Paynesville meeting, Strib article

One week ago, Patty and Jerry Wetterling hosted a community meeting for the residents of Paynesville titled, “Paynesville: Moving Forward.” It was meant to serve as a night of healing and sharing for both the Wetterlings and the Paynesville community who both found themselves “thrown together in a state of chaos” after the arrest of Danny Heinrich on October 29th.

It was a powerful night, and important on so many levels. It gave Paynesville Police Chief Paul Wegner a chance to instill confidence in his community, promising that what happened 30 years ago in Paynesville would not happen today. It gave Paynesville residents a chance to hear from Captain Pam Jensen of the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, who gave a brief update and spelled out the kind of information they were looking for to help their case. It gave Jared a chance to see the amazing amount of support he has from the people in his community. And, it gave Patty a chance to do what she does best… to connect with people and advocate for a better, safer world.

It truly was a win-win for everyone involved.

That same night, I had also been asked by Jenna Ross, a reporter from the StarTribune, to sit down and share some thoughts for a follow-up article about me and my blog. I had previously commented on an article Jenna had written about the Paynesville victims, and they wanted to use some of my additional comments from that story for another article.

I knew I’d be busy the night of the meeting, so in an effort to save time, I decided to just write some quick answers to a few of Jenna’s questions. However, as I wrote, I quickly realized that none of her questions had a quick or simple answer.

I’m posting what I sent to Jenna below. I’m amazed that she was able to take what I wrote, along with input from Patty, Jared, and others, and craft it into a story that reveals how much Jacob’s case has meant to me over the past five years. This was truly a monumental task, given the sheer amount of reluctance and ambivalence I had going into this.

Thank you, Jenna, for your time, talent, and compassion. Thanks also to Renee Jones Schneider for her wonderful photos and videography.

The full story can be found here:


How I got started blogging about Jacob…

In 2011, I turned 44 years old and found myself teetering on the edge of a full-blown mid-life crisis. I was happily married, the mother of two teenage boys, and co-owner of my own business. Life was good, but like most 40-somethings, I started to question whether I was doing the right thing with the gifts I’d been given. I wanted to use my talents to make a difference in the world. The more I thought about it, the more it bugged me.

Writing has always been “my thing.” I graduated from the U of M in 1989 with a degree in Journalism and was hell-bent on getting a copywriting job at a big downtown ad agency. It didn’t happen. I ended up taking a job at a recruitment ad agency writing help-wanted ads. It was awful. After less than a year, I quit and had no idea what to do next.

Long story short, a college friend of mine invited me out to Spicer to do some freelance copywriting for her graphic design business over the summer. A few months later, I bought into the business and we co-founded our own ad agency. We did that for 20 years, and in 2011, I finally said… I need to write. I sold my half of the business, took a leap of faith, and waited for the net to appear.

By then, I had already been blogging for about a year and had found a huge passion for it. My first blog story was about a mysterious beach house I discovered on Longboat Key, Florida called “Villa am Meer.” It turned into an epic tale, and I gained several new followers as the story unfolded online.

Not long after that story came to a close, I was looking for a new mystery to write about and started wondering about Jacob. I had just begun researching his case when all of a sudden there was breaking news that authorities were digging at a farm property just up the road from the Wetterling house. The timing was so uncanny, I decided it must be a sign. I began researching the case with renewed interest. The big farm search yielded no new information, so on October 23, 2010, one day after the 21st anniversary of Jacob’s disappearance, I decided to drive up to St. Joseph to “get the lay of the land.” I’d never been there before in my life, even though it’s only a 40 minute drive from my house. I visited the site where the kidnapping took place, and felt… well, all kinds of things. I was sad, angry, horrified, confused. I thought about my own boys, and my heart absolutely ached for the Wetterling family. I stared at that spot and suddenly felt this overwhelming urge to understand exactly what happened there. I thought if I could just go back to the beginning and talk to people who had a direct connection to the case. maybe, just maybe… it might somehow help.

So, that’s what I did. I began blogging about Jacob’s case, and people started chiming in. I worked very hard at getting the facts straight and making sure the people I interviewed had a chance to review the information before I published it. Some were more receptive to talking to me than others. But, the more I wrote, the more people started noticing. One story led to another, and eventually I started to earn people’s trust.

How I met Patty…

I met Patty Wetterling at a charity fundraiser I attended for work. In November of 2012, I took a new job as the head of marketing and public relations for a local hospital. Much as I loved blogging, I quickly learned it didn’t pay the bills. My new position afforded me a way to continue doing what I loved and still put my sons through college.

Patty was the keynote speaker at the annual “Hope for Tomorrow Gala and Auction” for Safe Avenues in Willmar. Safe Avenues provides emergency housing for families of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. I introduced myself to Patty just as she was preparing to leave. We exchanged cards and then spoke on the phone the next day. And that’s when everything got really “real.” I found myself on the phone with Jacob’s mom, trying hard to assure her that I was just a nice, normal person who cared very deeply about finding out what happened to her son. Even to myself, it sounded ridiculous. I hung up and thought. oh my God, she probably thinks I’m a stalker.

I was right. She did.

It wasn’t until after I found Jared that she finally put her foot down and went into “mama bear mode.” She was very honest with me about how it felt for her and her family to have a relative stranger come into their lives and start questioning people all around them. She was absolutely right… it made me feel like a real creeper. But, I didn’t know how to fix it. By then, I had already met Jared and shown him the article about the Paynesville incidents. He was all fired up and wanted answers. I had barely met Jared by then, but I could already tell there was no stopping that train.

But what to do about Patty. The only thing I could think to do was to tell her the truth. I wrote a very long email message that explained who I was, how I got here, and why I cared. Truth be told, I didn’t even know myself why I cared so much. All I knew is that what happened to Jacob, Jared, and all those Paynesville boys was NOT OK. It was simply NOT OK with me that someone had gotten away with this for all these years, and that they were STILL getting away with it. At the risk of sounding like a stark raving lunatic, I went on to explain that I felt I was somehow meant to help with this. I sent the message and waited for a restraining order.

Working with Jared…

Slowly, I started to earn Patty and Jerry’s trust. In time, I began to understand why they were so protective of Jared, because I suddenly found myself in the same boat. I became very protective of all the victims, wanting to protect their anonymity and their privacy. The last thing I wanted to do was re-victimize these young men, many of whom were still trying to make sense of what had happened to them.

Jared was the key to making this work. Whereas I tended to tread lightly, he was much bolder in his approach to finding victims and getting them to share their stories. He introduced himself as victim himself. He bravely laid it all out there, and people began responding to him. My role suddenly went from captain to scribe. He would make the initial contact, then refer people to me for follow-up. I took copious notes, and together we started to realize there were a lot more than just those original five incidents that were reported in the 1987 article of the Paynesville Press. I reported our findings on my blog on October 22, 2013… the 24th anniversary of Jacob’s abduction. However, it wasn’t until I put together a Google map showing all the different locations of the Paynesville incidents that things started to feel increasingly significant. And important.

Jared began working in earnest with investigators to try and get answers. My blog article about the Paynesville incidents led to an unexpected frenzy of news coverage. While investigators were quick to explain that the Paynesville incidents had already been investigated, it was evident that most people… including the Wetterlings themselves… knew nothing about them. I scoured archived newspaper articles and the only mention I ever found of these incidents was in the Paynesville Press itself. As far as I could tell, they were never mentioned by any other news media, neither before nor after Jacob’s abduction.

Where things are now…

Today, it’s hard to know what to think or do. Many people I’ve talked to over the past few years have reconnected with me recently to try and make sense of Danny Heinrich’s arrest. We are all rehashing what we know, and trying to connect dots that might somehow reveal a bigger picture. It’s paralyzing, really… this feeling that there’s nothing more I can do, and I must simply wait for the wheels of justice to turn slowly and agonizingly. But, I know there’s at least one other person who feels exactly the same way I do, and that’s Patty Wetterling. In fact, that’s how this community meeting with the residents of Paynesville came to be. It was an idea hatched from the simple need to do SOMETHING. One thing I have learned about Patty over the years is that she is not one to sit back and wait for things to happen. Instead, she MAKES things happen. She views “hope” as a verb, not a noun. and with hope, comes action. So, today, I continue to hope… and pray… that the answers will come.


NEXT: Happy Birthday Jacob…


  1. Kathy C. Harris |

    Great job!

  2. Good very early morning. I write this at about 6:25 am. I’ve been reading your blog since I heard about it through a Google search that I did on Jacobs disappearance not to long before the capture of Danny Heinrich. I was about 12 when Jacob vanished and I grew up on a farm about 20 miles north of Minneapolis. Needless to say I’ve also been a victim of child molestation by a close family friend at the time(no longer thank goodness). As the years have gone by I’ve always been wanting to do more to help solve this case! Ask any of my family members and they will tell you that I’ve followed it to a t! Maybe that’s a little bit creepy or crazy but no child should ever have to go through what Jared, Jacob, myself and the countless other children have been through or ever will go through in life. This brings me to the point of thanking you for your countless hours of time, sleepless nights and everything else you do. I have a great question for you this morning. Maybe this could bring a little bit of insight. Earlier this year you wrote about a neighborhood child who would ride his bike to the store sometimes later in the evening. Could it be possible that night when Jacob, his brother and his friend went to the store that night they were not in fact the intended targets at all? Could it be that Danny had been stalking this child for some time, and knowing that he was allowed out later in the evenings, and knowing the next day was not a school day he more than likely would be going to the store that night? So why not sit around the rural area and wait? Instead of it being that child it just happened to be Jacob Wetterling. Who I believe that you wrote had a somewhat similar appearance to the other child and none the less it was dark. This was just my thought and maybe I’m wrong and misread some of that earlier information. I do believe it was Danny Heinrich that did this but unlike Jared he didn’t let him go this time unfortunately but I pray he is alive somewhere and that Mr. Heinrich will get honest and bring Jacob home to his loving family. I know that this was long but thanks for taking the time to read this.

  3. Keep up your good work Joy. Thank you for all you do! There will be an ending to this story. I am faithful of that!

  4. Michele Barg-Knisley |

    As a Paynesville resident, and have been my entire life, I am grateful that there are people like you who care enough about others to take the time to share this.

  5. I am truly impressed by not only your writing, but your curiosity, perseverance and human empathy! Congratulations on a job well done.

  6. Nice job, Joy, your work has been quite inspirational.

    I couldn’t help but think about your experience as I read an article this morning about ‘outsiders’ solving a 50-year old math problem.

    Sometimes a fresh perspective, or perspectives from a broader group, are are required to solve tough problems. This is often uncomfortable for ‘insiders,’ but I think they can take some comfort from that fact that we are seeing this more and more often across more and more fields (with better access to info and better tools to share). A development to welcome, and not to feel too defensive about (although that’s natural, it’s hard not to). We’re all better served by more of this ‘open source’ problem solving–that’s what we need to focus on. As you have established! Well done.

  7. I have always said if I were ever missing, I would want Patty looking for me. I now add you to that list. Thank you.

  8. great work Joy but I doubt that you are done , there are definite answers still needed and I hope you will continue to search for them ,you and the local people need to keep the story in the news and alive still if you can

  9. Joy, we are all indebted to you. Please continue your great work with Patty and know the greater Minnesota community is behind you both — 100%.

  10. Excellent post Joy. Truly an illuminating and informative description of your journey from 2011 until the present with regard to the Jacob Wetterling case. I too sense that we are so much closer to resolution of this case and I pray for that for the Wetterling family. Your tireless work has made that possible. Bless you, Joy.

  11. I feel in my heart that Danny Heinrich is 100% the one who took Jacob. I have followed this story since day 1. I helped with flyers, I had a Jacob’s Hope button on my door for years and years. I truly thought I would see him one day. There was never another report in the area of another boy being attacked after Jacob was taken. He knew he went too far that time.

  12. Keep the wheels of justice turning. Keep connecting the dots. Thank you, Joy.

  13. They had Danny Heinrich in their sight in the 90’s but they just couldnt find that peice of evidence to get the ball across the goal line for the win. So what and where is that piece of evidence that links Danny Heinrich to Jacobs abduction?

  14. Good job Joy.

  15. I can see why she would have thought you were a stalker…I would have felt the same way had I been in her shoes. *And*, being compelled by curiosity for truth and justice, I would have pressed forward (same as you did), had I been in your shoes.

    I’m grateful for your writing and investigations. I was born in the late 80’s and grew up in a tiny town, just west of Alexandria. I was always told to ‘watch for unmarked, white vans, especially if they don’t have windows.’ ‘If a vehicle slows down while you’re walking/biking, you don’t have to talk to them….keep going, cross the street, or quickly find a safe place/knock on a neighbor’s door, go into the post office/the cafe, etc.’ ‘If you feel unsafe, be loud! Get passersby attention.’ And by all means, ‘you may not leave our yard or the neighbor’s yard, after dark.’

    Jacob’s name was an entity in and of itself in our community. I remember hearing about him on the news. I grew up remembering his smile, and every time this topic was brought up, my stomach would clench and churn. And I would feel forced to examine my own mortality and the possibility that it could have happened to me–to any of us.

    I guess what I’m trying to say, is that it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I faced this investigation, head on. I started Googling reliable news sources and quickly found your blog. Your blog was altogether easier to read, because you had pieced a lot of the information together (with links) while still providing critical questions and analytical thought processes to help me, as the reader, reflect on the information, myself. I have begun to ‘leave the light on for Jacob’ some nights….just because it helps to center my heart on fighting for those who are missing/exploited/or who have lost their voice. This is my purpose in life, too.

  16. Joan MacDowell |

    Thank you for your dedication to bringing Jacob home, God bless! It was not the outcome we all hoped for but now he is home and the Wetterling’s have some answers to the years of wondering.

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