Posts made in February, 2019

Finding the Ocean – The Final Chapter

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning


Today is Jacob Wetterling’s 41st birthday, so I thought it would be a fitting day to wrap up my “Finding the Ocean” story. Here goes.

In my last post, Chapter 13, I shared what I had written on September 6, 2017. It was exactly one year to the day that Danny Heinrich had confessed to killing Jacob and I was still trying to block all of it from my memory. It’s why I had taken off on this cross country road trip in the first place. I didn’t want to think about it… didn’t want to remember.

Looking back now with some fresh perspective, I’m glad I was able to be there. It was devastating and traumatizing, but I went because I felt I was somehow a part of it all. I wanted to see it through to the end, but there was definitely no “closure.” There was just raw, painful, deep SORROW for all that poor boy had to go through on that night in 1989 and all his family had to go through in the 27 years after. It was just so utterly devastating, and again, for the millionth time, I wondered whether this was better. Was the knowing better than the not knowing? Logically, I knew the answer was yes. But there, in that moment, in that courtroom, the answer was definitely no.

I’m going to finish my “Finding the Ocean” story with a journal entry I wrote on the last leg of my trip. This was the first time I had ever written about any of this, and as I read back over it now, I realize how long overdue this catharsis was.

Thank you for taking this journey with me, and for all your kind words and support. As you have probably gathered by now, Jacob is pretty special to me. He came into my life at a time when I was desperately searching for purpose, and he was my light through a very dark tunnel. He renewed my faith, my spirit, and my hope.

This journal entry picks up just after I had made it out of the Federal Courthouse after Danny Heinrich’s confession on September 6, 2016. I had finally made it back to my car after getting locked in the stairway and nearly passing out.


Journal Entry – Days 6 & 7

Somehow I made it back to my car. I sat in the parking ramp and tried to tune in to WCCO on my iPhone so I could listen to the press conference. I could have stayed, but chose not to. I just needed to get out of there.

The reception inside the parking ramp was terrible, so I started the car and headed out. I found my way to 1st Avenue and started heading northeast toward the freeway entrance on 3rd Street. I just wanted to go home. I had my iPhone connected to the Bluetooth stereo on my car, so by now, I could hear that the press conference had started. Sheriff Sanner from the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and Andy Luger, the U.S. Attorney, had just finished speaking, and now Patty was going to make a statement. I couldn’t believe it. I was in such a sorry state, barely able to drive or think, and here she was, about to make a public statement in front of millions of viewers, just moments after hearing Danny Heinrich confess to her son’s kidnapping and murder.

I wanted to see it, so I pulled over and parked across from the Loon Cafe, just as Patty was starting to speak. I was watching on my iPhone and had tears streaming down my face when all of a sudden, someone started pounding on my driver’s side window. It startled me so much, I screamed and threw my phone across the car. I turned and saw a biker pounding on my window and yelling at me to get out of the bike lane. I’m not sure if I said anything to him; I’m not sure I needed to. Between the scream and the tears, I think he felt it was best to just get back on his bike and keep going. I scrambled to retrieve my iPhone, which had landed under the passenger seat after hitting the door.

Patty spoke through tears. What hurt the most is when she said, “To us, Jacob was still alive… until we found him.” It didn’t matter that it had been 27 years. To her… to all of them… Jacob had just died that day, and with it, the hope that he would ever come home.

I sobbed. I watched life go on around me – people walking, talking, driving, biking – and I marveled at how different life felt, even though it still looked the same. Everything about who I was and who I had been felt different. What I had done had mattered. In the end, the Paynesville cases had mattered. Jared’s case had mattered, and all the research we had done together had mattered.

And then… Patty thanked us. In her darkest and most trying moment, she thanked Jared and me for what we had done. I couldn’t believe it.

After she finished speaking, I pulled back onto 1st Avenue and continued heading toward the freeway entrance on 3rd Street. Suddenly, I felt the need to hug my mom. More than anything, I just wanted to drive to her house and let her wrap her arms around me. I wanted to feel safe, and loved, and normal again.

So, that’s what I did. I drove to my parents’ home in Oak Grove, and when I walked in, my mom was standing with her back to me listening to the radio. Frank Vascellero was on WCCO Radio talking about the live press conference which had just ended. My mom turned just then, seeming to sense I was there. She wasn’t startled; it was as if she just knew it was me. She had tears streaming down her face, and so did I. All she said was, “Oh, Joy,” and then we hugged and cried for a long time. As we stood there, I heard Frank Vacellero say my name. He credited me for helping find Jacob, and then I cried harder.

My mom had been out running errands and had also been listening to the live press conference in her car. She had raced into the house and turned on the radio to catch the rest, and that’s where I found her when I walked in.

“Were you there?” she asked me.

I nodded.

I couldn’t talk about it… any of it. I didn’t mention being locked in the stairway, or almost fainting, or the biker who made me scream and throw my phone across the car. I just sat there and let her make me a toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk. Later, we opened a bottle of wine, and maybe I shared some of it. All I remember is feeling safe and loved, and so very grateful to have someone to cry with.

Later, around sunset, I was on my way home and driving through – of all places, Paynesville – when Patty called. She and Jerry were also on their way home, and they had called to check on me. They told me they were worried about me because they hadn’t seen me after the court hearing.

They were worried about me.

I marveled at these kind and caring people. In their deep grief and sadness, they had called to check on me. I didn’t tell them much, but I did mention I had gone to my parents’ house because I needed a hug from my mom. “This was the hardest day of my life,” I remember telling them.

I know that sounds hard to believe, and even harder to explain. I had been through death before – the loss of children, tragedy and grief – but nothing like this. I had never been through evil before. A child – a happy, smiling child with blue eyes and a yellow sweater – was gone because of one man’s evil and selfish act. And to have lived with it for all this time without telling anyone – to watch this family suffer for 27 years – that was incomprehensible to me.

Patty thanked me then. She said if it wasn’t for me, this day would have never come. Through tears, I said something then that even surprised me. “It wasn’t me, Patty,” I said. “It was God.”

I couldn’t believe I’d said it, but I believed it all the way down to my core. And, in that moment, I knew they believed it, too.

“It was God, and you, and me, and Jared, and everyone,” she said. “We all helped bring Jacob home. We all mattered.”


I’m done with this chapter now. After sitting at that picnic table on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation – after finally telling this story and putting all these words and feelings down on paper – I can finally think about that day without crying. (Well, without crying as hard or as often, anyway.)

I made it to Jackson Hole around 7 PM and had a great time drinking wine with Inger and her daughter, Annika. We laughed and reminisced and watched our dogs play. All felt right with the world again, and it was such good therapy on a really hard day. (Thanks Inger and Annika!)

One more thing, and probably the most important thing. I left Jackson Hole on Thursday, September 7th and started heading to Whitefish, Montana to meet Ross. He and his brother, Rob had driven their 81-year-old dad out to Whitefish to visit his sister who was suffering from Alzheimers. I pulled into the Rocky Mountain Lodge where they were staying just before 10 PM. Ross was waiting for me in the parking lot as I arrived, and as I rolled down the window to talk to him, Zoey leaped all the way from the back seat as soon as she heard his voice. Her tail wouldn’t stop wagging.

I parked the car, got out and gave Ross a huge hug and a kiss. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been so grateful and excited to see him. He is so supportive and understanding of all my “crazy.” I can’t think of another husband who would be so understanding when his wife tells him on the Friday of Labor Day weekend that she is taking the dog and going to find the ocean. How truly crazy is that? But, he gets me, and he let me go.

So, off I went, without telling a soul because I didn’t want to explain it to anybody. Honestly, I couldn’t even explain it to myself. It started as a bucket list thing and ended up as something so much deeper.

Life is, indeed, a journey. Every milestone I’ve passed up to this point, every bump in the road, every missed turn, and every sweeping breathtaking view has brought me to where I am now. It all mattered, and it all made a difference. And sometimes, by running away for a few days, you actually end up closer to where you’re really going.

Biggest lesson? Follow your heart, believe, and focus on the love. These are the things that have brought me to where I am today.

I’m not sure what my next story is yet. I spent a long time researching the names on that big rock, thinking it might be fun to find those people’s descendants and see if they knew about Register Rock along the Oregon Trail. I didn’t get very far though, so not sure on that one.

We’ll see what comes up…

Read More