vigils and other “Jacob events” taking place in St. Joseph.

Around 9pm, an older man in his 60s came into the store and was acting very strangely. He was almost bald with receding gray hair, a gruff voice, and a rude demeanor. He seemed to just be wandering aimlessly around the store, so Jennifer asked if he needed help. He said he was looking for some soup… Campbell’s soup. “I’m going to need about six cans of that,” he told her. Jennifer told him where it was, but he just seemed really “out of it,” so she came out from behind the counter and brought him over to the soup.

When they got there, he asked her if there was something called “chicken noodle” or something like that? Jennifer pointed out the chicken noodle soup, then picked out six cans for him. Next, he asked, “You have any of those, um… saltine crackers?” She thought he was really weird… like he had never seen a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup or a package of Saltine crackers before. Again Jennifer had to lead him to the crackers in a different aisle and point them out. He said “I’ll need about two boxes of those.” She picked the crackers off the shelf for him, just as she had the soup.

After she rang up his purchases, the man pulled out his wallet, which was THICK with cash. He noticed the donation jar and said, “So, do you think they’ll ever find that boy?” Jennifer replied something like, “Yes, I hope so,” and the guy laughed and said, “They’ll never find that boy.” As he turned to leave, he passed another customer and asked the same thing… “Do you think they’ll ever find that boy?” He laughed again and made the same remark… “They’re never going to find him.”

Everything about the guy said “red flag,” so Jennifer hurried to the window after he left and took note of the car he was driving. She didn’t get the license number, but she remembers it was a big, fancy, dark blue car… similar to a Lincoln Continental.

3_compositesAfter this exchange took place, Jennifer suddenly became an important part of the investigation. She remembers working closely with FBI agents, and also worked with a sketch artist to put together a composite of the suspect. Her sketch is the second one in the photo on the right.

The first sketch is the “scary bald guy” from the Tom Thumb who witnesses say had a piercing stare, a gruff demeanor, and very odd behavior. He was seen standing outside the store near an ice machine at about 9pm. He did not speak or make any purchases, and no vehicle was seen. Authorities say the same man was also seen at a Quik Mart in Avon earlier that day.

The third sketch is of a man who tried to abduct a 9 year old boy in New Brighton on November 8. The boy was riding his bike near his home when the man ordered him to get into his car. The boy sped away, but the man followed him to his home and did not leave until the boy’s mother walked outside.

After seeing all three sketches together in a newspaper article on November 23, 1989, Jennifer admits that the first one, not her own, was actually a better representation of the guy she saw.

In all these years, Jennifer does not remember being contacted by anyone from Stearns County to follow up on this case. She remembers working with the FBI in the months following the abduction, but at no time in the past 24 years has she ever talked to anyone from the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office. She even called in once herself to follow-up with a lead, but in that case, a meeting that had been set up between herself and investigators was later cancelled, and then never rescheduled.

In February 2004, Jennifer agreed to be interviewed by FOX 9 News out of the Twin Cities. It was during that interview that Jennifer was finally able to meet Patty Wetterling for the first time. It was a raw and emotional meeting that held even more meaning for Jennifer since she was an elementary school teacher and a mother herself by then. Like all of us, she so badly wants to provide answers for the Wetterling family.

(Click here to download a transcript of the 2004 FOX 9 news story…) …

It was yet another crazy coincidence that brought Jennifer and me together. A mutual acquaintance who knows us both encouraged Jennifer to give me a call. That phone call was incredibly hard to make, and I want to thank Jennifer for sharing her story, even though I know it is still excruciatingly painful for her to relive these memories.

On that note, I’d like to thank all the people who have been brave enough to come forward and share their stories with me over the past two years. It is still my firm belief that someone out there knows something that could help solve this case. That one person may not even know they hold the key, so by sharing these stories and keeping the dialogue going, there’s a good chance that, together, we might truly make a difference.

So… keep sharing, keep hoping, keep praying… and keep #thinkingjacob.

*** SIDEBAR ***
I just spoke to one of the producers from The Hunt tonight who is currently taking tips at the show’s hotline. CNN is re-airing several episodes of The Hunt this evening, including Jacob’s story, which will air at 12 midnight. So, if you still haven’t had a chance to catch the show, set your DVR or make yourself some strong coffee. You don’t want to miss it a third time!

I asked how many tips the show had generated so far, and I was told they have taken 111 tips so far on their hotline and they continue to get more calls every day. When I checked last week, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children had also received over 100 tips, and that was soon after the show aired. As for me, I have received over 70 tips which I continue to pass along to law enforcement. Thanks again to everyone for caring and getting involved!

Again, if you have a tip, please call 1-866-THE-HUNT, 1-800-THE-LOST, or the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department at (320) 259-3700.

NEXT: 25 years…

13 Comments

  1. So happy to hear about all those tips!

  2. Has anyone ever thought the man in the first sketch looks like the man who abducted and killed Dru Sjodin in North Dakota years ago? If memory serves me right, the resemblance is uncanny.

  3. Hoping these new leads will help lead the authorities to solving this case….keeping Jacob in our thoughts and prayers.

  4. I am so glad someone is keeping Jacob’s name alive…

  5. Joy…I was a sophomore at St Ben’s when Jacob was abducted. I can confirm that we did not hear sirens or helicopters that evening in town. I had a project due so we were in our dorm all evening-our dorm was the closest to Main Street and we heard sirens all the time. We would have heard it if there was a commotion and we even commented about how odd that was later when we heard what had happened. Several of us had helped set up for a dinner honoring donors and volunteers for the college that afternoon-the one Jerry and Patty were at that evening and a friend worked it until about 9. She didn’t see or hear anything there either but was in the kitchen so could have missed it. We were awakened in the early morning hours by helicopters before classes began and that was the first clue something was wrong. Students were told during classes and given the option to go help with the searches over the next few days, which many of us did in addition to the vigils, prayer services and fund raisers that followed.

    It was a horrible time-everyone was scared and worried for Jacob. It forever changed us all and our college experience. Every October, I remember it and think I hope this is the year they get answers. I really hope these new tips lead to the answers they have waited way too long for.

  6. Yes Joan, I was going to mention the resemblance also. I think his name was Rodriguez. I was raised in St. Cloud and spent lots of time at St. John’s and in St Joe.
    When Jacob was abducted, we were back in MN visiting family. One of my sons is Jacobs age and my kids who are all grown with families of their own still ask about his disappearance. I hope with the new tips there will be answers.

  7. I sure hope one of those tips can give a lead to a name. It’s possible that this was about trafficking boys of a certain age, since the girl in the store said the man had a lot of money on him. Or getting the soup and crackers for a boy he kept at home,I think the guy lived close by and has somehow gotten away with this. I just hope someone comes forward with information that can identify this sicko.

  8. I just looked up Alphonso Rodriguez and while the sketches are similar, Mr. Rodriguez was in jail at the time. Isn’t it strange that no one from Stearns County Law Enforcement ever talked to Jennifer. Something just doesn’t seem right.

  9. Joy, Good research and very fascinating! I hope this leads to the abductor’s identity.

  10. Joan and Lanie I was thinking the same exact thing. A lot of similarities in Alfonso Rodriguez who was a convicted 3rd Degree Sex Offender from Crookston MN. http://murderpedia.org/male.R/r/rodriguez-alfonso.htm

  11. THANK YOU Jennifer for sharing your story with Joy! Abductors etc. have been known to return to the ‘scene’, want to get a ‘feel’ for what people may know..have seen. Sure seems from Jennifers story that HE is the one that abducted Jacob, and was possibly picking up the soup and crackers for Jacob. Has Patty ever said whether Chicken Noodle soup was one of Jacob’s favorite?

  12. I don’t think Alfonso Rodriguez is the same guy. For one thing he was 50 in 2003 which means he would have been 36 at the time of Jacob’s abduction, and all the witness accounts estimate the masked man to be around 50 years old in 1989. Plus Rodriguez’s victim was a 22 year old woman and it would be rare for an offender to have such different types of victims.

    Carol, I was also curious about the Chicken Noodle Soup. His lack of familiarity with both products made me think someone else asked him for those specific things. Most kids like that kind of soup though, but it still would be interesting if that was Jacob’s favorite – not to mention it would give me hope he is still alive now if he was still alive at that point.

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