The Jacob Wetterling Documentary

Back in August of 2015, just weeks before Danny Heinrich was arrested as a suspect in Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapping, a local filmmaker approached Patty Wetterling with the idea of making a documentary about Jacob’s story. His name was Chris Newberry and they were just in the early talking phases at that point. After a few more conversations, the Wetterlings agreed to let Chris begin filming later that fall.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

From the very first day Chris began filming, he was right there in the thick of it, recording and watching history unfold as the mystery of Jacob’s 27-year-old disappearance came to a painful and dramatic conclusion.

Now, three and a half years later, Chris Newberry is finally nearing the completion of his documentary film. While filming for the “Jacob Wetterling Documentary” (a working title) is starting to wrap up, Chris and his team will soon begin the arduous process of editing together hundreds of hours of video footage in order to prepare a rough cut for potential distributors.

That takes time. And money.

Chris and his team just launched a fundraising campaign this week with a goal of raising $60,000 to help complete the film. It has been a labor of love – a legacy project for Jacob – and many of us have poured our hearts out onscreen trying to explain how Jacob’s disappearance not only changed the world, but also changed us.

JACOB WETTERLING DOCUMENTARY on GoFundMe

For those of you who have followed Jacob’s story on my blog, this is your chance to support the film and contribute to Jacob Wetterling’s ongoing legacy. I promise I have no financial interest in this film, nor do the Wetterlings, nor anyone else for that matter. It’s simply a story that needs to be told, and with our help, Chris Newberry and his team can enter the final phase of production to get it done.

Click here to contribute to the GoFundMe campaign

When Chris told me he was going to launch a crowdsourcing campaign to help fund the film, I admit I was apprehensive. I know very little about the film industry or how these things work, so I had a lot of questions. He graciously took the time to answer all of them for me and asked for nothing in return. He is a kind, caring, honest person who has put much of his own heart and soul into this project.

I thought long and hard before deciding to write this article. I hate asking people for money, but I so want to see this film get done… and get done right. I also figured if I had a lot of questions, others would, too, so I asked Chris if he would mind if I interviewed him for an article on my blog. Again, he graciously agreed.

This seems like a huge story with a lot of interest. Why do you need funding? Is this common?

We’re an independent filmmaking team based in Minnesota, so we’re not a Hollywood entity coming in from out of town trying to tell a story from the heartland. This is a hometown story for us because we live here. Jacob is one of us.

Being an independent documentary crew, our resources are very minimal. We’ve been working on this project for three and a half years, and, to date, it’s mostly been through blood, sweat, and tears.  We received a little bit of funding early on from the Minnesota State Arts Board, but that was spent long ago.

We believe in Jacob’s story, and we hope that someday it’s going to find a bigger audience on a national platform. We can’t depend on that though. For an independent documentary of such a large scale, it’s pretty common to claw your way to this point and then have to pause and start fundraising when the expenses start to mount.

Our hope is that once we get a rough cut edited, we’ll get to a stage where resources will be easier to come by, once broadcasters and funders can see the vision. There are so many true crime stories out there right now, the field can be very competitive. However, so many of them focus their attention on the more sensational films and series. What we’re trying to do is something with integrity.

Assuming you reach your fundraising goal, how will the funds be used?

We are putting together a high quality film that we want everyone to be proud of once it’s done. That takes a lot of experience, plus the tools to do it, and that’s where the expenses come in. 

Our first step will be to hire an experienced film editor who can help us pull everything together to make this the best possible film it can be.

Why crowdfunding?

From previous experience raising money for films, it takes a multi-faceted approach with many different options for support. Crowdfunding is just one of them. We know Jacob’s story has touched so many people, especially in Minnesota, so it seemed like a natural fit. Many Minnesotans have sort of “adopted” Jacob after following his story for so many years. This is their chance to show their support. We wanted to giving everybody a chance to have a part in the making of this film.

Starting in May, we’ll also be hosting a series of Trailer Release Parties to help raise additional funds for the film. Each event will feature an exclusive sneak peek of the new film, as well as speakers from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (or other local child advocacy groups) and a conversation with the filmmakers.

Click here to view the list of trailer release parties and to buy tickets.

Are contributions tax deductible?

For those who wish to make a larger donation and get a tax deduction, we are set up to do that. Larger donors can make their contribution through FilmNorth, our fiscal sponsor. They are a 501(c)(3). More information is available on the Contribute page of our website.

Why do you feel you are the right person to tell this story?

I’m a Minnesota kid, born and raised here. I currently live in Minneapolis with my wife and two daughters. I was 14 when Jacob was abducted, and I remember it well. I watched the whole thing unfold on the news back in 1989, and it really affected me. The mystery of what happened to Jacob was always with me, just like it was for most Minnesotans. 

I’d like to believe I have the compassion and sensitivity to navigate the telling of the story. My first contact was Alison Feigh at the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. There was a billboard campaign back in the fall of 2014 surrounding the 25 year anniversary of Jacob’s disappearance. I researched his case for almost a year before I finally got up the nerve in August of 2015 to send a cold email to Alison. Bless her soul, she got back to me within a half hour, and five days later, I was sitting down with Patty and Alison in Minneapolis and having a “getting to know you” meeting.

What do you think it is about Jacob’s story that made people have the kind or response that they did? Why has it resonated all these years? Why has Minnesota rallied around this family?

Many people told me it had a lot to do with Jacob’s photo… his electric, magnetic smile. That school photo of him in his gold sweater is such a recognizable image, it helped form a connection for the wider public and made us all empathize for Jacob and his family. We all wanted to find out what happened to this boy.

Another factor is the circumstances of the case. Sadly, there are thousands of missing children in the U.S., but very few of their stories involve such chilling details as Jacob’s. He was kidnapped by a stranger, a masked gunman who came out of the shadows and stole Jacob away right off his own street. His younger brother and best friend were with him when it happened, so we knew it was real because there were eyewitness accounts. If you wrote it in a novel, it almost sounds too far-fetched, but it really happened, right here in small town Minnesota.

And, of course, the other key resonating factor is Patty. The story of how this unassuming person rose up and became this national advocate for missing and exploited children may have just as much to do with the public’s attachment to this story as Jacob himself.

Are the Wetterlings supportive of this project?

Yes. It was really important to me, right from the beginning, to get the Wetterlings’ blessing. It was also important to me to hear the story in Patty and Jerry’s own words, and I feel really fortunate that this journey has allowed me to spend many, many hours on several different occasions speaking one-on-one with them. At this point, we’ve formed a pretty substantial bond that’s built on trust. I feel like I have an incredible responsibility to several people in the film who’ve given up their time, and also shared their deeply emotional feelings with me. I feel very honored to have been given all this access.

When will the film be completed?

We hope to have a rough cut completed by the end of the year, with the final version available in mid 2020. We’re doing our best to get it done as soon as possible, and that’s where the community’s support comes in.

Anything else you’d like to add?

When I first started this project, I always considered Jacob Wetterling a household name because it is here in Minnesota. But, when I started interacting with people around the country, I started to realize Jacob’s story wasn’t as familiar to people outside the state. Even though it’s been almost 30 years, this is a story that is still in need of a national platform. It needs to be told.

There are all these inspiring people at the center of the story, none moreso than Patty herself, but there are also all these others who are doing good work in Jacob’s name. They are Minnesota treasures, and people across the country don’t know their stories. So, to me, I want to share Jacob’s story with the world, but also to raise up the profiles of some of these other people so Americans can be inspired by the examples they’ve set. 

You can show your support for this film by making a contribution of any amount to Chris Newberry’s GoFundMe campaign…

Thank you for your support!
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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…

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 13

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


First, I know it’s been a while since my last post… almost a month, in fact. Sorry about that. I think I’ve been putting off this post because I knew it would be hard to write, but for those of you who have followed me on this journey, I sincerely thank you for hanging around and being patient with me.

Second… JAYME CLOSS. I get goosebumps just typing her name. At the end of my last blog post (published 12/27/2018), I mentioned Jayme, the 13 year old girl who had gone missing from her small Barron, Wisconsin home on October 15th. For almost three months, everyone had been frantically searching and praying for Jayme, whose parents had both been found shot to death in their home on the same night she went missing. The details were frightening and her successful recovery seemed grim, but still… hope remained.

Eighty-eight days later, my husband and I were watching Mom on CBS when I noticed a crawler going across the bottom of the TV screen. I though I’d seen something about “Barron,” but that’s all I caught. I grabbed the remote from Ross and rewound the DVR, carefully reading the entire news crawler from the beginning.

Jayme Closs had been found. Alive.

Ross and I stared at each other in complete shock and amazement. I couldn’t believe it and was overcome with sheer BLITHERING happiness. I just kept repeating, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! I’m so happy!!”

Minutes later I received a joyful text from Patty: “Jayme Closs found alive! I was right! I knew she was alive!” She and Jerry just happened to be in Washington D.C. when they got the news. Patty was there to attend a Board Meeting for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, so just imagine her excitement the next day when she got to enter that building and celebrate with all her NCMEC colleagues. Patty said the energy was absolutely electric. It’s what these people go to work for every day… to bring kids home safe and alive.

Score one for the good guys!!

To Jayme’s credit, she was the one who finally found the courage to escape and save herself. For this brave act, Jennie-O Turkey, who had been the employer of both Jayme’s parents before they were killed, donated the $25,000 it had offered in reward money to Jayme, herself. I just have to say, Jennie-O is an amazing philanthropic company founded and headquartered right here in Willmar, Minnesota, and I am so proud of them for their unwavering support and generosity throughout this highly emotional rollercoaster.

Today, I send continued prayers for Jayme as she continues to heal and navigate her way through a new normal. She will probably never know how much her safe return meant to all of us who followed her case and desperately prayed for a happy outcome. Kudos to all. We really needed this.


OK. Back to September 6, 2017.

Ugh. September 6th. Talk about swinging the pendulum 180 degrees in the other direction.

I began writing my “Finding the Ocean” story on Labor Day Weekend, over four months ago now. It’s all been leading up to this… that horrible day in the courtroom on September 6, 2016… a day that I desperately wanted to forget. It’s the whole reason I took off to go find the ocean in the first place. I didn’t want to dwell on what had happened that day. Instead, I wanted to replace those bad Labor Day memories with good ones, so with very little planning or forethought, I packed a bag, a few groceries, and my 5-year old black lab, then hopped in the car, and started navigating my way west until I hit the ocean.

Here’s the rest of that story.

I woke up on September 6, 2017 at a Super 8 in Twin Falls, Idaho. I was on my way to meet my husband Ross in Whitefish, Montana the following day (Thursday), but first, I was hoping to swing through Jackson Hole, Wyoming to visit my friend, Inger. I sent her the following email at 9:03 AM that morning:

Hi Inger!
Are you busy later today? I’m currently in Twin Falls, ID and will be swinging through Jackson Hole later today. I’d love to have a glass of wine with you if you’re around!!

Her reply a few minutes later:

OMG! Would love that! Keep me posted as to when you’ll be “swinging by”!!

I love spontaneous friends.

Around 11 AM, Zoey and I hopped back into the Explorer and set our sights on Jackson Hole. I couldn’t wait to get there… to be able to sit and unwind with a glass of wine and have a real face-to-face conversation with someone besides my dog. Heaven.

I smiled as I remembered all the fun and crazy times I’d had in Jackson Hole over the years. It began in college when my friend, Betsy, invited me to go skiing with her over Christmas break one year. I said sure, without asking for any further details. It wasn’t until we were in the car somewhere in the middle of South Dakota that I found out we were actually on our way to Wyoming and not Colorado. I had no idea people could ski in Wyoming, but… whatever.

A few years earlier, Inger had also gone on a ski trip to Wyoming with Betsy. The thing is… Inger fell in love with Jackson so much, she never left. She just stayed. For many years to follow, Betsy and I would return to Jackson Hole to visit Inger for skiing, two-stepping, card-playing, pool-shooting, tire-changing, moose-spotting, START-bussing, sight-seeing, mountain-hiking, horse-riding, wine-drinking, talking, laughing, and all around poor decision-making.

Man, we had fun.

Over the years, we have all raised our kids to also love Jackson Hole, which is why I would be returning to Minnesota with a snowboard in the back of my Explorer. It had been left at Inger’s house the previous winter when my son, Jordan, went to visit Betsy’s daughter, Lainey, who was living with Inger’s family and working in Jackson at the time.

I love Jackson Hole, and it was the perfect place for me to be on this horrible day. I was sure it would bring me much healing and happiness, but first, I needed to get there.

Around noon, I had to go to the bathroom, so I veered off on an exit for a state park. At the top of the exit ramp, it showed picnic grounds to the right, with a sign that said “Register Rock Historical Site.” Perfect. I had no idea what that was, but I figured picnic grounds would have bathrooms, so I hung a right and hoped for the best.

After much winding around and heading back over the freeway, I finally found the place. It was remote and I was the only one at “said picnic grounds,” but I quickly found the bathrooms and prepared to head out again. I decided to let Zoey out for a few minutes, so while she was doing her business, I ended up glancing around a bit. What was this place? I noticed a pavilion in the distance, so I walked over to check it out.


Under the pavilion was a rock. A REALLY big rock. I moved in a little closer to read the sign.


Register Rock
After their meals were cooked and their livestock grazed, early pioneers took time to record their presence on this and other rocks in the area. The land around Register Rock was a common camping area along the Oregon and California trails. It has been preserved by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation so that the modern visitor may enjoy a landmark of the past.

Huh. Well, would you look at that. Without even realizing it, I had found myself on the Oregon Trail.

Next, I took a closer look at that rock and noticed all the names that had been carved into it. Without really understanding why, I stared at that rock for a really long time.

I wondered what life had been like for these early pioneers. From what I could recall of my days playing “Oregon Trail” at the Brooklyn Center Public Library back in the late 70s, the challenges were many. Between having to type “P-O-W” to ward off Indian attacks, trying to stay nourished to ward off dysentery, and keeping my horses fed to avoid the impending doom of foot travel, it was rough work.

I decided that these people who had inscribed their names on this rock were MY people… dreamers, doers and risk-takers. Just as I had asked myself before starting my own journey, I’m sure they had asked themselves the very same thing before starting theirs… “How hard can it be?” I liked their spirit.

As Zoey and I headed back to the car, I stopped to read one more small sign.

The Indian head and preacher head carved on this rock and dated 1866 is the work of J.J. Hansen at age seven. At this time he was traveling along the Oregon Trail with his parents to Portland, Oregon. In 1908, after becoming a sculptor, he returned to review his work. During this visit he again dated the rock under the Indian carving.
Indian head
Preacher head

Time to move on, but I will come back to this later.

I don’t know what it was about Register Rock, or the Oregon Trail, or September 6th in general, but suddenly, I was a train wreck. I got back in the car and started driving, but for the next 45 miles, all I could do was cry. I had avoided thinking about any of it for the past five days, and now, suddenly, after staring at a giant rock in the middle of absolutely nowhere, there it was.

With tears still streaming down my face, I finally decided to pull off the freeway just past Pocatello. I needed to get a hold of myself. I couldn’t show up at Inger’s doorstep in this sorry state. I needed to sit for a minute. I needed to write.

So, for the next hour and a half, that’s exactly what I did. I found a picnic table just outside a convenience store on the Shoshone Bannock Indian Reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho. I went inside, bought myself a Diet Coke and a box of Hot Tamales, sat down at the picnic table with Zoey by my side… and I wrote.

I never really intended to share what I wrote that day at the picnic table, but after much deliberation, I decided to just go ahead and do it. So… here we go.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017 – 1:00 PM

I left Twin Falls, Idaho this morning around 11 AM and have been driving along on I-84 for the past two hours, heading toward Jackson Hole.

I’ve had a lot of alone time on this trip… lots of time to process and think. I am so grateful for this opportunity, but mostly, I am so incredibly grateful to have an understanding husband who supports me in these crazy endeavors. I must admit, this one may just be the craziest.

I suppose that’s why I didn’t tell anyone I was doing this until I actually did it. I didn’t even know myself that I was really doing it until I suddenly found myself piling a few items of clothing on my bed on Friday. That’s how it started. With five pairs of underwear and a swimsuit… and no plan whatsoever. Except, to get in my car and drive until I hit the ocean.

This has been a great trip. A lot of driving… but so worth it. Zoey has been a great companion, and she makes me smile every single day.

I am so grateful. But today… I am so sad.

It snuck up on me. I knew this Labor Day weekend would be hard, which is (I think) half the reason why I decided to just up and do this thing. When I talked to Patty last week, she mentioned that she wasn’t going to let Danny Heinrich ruin Labor Day weekend for them, too. October 22nd is hard enough… that’s all he gets. They’re keeping Labor Day weekend.

I thought that was great advice, so I decided to follow their lead. Instead of focusing on the sadness of this weekend, I decided to do something fun, and memorable. So, I decided to take off and find the ocean.

But today… this day… September 6th.  Dammit. I thought I had a handle on this, but I guess I don’t.

So, right now, here I am sitting at a picnic table on the Shoshone Bannock Indian Reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho. There’s a small grocery store, a gas station, and a casino in this tiny town. And a picnic table. Right now, I just need a minute to sit here with my laptop at this picnic table.

I’m on my way to visit my friend Inger in Jackson Hole. I only told her this morning that I was coming because I wasn’t really sure if I’d be stopping or not. She was so excited to hear I was coming and she can’t wait to hear all about this crazy “bucket list trip” of mine. Soon, there will be lots of wine and laughter. But first, I need to get this out of my system. 

It was exactly one year ago today… September 6, 2016. I was all alone in that courtroom when Danny Heinrich confessed to killing Jacob.

Of course, I wasn’t alone-alone. Jane Straub and Alison Feigh from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center were on my right, but I had only briefly met them on the day we left for the Wilderness Trek just a few weeks earlier. On my left, there was a random couple who entered late, after the press had taken their seats, so I assumed they were just part of the general public. What kind of people wait outside the courthouse for a chance to witness something like this? I hated them and wished they were sitting anywhere but next to me.

My people… the ones I knew and loved… were sitting in the front row. I had watched them enter single-file from a door behind the judge’s bench. They came in, sat down, and stared blankly ahead.

I wanted to leave then. More than anything, at that moment, I just wanted to bolt. But, I couldn’t. The room was deadly silent. I was stuck.

And then… it started. That horrible man with his horrible voice. 

“Yes, your honor.” 

“No, your honor.”

That horrible monotone voice. Over and over.

And then… the true horribleness began. 

I stared at that seal on the wall above the judge and tried not to hear what they were saying. It was an eagle. He was holding a leafy branch with one foot and a bunch of arrows with the other. I stared at that eagle with tears streaming down my cheeks. And when I couldn’t stare at that eagle anymore, I shut my eyes and wished I was anywhere but there.

After it was over, I walked out. Everyone was crying and hugging, but I didn’t know anyone. I had never felt so alone in all my life. I just wanted to leave.

I got in line for the elevator, but when I looked up briefly, I realized everyone was looking at me. They were all reporters, and the last thing I wanted was to get stuck in an elevator with a bunch of reporters.

I glanced around and noticed a sign for the stairway, so I made a beeline in that direction. The door closed behind me, and it was blissfully quiet and peaceful. I started to cry again as I began my descent.

I went down four flights of stairs and realized I was still only on the 13th floor. I’d forgotten we’d taken the elevator to the 14th floor. I wasn’t going to walk down 14 flights of stairs (or 56, considering there were four flights per floor), so I decided to get off at the 13th floor and just take the elevator from there. I’d wait a bit to make sure most of the reporters were already down.

I tried the door and found it was locked. Crap. I wondered what was so important on the 13th floor that required them to keep the door locked. I went down another four flights of stairs and found the door for the 12th floor was also locked. Crap, crap, crap.

I turned around and went back up the eight floors to the 14th floor again. As I reached to grab the handle, I realized it was locked, too.

Are you kidding me??! I was locked in the stairway of the U.S. Federal Courthouse.

I sat down on the steps and started to cry.

As I sat there, sobbing and cursing my own stupidity, the lights in the stairwell started to go out. First, the ones two flights in front of me went out. Then, one flight in front of me. I realized they must be on a timer. I stood up and waved my arms, terrified that the light above me would soon go out and I’d be drenched in darkness.

I started walking. One flight, two flights, three flights, four flights. It went on and on. No air conditioning. I was so shaky and nauseous, I was sure I was about to pass out, but every time I stopped to sit down, the lights would go out again. I kept walking.

By the time I finally made it down the last flight, I blasted out the door and found myself on a random downtown sidewalk. I had no idea where I was. I started walking and tried to get my bearings. I walked two blocks before I realized I was going the wrong direction. It was so hot. My ears were ringing. I leaned against a building, and tried not to pass out.

I kept walking. Every time I found a bit of shade, I stopped. When I finally made it back to the courthouse, I realized there were media vans surrounding the entire front of it. I turned and walked several blocks the opposite direction to avoid them. Somehow, I made it back to my car without passing out.

I haven’t been able to think about that day without crying. Still. When people try to talk to me about it, I cry. Every time, no matter who it is.

For the life of me, I just can’t get a grip on this.

I didn’t realize I’d be “thinking Jacob” so much on this trip. I spot references everywhere. “Be kind” on a billboard outside of Sioux Falls. “Create joy” on a brochure they handed me at my hotel. The #11 spray-painted on the back a road sign in Rapid City. 

And an eagle standing on a road sign near Watertown, spreading its wings, facing the wind, and drying its feathers after a brief rain shower.

So now, here I am again, alone on this day, sitting at a picnic table at the Shoshone Bannock Trading Post, with Zoey by my side.

It’s been a year. I want to quit crying. Or, maybe I just want to understand why I can’t quit crying. Maybe I never will.

But, for now, I am just so grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spread my own wings, face the wind, and try to dry off a bit.

Thanks, God. Thanks, Jacob. Thanks for choosing me.

Now, then. 

On to Jackson Hole.


Next time… the final chapter…

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Finding the Ocean – Interrupted #2

Before I continue with my “Finding the Ocean” story, I want to acknowledge something pretty big and monumental that happened yesterday. Jared Scheierl, the “other boy” in the Jacob Wetterling case (the one from Cold Spring who was abducted and sexually assaulted just nine months before Jacob), finally got some vindication in his own case.

Yesterday, a Stearns County District Court Judge awarded Jared $17 million in a civil lawsuit against Danny Heinrich. And though Jared will likely never see any of that money since Heinrich has no assets, it was an important win, nonetheless. For Jared, it’s the first time he’s ever had a chance to hold Danny Heinrich accountable for what he did to him on January 13, 1989.

Jared is a good friend and we have been through a lot together on this journey. During the time we were working together and  trying to get answers for both him and the Wetterlings, we knew the statute of limitations had run out on his childhood assault. However, we’d been told there was no statute of limitations on kidnapping, so, all along Jared thought he had a criminal case of his own to pursue. He thought that one day he would have his day in court.

That turned out to be untrue.

In 1989, the year Jared was kidnapped, Minnesota did indeed have a statute of limitations on kidnapping. Unbelievably, it was only three years. On a federal level, the limit was five years. So, either way, the expiration for filing a criminal lawsuit for kidnapping had long since passed by the time Jared and I started looking into his case. That came as a sucker punch when Jared finally learned this hard truth in 2015.

But, thankfully (and somewhat miraculously) he had another option. In 2013, the State of Minnesota enacted the Child Victims Act, a new law that allowed victims of child sexual abuse a three-year window of opportunity to file a civil case, regardless of when the crime had been committed. It was enacted, largely, to address the many cases of clergy abuse that had taken place within the Catholic church. Jared qualified to file a civil lawsuit under this new act, which had a filing deadline of May 25, 2016.

So early in 2016, just months after Danny Heinrich had been arrested on child pornography charges, Jared retained his own lawyer, Doug Kelley, who agreed to represent him pro bono in this case.

That was almost three years ago.

And yesterday, they finally won.

It’s been a long, grueling journey, and I will admit there have been many times I have struggled to understand Jared’s need to move forward with this case. I questioned why he would want to put himself through all the agony if there was no money to be made. But, he was adamant. He wanted his day in court. He felt very strongly that Danny Heinrich needed to be held accountable for what he had done to him.

It took me a long time to understand this, and it probably wasn’t until Jared took the stand in his own civil case that I actually started to get it.

Yesterday’s ruling was important… not only for Jared, but for all victims of childhood sexual assault.

First, it gave Jared some sense of power back. For almost 30 years, he has been a vicim of Danny Heinrich. In 1989, he was powerless to fight back as a 12 year old child, and then, because of ridiculous and outdated laws, he was also powerless to fight back as an adult. That all changed yesterday. Of course, Jared is well aware he will likely never see any of that $17 million, but he can rest easy knowing that Danny Heinrich will never be able to profit from what he did to him, or Jacob, or any of his other victims… not now nor any time in the future.

Second, this ruling sends a strong message. As Minnesotans, it says we will not stand for this. Aside from the physical harm and trauma that results from childhood sexual assault, there is now a clear price to pay for the lifetime of healing these children are forced to navigate and endure. It tells future perpetrators, yeah, maybe you can plea down your sentence or get out early for good behavior, but here’s the deal. You took away an innocent childhood and there is a real, monetary price for that. You brought in darkness, and confusion, and fear where there was once happiness, and wonder, and joy. You have forever altered the path of a child who will now experience a lifetime of hurt as they try to process, adjust, and overcome.

You did that, Danny Heinrich.

And for that, you will pay.

Gotcha.


Next… Finding the Ocean – Chapter 10…

 

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 7

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

 


I left Stephanie and Conrad’s house in Roy, Utah around 10:15 AM and started making my way back toward Salt Lake City. As I got closer, I started wondering what this lake actually looked like. Where was it? Would I go past it on my way?

I zoomed out on my car’s GPS screen and noticed that I would indeed be passing along the south end of Salt Lake. Awesome! I couldn’t wait to see it. I wondered if people could swim in Salt Lake. How salty was it? Were there beaches? Could Zoey go for a swim? I had no idea.

About 45 minutes later, I caught my first glimpse of the Great Salt Lake. There was a barbed wire fence that separated the road from the lake, and I noticed a lone railroad track that cut between the prairie grass and scrub brush that covered the ground for several yards. Beyond that was a long stretch of white. What was that? Salt? If so, where did the salt end and the water begin? Hmm. This isn’t exactly what I’d expected.

What I didn’t realize at the time, is that the place I was staring at was very near to the original location of “Saltair – the Coney Island of the West.” I learned this when I noticed a marker on Google Maps that said “Historic Saltair Location” while writing this article and decided to click on it. Next, I Googled “Saltair” and found this great little video that explains a bit about the history of what I was looking at. So, in answer to my own question, yes, apparently people could, and did, swim in the Great Salt Lake.

Interesting.

I continued driving and happened to notice the time. It was 11:09 AM. In two minutes, it would be 11:11, and in that moment, I immediately thought of Jared and the Wetterlings. When I first met Jared in 2013, he always used to point out when it was 11:11 and say, “Make a wish!” I never knew what he was talking about at the time, but always thought it was sweet. Of course, after Jacob was found and the #11forJacob movement took off, 11:11 took on even more meaning for me. Now, I marvel at how often I notice when the clock says 11:11, and every time, I make a wish, think of Jacob, and say a little prayer.

Now, in this moment, I began to feel very alone on this long stretch of road ahead of me. When I’d taken off on this impulsive road trip, I hadn’t told a soul what I was doing except my husband. I didn’t want to explain anything to anybody, and I didn’t want anyone to worry about me. I just wanted to get away and not think for a while. I especially didn’t want to think about what had taken place on this holiday weekend exactly one year earlier. But now, I felt really disconnected and lonely. I wondered how Jared and the Wetterlings were doing. Even though it was all painful to remember, this incredible journey was something we all went through together and we would be forever connected because of it. And in that moment, on 11:09 AM on September 3rd, 2017, I realized how much I missed them.

I pulled over to the side of the road and took this picture at exactly 11:11 AM. I sent it with the caption “11:11” to Jared, Patty, and Jerry.

I explained that Zoey and I were on a road trip and headed to the ocean. I told them I’d made it to Salt Lake so far, and when I happened to notice it was 11:11 AM, I pulled over, took a photo, and wanted to let them all know I was thinking of them.

Jared texted back to let me know that he and his girlfriend were spending the day together with their kids at Sibley State Park, not far from my home in New London. Patty and Jerry were also spending the weekend with family, and I was so happy and relieved to hear from all of them.

Next, Jared replied with the following text:

“I learned how to drive a semi-truck at age 20 on the Utah flats. Take care and safe travels everyone.”

Hmm. I never knew he’d learned how to drive a semi in Utah. I wondered what he meant by the “Utah flats.” Was I on the Utah flats? I had no idea. I got back in the car, feeling much more at peace, and continued on my way.

Oh my.

It is hard to explain the weirdness of the next 37 miles.

Again, I must stress that even though the spontaneity of my trip was, in part, the very glory of it, my incredible lack of a plan or any knowledge of where I was at any given moment in time was certainly a detriment. One year later, as I relive this road trip on Google and Google Maps, I am learning so much about what I saw (or should have seen) along the way.

Apparently, the stretch I was just entering is known as “The Bonneville Salt Flats.” Having never heard of such a thing, I can only say that it felt like driving across a frozen lake in Minnesota in mid-January. The flat ground looked like it was covered in snow for as far as the eye could see. Here’s a quick snippet from Wikipedia that explains all this a little better:

The Bonneville Salt Flats is a densely packed salt pan in Tooele County in northwestern Utah. The area is a remnant of the PleistoceneLake Bonneville and is the largest of many salt flats located west of the Great Salt Lake. The property is public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and is known for land speed records at the “Bonneville Speedway“. Access to the flats is open to the public.

Of course, I knew nothing about any of this as I continued to drive across this hot, white, not-frozen, not-lake. After a bit, I passed a big building with a logo I instantly recognized… Morton Salt. Huh. In all my days, I guess I never wondered nor realized where Morton got its salt. And now, there it was… a big white mountain of it… piled directly behind that little girl with her white umbrella and yellow dress. I took this quick picture as I flew past at 80 miles per hour (because that, my friends, is the speed limit on the Bonneville Salt Flats).

As I drove along, I kept noticing small groups of things… pipes?… sticking out of the white ground. What could that be? I passed these groups of pipes every so often, and finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to stop and see what these things were. Why were there pipes sticking out of the ground?

I pulled over again and walked over to one of the pipe groupings. Turns out, they were not pipes at all, but beer bottles turned upside down and stuck into the salty ground. What in the world was that all about? I took a picture and got back in the car.

Now that I knew what these things were, I kept spotting them more and more often. Seriously, what in the world? I could come up with no logical explanation, and made a mental note to Google it once I got home.

A year later, I don’t have much of an answer. Apparently people sometimes write their names or messages using empty beer bottles, but that’s obviously not the case here. Maybe someone stopped at each of the places where there were bottles strewn about and decided to poke them into the ground to create a series of cheap and quirky art installations. Hmm. Interesting. Again.

And, speaking of quirky art installations, holy crap. How do you explain this? I could see this odd monstrosity coming up on my right for miles, and once I finally got close enough to get a good look at it, I still had no idea what it was. I was sure it must serve some kind of purpose, like a satellite antenna, cell phone tower, or radio transmitter, but no. It’s art… in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

“The Tree of Utah” (aka “The Tree of Life”) was designed and built by Swedish sculptor, Karl Momen in the 1980s. The pieces lying on the ground (which I assumed were broken pieces of cement balls that had crashed to the ground, thus resulting in the installation of a safety fence) are actually intentional and supposed to represent leaves that have fallen from the tree. Oh, and ironically, the inscription on the trunk of the tree is from the song/poem “Ode to Joy.”

You can read more about it here.

 

By the time I reached “The Tree of Utah,” I had been driving for over three hours and just happened to glance at my gas gauge. It said I had 35 miles to go until empty. Hmm. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a gas station since I’d started my journey across this not-frozen, not-lake almost an hour and a half ago. Oh well, no worries. I was sure I’d hit the end of it soon enough.

I clipped along at 80-85 miles an hour with cars passing me like I was standing still. Another half hour went by and there was still no end to the not-frozen, not-lake. I was starting to panic a little bit. What if I ran out of gas? It was almost 90 degrees outside. There was no way I could walk, nor could I stay in a hot sweltering car with no air conditioning. Maybe I could get a ride from someone to the nearest gas station, but what about Zoey? Would they take her, too? I couldn’t leave her alone in the car in this hot salty desert.

Another fifteen minutes went by. I glanced at the gas gauge… 15 miles until empty. OMG, this was really happening. I was going to run out of gas in the middle of a desert. This is the stuff that happens in horror movies and you don’t even feel sorry for those stupid people because they deserve whatever happens to them because they should have planned better.

By the grace of God and my own dumb luck, I reached the Sinclair Truck Stop just outside of Wendover with only 13 miles left on the gas gauge. Phew! Lesson learned. After taking Zoey for a quick walk on the salty ground, I chalked it all up to a learning experience and vowed to be a little more pre-planny and logical than free-spirited and curious.

Next time… a long stretch of nothing and a creepy white van

 

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Finding the Ocean – Chapter 5

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

 


After getting my oil changed, my tire patched, and purchasing two self-inflating air mattresses, I finally left Rapid City and was back on the road.

For about an hour and a half, I continued across the rolling prairie and pine-covered hills of South Dakota and finally hit the Wyoming border around noon. The smooth four-lane highway had transitioned to a bumpy two-lane road, and I was now staring at a vast landscape of flat ranch land as far as the eye could see.

After another hour, I finally reached a town: Lusk, Wyoming, population 1,599. As I drove down the main drag trying to decide where to stop, I suddenly found myself on the outskirts of town, and then, poof… I was back on the highway again. In the blink of an eye, I had missed the entire town altogether.

I was trying to figure out where to do a U-turn when I spotted a sign for a rest area just one mile ahead. Perfect. No U-turn required.

I pulled into the Lusk Rest Area, which was very clean and lovely. It had a playground, picnic shelter, outdoor grills, and a landscaped walking path. As it turns out, this was Wyoming’s very first rest area, constructed in 1966 after the passage of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act of 1965. Interesting. I’d never heard of such a thing. If you want to learn a little more about it, click the photo and read the sign.

On my way out of the restroom, I happened to notice a flyer taped to the window of the entryway. It was grainy and a little blurry, but something about it seemed familiar, so I walked over to have a closer look.

It was a “Missing” poster for 15 year old Jasmine Block who disappeared from Alexandria, Minnesota on August 8th. I knew Jasmine’s story because it had been in our local news for the past three weeks. Jasmine had last been seen at her home in Alexandria (or “Alec” as we call it) on the night of August 8, 2017. She’d been lying on the couch in her living room, watching TV, and trying to recover from a migraine headache. Her mom, Sarah, left to attend to a family emergency, so Jasmine was home with her older sister and her sister’s boyfriend. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. When Sarah returned later that night, Jasmine was gone. She left her keys, cell phone, purse, bike, and scooter behind. Local police, Minnesota BCA, and FBI were all investigating the case. There had been searches, a reward, and pleas for information on the news, yet Jasmine still hadn’t been found.

I took a picture of the poster and tried to memorize the details so I could keep an eye out. I wondered what kind-hearted person had cared enough to tape up this flyer inside a rest area all the way out in Lusk, Wyoming. I silently thanked that kind person, then said a little prayer for Jasmine, hoping she had just run away and would return to her family very soon. (Much more on this later.)

After letting Zoey run around and sniff a bit, I got back in the car and prepared to hit the road again. Before taking off though, I took another quick look at the map on my GPS. I noticed I would be heading straight through Salt Lake City on my quest to reach the west coast, so I made another impulsive decision. My cousin’s daughter (who is more like a niece) and her husband had been living in Salt Lake City for several years and I’d never been to their house before. (For that matter, I’d never been to Salt Lake City before.) I decided it would be fun to pop in and surprise them the next morning. It was still eight hours away, so I figured I would find a nice little place to camp just outside of Salt Lake and get to their house early on Sunday. Perfect. I had a plan.

I left Lusk, Wyoming around 1:30 PM and continued to drive… and drive… and drive. It seemed like that little red arrow on my GPS barely moved as I inched across Wyoming. Still, I pressed on, snacking on carrots and celery sticks, Wheat Thins and hummus. All I could think about was a thick, juicy burger, but I kept going.

After four more bathroom breaks and 616 miles, I finally decided to call it quits. I was about an hour outside of Salt Lake City and too tired to try and find a campground. Instead, I just pulled into another rest area for the night… the Echo Canyon Welcome Center.

Trying not to look like a homeless person, I unrolled my new sleeping mat in the back of my Explorer and tried to go to sleep. No go. After about an hour of tossing and turning, I unrolled the second sleeping mat and added it to the first. A little better, but still no go. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t turn my mind off.

It was Saturday, September 3rd. Labor Day weekend.

I thought about what had transpired on this day one year earlier.

……….

I can’t sleep. As Friday turns to Saturday, I keep looking at my iPhone. First it’s 11 PM. Then it’s midnight. Then 1 AM. Then 2 AM.

Patty’s words keep ringing in my ears.

“They found him.”

It was all I could think about. Over and over, the details churn in my head. He was buried on a farm in Paynesville. We can’t say anything. It’s part of a plea deal. Heinrich’s hearing is on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. He’s unstable. Might change his mind. He needs to sign the plea deal. Need to keep it out of the media. Don’t say anything. We’ll put you on the list for Tuesday.

I watch the television all night long, terrified the media will find out. I’m amazed and irritated that Ross can sleep through anything. Finally, around 4 AM, I drift off to sleep.

I’m awakened a few hours later. The phone is ringing. It’s our landline. Hardly anyone ever calls the landline. It’s early, before 7 AM. Who would be calling this early? Must be for Ross. Where is he? He couldn’t have gone too far… he just had knee replacement surgery 12 days ago. I let the answering machine pick it up. It’s someone I used to know through work, many years ago. He says something about a crawler on the news. WCCO is reporting that Jacob Wetterling’s remains have been found.

I bolt upright, my heart pounding out of my chest. I reach for the remote and turn on channel 4.

Oh my God. It’s true. WCCO has a live crawler running across the bottom of the screen. I grab my phone and see a text from Jared. It was sent at 6:41 AM.

“Channel 5 aired the story this morning.”

What?? KSTP broke the story? How did they find out?

I switch to Channel 5 and watch the breaking news.

I am sick with worry. Who leaked the story? What if Heinrich doesn’t go through with the plea deal?

My cell phone rings. It’s Jennifer, the clerk from the Tom Thumb store who rented Jacob the movie on the night he was abducted. The two of us have become friends. I pick up the phone and can’t remember if we even got words out. I think she said something like, “Oh, Joy,” and I said, “I know.” And then we both fell apart. She is the first person I talked to.

My phone is blowing up. Reporters are requesting a comment. Friends are sending condolences. Well-wishers are sending congratulations.

I just want to crawl back into bed and pretend this isn’t happening. There should be some sense of relief, but there’s nothing. Just emptiness and sadness. Deep, profound, dark, overwhelming sadness. I can’t help but think about the Wetterlings. I worry for them and wonder how they’ll cope over the next few days. And I think to myself… my God… I did this. I took their hope away. And nothing about it feels better. It just feels so profoundly sad.

……….

Next time… an early morning sunrise and a trip to Temple Square…

 


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Finding the Ocean – Interrupted

Before I continue my “Finding the Ocean” story, I feel the need to share a few quick thoughts about the press conference and subsequent release of the Jacob Wetterling case file that happened last Thursday, September 20th.

Mostly what I want to say is… wow. That was really hard.

I’ve been sharing this story about my random 2017 road trip because it was something good and happy that turned out to be a very healing journey for me. It brought me peace and helped me replace all those bad Labor Day memories with good, happy ones. However, last week was a jarring reminder of why I’d wanted to take off in the first place. It was hard to relive and remember. In fact, it was like ripping the Band-Aid off all over again.

We have all struggled with the release of this case file… for obvious and different reasons. From my end, I dreaded to think what tips I might have shared in private that were now to be made public. It makes me wonder why anyone would EVER want to submit a tip in a criminal case, knowing their personal (and sometimes painful) information might eventually become public. These were good people who did the right thing. They responded to our pleas for help and shared their tips in good faith. Is it fair to them that their personal information should now become a part of the public record? In some cases, is that even safe?

As it turns out, very few of the tips I submitted to the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office ever made it into the case file. While I’m happy and relieved about that, it does make me wonder why. It also makes me wonder about the Paynesville incidents. They have referred to “eight cases.” Of those eight, Jared and I knew about five of them. That means there were another five cases we found on our own. That makes at least 13 Paynesville incidents in all. Heinrich said he was “involved in a couple, but not all of them.” What does that mean? Was someone else involved? I really don’t even want to think about what that might mean.

As for the press conference itself, I watched the entire thing in shock… with tears running down my cheeks much of the time. Never in a million years did I expect the new Stearns County Sheriff to lay it all out there like that… slide by slide, mistake by mistake, missed opportunity by missed opportunity. While I was happy to hear him admit fault and take responsibility, I thought it was completely unfair to “name names” and throw people under the bus the way he did. Yes, mistakes were made, but it’s not like those early investigators weren’t doing everything humanly possible to solve this case. They cared deeply and tried as hard as they could to bring Jacob home to his family. I felt that was unnecessary and unkind.

When the press conference ended, I was overcome by emotion. It was all just so heartbreaking. I couldn’t help but think, if they had just LISTENED to those Paynesville kids… if they just would have tried something, ANYTHING, to catch that guy… Jared and Jacob would have never been abducted in the first place. How incredibly sad and heartbreaking.

Now, I just want this to be over. More than anything, I just want peace for the Wetterlings, for Jared, for Paynesville, and for Dan Rassier. This has been such a long, hard journey, and I continue to struggle with my role in all of it. When will it start to feel better? I so desperately want it to get better, but right now, it all still feels really bad.

For those of you have been following my “Finding the Ocean” story, I promise chapter 5 will be coming soon. I just really needed to get this off my chest first. Thanks for listening.

Next time… a “missing” poster and a new plan

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Happy 40th Birthday, Jacob

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Dear Jacob,

Today is your 40th birthday. Forty. It’s hard for me to picture you as forty because I still see you as that smiling 11 year old boy in a gold sweater. So, to see you as 40, I have to picture myself at 40… where I was at that time in my life, what I was doing, and where I hoped to be going.

My kids were 13 and 11 at that time… about the same age you were when you disappeared. We were so busy then. Our world revolved around sports… wrestling, football, baseball. I call these the “lawn chair years” because it seems like we were constantly just folding and unfolding our lawn chairs, packing them in the car, and heading to our next game.

And then, there were the snowboarding years. My friend Diane talked me into helping her chaperone the New London-Spicer ski club that went out to Powder Ridge every Friday night. My boys both wanted to join, so I figured, what the heck. It wasn’t long before I got bored with the skiing, so I decided to give snowboarding a try. Jordan and Cole made it look so fun and easy, I figured “how hard can it be?” As it turns out, plenty hard. I crashed almost every time I got off the chair lift, and I hit my head so many times, I finally resorted to buying a helmet. But, I stuck with it, and to this day, I still consider it one of my proudest accomplishments. I took up snowboarding at age 40, and I loved it! I have a feeling you would have, too.

By far though, the biggest thing I remember about turning 40 was the surprise party my friends threw for me. It was a Friday evening and I was just getting ready to settle in for the night, when, all of a sudden, my friends Betsy, Jane B, and Jane D showed up at my door wearing matching 70s outfits. They yelled, “Happy Birthday” and told me to pack a bag… they were taking me to see Boogie Wonderland at the Medina Ballroom.

I love disco music, and Boogie Wonderland was my favorite band at the time. We dressed up every time they came to Melvin’s in Spicer, and we danced on the beach all night long. The whole town was wild for Boogie Wonderland, and even the guys… even Ross… would dress up in crazy hair and tie-dye shirts.

The girls took me back to Jane B’s house so I could change into my own 70s outfit they had bought for me. My mini-dress was slightly different than theirs… black and white Mondrian squares vs. their primary colored ones. Clearly, I was to be the leading lady of this crazy entourage.

I put on my dress, matching hat, wig, and go-go boots, and off we went to Medina. Or, so I thought. Oops… Betsy forgot the tickets… we needed to stop by her house first. I was still completely oblivious to everything until someone suggested we should all go in for a quick beer before we took off for Medina. I figured it out then, but was still completely blown away when I walked in the door. There was a group of at least 30 people, all dressed in 70s outfits.

I started laughing so hard… I couldn’t recognize a single person. I started going one-by-one, greeting each person and trying to figure out who they were. My parents were there, along with several cousins and college buddies who had all driven in from the Cities. All the Bakers were there, and Ross’s brother Paul (Mr. Conservative) had shaven off the bottom of his goatee so he had this long crazy horseshoe mustache that reached all the way down to his chin. I absolutely didn’t recognize him at all, and when I finally figured out who he was, I laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face.

I was so happy. I just couldn’t believe all the time and effort these people had gone through to make my 40th birthday so special. Most of them hate 70s disco music (or so they say), but we danced all night long… into the very wee hours. It was so incredibly fun.

So, that’s the memory I’m stuck with this morning as I think about you turning 40. I bet your friends would have thrown you a surprise party, too. I bet they would have come from far and wide for your party, just to see you smile and laugh when you got pranked. I wonder what kind of music you would have liked… which songs you would have danced to until the wee hours of the morning.

I was 11 years old when you were born. It was 1978, and I was in 6th grade… the same age you were when you disappeared. I was so happy and carefree then… I loved being 11 years old! We went to our Christmas tree farm almost every weekend, and I spent the days running and playing in the tree fields with my cousins. I think this is why I love 70s music so much. It brings me back to those times… being with my family and listening to the songs on the car radio during our hour-long car rides to and from the tree farm.

That made me wonder what songs were on the radio when you were 11. Maybe those would have been your favorites, too. So, I decided to look them up. Here’s a quick sample from Billboard’s top 100 songs of 1989:

  • Every Rose Has Its Thorn
  • Miss You Much
  • Wind Beneath My Wings
  • Right Here Waiting
  • Waiting For a Star to Fall
  • Lost In Your Eyes
  • Don’t Wanna Lose You
  • Heaven
  • Two Hearts
  • Listen to Your Heart
  • I’ll Be There for You
  • Like a Prayer
  • I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)
  • Eternal Flame
  • When I See You Smile
  • If I Could Turn Back Time

Umm… is it just me, or is that a deeply profound and ironic list of song titles?

But then, nothing surprises me anymore. Nothing is a coincidence. I am truly a different person because of you. Why? Well, here’s the deal.

Truth is, I was kind of a hot mess before you came into my life. Without even realizing it, I was in full-blown mid-life crisis by my mid-40s. I found myself searching so hard for the “next big thing,” that I seemed to have lost track of everything I had that was right in front of me.

I was feeling this intense pressure to find my true purpose… to use my gifts to make a difference. This constant feeling of unrest was making me (and everyone around me) absolutely crazy. Ultimately, that led to a downhill spiral that caused me to lose all my confidence, and without that, I didn’t even know who I was anymore. I was so far from the person I wanted to be, I didn’t think I’d ever find her again. I had become Sad Joy… a far cry from that happy, carefree 11 year old who loved to belt out 70s songs on the AM radio.

And then, you came along.

I can’t explain things very well from here on out, because I still have trouble making sense of it all. All I know is this… you saved me. You gave my life purpose and meaning. You took the pressure off. On the outside, I was insanely busy. I have no idea how I accomplished everything I did during those few years. But on the inside, I was intensely calm and focused. For the first time, I felt like I was using my gift of writing to truly make a difference. That meant everything to me. Still does.

Today may be your birthday, Jacob… but you are MY gift.

So, Happy Birthday to you on this momentous day. I’m sure your soul is shining brightly, and I imagine a big 80s surprise party for you up in heaven with everyone belting out Bobby Brown and Milli Vanilli songs. I will take your kind spirit and carry it in my heart as I continue to celebrate the rest of our Birth Month. Go Aquarius.

Peace.

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Beginnings

Wow, it’s been a while. Thanks to everyone who has sent such kind messages or inquired how I was doing. The truth is, I’ve been “thinking Jacob” for so long, it’s been hard to know what to write next… where to go with this incredible story, and how to put it to bed. So, I took the easy way out, which was to write nothing at all.

Then, a few weeks ago, a talented writer friend of mine (Heather King) contacted me to say she was starting a new bookstore in my tiny town of New London, Minnesota. She was hosting a “Story Show and Bookraiser” to announce the name, reveal the space, and collect a few used books for the store. She also invited me and a few other local writers to share an original story based on the theme, “Beginnings.” I was incredibly happy to support her in this venture, so I responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes, I’d love to!”

I wrote my story on the day I got back from our annual vacation to Longboat Key, Florida. It’s the place this blog was born… the place I first started writing about a ramshackle beach house named Villa am Meer. That irony was not lost on me as I worked on my new story for Heather’s upcoming event.

As often is the case with my writing, what I thought I was going to write about is not at all what turned up on the page. After a while, the story began to take on a life of its own, and by the time I had finished, I realized how much I had missed writing. The entire process was incredibly revealing and cathartic.

The Story Show took place last Tuesday. By the time I got up to speak, the small coffee shop where the bookstore will be co-located was completely packed with people and donated books. Heather was in her element, surrounded by all her favorite people and things, and I was so completely inspired by her for taking this leap of faith, that she reminded me of myself a few years back… a time when I, myself, had thrown caution to the wind, listened to my heart, and followed my own dream.

I cannot thank Heather King enough for kickstarting my passion again. By the time I had finished writing this little ditty for her Story Show last week, I knew exactly what I needed to do…. I needed to take the leap… one more time… and wait for the net to appear. So, with all that in my head and heart, I submitted my resignation at the hospital where I have worked as a marketing manager for the past four and a half years. I have no idea what’s next, but more than anything, I just want to write. That’s all I really know for now.

Once again (and I can’t say it enough), thanks to all of you who have followed me on this crazy journey over the past seven years. I hope you’ll continue to follow along as I venture off on the next trail.

Beginnings

By Joy Baker

It’s hard to talk about beginnings without first talking about endings. After all, isn’t one the result of the other? Isn’t there a beginning for every ending? An alpha for every omega?

It’s taken me a while to figure out that my alphas and omegas do not always line up in a neat succession. In fact, sometimes I have several alphas going on at the same time, with various betas, deltas, and gammas all mixed in. It’s a Greek alphabet soup, really… and it’s neither linear nor logical.

What I mean is… beginnings are messy. And no matter how much you plan for them, organize them, or put them off for a better time, sometimes God, life, and the universe just kick you right into a new beginning without you having any say in the matter at all.

At least, that’s what happened to me.

Back in 2010, I was dreaming of a new beginning. It was fuzzy and unfocused, and I couldn’t quite make it out… couldn’t quite picture it. But, I could FEEL it… off in the distance. Those feelings came in many forms, including unease, discontent, curiosity, and even anger. So, for a long time, I kept that new beginning at bay, ignoring it or pushing it back with a sensible slew of “No ways” and “Never gonna happens.”

And then, one day, that pesky beginning answered back, “What if?” And, “Why not?”

I realized I had no reply. And so… I began.

I started a blog and wrote about a rundown, ramshackle beach house on Longboat Key, Florida. And while my original intent was to use my blog as a simple tool to keep me writing on a regular basis, something else began to emerge… a voice, and a path. I hadn’t seen it there before… could never have even imagined it, really. But there it was… a path… narrow and tangled. And though it had no directional sign, I knew in my heart it would lead me to the next place.

But, I had a choice to make. Do I venture off on the new path? Or do I continue down the road I’m already on… the one well-traveled and familiar?

I decided to stick with what I knew. So, off I went again on my familiar, well-traveled road, until one day, I passed that narrow, tangled path again. I stopped, suddenly confused. I looked behind me… and then back ahead. What the heck? After all these years, are you telling me my familiar, well-traveled road just goes in a circle?

It was a lot to take in. And so, after a few more loops around the roundabout for old times sake, I veered off… careened off, actually… onto the narrow and tangled path.

I hadn’t been on it very long before the path started to narrow so much that I was worried I had hit a dead end. It was then I met someone along the path… a boy… named Jacob. He introduced himself to me and shared some of his story. We walked along together for a while until the path started to get a little dark and scary. When I noticed a side trail that looked a little wider and better-lit, I decided to take that path instead. Jacob and I said our good-byes at that point and I continued along by myself.

The new trail was fun and exciting, but before too long, I realized it was just a spur off the main trail. I turned around and went back the way I had come.

Jacob was waiting for me again when I got back to the main trail, but still, I wasn’t ready to head down the dark and scary part of the path. Instead, I found another side trail that kept me busy for a while. I went a little further along on this one and picked up some new skills, but again, the trail was a dead end.

I headed back and there was Jacob again, smiling from ear to ear in his bright yellow sweater. “Come on! This way!” he said, darting ahead down the dark and scary trail. I peered after him and he stopped to wait for me. “You can do it,” he said. “Just follow me, plus there are others up ahead to help us. Come on! Let’s go!”

And so… I began. Again.

I followed Jacob into the darkness, and just like he had promised, we met others along the way who helped light the path. Each time we met someone new, that person added to the light so that the path became brighter and easier to navigate.

We continued along this path for years. At times it became so tangled with overgrowth that it was hard to see. Other times, we met trolls along the path who were mean and unhelpful. They sent us down side trails that were even darker and more tangled than the previous ones. Each time that happened, we returned to the main trail scratched and exhausted, vowing not to venture off-path again.

And then, one day… there it was… the end. At first, it seemed so close, we raced ahead, our hearts thumping with exhilaration. But, soon we realized the end was farther away than we thought. It would take time, strength, patience, and willpower to get there. But, with one last burst through the dark and tangled overgrowth… finally, it was over.

We had to let Jacob run ahead at that point. He bolted into the light while the rest of us hung back and waved. And while I had always imagined there would be much joy and happiness when we finally got to the end of this trail, in reality, that wasn’t the case at all. Relief maybe… but not happiness. Never happiness.

And so, here I am now, standing with these other amazing people I met along the path. We are left reeling from that jarring ending and still wondering how to start our next new beginning. It’s hard, because none of this is neat or tidy. It’s messy, and confusing, and often, we feel profoundly sad and lost. But, I know there’s another pesky beginning waiting off in the distance. I can feel it… just like last time. The trick is, to be ready when it pops out of the big messy middle.

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Sentencing

PHOTO CREDIT: Renee JonesSchneider, Minneapolis StarTribune,

PHOTO CREDIT: Renee JonesSchneider, Minneapolis StarTribune,

Yesterday, my husband Ross and I attended Danny Heinrich’s sentencing at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Minneapolis. I wasn’t sure if I could do it again… not after attending Heinrich’s hearing on September 6th when he described in horrifying detail what he had done to Jacob. That day was truly a nightmare, and even after all these weeks, I still struggle to push those awful images from my head.

But yesterday… yesterday was different. This time, the victims were in the driver’s seat, and each one had a chance to speak their own truth. Jared, Aaron, Trevor, Carmen, Amy, Jerry, and Patty each delivered victim impact statements that were soul crushing, raw, and real. But it wasn’t all sad. The statements were also powerful, awe-inspiring, and strong. Many times, when I wasn’t choking back tears, I had to check myself so I wouldn’t jump up and clap.

Ross and I met the rest of the group in the café off the lobby at 9am. We waited as a U.S. Marshal checked our names off a list that the Wetterlings had provided for them. After passing through a metal detector and having our bags and belts checked, we took the elevator to the 15th floor and waited with about 60 other people. Patty and Jerry’s siblings were there, along with nieces, nephews, cousins, and close family friends. Aaron’s parents, Vic and Fran, were both there, along with Alison and Jane from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. I said hi to Jacob’s friend, Tim, from the Wilderness Trek, as well as Rochelle, the babysitter, who was watching Carmen the night the boys went to rent their video from the Tom Thumb.

Jared’s siblings were also there in full force… Belinda, Corey, Colby, and his identical twin brother, Jed. Beside them, six of the Paynesville victims/survivors had also come to show their support. They stood in quiet solidarity, waiting for their opportunity to not only catch a glimpse of Danny Heinrich, but also to begin their own journey toward healing.

About quarter to nine, a U.S. Marshal escorted us into the courtroom. Ross and I filed into the third bench on the left, surrounded by Jared’s siblings to the right of us and the ladies from JWRC on the left. Behind us, the Paynesville survivors and their significant others filled the entire row.

Once we were seated, members of the media were invited in and took their seats in the two benches directly in front of us. Law enforcement officers and other members of the media filled in the remaining benches along the back wall of the courtroom.

Just minutes before 9am, a door behind the judge’s bench opened and a U.S. Marshal led the Wetterling family, Jared, Aaron, and their significant others to the first bench on the right. Immediately after that, Danny Heinrich was escorted in from a door on the left and took his seat at a table in front of us, next to his attorneys.

“All rise.”

Judge Tunheim entered and took his seat at the bench. He pounded his gavel, bringing the court in session.

He greeted the attorneys, then spoke directly to Danny Heinrich.

THE COURT: Mr. Heinrich, how are you today?
THE DEFENDANT: Fine.

Judge Tunheim then went through the sentencing guidelines for the child pornography charge and briefly addressed the details of the plea agreement.

Finally, the judge asked if there were victims who wished to speak.

MS. ALLYN: Yes, Your Honor.

Jared went first. With attorney Doug Kelley at his side, Jared stood cool as a cucumber, no notes, and spoke to the court.

—-

JARED SCHEIERL: I came here today to give a statement, something I have been waiting for for a long time. At times I thought that this day may never come, but it’s here. We’re here today to hear the level of pain and trauma that Danny Heinrich has inflicted on a number of people through the course of 27 years or longer.

I have submitted a written statement as well that expresses a lot of details pertaining to the night that Danny Heinrich abducted me.

THE COURT: And I read your statement. I appreciated receiving it.

JARED SCHEIERL: And that being said, a victim of physical, verbal and sexual assault, I was left that night to deal with a lot of emotions, a lot of questions and trying to seek clarity in my own life along the way. That being said, a few years ago somebody came to me curious about trying to understand this complex case, and I agreed to share my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions, everything that is involved with all of this.

And through that process, I realized that there are a heck of a lot of people that generally care about the humanity or — humanity in our society and all that, but I’ve met a lot of amazing people along the way as well, and I’m grateful for those people that have come into my life and have given me the support and the reassurance and strength that I need to maintain a normal life. I recognize my blessings in life, and I choose to go through life having few regrets on the decisions that I make.

The idea that, after today, after hearing the testimonies and statements from the Wetterling family and also recognizing the other victims associated in all of this that aren’t being heard today, I can say that this is just one more step in gaining closure to an incident in my life that has defined me in many ways.

And to make it short, I understand that Danny Heinrich has an opportunity to speak to the Court today. I’ll have him know that I personally will be walking out at that time for the fact that he should know that the words that he had spoke to me on that evening haunted me for years, and I don’t choose to hear anything he wishes to say at this time. I would like him, on a final note, I would just simply like to say to him, there is nothing uncommon about common sense. I just wish you had more common sense, and that being said, I’ll step down.

—-

Jared took his seat as Judge Tunheim invited Aaron Larson to speak next.

—-

AARON LARSON: Good morning, Your Honor. Thank you. I first wanted to thank everyone who has been involved in helping us find Jacob, to the lawyers, to the law enforcement, to the media, to our friends and family, and especially to the Wetterlings. Because of you, the type of people that you all are, the type of son and brother that Jacob was, that all shows in how nobody ever stopped looking for Jacob. That is because of all of you. October 22nd, 1989, like any other night in life was a night of choices. The choices that Jacob, Trevor and I made to start that night were ones that every child should be able to make, to have fun, to enjoy your friends, to enjoy life. The choices that were made by Daniel Heinrich that night changed so many lives, so many wrong choices by him that caused heartache and sorrow for so many.

October 22nd, 1989, I consider that the end of my childhood. A 20-year sentence for Daniel Heinrich is a significant number for me. For 20 years I lived with a huge amount of guilt from the choices that were made from that night. I lived every day thinking I was the monster that night, I was the coward that left my friend, I was the coward that ran away. Every day I lived with believing that me running away was a choice. During all these years, every decision I made in life revolved around Jacob and the guilt I felt because I was still here. I was the last person who cared about Jacob to see him, to be right next to him, and I just left him.

I hated it. I hated how I left him. I was Jacob’s best friend, who became the kid who was with Jacob. To hear the kid who was with Jacob meant in my mind the kid who left Jacob. I heard this everywhere I went every day. It caused me to push people away, to be scared, to cry. I just wanted Jacob to come home so we could be best friends again, so his family could be happy, to stop the pain. On every October 22nd since 1989, I couldn’t handle the guilt. I felt miserable going to the Wetterlings because Jacob should be there with them, always holding back an apology because I didn’t know how to say I’m sorry that I’m still here that, that the wrong choice was made that night.

I left the state. I left the country. I just wanted to be gone. I just wanted to be Jacob’s best friend again. I couldn’t take being the kid who left Jacob. The choices that Daniel Heinrich made that night caused all of that. He took a beautiful, innocent life and attempted to ruin so many more. Because of this, I believe he should spend the rest of his life in prison. He is correct. He is just a man, an evil man that should be gone forever. I say, “Attempted to ruin so many more lives,” because he did not win. Evil does not win. He took Jacob from us that night but can never take away his spirit, his soul, his kindness that lives and carries on in so many people here today. In eleven years, I think Jacob taught us all so much about life, how to make a difference, how to be happy, how to make others happy. I still believe in this.

My kids will believe in this. There is evil out there every day, but the Jacob that is in all of us here today is stronger than that, is deeper than that and can overcome that. We have all shown this by never giving up looking for Jacob, never quitting. Life is hard, but Jacob showed us how great this hard life can be. Jacob and his spirit wins every day, not evil.

I read Daniel Heinrich’s statement, and I could write a response to every statement he put to paper. Many people have asked me what I would say to him, and I have a hard time coming up with that, with what I would say to him, because I don’t think about him. I think about Jacob and what I would say to him.
I choose to concentrate on the good things in life, and that is Jacob. Every single person has had bad things happen to them in life. It’s how we choose to deal with these obstacles that determine the type of people that we will become.

Daniel Heinrich had obstacles in life. We all have. We all get to make choices on how to deal with those obstacles. He made the wrong choices. Because of this, I hope he does actually have feelings. I hope he sheds tears every day, feels the pain he caused to so many, waits for sympathy that will never come.

He is right. He is just a man. He is not a monster. A monster can continue to scare kids at night, continue to try and bring evil into the world. He is just a man that is going away forever.

In the beginning, I said 20 years was a significant number because this is how long it took me to come to terms with my guilt. This is how long it took me to realize that I didn’t have a choice that night, to realize that it wasn’t me that should be — should have been taken instead of Jacob. It was none of us. We were just kids who had no control over an evil man with a gun. After 20 years, I re-found the Jacob that I had in me before he was taken. I found the joy in life, the happiness that he always had in him. I realized that it was okay for me to be happy. Jacob would want me to be happy and to enjoy life. I realized it was okay for me to just be me, the Jacob — to be the Jacob — the me that Jacob loved, to not be the kid who left Jacob, but to be Jacob’s best friend.

I found a way to find him again. I chose this path. This choice led to life. Jacob lived life to the fullest every day. I intend to make the most of that. This choice led to me hearing I love you every day and me really believing it because it’s okay for me to be loved. It led to hearing the pitter-patter of little feet and the laughter of my children. I will fight every day to make sure that laughter never leaves.

When I am old, I want to be able to stand and feel that I made a difference, that I did my best to live life how Jacob taught me to live. He was an amazing teacher in those short eleven years. I hope we can all live to make a difference like he did.

On that dark night in 1989, evil came out, but the good in life prevails. The Jacob in all of us comes out every day. You can see it everywhere. You can see his happiness everywhere. This is what I see in life. I see him. I find him every day, and I always will. That night I thought I made a choice to run into the darkness. Now, I make that choice freely. If there is darkness and evil out there, I chose to bring light. I run towards the darkness because I know I have the strength in me to overcome the evil out there.

We all have this strength. We can all make a difference because we all have Jacob in us, because we are Jacob’s hope.

—-

Aaron brought down the house. Even the judge had to wipe a tear from his eye and struggled to retain his composure after Aaron finished.

Next, each of Jacob’s siblings had a chance to address the court with their victim’s impact statements. Trevor went first.

—-

TREVOR: Good morning, Your Honor. I’m just going to go ahead and read my statement that I submitted.

October 22nd, 1989, changed my life forever. I was a ten-year-old boy with an older sister Amy and an older brother Jacob and a younger sister Carmen, and from the moment Jacob was taken, molested and murdered, my life was never the same.

The entire dynamic of having a brother was taken away. Losing Jacob was hard enough, but for this man to hold this secret for almost 27 years and continue to be free is, as Jacob would say, entirely not fair. I live close to Paynesville, and as much as my parents, family and friends tried to take away my fear, I still had the nightmare of not only having a gun pulled on me, but also having a huge weight of guilt because that night I was the one that pushed for us to bike to the store.

No matter how much you tell yourself it wasn’t your fault, it is always in the back of your mind. It is not normal for a ten-year-old to sleep on the floor of their parents’ room. It is not normal to miss so much school in the fourth grade to have to hire a tutor to catch you up to speed and have your parents lobby to the teacher not to hold you back.

It is not normal to avoid sleep-overs at friends’ houses because it so happened to be on the 22nd of August, and that in your little boy mind had — that the monster that took your brother is going to do it again to you. It is not normal for your entire identity to be stolen away and to be transformed into Jacob’s brother. It is not normal to have nightmares and night terrors about that night, but this time in your dreams, you are given the choice that it could be you or one of the other friends you were with, and you wake up screaming, scared and ashamed because you chose not to be taken.

It is not normal for a ten-year-old boy to request police officers to come back to their house and answer the phones because that made you feel safe. It is not normal to bike home from your friend’s house at night with your parents or your friend’s parents following you home with their lights on because you weren’t quite ready to do it alone.

On the night of October 22nd, 1989, the life that I knew was stolen and changed forever. This terrible horrible creature who thought it was okay to just steal another human being and then murder him out of his own fear of being caught is and will always be a threat to society. Any person that does not value another person’s life and at any time they feel that their back is against the wall and is willing to kill a child for no reason except to save themselves from being caught does not deserve to be free.

This monster was able to live free with his secret for almost 27 years, 9,815 days free without paying for what he did to my brother. He wasted hours upon hours of police, detectives and FBI agents’ time and money searching for a boy when he knew what he had done.

I will not feel safe if he is ever released from prison, and our society will not be safe, and it is my recommendation that since my brother’s life was ended at the age of eleven that his freedom be ended and that he is incarcerated for the remainder of his life.

—-

Jacob’s younger sister, Carmen, took the podium next.

—-

CARMEN: Good morning. When I was eight years old, my life changed forever. My big brother, Jacob was stolen away from us and was no where to be seen. I wish I would’ve begged those boys to stay home that night to make a home video rather than going out to rent one.

There are months that I can barely remember. It was a whirlwind of people everywhere, police and FBI in uniform answering our telephone, and news cameras with big lights in our driveway.

I sent my imaginary friends Abi and Aba out to look for him.

I missed a lot of school. When I did try to go to school, kids didn’t know what to say to me. When they did talk to me about Jacob, it wasn’t always kind. I remember one time having to leave Girl Scout camp early because another camper told me that Jacob was dead and our family should just stop looking.

I’m afraid of helicopters. Even to this day, when I hear the noise and I want to curl up in a blanket to snuggle with my family.

I can’t be alone. Trevor and I slept on our L-shaped couch every night together all through middle school and high school. When he went to college, I had a friend sleep over almost every night of the year. The same pattern continued until I was married.

It’s been hard to meet new people. “So, Where you from? How many brothers and sisters do you have?” That question was almost too hard to bear that it was often easier to stick with the friends who knew me when I was little.

I’m taken back to this nightmare every time the leaves start to change.

The time I spent hoping, praying, searching for my brother cannot be measured.

I love you Jacob. This was not your fault and you didn’t do anything wrong.

—-

Jacob’s older sister, Amy, was the last of his siblings to speak.

—-

AMY: Good morning, Your Honor. Thank you.

Recently our family learned what happened to my brother Jacob. On October 22nd, 1989, Danny Heinrich shot and killed him after he kidnapped and sexually molested him, my little brother who was kind and gentle to everyone he met.

After he had been molested, Jacob was cold and just wanted to go home to his family where he knew it was warm and safe. He thought he did something wrong. Hearing those details was a horrific experience that I have not yet recovered from, and I don’t know that I ever will.

After having some time to process the events of the past weeks, I struggle with the fact that hearing those grewsome details, while absolutely devastating, is not the worst part about this. Not even close.

The worst part is that for nearly 27 years he let us believe that we would some day be able to see Jacob again. For nearly 27 years, he let me hold onto the image I had in my mind and in my dreams of Jacob running up the driveway back into our home to a huge group hug, with all of the people who loved him so much.

All the times our parents went on TV begging and pleading for answers, and he just watched. He watched us suffer through anniversary after anniversary. 27 years is a long time. He watched the community pull together for prayer services, balloon releases and candlelight vigils.

Now when I close my eyes at night, the image I see is that innocent, young boy cold and afraid in those last moments of his life. At the age of 13, my life was forever changed. My childhood ended because of what Danny Heinrich did. I felt I had to step up and help out around the house with my other brother and sister, while our parents did everything they could to find Jacob.

Dad worked to support our family, and mom traveled around the state and country working first to get Jacob’s story out, and later to help law enforcement in other communities learn how to work with victim families.

At a very young age, I helped out with driving Trevor and Carmen to school and their activities. I felt guilty dropping Carmen off at dance because I thought someone should stay with her and watch. I hated taking Trevor to school because I could tell how hard it was for him to go without his brother. This is a burden a teenager shouldn’t have to carry.

Now that I am married and have children of my own, I know that what Danny Heinrich to Jacob and my family has directly impacted my marriage and the way I parent my children. I have an adult life and responsibilities. Yet in so many ways, I am still that 13-year-old girl.

While I have no idea what my life would be like if Jacob had never been taken, I do know that it would have been without 27 years of pain directly caused by Danny Heinrich.

—-

Amy struggled to fight back tears throughout her statement, pausing to take a moment here and there, then forging ahead. There wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom as she returned to her seat.

—-

MS. ALLYN: Your Honor, at this time the government would have Jerry Wetterling approach the podium.

THE COURT: Very well. Good morning, Mr. Wetterling.

JERRY WETTERLING: Thank you, Your Honor. Before I read my statement, I just, I want to express gratitude to literally everyone involved who has gotten us to this date, including Mr. Heinrich, for whatever reason coming forth and showing us where Jacob was.

Jacob’s abduction and murder by Danny Heinrich on October 22nd, 1989, has affected me way more than I could ever imagine. First of all, my chiropractic office business suffered greatly. My office has never approached the productivity numbers after the abduction as before. I stepped away from my practice totally for five weeks, after which I returned to the office one day per week for five weeks, after which I returned to work full time.

The first thing my staff in my Albany, Minnesota, office asked me upon my return was, Is it true that members of the Baha’i faith, which is my religion, sacrifice their firstborn males? That was a rumor which had been circulating around rural Stearns County.

In addition, many other people were pointing the finger at me as responsible for Jacob’s kidnapping because I didn’t show enough emotion during many media interviews. So not only was I in high emotional distress missing Jacob, I was looked at by many as being responsible.

It was extremely difficult to fully concentrate on my practice and my patients’ needs during the first years following Jacob’s abduction. I was frequently interrupted in my office with calls from law enforcement, people associated with Jacob Wetterling Foundation and phychics to mention a few. We spent thousands of dollars on phychics and private investigators, as well as lost potential income to today’s loss due to various search-related commitments and opportunities.

The sadness and stress caused by Jacob’s abduction was a strain on Patty’s and my relationship. We were both hurting so deeply that we couldn’t be there for each other as we normally would. Thus, we looked to other people for support, which didn’t help our relationship with each other. We survived that, but not without faith, great heartache and financial and time expenditures for counseling.

I lament for our other children because I wasn’t always there for them, due to something I was doing to further the search for Jacob. I miss Jacob so very much. He and my dad had birthdays five days apart in February. Jacob’s middle name, Irwin, was my dad’s first name. We often celebrated their birthdays together.

They both loved fishing and were both very good fishermen. My dad was never the same after Jacob’s abduction, and I believe it literally broke his heart.

It wasn’t just Jacob’s physical body that was missing these last 27 years. More importantly, I miss all the things I didn’t get to experience, laugh filled fishing outings, pride filled school events, such as music concerts, plays, sporting events, graduation, April Fool’s pranks, watching games together on TV and hearing Jacob make a comment and then have the TV commentator say the same thing seconds later, times hanging out with his friends, possibly going off to college.

I could keep going with multitudes of other commonly occurring life events. Since October 22nd, 1989, my common, overriding emotion could be summed up as sadness. Selfishly, this statement is only talking about Danny Heinrich’s actions affected me. Unfortunately, the ripple effect is exponentially greater because those actions have affected thousands of people.

Therefore, in the best interests of society, I strongly recommend that Mr. Heinrich be kept in civil commitment upon completion of his prison term. Thank you.

—-

Again, Judge Tunheim had to wipe his eyes as Jerry finished his statement. Behind me, I could hear all of Paynesville falling apart.

Next, it was Patty’s turn. I braced myself for what I knew would be the hardest statement of the day.

—-

THE COURT: Good morning, Ms. Wetterling.

PATTY WETTERLING: Good morning, Your Honor. Thank you so much for this opportunity.

It’s really difficult to describe impact when it has been so much a part of your life for so long. Words can’t express the magnitude of pain that Danny Heinrich has inflicted on me and my family every day of our lives since he hurt my heart, my soul, and every fiber of my being when he murdered our son Jacob, a child that I carried for nine months and nurtured for eleven years, eight months and five days.

Jacob was a boy with many gifts that the world will never realize because of this cruel and unnecessary murder. The pain that Heinrich inflicted on our family has interrupted my ability to parent our other children without fear, my ability to sleep without the nightmares of wondering what happened to Jacob, my ability to live the life that my family and I had worked so hard to build.

Jerry and I were minding our own lives, raising four wonderful children, teaching them to be fair and honest and kind when Danny Heinrich stole Jacob. My heart hurts. I miss Jacob’s touch, his smell, his freely given hugs. I miss his smile, his laughter, his jokes, his questions, his zest for life.

I miss him playing with our dog and dressing him up in football jerseys. I miss him playing football with the neighbors. I miss him coming home from school and complaining when something happened that wasn’t fair. He hated things that weren’t fair.

I miss him being a good sport when Amy and her friends were playing restaurant, and Jacob, Trevor and Carmen had to be customers and sit at fancy tables for tea parties. I miss his competitiveness with his brother when they would play, argue and then fall asleep, each with one arm wrapped around the other.

I miss him nurturing his little sister’s imaginary friends and using her foot for a microphone when we had long car rides. I miss him teasing and his pranks that he would pull. We hurt every day for all that we have missed.

My heart hurts for Jacob’s brother Trevor, for the fear he instilled in him that horrible night and for Aaron, who spent the next 26 years in fear, both of them dealing with so many questions, anxiety and anger trying to figure out what truly happened, wanting in part to wake up from this horrible nightmare, only to find out that it really did happen and Jacob was gone.

My heart hurts for our other children and that sadness and fear they had to navigate, missing their brother and figuring out how to grow up in a truly strange and difficult environment, taking on far too many responsibilities too early in life, just to keep things going, but continually wanting our warm and friendly world back.

Watching our children hurt was and continues to be unbearable. I can’t take it away, and I can’t explain how anyone could cause so much pain.

My heart hurts for our parents who spent their final years wondering, and they died, all of them not knowing.

For my sisters and brother and Jerry’s sisters who hurt so deeply over the loss of Jacob and for all of our children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces and the many tears they have shed for Jacob. Family reunions were difficult because of his absence. As we watched everyone grow up, we had to rely on a computer-generated age enhancement to predict what Jacob might have looked like.

My hurt hurts for Rochelle, who baby-sat and was a dear friend of all of ours, for Jacob’s classmates, friends and neighbors who all needed to rebuild their lives with a new set of rules.

My heart hurts for the many other victims of this man who will never experience justice.

My heart hurts for the entire St. Joseph community who had never experienced such darkness, who helped us to see the light of goodness and the millions of truly kind people who were praying and hoping right along for Jacob’s safe return.

My heart hurts for the people who searched for law enforcement, who investigated, parents who talked to their children and held them tighter and for an entire state and nation that strives for equality and justice and yet has had to face the most unfair and unjust act of all because of Heinrich’s actions on October 22nd, 1989.

Danny Heinrich took away a wonderful human being who cared deeply for family and friends and sports and music and theater and jokes, hugs and kisses, football and piggyback rides, a young boy, a kind and fun loving brother, who wanted to grow up to be a football player, but mostly who just wanted to grow up and live and contribute to making the world a better place.

My heart hurts for Jacob and all that he went through that last night. It keeps me awake at night.

I would like to say some comments directly to Danny Heinrich. You didn’t need to kill him. He did nothing wrong. He just wanted to go home.

Your attorney wrote that you play that night over and over in your head, but you knew. No, you planned to hurt someone that night. You didn’t just bring a gun to scare the boys. You brought bullets. Why would you bring bullets if not to use them?

I’m happy to hear that Jacob stopped you from ever victimizing another child. If I had one wish for you, it would be for you to see who Jacob was and to know the young boy you took from us and to feel, even for a second, what you did. You hurt a lot of people.

You continued to hurt us throughout the years, but in spite of the pain, you were wrong. Jacob didn’t die that night. He wasn’t ready to die. You know that. He refused to die, and his spirit has moved people all over the world, just as his jacket kept surfacing, at both the burial sites.

Jacob wasn’t going away, and we never gave up. He believed in goodness and fairness. All that he was and all that he stood for is so much stronger than your cowardice and fear.

We hold Jacob in our hearts, and we feel him every time something good happens, a smile, a hug, a helping hand, a rainbow. Jacob’s hope does live in all of us, and you can never take that away, ever. Not in 1989 when you did this and not in 2016 when you took him away all over again.

I will not wonder about you or waste a moment of my time concerning myself from this day forward. It’s my hope that when we all walk out of this courtroom, we’re leaving the negativity, the fear, the anger, the hopelessness, the confusion as best we can, and we’re taking Jacob with us, his hopes, his dreams, his smile, his laughter, his sense of fairness and all that is good that he stands for.

We truly stand together with the good people in this world who believe in Jacob’s hope and who never gave up.

Thank you.

—-

There is nothing more I can add, except that I have come to love this family so incredibly much. I am so sorry for their pain, but also so grateful that Jacob is back with them once again, where he belongs.

Love. Peace. Respect.

#ThinkingJacob… today and always.

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Jennifer’s story, part 2

Back on September 14, 2014, I shared “Jennifer’s story.” It was an article about the 22 year old female college student who was working at the Tom Thumb convenience store the night Jacob Wetterling was abducted. She was the one who had rented the movie to Jacob that night, and was the last one to see him alive before he, his friend Aaron, and his younger brother, Trevor, were stopped by a masked gunman on their way home. It’s a night that has haunted Jennifer throughout her adult life.

Though I didn’t share it at the time, there is more to Jennifer’s story… and mine. Throughout this journey, I have often mentioned the striking number of coincidences I encountered along the way, many of which kept me going when things got hard. This is one of them.

In January 2013, when I started blogging about Jacob’s case (the second time), I made the conscious decision to stick to the facts and only interview people who had a direct connection to the case. One of the people I really wanted to talk to was the clerk who had been working at the Tom Thumb that night. I had put out an appeal, asking anyone who knew her to let her know I’d be interested in talking to her. I never heard back and assumed that angle was a dead end.

Several months later, I came across an article in the CSB/SJU student newspaper from 1998 titled, “Student remembers Wetterling anniversary.” In it, the author mentioned that when she was in 5th grade, her student teacher was the clerk at the Tom Thumb that night who was the last to see Jacob.

I contacted this author and asked if she would be willing to share the clerk’s name with me. She sent me a nice reply, but said she wasn’t sure if she should share the name with me or not. She said she would think about it and get back to me.

Eight months later, in March 2014, the author wrote back to me with the name of the clerk. I thanked her and promised I would proceed with integrity and respect. From there, I was able to find Jennifer’s email address, so I contacted her to see if she might be willing to talk to me. Understandably, she was very leery. I received a brief reply, but nothing more came of it. I moved on.

Another four months went by, and in July 2014, I was chatting with my aunt Carol on Facebook. Out of nowhere, she mentioned that Jennifer and her husband had just been over to her house for dinner. I about fell off my chair. As it turns out, my aunt Carol knew Jennifer because they had a mutual friend and attended the same church. For over a year, my aunt Carol had been encouraging Jennifer to contact me on her own, gently assuring her that I was a nice, normal, trustworthy person.

Two months later, Jennifer finally agreed to talk to me. It was September 1, 2014, one day after Jacob’s story had appeared on John Walsh’s new show — “The Hunt” — on CNN. My husband and I were moving our oldest son into his college apartment at Hamline University in St. Paul, and because Jennifer didn’t live too far from there, we had made plans to meet at her house.

The first thing I noticed when I entered Jennifer’s house was a beautiful grand piano. I asked her if she played, and she told me that the piano had originally belonged to a good friend of hers who had passed away from cancer. Before she died, she had told Jennifer (who is a very talented pianist) that she wanted her to have the piano. As it turns out, this is the same friend who had known my aunt Carol.

We sat down at Jennifer’s kitchen table, and over a cup of coffee, she told me her story. It was all still very raw, and before long, we both needed Kleenex. (If you haven’t yet read “Jennifer’s story,” I encourage you to do so.)

I published Jennifer’s story on my blog on September 14, 2014. A month later, on the 25th anniversary of Jacob’s abduction, the Wetterlings invited Jared and me to stop by their house so we could meet the rest of their family. It was the first time Jared and I had ever met any of the Wetterling children or their grandchildren. The whole day was hard, and emotional, and hugely impactful.

Then… the very next day… my aunt Carol died of a heart attack.

It was sudden and jolting and it knocked my whole world off kilter. Carol had been like a second mom to me when I was a little girl, and for as long as I can remember, she had lovingly fostered my love of reading and writing. I was asked to speak at her funeral, so within a few days, I found myself giving the eulogy at my aunt Carol’s church, with Jennifer and her family sitting in the congregation.

How do you explain these things?

Since that time, Jennifer and I have become friends. When the news broke early on September 3rd that Jacob’s remains had been found, it was Jennifer who called me first. We both cried, barely able to get words out. It had been almost two years to the day that we had first met.

Two weeks ago, Jennifer and I met again, this time to participate in the “Running HOME for Jacob 5K” at Lake Phalen Golf Course in St. Paul. It was the first-ever 5K for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and by all accounts, it was a resounding success. When they first organized the event over a year ago, they were hoping to get 250 participants. At last count, I believe the total was over 2,100.

There were many magical moments throughout the day, not the least of which was the weather. Saturday, October 22, 2016 was a perfect fall day in Minnesota with highs in the mid-60s, no wind, and beautiful fall colors as far as the eye could see. It was the 27th anniversary of Jacob’s abduction, and what would have been a very hard day for the Wetterlings and for our state, turned into something fun, positive, and healing for everyone who was in attendance.

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Jennifer and me, October 22, 2016

Jennifer and me, October 22, 2016

Another magical moment happened at the end of the race. I took this video just as the entire Wetterling family was crossing the finish line. I happened to glance at the time, and if you can even believe it, the Wetterlings all crossed the finish line together at exactly 11:11 AM.

 

And then this. After 27 years, Jennifer, Aaron, and Trevor got to meet each other for the first time since that night in the Tom Thumb back in 1989. It was exactly 27 years to the day.

 

Trevor, Jennifer, Aaron

Trevor, Jennifer, Aaron

Jennifer shared these thoughts about the day:

Twenty-seven years ago tonight, these boys walked into the store where I was working. Trevor, Aaron, and their friend and brother Jacob Wetterling. I rented Jacob a video and sold him some candy. He was taken a few minutes later.

One trait to honor and remember Jacob with is “Be kind”. With everyone. As often as you can. We don’t know our futures.

Hope is one thing we have and cling to. Hope was watching people show up today to support the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center with the first 5K. Jerry Wetterling told us they were hoping for a few hundred, and more than two thousand showed up.

Jacob, your traits are everyone’s hope. I’ve known your story longer than I’ve been married, been a teacher, or been a mom. You’ve taught me, and us, so much. Rest in peace.

Such powerful words… such a powerful moment. Peace to everyone involved, and special thanks to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center for helping make all these magical moments happen on what would have otherwise been a very sad day.

#11forJacob

NEXT: Sentencing…

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What’s next?

Hey peeps. Sorry for the long hiatus. I wish I could tell you I’ve been busy working on the next big thing, but the truth is, I’ve found myself in a weird limbo and I’m just starting to get a handle on everything that’s taken place in the past six weeks. It’s been a lot to absorb, and just when I think I have all the crazy tucked safely away, it bubbles up at the most random moments.

The other day, I came home from work to find a bunch of neighborhood boys playing football in the empty lot next to our house. I smiled as I recalled the days my own boys would play football in that lot with their friends. And then, out of nowhere, I was crying again.

Dang it.

I keep telling myself to get a grip. Stay focused. Suck it up buttercup. But, man… it’s been hard.

It helps to know I’m not alone in this. I’ve heard from so many others who have been grieving right alongside the Wetterlings. Even though we never knew Jacob, we FELT like we did. He was ours too… one of us… and what happened to him was so random and non-sensical, it could have happened to any one of our kids. That chord struck deep… and still does.

In response, we have circled our wagons around the Wetterling family, vowing to have their backs. The outpouring of support has been nothing short of amazing, and this has sustained them… truly. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder to be a Minnesotan.

Last night, my husband and I had the privilege of attending the Minnesota Wild home opener along with Jared Scheierl’s family and the Wetterling family. Before the start of the game, the Minnesota Wild honored Jacob by having each of his family members, one by one, hold up a #11 hockey jersey with each of the eleven traits displayed on the back. It was so moving and powerful; the entire crowd gave them a standing ovation.

In addition, fan favorite Zach Parise (who just happens to wear number 11 for the Wild), announced that he and his wife Alisha were donating $11,000 to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Foundation in Jacob’s honor.

 

As I watch and absorb all the love and kindness that Jacob has generated throughout the state and around the world, it inspires me to keep going… to try and use this blog to make a difference.

I’ve been contacted by several others with missing loved ones who have written and asked for my help. And while I would love to say yes to each and every one of them, I’m just not sure I’m ready to jump in again quite yet. Maybe soon. But for now, I may need to write about something shallow and happy for a while. I hope you’ll bear with me.

In the meantime, I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who has been following along and #ThinkingJacob with me for the past six years. I truly believe we all made a difference.

NEXT: Jennifer’s story, part 2…

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For Jacob

jacob-picture-11-yrToday is Saturday, September 17, 2016. It’s been eleven days since I sat in that courtroom at the U.S. District Courthouse in Minneapolis and heard Danny Heinrich confess to the kidnapping and murder of Jacob Wetterling.

It’s been eleven days, and I still can’t think about it without crying.

Admittedly, I’ve been through some hard stuff in my lifetime. In 1999, two of my closest friends each lost a child. Cody was ten years old when he was struck and killed by a car while biking. Emma was two years old when she died from a cancerous brain tumor. As moms and friends, we clung to each other for strength and support. We questioned fate and silently waged our own battles with God. All of it was devastating and traumatizing. It changed who we were, forever.

But this. How do you explain this? It has taken me eleven days to get a grip, and still, I cry every time I think of that day. I sat there, three rows behind Patty, and had to listen to what that horrible man did to her son. I had to close my eyes through most of it, tears streaming down my face. I questioned why I had even come. I felt sick, wanted to leave… couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Then, when Heinrich finished his confession about Jacob, he moved on to Jared. In chilling detail, he confessed what he had done to that scared 12 year old boy who has since become a close friend. Until that moment, I don’t think I fully appreciated how lucky Jared is to be alive.

After it was over, I couldn’t take anymore. I bolted. I didn’t stay for the press conference… I just couldn’t. I left and drove to my parents’ house where I crumbled into my mother’s arms. Even at 49, I needed her to hug me and make the world right again. We hugged and cried, then she made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich… toasted… just how I like it. Later, she poured me a glass of wine and we cried some more.

Since that horrible day in the courtroom, I’ve struggled to make sense of everything that’s happened over the past few weeks… months… years. I look back over the entire journey and question how I ever ended up on this road in the first place. What started as mere curiosity eventually became a battle of faith and purpose. I plodded along, never knowing exactly where I was headed and wanting to quit more often than I care to admit.

Why? For Jacob.

This boy… this eleven year old boy that I’ve never met… captured my soul. He captured all of our souls with his smiling face, his yellow sweater, and his youthful innocence. He was a symbol for all that was right with the world… our world. It was a world of backyard sleepovers, bomb pops, and neighborhood water fights. Saturday cartoons, Vikings football, and Labor Day telethons. It was good, and predictable, and fun.

And then, on that awful day in 1989, our good and predictable world slipped away. We bumbled around, lamenting fate, losing faith, and becoming bitter. As the days melted into months, it seemed all hope had been lost. But then, a warrior emerged. She was a warrior who was willing to fight for our world… for bomb pops and water fights. She was tiny, but fierce, and we clung to her words, because she spoke of hope and change. If she was willing to fight, then by God, we would follow her into battle.

screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-1-20-23-pmAnd follow, we did. We marveled at this tiny warrior and all that she stood for. She became Super Mom to us. She grew and effected change that rippled well beyond the borders of our own little state. She helped write powerful legislation that would eventually make the entire country safer for children. She fought, and she fought, and she fought, never once losing sight of her ultimate goal… to find her missing son.

Jacob, I never knew you, but I do know you came from good stuff. You must be so very proud of your mom. Her drive has always been fueled by hope, and she has fought tirelessly for the world you used to know. In fighting for you, she fought for all of us, every day. Looking back, I have to believe you’ve had a hand in all that’s transpired here. In your short eleven years, you also fought for what was right and fair. Today and forever, we will honor your legacy by trying to do the same.

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
–Genesis 50:20

(Thank you sueney65 for passing that along.)

NEXT: What’s next…

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It’s over.

On Friday, September 2nd, law officials discovered the remains of Jacob Wetterling on a farm in Paynesville, Minnesota. They were led there by Danny Heinrich, who was named a person of interest in Jacob’s case back on October 29, 2015 after being arrested on child pornography charges.

After nearly 27 years… it’s over.

MplsStarTrib_9-4-2016I’ve dreamed about this day for years. What would the headlines say? What would the public’s response be? How would the people of St. Joseph react?

Now that it’s here… now that Jacob has finally been found… there is no joy… just deep and profound sadness for this 11 year old boy who touched all our hearts for so many years. Yes, we have answers and, in time, that will bring peace. But for now it all just feels very raw and real.

Truth be told, I’m a wreck.

I was drawn to write about Jacob’s case for reasons I’ll never fully understand. The more I learned, the more I cared. The more I cared, the more I craved answers. Like every other Minnesotan who lived through the horror of his abduction, I wanted to know what happened to Jacob. And with each passing moment, it felt like time and opportunity were slipping away. I thought if I could just get his story out there, people might start paying attention. Maybe they could even add details that might help. More than anything, I just didn’t want people to forget.

I published my first blog post about Jacob’s story on October 23, 2010, one day after the 21st anniversary of his abduction. Read “Where are you Jacob?”…

After three weeks, I wrapped up Jacob’s story and may never have come back to it if it wasn’t for an email I received on January 18, 2013… over two years later. It read:

Hello Joy – My name appears in your articles. I’m working to clear lots of wrong info out there about me. Are you curious or do you care…?
Thanks…. if so…send a tele#?
– Dan Rassier

I wasn’t sure if I should reply or not, but there was one thing I did know. Yes… I cared. So, I emailed Dan back and we agreed to meet at 6:30pm at the St. Cloud Library on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. Had it not been for Dan getting in touch with me and sharing his story, I likely would never have gotten back to blogging about Jacob. I published Dan’s story on February 23, 2013, and since then, I’ve blogged about little else. Read Dan’s story…

This weekend, when I learned that Jacob had been found, I emailed Dan to let him know I was thinking of him. I wanted him to know that, for what it was worth, I had always believed him. I wished him and his family peace… they surely deserve it. He sent a very kind reply which meant a lot to me.

Over the past few days, I have been receiving emails, texts and phone calls from reporters all over the state, and even the country. I have declined all interviews out of respect for the Wetterlings, but there is one in particular who deserves a lot of credit in this amazing journey of discovery, and that is Esme Murphy from WCCO. She was the first person to really pay attention to what Jared and I were doing in Paynesville, and she contacted me shortly after I published my first blog post about the Paynesville attacks. It was October 22, 2013… the 24th anniversary of Jacob’s abduction. Not long after, Jared and I agreed to do an interview with Esme, which aired on May 14, 2014. See the interview…

I’d also like to acknowledge the countless others who have played a major role in this journey. I have received thousands of comments and private messages on my blog, along with hundreds of phone calls and texts from people passing along tips or suggestions about the case. I diligently organized and passed them along to law enforcement, never knowing if one of them might turn out to be the “the piece” that solved the puzzle. Thank you to everyone who cared, got involved, and took the initiative to pass those tips along. Who knows what may have been helpful along the way.

But without question, the one person who absolutely made the difference in bringing Jacob home was Jared Scheierl. He was the 12 year old boy from Cold Spring who was abducted and assaulted just nine months before Jacob. When I decided to dig back into this story back in early 2013, I wanted to focus on people who had a direct connection to the case. One of the people I knew I wanted to interview was Jared. I found him through ancestry records and then contacted him through Facebook. I never in a million years thought he would reply to my message. To this day, I am so very grateful that he did. Read Jared’s story…

Jared is one of the kindest and bravest people I know. He has become a good friend, and we have been through a lot together over the past three and a half years. When we first learned about the Paynesville attacks that took place in the late 1980s, it was Jared who willingly put himself out there, reaching out to victims and sharing his own story so that they might, in turn, be wiling to share their own. Without Jared, this story would never have unfolded the way it did. His enthusiasm and dogged determination were contagious. We found ourselves driven to find answers, not only for Jared and the Wetterlings, but also for all those young men who were never truly heard. The more we learned, the bigger it felt. Without knowing why, we were convinced that the Paynesville incidents were somehow important to the bigger picture.

In the end, it all came back to Paynesville… Jared’s hometown. The story started there, and it ended there. Jacob was found in Paynesville… a town just 15 miles up the road from me. Fifteen miles. He was buried in a spot that I have driven past countless times in my lifetime, never knowing that he was RIGHT THERE this whole time. Jacob and Jared were together in the same small town for the past 26 years.

How do you put words to that?

As hard as it is to give any credit to Danny Heinrich in this story, I’m just so incredibly grateful that, in the end, he did the right thing. Because of him, the healing can finally begin for the Wetterling family, and for the entire state. We have hurt, and hoped, and prayed alongside them for almost 27 years. Today, it’s finally over.

The Wetterlings have become like family to me, and I love them dearly. They are good, kind people who have changed the world because of their undying dedication to their missing son. Patty, especially, has worked tirelessly to fight for children’s rights, to educate parents, to train law enforcement, and to spread a message of love and hope that has resonated with us for all these 27 years. She did it for Jacob… Jacob’s Hope.

Today, I continue to pray for the Wetterlings. I’m sure there will be many more hard days to face in the weeks and months to come, but with answers, I hope they can finally start to grieve and heal. I will be forever grateful to them for believing in me.

#ThinkingJacob
#JacobsHope

NEXT: For Jacob…

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Joy vs. the Wilderness, the final chapter

DAY 6

After five days of hiking and camping along the Horn Creek Trail in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, we returned to Snowy Peaks Campground in Buena Vista on Wednesday afternoon. Another former Trekker, Merrill, and his dog Macy were there to greet us with happy hour snacks and beer. Though I’d never met him, I could not have asked for a better friend. I’m quite sure fresh veggies, hummus, chips, salsa, and Coors Light had never tasted so good.

We all took hot showers and enjoyed a spaghetti dinner, followed by the most amazing sunset. I went to bed early and was finally able to get a decent night’s sleep before our big hike the next day.

Carbo loading before tomorrow's big climb.

Carbo loading before the big climb.

Red sky at night, climber's delight!

Red sky at night, climber’s delight!

DAY 7

After six days of acclimation, it had all come to this… Huron Peak. We woke up at daybreak, and after a quick grab-and-go breakfast of hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit and coffee, we each prepared a snack bag for the big climb. I chose trail mix, salted nut rolls, a Clif bar, and some M&Ms. Snack bag of champions.

Bill mentioned that the road leading up to Huron Peak was “a little rough,” so we left the Volvo behind and took off in Bill’s Jeep, Amy’s Land Rover, and Merrill’s 4-wheel drive pickup. As we turned off the main road and onto the gravel, the road got rougher and rougher. “This is the good part,” Bill kept saying as I popped more Dramamine. “So, when is the rough part?” I asked. “Oh, you’ll know,” he replied.

He wasn’t kidding. We passed some smaller trucks and cars that were parked at the “2-wheel drive trailhead” and continued on our way. Not long after, we reached what I thought was an impassable chunk of washed-out road and gullies. Bill put the Jeep in a different gear and said, “here’s the rough part.” I grabbed what my mother calls “the Jesus handle,” shut my eyes, and once again hoped for the best.

Somehow we made it, as did the rest of the entourage. We parked at the “4-wheel drive trailhead” and grabbed our day packs out of the trucks. This time, when Bill asked if I wanted to borrow a pair of hiking poles, I was quick to reply with a firm yes.

According to RockyMountainHikingTrails.com, Huron Peak is located in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area of the San Isabel National Forest. It lies along the western edge of the Sawatch Range and is known for its spectacular views. Topping out at an elevation of “only” 14,003 feet, Huron Peak is ranked 52nd in height among all 53 fourteeners in Colorado. The only other 14,000-foot peak with a lower elevation is Sunshine Peak in the San Juan Mountains.

Just before starting out, I took a short video. The time was 8:44 AM.

I stared at the top of that mountain and knew I could make it. There was no doubt in my mind. I accepted the fact it might take me a little longer than the rest, but I was determined to make it… no turning back. More than anything, I wanted a picture of Jordan and me standing together at the summit of our first Fourteener.

So, off we went… up, up, up. I tried to keep up with Jerry for a while, but I lost him pretty quickly. Eventually I found my groove with Lucy, Merrill, and Macy (the dog). Jordan would also pop back to check on me every so often. I tried not to think about the fact that we’d be ascending 3500 feet, all in one day. Instead, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and punching out a rhythm with my hiking poles. You’d think a person would get a lot of thinking done while they’re out there putting one foot in front of the other for 7 hours straight, but I don’t think I did. In fact, maybe that’s the beauty of mountain hiking… the sheer mindlessness of it. For me, I found it nearly impossible to carry on a meaningful conversation while I was gasping for breath, so it really became a mindless journey of mind over matter. Walk. Drink. Admire. Repeat.

Once we cleared the tree line, the views were absolutely breathtaking. It was a beautiful morning with crystal blue skies… a perfect day for hiking… or so I thought. Here’s a video two hours into our hike:

I made it to the basin where the trail evened-off for a bit and provided spectacular views of an alpine meadow covered in beautiful wildflowers. Michelle took the following gorgeous photo which still doesn’t quite do it justice:

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It was about this time I ran out of water… and stamina. (Word to the wise… when the list says “Nalgene bottle,” get yourself a Nalgene bottle. At the very least, get yourself a decent water bottle with a wide mouth that holds more than 24 ounces and doesn’t squirt you in the face whenever you put a fizzy tablet into it.) I sat down to eat my Clif bar and admire the wildflowers (i.e., try not to die) and took the following video. The altitude must have been getting to me at this point, because it’s a little ridiculous how many times I say the word ridiculous.

Jordan popped back to check on me, and after a quick chat, I sent him on ahead. Lucy had also ventured ahead at this point, as well as Merrill and Macy, the dog. The sky was starting to look a little gloomy off in the distance, and without anyone having to say it, we realized we’d better keep moving if we were going to make the summit before the afternoon thunderstorms hit.

As for me, I was losing my groove. From the meadow, I could look up to the ridge and see all the people who had passed me along the way. They were as tiny as ants, marching their way up to the summit, and I thought… I’ll never make it. I finished my Clif bar and wished I had something… anything… to wash it down with.

Enter Bill. He and Amy caught up to me at this point and Bill offered me his spare Nalgene bottle filled with Gatorade. I could have kissed him. I took a good long gulp, stared at the tiny ant people on the ridge, and thought… I did not come this far to not make it. But I was going to need a little help. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I pulled out the 70s music.

Yes, I said it. I love 70s music… the cheesier, the better. If I was going to make it to the top of this Fourteener, I was going to need my “Couch to 5K” playlist. It got me through two miles of jogging; surely it would get me to the top of Huron Peak.

Suddenly, I was in my happy place again. Amy led the way, with me in the middle and Bill pulling up the rear. One foot in front of the other. Like a Rhinestone Cowboy. Roll With the Changes. On and On. Sweet Life. Don’t Pull Your Love out on me Honey. I’m on the Top of the World.

As we neared the top, the terrain got rockier and the path got steeper. It was a little freaky (a lot freaky), but I just kept my head down and tried to concentrate on where to put my foot next. And then… lightning. Crap.

The storm clouds were gathering over the peaks behind us and in front of us. It seemed only a matter of time before they’d find Huron Peak, too. The rest of the gang had already made it to the summit and were wisely starting to head down. Lightning is nothing to mess with on a 14,000 foot mountain so I knew we had to turn around, but I was so disappointed. I was SOO close… just 300 feet from the summit. I’d come all that way, only to have to turn around at the very end.

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I was very happy Jordan made it to the summit, and I’m pretty sure this will not be his last Fourteener. He seemed pretty hooked, and very much in his element.

As for me? Boy… yikes. That was all very hard and scary. But here’s one thing I know. I’ve never done anything so meaningful and rewarding in my entire life. I look back now and still can’t believe I actually did it.

After we returned home, Jerry Wetterling gave me a special gift which I absolutely love. It’s a framed print of all 53 “Fourteeners” in Colorado. I now have it sitting on a shelf in my living room so I can stare at it every day and marvel at the fact that I somehow survived. One down, 52 to go. Thanks Jerry!

Thanks also to everyone who followed me along on this journey, and to everyone who sent in a donation to support this year’s Wilderness Trek. As a group, we raised over $16,000… the most ever! All donations go to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center to help with victim assistance and prevention programming to help keep our kids safe. I couldn’t be happier or more proud to support such an important and worthy cause.

NEXT: It’s over…

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Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 5

Day 5 started with a bang.

After four days of getting very little sleep, Jordan and I both passed out from sheer exhaustion around 8pm. A few hours later, we were awakened by the sound of thunder and the beat of rain against the tent. Jordan, in a groggy stupor, remarked how impressed he was that our tent was holding up so well, considering he’d only paid $15 for it.

“Um, what?” I asked. He mumbled something about a Black Friday Christmas deal, then he rolled over and went back to sleep.

As I was contemplating this, I noticed a small triangular patch above my head where the tent fly had pulled away and the rain was starting to seep in. When the seep became a trickle, I briefly considered going outside to try and pull it back into place. But between the lightning and the marmots, I decided to stay put. I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and hoped the rocks I’d put over each of the tent stakes would keep the tent fly in place until morning.

It was another long night of not sleeping… for everyone. But, no worries. It was RECOVERY DAY and I couldn’t wait to start my recovery. I grabbed my “Life is Better at the Beach” cup and headed out for morning coffee.

Michelle took this amazing early morning photo of the sun rising and reflecting off Mount Adams.

Michelle took this amazing early morning photo of the sun rising and reflecting off Mount Adams.

We started Recovery Day with an awesome breakfast of homemade pancakes. This is another Wilderness Trek tradition and a favorite among the regular Trekkers. Jerry and Amy did the cooking, while the rest of us wolfed down pancakes as fast as they could make them. In lieu of butter, I decided to take Jerry’s advice and smear on a little peanut butter before the syrup. I admit it was not entirely terrible.

After breakfast, Amy mentioned something about gathering water in large Ziplock bags so we could lay them out in the hot sun and wash our hair later. It all sounded fabulous. I couldn’t wait to get my recovery on.

Not long after, Bill mentioned something about hiking up the grassy slope behind us so we could get acclimated to 13,000 feet. We were already camping at 11,800 feet, but the goal was to climb a bit higher each day in order to prepare ourselves for the big “Fourteener” hike on Thursday. I looked up at that beautiful grassy slope… in that beautiful morning sun… on a full stomach of peanut butter pancakes… and I thought to myself, well how hard can that be?

Grassy slope above our camp site with Mount Adams on the far left. Click for a larger view.

Grassy slope above our camp site with Mount Adams on the far left. Click for a larger view.

I should probably give you the lay of the land a bit here. Our camp site was located at the base of Mount Adams (east side) and the north side of Upper Horn Lake. If you click the icon in the upper right corner of the map below, you should be able to see a larger, topographical view of where we were.

Colorado is known for its 53 “Fourteeners,” or peaks with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. Every year, the goal of the JWRC Wilderness Trekkers is to summit one of these 14er peaks. Little did I know that the beautiful stony peak just to the west of our camp site was Mount Adams, not quite a 14er at 13,937 feet, but impressive nonetheless. Our goal on this day was to climb the grassy slope up to the 13,200′ ridge which led to Mount Adams.

All good.

In my head, I prepared myself for a quick little hike, followed by a full day of pampering. I couldn’t wait to wash my hair in a Ziplock bag, catch up on my journaling, and maybe go hang my feet in Horn Lake. What a beautiful, perfect, mountainy kind of day.

After breakfast, we did the dishes, filled our water bottles, and packed some lunch items in our daypacks. Next, we marmot-proofed the food supply and prepared to head out. At the last minute, I popped a lemon-lime fizzy tablet (with electrolytes) into my water bottle for some extra energy along the way. Not that I needed it. Maybe it was the delirium after four days with very little sleep, but I was feeling pretty great and raring to go. I couldn’t wait to see the view from the top of that grassy ridge.

We headed out and soon discovered there was no clear-cut trail up to the ridge. We sent Jordan ahead… over some rocks and through some willow bushes… to see what he could see. While the rest of us waited, I grabbed my water bottle and pushed the button to take a drink. Suddenly, a stream of fizzy water shot out of the straw and into my face. It shocked me so much at first, I couldn’t figure out what had happened. I blinked, wiped my eyes… then laughed along with everyone else. Lesson learned. Fizzy tablets don’t work well in a Contigo bottle. I took a drink and put the bottle back in my bag.

We heard Jordan calling from somewhere above us, so we started bush-whacking our way toward his voice. It was only about 10am, but the sun was bright and it was already starting to get warm. Thankfully, we cleared the willow-bushes after a bit and lost the mosquitoes. We were happy to discover a stiff breeze up on the slope that helped to keep us cool. However, the breeze was so stiff that it was hard to stand upright without feeling like you were going to get blown over. To compensate, I found myself grabbing at rocks and grass clumps so I wouldn’t fall backward and go tumbling down the mountain.

The grassy slope was filled with beautiful wildflowers, which I stopped to admire often while gasping for breath. It was a glorious sunny day and the view was absolutely magnificent. I reached for my water bottle to take another sip of water and got another blast in the face. It was only my second sip of water since we’d started hiking, and already my bottle was less than half full. I reminded myself to unscrew the top first before taking another drink.

Driven by the fear of falling, Michelle and I continued to scramble our way up the grassy slope while the others were mostly able to maintain an upright position. I also noticed that the six people who had poles were making efficient zig-zags up the hill (switch backs) vs. going straight up on all fours like Michelle and I were doing. (Another lesson learned. When someone asks if you want to borrow a pair of poles, take them.)

Around 11am, we stopped for a break and I shot the following video.

I knew we were pretty high up, but I was amazed to see how far we were above our camp site. If you click on the following photo of Tim, you’ll see our tents WAY below on his right.

Tim with Mount Adams behind him. Those are our tents WAY below around the center of the photo. Click for a larger view.

Tim with Mount Adams behind him. Those are our tents WAY below around the center of the photo. Click for a larger view.

About an hour later, I realized how cool it would be if we could shoot a live Facebook video from this amazing location. I’d never done it before, so I asked Jordan if he knew how. He didn’t either, but he had it figured out in about five minutes or so. Jordan shot and posted this LIVE video on July 18, 2016 at 12:05pm. From this, you should be able to hear how hard the wind was blowing, and also how hard it was for even a 21 year old to breathe at 12,500 feet.

We reached 13,000 feet and decided to break for lunch. We each grabbed our daypacks and pulled out the bread, peanut butter, jelly, Nutella, leftover pancakes, and trail mix. As I pulled out my water bottle to take a drink, I shot myself in the face with a stream of water for the third and final time. Could not believe it… and now I had no water left for the rest of the hike up, or the hike down.

And, speaking of the hike down…

I sat there eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, staring at that 45 degree slope, wondering how in the world I was going to make it back down. Michelle was none too keen on heights and decided she was as close to the top as she wanted to get. While I was OK with the height, I was none too keen on the thin air and was more than happy to stay put. So, while the rest of the gang ventured upward toward the top of the ridge, we were happy as clams to sit and chat in the sunshine and admire the views.

Within a half hour or so, the rest of the Trekkers returned and it was time to head down. And what I thought had been hard and scary coming up the slope, was way harder and scarier going down. My thighs started to burn, my legs started to shake, and more often than not, Michelle and I found ourselves sliding down on our butts during the particularly hard and scary parts. (Again, I wished I’d taken Bill up on those poles.)

When we finally returned to camp, I was beyond spent. I knew I needed water, so I threw my daypack in the tent and started down toward the lake. Nothing seemed familiar and I couldn’t remember how to get down to the water, so after a few futile attempts, I just sat on a rock and waited for someone to come by. I was moments away from tears when Joan finally came smiling through the willow bushes carrying her empty bottle. She showed me the way down to the lake, and we crossed the rocks to get out to the deeper water. I filled my bottle, threw in an iodine pill, and checked my cell phone so I would know exactly when my 30 minute waiting period was up so I could drink the water. I stayed on the rock, waiting. After six minutes, I decided to take my chances with dysentery and giardia and drank the whole bottle. I filled it up again and headed back to camp for another iodine pill.

I crawled into my tent and tried to recover from Recovery Day. I was in sorry shape… weak, shaky, nauseous. I wasn’t sure if it was from altitude, exertion, dehydration, or just plain exhaustion. But whatever the case, I had hit the wall.

I didn’t make it out for Ziplock hair washing, and I didn’t make it out for tea. I closed my eyes and tried hard to fall asleep, but again, it didn’t happen.

At some point, Jordan came in to put on his rain gear because it had started to rain. He told me dinner was ready, so I also got my rain suit on and headed out to join the rest of the group for bean and rice burritos. I wasn’t hungry, but knew I needed to eat. It was a good decision, and pretty soon I began to feel infinitely better.

After dinner, we once again lamented the fire ban that prevented us from having a camp fire, so we decided to pack it in early and head to our tents. At the last minute, Jordan decided to put a few more rocks over the tent stakes, just to make sure our tent fly stayed in place if it started to thunderstorm again.

Another good decision.

That night, there was not only rain, and lightning, and thunder, but also this CRAZY WIND that is hard to describe. We could hear it building up speed as it reached the top of Mount Adams, then it would come howling down the canyon and hit our little camp site like a freight train. It happened over, and over, and over… like clockwork… every 3-4 minutes or so. Each time the Crazy Wind hit our $15 Black Friday special, the sides of our tent would collapse right on top of us. It was so ridiculous, it was almost funny. Once again, I just put my sleeping bag over my head and hoped for the best.

We survived.

The next day, we made breakfast, broke camp, and headed back down to the Shangri-La Meadow. The Crazy Wind had blown so fiercely that once we hit the tree line, the trail was covered in fragrant green balsam needles. It was a beautiful hike, and other than my burning calves and the 40+ pound pack on my back, it was very enjoyable. I especially loved this view as Jordan walked ahead of me:

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NEXT: The Fourteener…

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Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 4

In my last post, I left off with a video of myself just after I had experienced my first wild animal encounter, all alone at the top of a mountain in the middle of the Colorado wilderness. I was completely terrified, wondering how many of those things were lurking in the willow bushes staring at me, and knowing Amy was just beyond those bushes and would be returning on that path at any moment.

With a little Photoshop wizardry, I tried to recreate the scene for you. First I took a screen shot from my video at about 00:20, then I added the scary creature in the spot he appeared, trying hard not to exaggerate its size.

Here’s what I came up with… click to see photo.

It turns out my wild creature is called a marmot… a yellow-bellied marmot to be exact. Pronounced “MAR-mit,” it belongs to the squirrel family and lives in mountainous regions. I had never even heard the word before, although I had noticed it in several places, like on my sleeping bag, and the backs of people’s rain jackets. Little did I know the company was named after a terrifying mountain squirrel. All along I’d been saying “mar-MOH,” thinking it was French. (By the way, here’s another vernacular tip for my fellow non-mountaineers… the word carabiner is pronounced cara-BEE-ner, not cara-BI-ner like I’ve always said. You can thank me now for saving you this embarrassment later. And if you don’t even know what I’m talking about, just move along.)

Now, back to the moment at hand. I’m sitting by myself, exhausted, terrified, wondering if Amy is ever coming back or whether the scary creature got her. Thankfully, she appeared just moments later, still carrying her empty water bottle. She reported that she could see the lake but couldn’t figure out how to get down to it. It was surrounded by willow bushes and rock ledges, so getting drinking water was turning out to be a challenge.

I told Amy about the huge scary creature. I said it stood at least 3 feet high (I was not kidding, though I admit it was standing on an incline) and it was right in the path where she had just returned. She wasn’t concerned in the least. She told me it was a marmot. No big deal, they’re harmless. The only problems they’ve ever had with them is when they ate the handles off their hiking poles.

Marmots were the furthest thing from Amy’s mind. She was intent on getting water and decided to try another path to the lake, this time in the other direction. Even though I was terrified to go back into those willow bushes, I was even more terrified to stay there alone again, so I followed along. We started up another path, but found it hard to believe it could be so far or difficult to get down to the water. Clearly other people had stayed at this camp site. How did they do it?

We returned to the camp site and sat down. She asked me how I was feeling. I said fine. She, however, was not fine. She was feeling a little confused and disoriented, and was worried she may be suffering the effects of altitude sickness. She said she wasn’t thinking clearly, and she needed my help.

In that moment, she looked at me and I looked at her, and I’m pretty sure we were both thinking the same thing. Holy crap. We are all each other’s got.

Then, Amy made a decision. We were going back down the mountain to the second creek crossing so we could get water and get back to a lower altitude. This was a serious situation. She told me to grab my day pack, rain suit, water bottle, and some snacks. We would wait for the others at the creek and then hike back up with them.

I did what she asked, but was a little shook. As we began our descent, I started in with a few questions. “So, what exactly are the symptoms of altitude sickness? You’re not going to pass out on me or anything, are you?”

She told me she might get confused, belligerent, or might start saying things that didn’t make any sense. If that happened, she would need my help to make good decisions. We crossed a tiny stream that trickled across the top of our path, and I told her I wanted to stop and fill my water bottle… just in case. She said not to drink that water… it was too close to the path and could be contaminated by animal feces. I decided to fill my water bottle anyway. I figured if she passed out, she wouldn’t care about a little animal feces in her water. We kept walking.

As concerning as this whole situation was, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed going DOWN the mountain vs. up it. Without a 40+ pound pack on my back, I actually felt like I was floating. Perhaps I was also getting delirious, but it was all so enjoyable, I decided maybe I should start a new business for people who just want to get dropped off at the top of a mountain and go down instead of up. It was brilliant. I couldn’t wait to pitch the idea on Shark Tank.

We kept walking.

After about 30 minutes or so, we reached our destination and found Joan, Patrice, Lucy, Michelle, and Bill just coming across the creek. I think they were as happy to see us as we were to see them. The ladies were exhausted, and they wanted to know how much further it was to the top. Keep in mind, they had already hiked 2 1/2 miles back to the car from the Shagri-La Meadow to get the rest of the food, then another 2 1/2 miles back up, THEN put on their heavy packs and climbed another 2 1/2 miles up to this point. At the end of the day, it would be an eight mile hike for them, and an elevation climb from 9,000 feet to 11,800 feet. I didn’t know how to break it to them that they still had another hour of climbing from where we were.

I just have to mention Bill here. He is 73 years old and only has one lung. As a child, he came down with a rare bronchial infection and had to have one of his lungs removed. However, this has not slowed him down one bit. Today, he is the only one who has never missed one single JWRC Wilderness Trek. He has been on mountain hikes and wilderness trips all over the world, including New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and much of Europe. It was comforting to know we were with someone who had so much experience and so incredibly much stamina. While the rest of us were completely spent, it seemed Bill could go on forever.

Hiking back up the trail after meeting Bill and the ladies at the creek crossing.

Hiking back up the trail after meeting Bill and the ladies at the creek crossing.

As for Amy, she was feeling much better at this point. We filled our water bottles at the creek, popped some iodine pills into the water, then began the long 30 minute wait before we could drink it. We took the ladies’ tents from their packs to help lighten their load a bit, then we started back up the mountain.

We finally made it back to the camp site around 5:30pm or so. Within a half hour, Tim, Jordan, and Jerry arrived with the daypacks full of food that Bill and the ladies had retrieved from the cars earlier in the day. We were shocked by how quickly they had made it back up the mountain again. Amy and I had passed them around 2:45pm or so, meaning they had made the whole round trip, six mile (steep!) hike in a little over three hours.

Bill wanted to get the tea going, so the rest of us headed down to find the water. After each arriving at the lake from a different direction, we finally settled on one path that seemed the most logical. It wasn’t easy. Every time we went for water it was a 15 minute process, but at least we figured out how to get there.

After dinner, we did the dishes and went straight to bed. I doubt it was even 7pm. I was looking forward to the next day, which Bill called our “recovery day.” I couldn’t wait. I thought I might take some time to write in my journal or figure out if my sleeping pad would work for a lake floaty. But, as I would soon learn, Bill’s idea of a recovery day and my idea of a recovery day were vastly different.

More soon…

P.S. While I was Googling to find a picture of a yellow-bellied marmot, I came across the most amazing video from our friend Troy. Remember Troy? He was the day-hiker with the two dogs we had run into on the trail in my last post. On the exact same day we were hiking the Horn Lakes Trail (July 17, 2016), Troy was taking video which he posted to YouTube. This was such a great find, considering I had neither the will nor wherewithal to be taking many photos on my way up the trail. Also, I am so intrigued by the beautiful spot he stopped for lunch. I have no idea where that was, and it would have made filling our water bottles so much easier! Anyway, enjoy! Watch the video...

NEXT: Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 5…

Upper Horn Lake and Mount Adams. View these images on Flickr...

View these images on Flickr…

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Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 3

Day 4 of our JWRC Wilderness Trek found us waking up to a beautiful, crisp morning in our Shangri-La meadow. It had been a cold night, with temps probably dipping into the 40s. No worries though. Jordan had loaned me his super-warm, mummy-shaped sleeping bag, so I stayed plenty warm throughout the night. Not so for Jordan. He had brought along a super-tiny, light-weight sleeping bag, and he froze for the better part of the night. Good thing for Jordan though… Bill, our Trek leader had brought along extra sleeping bags, so we could just grab one for him when we went back to the trailhead to grab the rest of the food.

Oh yeah, that part.

IMG_0191I put on all the warmest things I owned and headed out to see what was shaking. After Bill filled my Tervis cup with some hot steaming coffee from the French press, I sat down and realized I was the only person there with a cup that said, “Life is better at the beach.” That concerned me a bit. I looked around at my fellow Trekkers and thought, who ARE these people? Are they INSANE? I am used to vacations where I sit on the beach and do nothing. Maybe read a book. Maybe go for a walk. Maybe take a swim. That’s about it. No heavy lifting involved.

But THESE people… they are FIT, and they do things. They know how to pack a backpack, pitch a tent, and make a cook stove out of some metal pieces that come in a tiny drawstring bag. I was starting to feel a little out of my element, and one thing I knew… there was no way on God’s green earth that I had the stamina to hike all the way back to the trailhead, get the food, hike back up to the Shangri-La meadow, and THEN put on my 40+ pound backpack, and hike another three miles up to the top of this mountain. I poured myself another cup of coffee and wondered how I was going to break it to them.

After a delicious breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal and dried fruit, we did our dishes and sat down to discuss a game plan. I finally admitted there was no way I could make all those trips… first down, then up, then further up. Instead, we decided that Bill would take Lucy, Joan, Patrice and Michelle back down to the cars for the food (and a warmer sleeping bag for Jordan), while Jerry, Jordan, Tim, Amy, and I would hike to the top, then come back to help. Such a good plan. We started off around 9am or so.

Holy hell. What I thought had been a hard hike the day before now seemed like a pleasure cruise. This part of the trail was even steeper and more difficult. We made it to the first water crossing which involved hiking across two fallen logs positioned about 8 feet above a fast-moving creek. I had no idea if I could do that. I watched Jordan and Tim scurry across and thought, well, how hard can it be? Actually, it wasn’t that hard… a little nerve-wracking maybe, but a nice little break from the constant goes-uppedness of the rest of the trail.

After this, we never saw Jerry, Jordan, or Tim again. They took off at hare-speed, while Amy and I chose to tortoise our way to the top. While I continued to put one foot in front of the other, I seriously started to question what I had gotten myself into. I did, however, marvel at the fact that I was actually doing it. I was climbing a mountain with a 40 pound pack on my back. I may not have felt like it, but in that moment, I was one of those people.

As I trudged along, I suddenly became aware of heavy panting behind me. I turned to see two dogs running up the trail and hoped they were friendly (er, domesticated). I asked Amy if we should be concerned, but just then we heard a whistle and the dogs retreated. It turns out they belonged to a hiker named Troy who was just out for a day hike. (Yes, apparently there are people who do this sort of thing for fun.) We chatted for a while, then he and his friendly dogs took off and were soon out of sight.

IMG_0198By the time Amy and I reached the second water crossing, I was pretty much spent. I was hot, thirsty, and out of water. I debated whether to fill my water bottle with the water from the stream, but we didn’t have any iodine tablets, so we decided to just keep moving and fill our water bottles once we reached the lake at the top.

We were above the tree line by now and had started to encounter a new set of obstacles… willow bushes. They had grown over the trail in places, so we had to do a fair amount of bush-whacking to get past them.

It was about this time we ran into Troy again. We asked if he had run into three guys at the top, and he said yes, he’d had a nice long conversation with them. They had set up camp in a nice meadow by the lake. It was “just up ahead.”

We continued our ascent, bush-whacking and mosquito-beating, wondering when we would ever run into Jerry, Jordan, and Tim. We had been hiking for almost six hours by this time, and we were both exhausted. We came up over another rise, and suddenly, there he was, standing atop a large rock formation. I wasn’t sure if it was Jordan or Jesus, but in that moment, I was just so happy to know the end was in sight… one way or another.

Jordan, Tim, and Jerry were on their way back down to the Shangri-La meadow to get the rest of the food. They told us that camp was about 200 yards ahead and they had lunch sitting out for us. Just two more football fields. I could make it. We bush-whacked our way through the last 200 yards and finally saw Jordan’s and my little red tent shining in the distance. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.

It was about 3pm when we finally arrived at the camp site. We threw off our packs and headed straight for the food. We each made ourselves a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then moved on to the trail mix. We were both thirsty and out of water, so after resting for just a bit, Amy left to go check out the lake. I threw my backpack into our tent and started to unpack a few things. After a bit, I grabbed my water bottle and decided to go find Amy.

And this, my friends, is when I experienced my first wild animal encounter… all by myself, in the middle of the Colorado wilderness.

More soon…

NEXT: Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 4…

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Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 2

If you read my last post, you know that I just returned from a 9 day hiking trip to the Colorado wilderness to raise money for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (JWRC). It was a very successful Trek which, so far, has raised over $16,000 for JWRC… the most ever! I was very honored to have been asked, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience for both me and my 21 year old son, Jordan, who accompanied me.

That being said, holy cow.

Colorado kicked my ass.

When I agreed to go on this year’s Trek, I knew there would be a certain amount of training I would have to do to get in shape. Here’s how that went.

I was already doing a pretty intense yoga class on Wednesday nights, so I figured that counted for something. I also started swimming laps at the middle school last winter, eventually working my way up to 1000 yards without stopping (plus flip turns!). This was quite a feat for me, and something I hadn’t done since high school. When the session ended last spring, I was feeling pretty dang proud of myself.

Next, I joined the Fitbit Step Challenge at work. The goal was to average 10,000-12,000 steps per day for four weeks. This may seem pretty easy for most people, but not so for a marketing person who sits behind a desk for the better part (all part) of a day. Many times, I found myself having to get up before work to take the dog for a walk, or doing loops around my neighborhood after dinner, just to get my steps in.

About three weeks before the Trek, I decided walking wasn’t good enough. It was helping to break in my new hiking shoes, but I realized my legs needed to be stronger, so I decided to start running. Let me be clear on this… I am not a runner. In fact, I hate running. My plan was to work my way through the “Couch to 5K” app, but I soon realized there wasn’t enough time to cram that in before I left for the Trek. Instead, I made myself a fun 70s playlist, and with a little help from my friends — Rupert Holmes, Cheap Trick, Neil Diamond, and Glen Campbell — I managed to work my way up to two miles without stopping.

Good enough.

Bring on the Wilderness.

After arriving in Buena Vista, Colorado and camping the first night at Snowy Peaks Campround, we were ready for our first big hike. We packed up our tents, loaded our backpacks, and headed about 25 miles south to the town of Salida. We had heard there was a forest fire along Hayden Pass, so our Trek leader, Bill, wanted to check with the Ranger station in Salida to get an update.

As we pulled into Salida, we discovered an entire tent city that had been set up for firefighters who were arriving from all over the U.S. to help fight the forest fire. On that day, there also happened to be a press conference taking place at the Ranger station. It was just beginning as we pulled in, so I dug out my iPhone and joined the media throng while the others found a helpful Ranger to discuss a game plan and consider their options.

Smoky the Bear

Hayden Pass Fire  - click for incident information

Hayden Pass Fire – click for incident information

As I left the press conference to join the rest of the gang, I was fully prepared to hear that we might not be able to complete our backpacking excursion. No such luck. We were pressing on toward Westcliffe… toward the fire. The plan was to hike the Horn Creek Trail, and the Ranger had assured us we would be safe. Just don’t stop your car along the road from Salida to Westcliffe, he told us. No gawkers allowed.

I must say, for all the fuss and hullabaloo, it didn’t look like much of a forest fire to me. Granted there were helicopters with water buckets flying around, and Smoky the Bear even made an appearance at the press conference, but I couldn’t see any flames or even black smoke. There were plumes of white smoke coming off the mountains, and you could definitely smell smoke in the air, but as far as forest fires go, it didn’t seem imminently scary. All good. On to Westcliffe and the Horn Creek Trail.

View map…

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When we arrived in Westcliffe, we had a little time to grab some lunch and look around, so I wandered into a little outfitter store and bought myself a pair of mountain-climber zip-off pants. It turns out they are all the rage in the mountains, and I was dying of heat in my black, lined wind pants. Another lesson learned.

As we pressed on to the trailhead at Horn Creek, I also learned we would need to help carry group items in our backpacks, along with what we already had packed. These items included food, pots, pans, etc.

Gulp. Was not prepared for that.

When we reached the trailhead, I got another lesson in lightening my backpack. Down vest… gone. Fuzzy tights… gone. Swimsuit… gone. Fork… gone. I was down to the bare essentials, and still my pack felt like a million pounds. We took a vote as to whether we should take ALL the group supplies with us at that moment, or come back down without packs the next day to retrieve the rest of the food. I voted to come back down the next day and even volunteered to do it… anything to make my current load a little lighter. I grabbed a roll of toilet paper from the group supplies, added it to my pack, and happily started on my way up the mountain.

I made it about half a city block and thought I was going to die.

At some point, when all I could do was just keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope my heart would not explode, I felt water dripping on me and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. I kept thinking my water bottle was leaking, but to my utter amazement, I soon realized it was SWEAT. My own sweat. Who knew.

The other thing I was not prepared for (nor was anyone else) were the MOSQUITOS. They were crazy! Truly, I’ve never seen anything like it, not even in Minnesota. They were all over us at all times… so much so, that stopping for a rest was neither pleasant nor advised. Best to just keep moving… slow and steady… tortoise vs. hare.

For three miles and two hours straight, I kept putting one foot in front of the other and hoped I wouldn’t die. Somewhere along the way, we ran into some day hikers making their descent who told us there was a beautiful meadow just ahead. It was wide and grassy with wildflowers, and sat along a creek surrounded by aspens. It was all I could think about as I kept plodding along. Every time I turned a corner or came up over another rise, I searched for the Shangri-La Meadow. (As it turns out, the phrase “just up ahead” is a relative term for those super-fit hiker people… especially those that are heading downhill.)

We finally made it to the Shangri-La Meadow around 4:45 PM, and it truly was beautiful. We filled our water bottles at the creek, added iodine and neutralizer pills, then filled the cooking pots with water so our leader, Bill, could get the tea going.

“High tea” is a Wilderness Trek tradition that I really came to love. Every day after a strenuous hike, Bill would make us a big pot of tea… and every batch was a little different. Sometimes ginger, sometimes chamomile, sometimes who-knows-what. All I know is this… when you’re kind of dying and the thought of starting dinner is completely overwhelming, a little cup of tea goes a long way toward bolstering the spirit. Good tea makes good company. Another lesson learned.

Next, Bill and Amy made us homemade mac and cheese with chicken and spices mixed in. It was delicious. I was full, tired, and ready for bed. Because of the fire ban, we couldn’t have a campfire, so we all ended up rolling into our tents pretty early that night.

I went to bed feeling pretty proud that I had survived the first day’s hike. Little did I know the next day would be even harder… another three miles up the Horn Creek Trail, this time to 11,800 feet. And we still had to go back to get the rest of the food.

More soon.

View these photos on Flickr...

View these photos on Flickr…

NEXT: Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 3…

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Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 1

Yesterday, I returned from a 9-day backpacking trip to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado. It was the 23rd annual Wilderness Trek for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (JWRC) — a fundraiser that has raised more than $160,000 since 1994.

First, I am happy to report that my son Jordan and I reached our goal of raising $5,000 for JWRC! I had such a great time receiving all the checks in the mail and reading all your notes of encouragement. Thank you so much for believing in us and for supporting this amazing organization!

Second, I am OVER THE MOON to report that, with your support, JWRC received a record number of Trek donations this year! Donations continue to trickle in, so I will report back with a final number as soon as I hear. Your support will help JWRC continue to keep kids safe through prevention education. In 2015, JWRC trained 10,317 people at 110 different host sites. The Center also provided case management support to 36 new missing person cases in 2015, and 73 total cases with on-going support and advocacy.

If you’d still like to make a donation to the 2016 Wilderness Trek, go to https://foundation.gundersenhealth.org/protectkids and under “Designation,” please choose “Trek Donation – Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.”

Now, a little bit about the trip…

Last Thursday, July 14th, I took the day off work and started packing for the Trek. Having never done anything like this in my life, I enlisted Jordan’s help in packing my bag and culling any unnecessary items.

Once packed, we loaded the car and headed off to northeast Minneapolis for a send-off reception at the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. Patty and Jerry were both there, along with their daughter, Carmen, and her two young daughters. They had each brought their teddy bears to show me that I didn’t need to be afraid of bears. (How cute is that?!)

This was the first time Jordan and I would meet the rest of the Trekkers, and I was curious to know who they were and how they had ended up on the Trek. Here’s what I was able to figure out:

Bill: Leader of the Wilderness Trek for the past 23 years. He is a retired school teacher and co-founder of Wilderness Inquiry, a non-profit adventure travel organization. For many years, he also organized fundraising treks for the American Lung Association.

Amy: A teacher/administrator with the Minneapolis School District, and an experienced mountain hiker. She has attended nearly every JWRC Wilderness Trek over the past 23 years and has worked with Bill on several other trips.

Duane: A Registered Nurse who works for the University of Minnesota’s Interventional Radiology Department. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend the Trek due to a sprained ankle, but he did attend the reception.

Lucy: Duane’s wife, and also a Registered Nurse. She is also the sister of Rick Hansen, who was instrumental in organizing the first Wilderness Trek in 1994. This was her second Trek.

Patrice: Another RN who works with Duane in the Interventional Radiology Department at the U of M. This was her first Trek.

Joan: A Nurse Practitioner from Forest Lake who also knows Duane. This was her second Trek.

Michelle: A teacher from Plymouth, and a friend of Amy’s. This was her first trek. (Coincidentally, I learned Michelle is also good friends with a friend of mine from high school. Small world.)

Tim: A retail manager from Blaine who played hockey and soccer with Jacob when they were young. Their families got to know each other through sports, and they all became close. Tim and his father, Gary, participated in several Treks together over the years until 2013 when Gary passed away from a sudden heart attack. Today, Tim continues to participate in the JWRC Wilderness Trek in his dad’s memory.

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After the send-off reception, we loaded up a Jeep, a Volvo, and a Land Rover with our packs, then around 7pm, we hit the road.

Other than a few stops for food, bathroom breaks, and a broken sun roof in the Volvo, we drove straight through to Colorado and arrived at Snowy Peaks Campground in Buena Vista around 6pm on Friday, July 15th. Jerry and Patty’s son, Trevor, was there to meet us with his two young boys who live just outside of Denver. (They went to dinner with us and camped overnight, but didn’t join us on the Trek.) We were also met by Marty and Joan from Utah who did join us for the first part of the Trek. (Joan is a cousin of Duane’s.)

At this point in the game, I’m a little tired from the car ride, but none the worse for wear. I have absolutely no idea what I’m in store for over the next six days. Holy cow.

More soon.

NEXT: Joy vs. the Wilderness, part 2…

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