25 more days…

For the past two weeks, the best part of my day has been checking the mailbox when I get home from work. I love seeing all the return envelopes with checks inside made out to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. Every now and then, someone includes a little note of encouragement, which I especially love.

We’ve received checks from family, friends, neighbors, members of our church, and even complete strangers. So far, Jordan and I are about halfway to our $5,000 goal, and that doesn’t even include any online donations (still waiting to hear back on that total).

I have just two words… thank you!!

When I agreed to take part in this year’s Wilderness Trek for JWRC, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. My family helped me stuff, stamp, and seal the envelopes, then I dropped them off at the Post Office and hoped for the best.

What a response! It’s so heartening to see how many people still care so very deeply about Jacob and his family. While we wait for answers, this is the one thing we can all do that will actually make a difference.

The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center focuses on prevention by teaching kids to be smart when it comes to their personal safety. They discuss the importance of checking first with parents or caregivers before going somewhere with another person, accepting gifts, or allowing someone to photograph them. While this may seem obvious to us as parents, it’s not obvious to kids, especially when the person is known to the child.

Equally important, JWRC teaches kids to hang out in groups, trust their instincts, and never keep secrets from their parents. The internet poses a particular threat, and parents play a pivotal role in understanding the traps and pitfalls that their children face online. JWRC provides this training, as well.

Clearly, the world is a safer place because of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, and I’m happy to support the cause.

Now, I just need to get in shape.

IMG_0616I have begun breaking in my new hiking shoes that my family gave me for Mother’s Day, and I joined the FitBit Challenge at work, trying to average at least 10,000 steps a day. My plan was to go on a 15 mile bike ride at least twice a week, but so far that hasn’t happened. I also had high hopes of making it through the Couch to 5K app before we leave, but I think it’s fair to say that isn’t going to happen either. Between graduation parties, weddings, showers, birthday parties, and work-related events, I dare say this may be as good as it gets. I guess I’ll just pack lots of Advil.

Now then, back to the discussion of bears. I have been given a great deal of sage advice since my last blog post. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned.

  • There are no bears in Colorado.
  • It’s not the bears you need to worry about, it’s the mountain lions.
  • It’s not the bears you need to worry about, it’s the rattlesnakes.
  • A bear can outrun a racehorse.
  • Bear spray is much more effective than a firearm, but make sure you don’t spray it into the wind (spoken from experience).
  • Don’t go to bed smelling like bacon. Bears really like bacon.
  • If you encounter a bear, make a lot of noise, raise your arms, and try to appear bigger than the bear.
  • If you encounter a bear, do not make a lot of noise, retreat quietly, and never, under any circumstances, try to appear bigger than the bear.

My son Jordan has also tried to convince me that sleeping in a hammock tied between two trees is much more comfortable than sleeping in a tent. My question to him was, how does a bear know the difference between food hanging from a tree and a human hanging from a tree? Seems to me the bear is a winner either way.

And so, you can see I am still all sorts of confused when it comes to a potential bear encounter. I think I will just stop asking for advice and assume that the rest of the Trekkers have a far better handle on this subject than me.

I’d like to give a special shout out to Jerry Wetterling on this Father’s Day to thank him for coordinating 23 of these annual Wilderness Treks to help raise money for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. I cannot think of a better way to honor his son.

If you’d like to support this year’s Wilderness Trek, please make your donation by July 7th.

To donate online, go to https://foundation.gundersenhealth.org/protectkids. Under “Designation,” please choose “Trek Donation – Jacob Wetterling Resource Center,” and in the box that says “Special notes about this gift,” please add “Joy and Jordan.”

Checks can be made out to JWRC with TREK in the memo line. Mail to 16162 Golfview Rd NE, New London, MN 56273. If you’d like to receive a receipt, just let me know and I will get one to you. All donations to JWRC are 100% tax deductible.

Thank you!!

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Trek 2016. Let’s do this thing.

I apologize for my lapse in posts lately. Ever since Danny Heinrich was arrested last October 29th, there have been countless times I’ve wanted to write something, but just… didn’t. Like everyone, I have a million questions swirling in my head, but I’ve chosen to stay quiet during this waiting phase so the investigators can do their investigating and the lawyers can do their lawyering. But man, the wheels of justice can grind agonizingly slow!

On May 11th, Heinrich’s attorneys submitted their laundry list of pre-trial motions, which included a motion to suppress evidence found during the search of Heinrich’s home last summer, a motion to suppress incriminating statements Heinrich made during that search, and a motion for a change of venue, preferably out of state.

On June 1st, federal prosecutors responded to the defense’s motions with a 46 page document, explaining why none of the evidence/statements should be suppressed and laying out in detail why Danny Heinrich is considered a person of interest in Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapping. It also makes strong connections to Jared’s assault and the Paynesville attacks. If you haven’t already, take a look for yourself. The court document makes for compelling reading, and I encourage you to read it and leave your own comments below. Here’s a link where you can download it on WCCO’s web site:

Download the June 1 court filing…

And, of course, there was another monumental court filing made last month. Jared Scheierl took advantage of the Minnesota Child Victim’s Act to sue Danny Heinrich in civil court. Under this act, which started May 24, 2013, adult survivors of childhood sex abuse had a three-year window of opportunity to file suit against their abusers in civil court. On May 11th, Jared and his attorneys charged Heinrich with one count of sexual battery and one count of false imprisonment. He seeks damages in excess of $50,000, yet realizes he will likely see none of it. For him, it’s about answers, and justice, and the chance to looks his assailant in the eye. But he’ll have to wait until Heinrich’s child pornography trial is over, which will start on July 11th… if all goes as planned.

So, we wait some more.

But in the mean time, I have something new and exciting to write about. From July 14-23, my son Jordan and I will be joining Jerry Wetterling and his annual group of trekkers on the 23rd Annual Wilderness Trek for JWRC. In spite of my irrational fear of grizzly bears and chipmunks (and not necessarily in that order), I’m actually going to do this thing!

Last year, I interviewed Jerry about the Wilderness Trek, along with Bill Simpson (Trek Leader) and Alison Feigh (Program Manager for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center). (Read the interview here…) At that time, Jerry had just asked me to go along on last year’s trek, but I had a thousand reasons why I couldn’t go (mostly the grizzly/chipmunk thing). But this year, when he asked again, I said of course. Why not! How hard can it be!

Joy and Jordan

Joy and Jordan

So, on July 14th, Jordan and I will join 10-12 other trekkers on a van ride to Salida, Colorado where we will be “Trekking for Hope” in order to raise money for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. We will be beginning in the Buena Vista area and ending with the plan of climbing one of the many 14,000 ft peaks in the area.

Bill Simpson is our trek leader and has years of wilderness adventure experience. He donates his time and expertise to lead the trek and in return he asks all participants to collect pledges, which directly benefit the Center. Each of us pays our own expenses such as food, gas, first aid supplies etc.

Jordan and I have a goal of raising $5,000 for this year’s Trek fundraiser. As you all know, this has been a trying year for the Wetterlings, as well as Jared, and all the Paynesville victims. Last November, when we put together an informational meeting for the residents of Paynesville, the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center responded to the call. They made the two hour drive in the fog and were there to provide resources for families, residents, and victims. In fact, they are always there, with a a 24/7 Victim Assistance Helpline for families and communities around issues related to missing persons, abuse and exploitation.

What many people don’t realize is that Jerry and Patty Wetterling started the Jacob Wetterling Foundation on Jacob’s 12th birthday – February 17, 1990. It is a legacy of love… and hope… that continues to live on under the umbrella of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center.

In 2015, JWRC trained 10,317 people at 110 different host sites, a 19% increase of people trained in 2014. In addition, the Center provided case management support to 36 new missing person cases in 2015 and 73 total cases with on-going support and advocacy.

We’re hoping you’ll join us in supporting the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center by considering a donation to the 2016 Wilderness Trek!

To donate online, go to https://foundation.gundersenhealth.org/protectkids. Under “Designation,” please choose “Trek Donation – Jacob Wetterling Resource Center,” and in the box that says “Special notes about this gift,” please add “Joy and Jordan.”

Checks can be made out to JWRC with TREK in the memo line. Mail to 16162 Golfview Rd NE, New London, MN 56273. If you’d like to receive a receipt, just let me know and I will get one to you. All donations to JWRC are 100% tax deductible.

Donations are preferred to be received by July 7th.

Thank you so much for your consideration! Much more to come!

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Thank you, MNCASA

I’ve been sitting here for a good 20 minutes wondering how in the world to start this blog post. The truth is, I have no idea how to start. I cannot even begin to explain the swirl of thoughts and emotions going through my head right now.

Last night.

*Wow*

On February 22nd, I received a letter from the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA). It started like this:

“Dear Joy,

On behalf of the board of directors, staff and partner programs of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, I am pleased to notify you of your selection as an AWARE 2016 Award recipient. Each year MNCASA recognizes citizens, researchers, advocates and policy makers in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). Awardees are named for their individual creativity and perseverance to end sexual violence. We are honoring you for your work to shed light on unresolved issues of child sexual abuse that occurred decades ago. Because of your efforts, victims, who may have felt silenced, have had their voices heard and a perpetrator is being held accountable for harm.”

I believe there are those moments in each of our lives when you take pause, stand outside of yourself, and say, “Well, now. THAT was something.” For me, this was indeed, one of those moments.

In fact, it was SO MUCH “something” that I just couldn’t stop smiling. For days, I smiled through tears, bewilderment, and dare I say it… JOY. It was as if everything I had done… for all those reasons I could never explain… had all come down to this. Suddenly, it all made sense. And it was… deep.

All the phone calls, emails, questions, blog posts, tips, timelines, newspaper articles, Google lookups, trips to the library, and date nights with the microfilm reader had all… MATTERED. In the end, it was all 100% worth it.

You see, this wasn’t just a story about a cold case kidnapping. Somewhere along the line, it became a quest for answers… and for justice… for a group of boys who were never heard and barely believed. It wasn’t just about Paynesville, or Cold Spring, or St. Joseph. It was about KIDS… right here in my own backyard… who trusted and believed that they could bike to the store, camp in the woods, walk home from the pizza place, or give directions to a stranger… without fear for their personal safety. They were just KIDS, whose confidence was shook not only by the act itself, but by a system that seemed to ignore them.

We have to do better. And we ARE doing better, thanks in large part to organizations like MNCASA who are on the front lines every day, making a difference and advocating for victims.

We are doing better because of men like John Choi, Ron Latz, and Steve Simon who were also honored with a 2016 AWARE Award. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was recognized for his leadership on the issue of sexual violence, particularly his work engaging men and boys. Senator Ron Latz and Secretary of State Steve Simon were both recognized for their leadership as the Chief Authors of the Minnesota Child Victims Act.

We are also doing better because of men like Jared Scheierl, whose bravery in sharing his own story helped shed light on the Paynesville assault cluster and made it OK for others to come forward. In so doing, Jared not only helped solve his own case, he also got a dangerous child predator off the street.

Finally, we are doing better because of the tireless efforts of one woman… a five-foot-one-inch GIANT named Patty Wetterling. Last night, Patty received MNCASA’s highest honor, the Visionary Voice Award, which recognizes the creativity and hard work of individuals around the country who have demonstrated outstanding work to end sexual violence.

From MNCASA’s Facebook page: “Patty Wetterling has been a source of hope and inspiration to victims and parents of children who have been sexually abused. Her tireless advocacy for primary prevention of sexual violence and rational sex offender management policies has made an indelible impact on the state and the nation. Through her many years as the Director of Sexual Violence Prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health, Patty advanced programming and policy in support of primary prevention in Minnesota. Her national efforts through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation have helped shape policies and organizational practices to end child sexual abuse and exploitation.”

To be there in that room… among those giants… learning about all the amazing work that’s being done… watching Patty receive her award… listening to her wow the crowd with her wit, wisdom, and grace… Well, honestly… how do I put that into words?

Amazing? Awe-inspring? Mind-blowing? Nope… nothing quite touches it. If I had to choose one word, I guess it would be “aspiring.” Simply put, I aspire to their greatness… all of them… their collective passion, hope, bravery, kindness, and strength.

Thank you MNCASA… and Patty… and Jared… and all the other giants in the room.

You aspire me.

Photo courtesy of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center

Photo courtesy of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center

ScreenShot_KARE-11_2016-04-12

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A legacy of love

Last week, for Jacob’s 38th birthday, Patty Wetterling wrote a moving and emotional message to her son, promising him that she would never stop looking for him. The story was originally posted by the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, and then quickly picked up by a host of other local and national media outlets.

I was happy to see that People Magazine even picked up the story. They were one of the first national magazines to cover Jacob’s abduction, and they’ve run several articles in the years since.

It was a good story. The reporter called to interview Patty personally, so there were additional details to run alongside the birthday letter. All good… except for one thing. There was one sentence that made me stop in my tracks and say… um, no. The average passerby probably wouldn’t have caught it. But I did.

In the article, it states, “Wetterling, who served on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s board of directors for three years, says she will never stop searching for her son.”

The thing is… Patty Wetterling has served on the Board of Directors for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for the past TWENTY TWO years… not three. She was the first family victim to be appointed to the NCMEC board in 1993, and recently served as Board Chair from 2012-2015. She continues to serve as immediate Past Chair, traveling back and forth to Washington, D.C. on a regular basis.

NCMEC_plaque_2015When Patty’s term as Board Chair ended this past December, NCMEC presented her with a beautiful framed print in honor of her service to the Board. The number “11,654” sits boldly atop the images of 11,654 children who were recovered during Patty’s leadership at NCMEC from 2012-2015. The bronze plaque reads, “In grateful recognition and appreciation for your exceptional leadership and tenacious dedication to the protection of our children.”

What a legacy. And it doesn’t end there.

It actually started twenty six years ago, on February 17, 1990 — Jacob’s 12th birthday. That’s the day Jerry and Patty Wetterling founded the “Jacob Wetterling Foundation” (now the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center). In the agonizing months following Jacob’s abduction, Patty discovered a voice and a strength she never knew she had. She began speaking at schools, churches, and community groups, spreading her message of prevention, education, and hope. She has since gone on to become one of the nation’s leading advocates for missing and exploited children.

Because of Patty Wetterling’s efforts, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994 which required states to implement a sex offender and crimes against children registry. She co-founded Team HOPE in 1998, a parent-to-parent mentoring and support group for families of other missing children. She co-authored a book, “When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide,” along with four other families. She has been honored as one of KARE-11 TV’s “Eleven Who Care” and was selected by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as one of the “100 Most Influential Minnesotans of the Century.” Most recently, she served as Director of Sexual Violence Prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health, retiring in May of 2015. She continues to make national speaking appearances, and serves as a consultant at child abuse conferences and law enforcement trainings.

Through it all, her focus has been to find Jacob. Until that day, she will continue searching. And hoping.

#ThinkingJacob

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Happy Birthday Jacob

Tomorrow, February 17, 2016, will mark Jacob Wetterling’s 38th birthday. With permission, I’m sharing a special birthday message, written by his mom, Patty.

#ThinkingJacob

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

Happy Birthday Jacob!

IMG_1397_revBirthdays are supposed to be about parties, hats and noisemakers, cake, ice cream, friends singing and making wishes but not yet. Not this year, again. How I wish to wrap my arms around you and hug you tight! I have watched the tape of your last birthday party over and over. We rented a suite at the Holiday Inn for your party. You and Aaron raced back and forth in the pool and took turns throwing each other in the deep end. It was so much fun!

I want you to know that since you were stolen away from us, people everywhere have been searching, praying and hoping for your safety and for answers. Last fall, 26 years later, news of possible answers had your story as the number two news coverage in the region. That’s pretty amazing 26 years later. People care. There are more good people than bad in the world and people still hope.

My birthday wish is for you to come home. We need to find you. I have another wish for every child who is home safe today, that they will never have to endure abduction or sexual exploitation of any type. We are working just as hard on prevention as we are on searching because this is so wrong… so unfair. I remember how much it bothered you when things were unfair. Me too, it bothers me too.

I am hoping and praying that people will remember you on February 17 and we ask that everyone hug their kids a little tighter, tell them that they love them and take time to play a game or read books. My wish is also that parents will support agencies that help to find our missing kids and help other victims. Today, we ask everyone to volunteer, attend events, send financial support and share safety information. The non-profit work continues on a daily basis. Sometimes sexual exploitation and abduction are on the news, and sometimes not, yet we all rely on the support and expertise of these agencies when we need them. They are there for us. They need our support as well.

And once again today, February 17, we will light our candles, fix your favorite foods and cake, and thank God for the gift of you.
We love you Jacob and we’ll never stop searching for you!
I so wish for a happy birthday for you…

Mom
Patty Wetterling

For more information, visit:

Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, www.JWRC.org

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, www.missingkids.org

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Paynesville meeting, Strib article

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

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

It truly was a win-win for everyone involved.

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

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

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

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

The full story can be found here:
http://www.startribune.com/inside-one-woman-s-search-for-jacob-wetterling/361683551/

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How I got started blogging about Jacob…

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I met Patty…

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

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

I was right. She did.

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

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

Working with Jared…

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

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

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

Where things are now…

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

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Must read. Must see.

That moment when you say to yourself… it was all worth it.

Thank you Troy, Mark, Nathan, and others for sharing your stories in today’s Minneapolis StarTribune. What happened to you was not OK, and you deserved better.

Thank you Jenna Ross, Pam Louwagie, and Renee Jones Schneider for your sensitive and responsible reporting of this important story.

StribVideo_11-15-2015

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Wow. What to say.

It’s been a little over a week since authorities announced they had DNA evidence — a 100% match — that proved Danny Heinrich from Paynesville is the man who abducted and assaulted 12 year old Jared from Cold Spring. That attack happened just 9 months prior to Jacob Wetterling’s abduction, leading authorities to now name Heinrich an official Person of Interest in Jacob’s case. In all likelihood, he was also the man responsible for the string of attacks on juvenile boys that took place in Paynesville between 1986-1989.

This news came as a huge shock, and for the past week, I’ve been reeling and trying to make sense of it all.

Over the past two and a half years, Jared has become a good friend. We talk often, compare notes, and generally keep each other sane. This has been an incredibly crazy journey for both of us, and it’s been nice to have a companion along for the ride.

Now, after all our endless hours of research, interviews, phone calls, texts, and emails, Jared finally has his guy. No question about it… a 100% match. The news is still sinking in, and it’s taken me over a week to really process it. Emotionally, I have been all over the place. Happy, sad, pissed, confused, exhausted… you name it. This is BIG CRAZY NEWS and it’s a lot to take in. Did we know about this guy? Yes. Was he on our radar? Not really. I do remember mentioning to Jared that we should talk to him at one point. I think the conversation went something like this, “Well, what the heck. Let’s just go knock on his door and see what he has to say.” (And this, my friends, is why I’m in marketing and not police work.) Thank goodness for divine intervention and short attention spans; that interview never happened.

Emotion aside, I’ve also had a ton of questions swirling around in my head following Heinrich’s arrest. Here are just a few:

  • What about the tire tracks? In 2003, Kevin came forward and said he’d driven through the crime scene and left his tire tracks in the driveway. After that, authorities said the tire tracks were now accounted for and they were, instead, looking for a local person who probably took Jacob on foot. But, now we know authorities matched Heinrich’s tires to the tracks left in the driveway way back in 1990. So, does that mean there were two sets of tire tracks? What the heck?
  • In early reports, Jacob’s abductor was described to have been wearing black shoes or boots. Granted, the kids were scared and unsure, but they did say the man who took Jacob was dressed all in black. So, does it make sense then that he’d be wearing colored tennis shoes with white stripes? Who knows. But weird, right? Does that mean there might have been more than one abductor?
  • How did Heinrich know the Kraemers? They were neighbors of Jared’s when he lived in Cold Spring, and that’s the name Heinrich used when he stopped to ask for directions. The Kraemers own Tom Kraemer, Inc., a name widely associated with rolloff dumpsters in our area. These dumpsters often appear at construction sites. Did Heinrich ever work construction, or for TKI? If not, why did he pick that name?
  • Why Cold Spring? If Heinrich WAS the man responsible for the attacks on young boys in Paynesville, then what brought him to Cold Spring on that cold January night in 1989? Was he stalking Jared? Or, did he just happen to see a group of kids walking from the ice rink to the Side Cafe, and then waited to see if any of them would walk home alone?
  • Why did he choose the place he did to assault Jared? Obviously, the guy was a planner… a cold, calculating POS who didn’t leave anything to chance. He doesn’t seem the type who would just grab a kid off the street and then say to himself, “OK then… now where to?” I’m sure he didn’t just happen upon that spot… but why there?
  • In Jared’s case, the guy had a 4-door car with child proof locks in the back seat. The assault took place in the back seat. However, at the time Jacob was kidnapped, Heinrich owned a small 2-door car with no back seat. So, if he did take Jacob, where did they go? What happened?

And, this is where I start to fall apart. I can’t bring myself to “go there,” so I just stop. But, in order to solve this case, that is exactly the type of police work that needs to be done by people who are a lot better at it than me. As a mother of two boys myself, I simply can’t handle it. I am so eternally grateful for the people in law enforcement who are able to “go there” and do the work. I’m sure it is often a thankless job with long hours and little recognition, but I am personally so very thankful for the men and women who are doing the hard work to get answers for the Wetterling family.

In spite of all my questions and ruffling of feathers over the years, it was Jared who had the perseverance and fortitude to keep the investigation going, and it was ultimately a good piece of police work that finally cracked the case. And in all seriousness, none of that would have ever happened if the Wetterlings had not gotten involved and insisted that Stearns County, the FBI, the BCA, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children all come together to look at the bigger picture. As Patty said in her statement last week, “When good people pull together, amazing things happen.”

So then, good people, consider that your battle cry. If you knew Danny Heinrich or have any information you can share with investigators to help solve Jacob’s case, please call the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office at (320) 259-3700 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.

Off the top of my head, here are a few questions that may be particularly helpful:

  • Why St. Joseph? Other than his place of employment at the time (Fingerhut), did Heinrich have any other ties to the area?
  • Why 91st Avenue? This is a quiet, dead-end road. What would have brought him there?
  • Besides the Ford EXP, what other cars did Heinrich have access to in October 1989? What did his parents drive?
  • If Danny Heinrich did take Jacob, where would he have brought him?

If you can think of more questions, please leave a comment and I’ll add to the list.

Once again, I cannot thank you enough for following me along on this journey. Five years ago, who knew any of this could actually make a difference. Looking back, well, just… wow.

#ThinkingJacob

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A statement of support

What a day.

So, by now you know that a new “person of interest” has been named in Jacob’s case after he was arrested on several counts of child pornography. U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, along with FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard Thornton, MN BCA Superintendent Drew Evans, and Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner held a joint press conference at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis today. By all accounts, it was a stunner.

There is now DNA evidence that proves Danny James Heinrich is the one who kidnapped and assaulted 12-year-old Jared from Cold Spring on January 13, 1989. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations has expired on Jared’s case, so Heinrich can no longer be prosecuted on those charges. (Thank goodness those laws have since changed.)

There is also evidence that links Heinrich to the crime scene where Jacob was abducted. Tire tracks and shoe prints in the driveway match the car and shoes owned by Heinrich at the time of Jacob’s disappearance.

And then there are the Paynesville incidents that took place between 1986-1989. Heinrich lived in Paynesville at the time and may also be linked to those cases.

This is still a very active investigation, so for those who have questioned why I removed all my “Jacob posts” in the past few weeks, now you know why. Jared had asked me to remove any posts or comments related to his case, but I was afraid of raising suspicion, so I just took them all down. I will try and put some back up in the upcoming days or weeks, but for now, I’m laying low.

Truth be told, it has taken me the better part of a day to just “get a grip.” I am so happy and grateful for Jared. He finally has his answers, which he has worked so bravely and diligently to find. He is a good person… a kind person… and he deserves every bit of recognition for helping to solve his case.

On the other side of the coin, I am so overwhelmed with emotion for the Wetterlings. If this is it… if this is the answer… then where is Jacob? What happened to that poor child? Clearly there is no happy ending here, and those thoughts just about undo me.

Time and love

“She knew the answers would come with time and love.”

I have a print in my office that says, “She knew the answers would come with time and love.” I wish this for the Wetterlings tonight. Certainly it is time. And most certainly, there is love. All we need now are answers.

Sending prayers and positive thoughts out to the universe tonight. As always, thanks for #ThinkingJacob with me.

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Lights on for Jacob

10-22-2015Today marks 26 years since Jacob Wetterling was abducted from St. Joseph, Minnesota. To commemorate the date, the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (formerly the Jacob Wetterling Foundation) asks that everyone leave their porch lights on so that Jacob — and all missing children — can find their way home.

It’s a simple gesture… an ongoing tradition… but at the same time, so positive and so hopeful. A simple flip of the switch says, “We remember, and we still care.”

Let’s spread the hope. Today, in honor of Jacob and the Wetterling family, flip your porch light on, take a photo, and post it on the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center’s Facebook page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #ThinkingJacob.

I’m re-posting the following article with permission from JWRC and the Wetterling family. The photo shows Jacob in a three-legged race with his best friend, Aaron, who was with him the night he was abducted.

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Create a world where kids can be kids.

Prevention starts with you.

 

jacob-race

 

Eleven year old Jacob Wetterling believed in fairness. His mother, Patty Wetterling, remembers a boy who would respond strongly when something happened that wasn’t fair or wasn’t just. “Even if something happened that had nothing to do with him, he got very upset when something wasn’t fair,” she says.

Jacob Wetterling was abducted twenty-six years ago, on Oct. 22, 1989, in Saint Joseph, Minn. The case remains open and unsolved. What happened to Jacob was profoundly unfair.

“We are so grateful for the support we have been given and continue to receive from the greater community,” Wetterling comments, “We are thrilled that more and more kids are being found and returned to their families, and we will continue to fight for a safer world so that abduction and sexual exploitation of children doesn’t happen in the first place!”

Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (JWRC), a program of Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center (Gundersen NCPTC), echoes the need for prevention. We must prevent crimes against children every single time. It may not be easy to have these conversations, but it is crucial to talk to our children and adult friends about respect, boundaries, and building caring communities.

“A good first step to prevention is talking safety with children, but it shouldn’t end there. We can’t ask children to shoulder the burden of their own safety. Adults must own the problem and own the solutions. We need to talk directly with the people in our circles about honoring boundaries and doing no harm. We must also move away from standing by and instead, standing up when we see a child in need. We must invest in policies and resources that honor our children,” says Alison Feigh, program manager, JRWC, Gundersen NCPTC.

JWRC has always asked families to leave a porch light on to honor Jacob on Oct. 22. On this 26th anniversary of Jacob’s disappearance, in addition to turning on an outside light, JWRC and the Wetterlings ask you to talk prevention with your children and friends.

“We have learned that when good people pull together for children, amazing things happen. We ask for that commitment once again,” urges Wetterling.

Jacob’s legacy continues to be honored as JWRC works to end all forms of child abuse, neglect and exploitation through training, education, advocacy, prevention and awareness. The organization provides care and treatment for children, families and survivors in Minnesota and across the country.

“From the beginning, the Wetterling family has fought for a world where children can be children. It is time for more people to take on this work. It starts with caring, connected adults deciding that the cycles of abuse will end.” states Feigh.

For more information, go to gundersenhealth.org/jwrc.

NEXT: A statement of support…

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A Wilderness Trek for Jacob

A Wilderness Trek for Jacob

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook post about Dr. Jerry Wetterling’s 22nd annual Wilderness Trek to raise funds for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. After reading it, a flurry of questions came to mind. I wanted to know more about the history of the trek, who accompanied him, and how he had come up with the idea for a mountain trek fundraiser in the first place.

I decided to email Jerry to see if he would be willing to let me interview him for an upcoming story on my blog. He graciously agreed, and, in turn, posed a question of me. “Why don’t you just come along?” he asked.

Gulp. Was not prepared for that.

Suddenly, I had a lot more questions… like, how far do you hike? How in-shape does a person need to be? Is there some kind of “Mountain Survival 101” class you offer for newbies? And, most importantly, has anyone ever been eaten by a Grizzly bear?

Good heavens. Mountain girl, I am not.

BUT, before replying with an immediate, “No thanks, not ever,” I gave it some more thought. I looked at those people in the Facebook picture a little closer and wondered, who ARE these people? What’s their story? Hmm… maybe I CAN do this.

In reality, I realized there was no way I could possibly make it on this year’s trip. But the questions lingered. So, last week, after Jerry had returned, I gave him a call to ask how it had gone.

“Best ever,” he said. “It was honestly the best I’ve felt trekking in ten years.”

What he was really saying, and what I neglected to mention until now, is that Jerry, 66, just had his second knee replacement surgery last November. He climbed a 14,197 foot peak on two titanium knees and barely broke a sweat.

And I thought to myself… huh. Well, maybe I CAN do this thing.

I started in with my questions.

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Where did you come up with the idea for a wilderness trek fundraiser?

“The idea started back in the early 1990s. Alma Hansen worked for the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, and her husband, Rick, had gone on a number of winter and summer treks for the American Lung Association of Minnesota. Their trek leader, Bill Simpson, was an experienced mountaineer and agreed to meet with Rick and me to discuss the possibility of starting something similar for the Jacob Wetterling Foundation.”

“Rick, Bill, and I got together at a Perkins restaurant somewhere in the Cities and came up with the idea of an annual Wilderness Trek. Our first trek was to Montana in 1994. We had 14 participants, and that was the first and only year we ever saw a bear. It was the first evening, and after hiking in a ways, we had stopped to set up camp for the evening. We spotted a black bear while we were putting up our tents and one of the ladies in our group was so scared she never slept all night. The next morning, Bill and I took her and her sister back down to Yellowstone, where they spent the rest of the week shopping and sightseeing.”

When did you make the switch from Montana to Colorado?

“The first three years, 1994 to 1996, we were in Montana. In 1997, we switched to New Mexico, but I ended up having to back out at the last minute because my father passed away. In 1998 and 1999, we went to Colorado, then switched to Red Lodge, Montana in 2000. In 2001, we switched back to the Buena Vista area of Colorado and have returned there ever since.”

Who are the other “trekkers” who accompany you?

“This year we had four repeat-trekkers (besides myself) and three first-timers.”

  • Bill – Our trek leader and guide. He has gone every year, and plans the route, transportation, food, and supplies. He also provides camping equipment as needed. He has been on numerous treks, including international excursions to New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and much of Europe.
  • Jennifer – A third-time trekker who works with Jerry at his chiropractic office in St. Joseph. She started out as a “newbie” and has now become a seasoned, experienced mountaineer.
  • Tim – A tenth-time trekker who played soccer and hockey with Jacob. He started out going on the annual trek with his father, Gary, who was a good friend of the Wetterling family. Sadly, Gary died suddenly of a heart attack in 2013. His death hit the whole group very hard, and they are thankful that Tim continues to join them in his dad’s memory.
  • Tom – A past trekker from Hastings who has been hiking and camping with Bill for several years.
  • Duane – A first-time trekker who was “recruited” by his wife (she did the Trek in 2011). Duane is a Registered Nurse and lives in the Twin Cities.
  • Joan – A first-time trekker and a friend of Duane’s. Joan is a Nurse Practitioner and also lives in the Twin Cities.
  • Erin – A first-time trekker and daughter of Joan.

Have Patty and the kids ever joined you?

“Patty didn’t go in the early years because we tried not to be away from our kids at the same time. Our daughter, Amy, went two years ago. Trevor has gone two or three times, but he usually just joins us for a few days… not for the entire trek.”

How far do you hike?

“I would have to say this year was probably our most challenging year. We were in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, which is south of Salida, Colorado, near Westcliffe. Our plan was to set up our base camp near Lake Comanchee, and stop halfway the first night. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any water near the halfway point, so we ended up having to hike all the way to the lake, which took about four hours, carrying all our gear.”

“We spent the first few days backpacking, taking day hikes to the ridge and Lake Venable. On our last day, Thursday, we climbed Mount Belford, which is a 14,197 foot peak. This is always a challenge because the trail ends at 9,500 feet, then there’s a steep climb to 14,000 feet. The trek back down was always the hardest for me, and very painful because of my bad knees. But this year, I felt the best ever!”

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After I hung up with Jerry, he encouraged me to contact Bill Simpson, their trek leader, to get his input on the trip. I had a few more questions for Bill.

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Can you explain how the pledge process works? How much is each trekker asked to raise?

“Each participant is asked to raise a minimum of $300 for JWRC. Many get pledges or simply make a personal donation. In addition, they share all the trek costs at $150 a piece. That covers all expenses, including transportation, food, camp fees, permits, camp equipment, etc. So, all the money raised goes directly to JWRC.”

What was the most memorable moment of the trip?

“I like the challenge of getting to the summit of a 14,000 foot peak at the end of our Trek. It’s always a struggle, especially the first time, but we stress acclimatization and learning basic mountaineering skills leading up to the climb, so we have a very high success rate and everyone gets to experience that great feeling of accomplishment. But I also just love being in the mountains with such giving and generous friends. Every year we wonder if it will be our last, but we’re still going strong after 22 years!”

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To answer my questions about how much money had been raised, Jerry encouraged me to contact Alison Feigh, Program Manager at JWRC. As it turns out, this gal is pretty dang extraordinary in her own right.

Alison was a classmate of Jacob’s at North Middle School in St. Cloud. On the day of his abduction, she happened to be on vacation in Australia visiting her mother’s family. When they returned to St. Joseph, the town was in full-on chaos. She was so profoundly moved by Jacob’s kidnapping that she actually went on to design her own major at St. Olaf College, focusing on missing children.

Read more about Alison’s story here:
http://www.startribune.com/jacob-s-generation-classmate-works-to-protect-kids/279672382/

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How much was raised for the 2015 Wilderness Trek?

$3,295 has been collected so far (but with pledges, that number is closer to $7,000)

How much has been raised overall?

$152,893 through 2014

How are the funds used?

“We use the donations for our victim assistance program and our prevention education programs. We don’t charge families for our victim assistance services, as the last thing someone needs when they are in crisis is a request for payment. We also get requests from schools and youth serving organizations that need training, but do not have a budget to cover honorariums. These donations help cover those needed services.”

Can people still make a donation?

“Absolutely! Go to https://foundation.gundersenhealth.org/protectkids and use the drop down designation for the Wilderness Trek to add donations to their fund.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

“We are so thankful for the efforts of the JWRC Trekkers. We are able to do even more in prevention and response because of this group. The combination of Bill’s leadership, Jerry’s heart, and each Trekker’s sacrifice of time, talent, and energy has made such a difference in our ability to serve families. We remain grateful for their amazing support.”

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One final thought. I encourage everyone reading this post to make a donation to this year’s Wilderness Trek.

What many people don’t know is that Jerry and Patty Wetterling started the Jacob Wetterling Foundation on Jacob’s 12th birthday – February 17, 1990. It was just four months after their son’s abduction, but with amazing support from their community, the Jacob Wetterling Foundation gave everyone a chance to channel their anger and sadness into something positive.

Today, the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center operates under the umbrella of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, offering a 24/7 Victim Assistance Helpline, as well as support, advocacy, and resources for individuals, families and communities around issues related to missing persons, abuse and exploitation.

For more information, or to donate, please visit:
https://foundation.gundersenhealth.org/protectkids

Front: Jennifer, Tom, Erin, Joan
Back: Duane, Bill, Jerry, Tim

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NEXT: Lights on for Jacob…

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“Catch Me If You Can”

I have some new information to share about the wood-paneled station wagon that I just learned about this past weekend. If you recall, this is the car that was seen by the young teens who used to ride their dirt bikes and 4-wheelers through the woods near Jacob’s abduction site. The gentleman I spoke to this weekend was also a part of this group, and he had a few more interesting tidbits to share about the station wagon and the man in the woods.

First of all, I believe we have two different sightings here, possibly three. As I reported in my original post titled, “The men in the woods,” this group of boys saw an older man with a notebook sitting off in the brush, just inside the entrance to the woods. They didn’t think much of it and proceeded on to the party pit to have a quick smoke. On their way out, they saw him again. He had moved closer to them at that point, and they wondered if maybe he had been following them.

Another member of this group reported seeing another man in the woods… this time up in a tree. He said he was younger and thinner than the first man. He wore a baseball cap and had a clipboard. The boys saw the man while they were riding their dirt bikes through the woods that day. Later, they noticed him again, but this time he had moved to a different tree. Weird.

The gentleman I spoke to this weekend had more to add to the story. He used to live south of St. Ben’s, just off College Avenue. He says he and his friends used to ride their dirt bikes and four-wheelers in those woods nearly every day. He also remembers seeing a guy up in a tree, but the man he remembers seeing was older, possibly in his 50s. He was wearing a blaze orange hat and was definitely not an art student. This guy seemed out of place, like he didn’t belong there, and none of the kids had ever seen him before.

There are two interesting things this young man was able to add to the story. First, he says there was a field road that ran from College Avenue (just across from the cemetery) all the way over to 16th/91st Avenue. It ran along the south end of Klinefelter Park and was a straight shot all the way to the abduction site. Another interesting thing this guy remembers is about the car. On the day he saw it, it was parked just off 16th/91st Avenue on the approach/field road which would later become Dale Street. He remembers the car being light blue, possibly a station wagon, but he couldn’t remember if it had wood panels or not. What he DOES remember seems significant. The car had two distinct bumper stickers. One said something about Ole and Lena; the other said, “Catch Me If You Can.”

OK… back it up a bit.

1989-catch-me-if-you-can-poster1Catch Me If You Can was a Hollywood movie that was filmed in the St. Cloud area during the fall of 1988. It was directed by Stephen Sommers, a St. Cloud native, and pre-premiered there on August 24, 1989. It’s a low-budget “muscle car” film about a group of high school teens who are trying to raise money and save their school by betting on illegal car races. Much of the footage was filmed at Apollo and Cathedral High Schools, and included several local residents who served as extras in the movie. The film officially premiered to a national audience on October 14, 1989, just eight days before Jacob’s abduction. (Click the movie poster on the right to read more about the film.)

The interesting thing is… two months after Jacob’s abduction, police asked for the public’s help in finding a station wagon with a “Catch Me If You Can” bumper sticker that was seen near the Wetterling’s residence in the days just prior to Jacob’s abduction.

All three of the following newspaper articles were published on December 22, 1989:

From the St. Cloud Times:

The Jacob Wetterling Task Force also is trying to find a suspicious car that was seen in the St. Joseph area about a week before Jacob, 11, was seized Oct. 22 at gunpoint.

The car recently came to authorities’ attention after residents of an apartment building near the Wetterlings said they had seen the car parked for most of a day. Because it was about two months ago, they couldn’t provide an exact day, Gigler said.

The car is described as a dark brown, four-door station wagon dating to 1970. It had a luggage rack and considerable rust on the fender and doors. The car reportedly had a black and orange sticker that said “Catch Me If You Can.” The movie was filmed in the St. Cloud area and premiered here last summer.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

In another development yesterday, investigators were trying to locate a 1970s-model full-sized four-door station wagon seen three days before Jacob’s abduction on the rural road where he was kidnapped.

The dark brown station wagon is said to have a luggage rack and a missing molding on the passenger side. A rear bumper sticker reads, “Catch me if you can,” an apparent reference to the title of a movie shot two years ago in St. Cloud.

“We feel that with the bumper sticker it’s a local vehicle,” Gigler said. A bulletin was sent yesterday to alert police agencies to look for the car.

From the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

In a related development, authorities said they are looking for a full-size, brown, 1970s 4-door model station wagon seen in the woods west of the Wetterling abduction site three days before the kidnapping. The car did not belong to anyone in the neighborhood and police want to question its owner, Gigler said.

The wagon had a luggage rack, missing body molding on the passenger side and a rear bumper sticker that read, “Catch Me If You Can,” a reference to a movie of the same name filmed in St. Cloud. The movie previewed in St. Cloud this August, leading police to believe the car belongs to an area resident. St. Cloud is about 6 miles east of St. Joseph.

I’m unclear whether this lead about the station wagon came from the boys who witnessed the man/men in the woods, or if it came from another source. I’m curious whether the “dark brown” station wagon was confused with the “dark brown wood panels” that the boys remember.

At any rate, my main question is this. Where did these bumper stickers come from? Were they handed out at the private premiere in August? Or, maybe later, at the public premiere on October 14th? Or, maybe they were handed out during the filming of the movie, back in November of 1988? Where were they printed? Where were they distributed? At the high schools? Movie theaters? Convenience stores? Does anyone else remember getting or having one of these bumper stickers? If we can figure out that much, maybe we can figure out where the driver of the car got his bumper sticker.

And one more question… does anyone know which apartment building the police were talking about in the St. Cloud Times article above? If this is the same station wagon that the boys saw down by the woods, I wonder what he was doing at that apartment building. Did he live there? Or was he just staying with an acquaintance?

A little help here… please comment!

#ThinkingJacob

NEXT: A wilderness trek for Jacob…

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“A Lifetime Lesson”

I recently received a message on my blog from the mother of a boy who was involved in one of the attempted abductions in Paynesville. He had written a paper about the incident for his English class during his senior year of high school. His mom had recently come across it, so she sent me a copy. I contacted the young man who wrote it to ask if he would allow me to post it on my blog, and he graciously agreed.

This is not a new incident. I originally reported this young man’s story last June in a post titled, “Another incident and some exciting news.” However, at that time, this young man was trying to remember details from 1996, almost twenty years ago. This paper was written only five years after the incident, so it not only provides important details, it also gives us a little better idea of when the incident may have taken place. He states in the paper that he was about 12 years old and he was helping his wrestling coach teach Jaycee Wrestling. Since the Jaycee Wrestling program was for kids in grades one to six, it would stand to reason that this young man was a 7th grader at the time, and because it was mid-March, his wrestling season had already ended. That would put the date as March 1992.

This presents a bit of a conundrum. This incident would have taken place much later than the other incidents that occurred between 1986-1989. It would also mean that convicted child molestor Duane Hart, who was arrested in January 1990, could not have been involved since he was already behind bars.

So where does that leave us? Are all these incidents related? Or were there several different pedophiles who were stalking boys in the Paynesville area?

Read the paper and see if you have any insights.

A Lifetime Lesson

It was a mid March day and everything was going great. School was over for the day and I was going to help Coach Virg teach Jaycee Wrestling. This consists of grades one to six. I helped Virg teach some moves by demonstrating them on him. Then I would go around and help the kids do a move on their friend. Little did I know that I was about to face the scariest moment of my life, one that would make an everlasting impression.

Soon it was five o’clock and time to go. Everyone put their street clothes back on and headed outside to be picked up by their parents. I stayed there and waited for every kid to get picked up. One kid didn’t get picked up for a long time, so we both headed back into the school to use the phone so he could call his parents. Suddenly I was thinking, “Where’s MY dad?” He was supposed to pick me up, too. The boy I was helping called his house but no one was home. He started to cry and said, “They forgot about me and I’m going to be here all night.” I told him since they weren’t home, maybe they were on their way or were even there now. We walked back outside. As we stepped out the door, his ride pulled up. He told me he was sorry and left.

But now what? My dad still wasn’t there and the phone was always busy. It was starting to get darker by the second. You also have to understand that I was only about twelve years old. I sat and waited, and waited, and waited. He still didn’t show up. Something else was sort of peculiar, too. I spotted a car that continuously drove very slowly around the block. I bet it went around at least ten times. It was not an average looking car. It was a very beat up army green colored car with a white fabric top and tons of rust on the lower section. It looked as though this lower portion could just crumble if it would hit a bump in the road.

The car drover slower and slower each time it went around, and as it came towards me, I noticed the driver stared directly at me. I didn’t know if he was going to ask for directions or just what exactly he was doing.

This was around the time there had been talk of several abductions, attempted abductions, and molestings. I was getting so scared. I was saying to myself, “Dad hurry up, hurry up,” as if he would really hear me. The car went around one last time and finally took a turn into an alley. I was so happy, or I guess you could say relieved. But then about five minutes later, I saw a guy walking down the sidewalk toward me. Now I was really ready to crap in my pants.

Because the car with the strange man was no longer lurking around, all I could imagine was that this was the same man who had just turned his car into the alley. The only thing I could think to do was walk to my cousin’s house, which was only about a block away. That could possibly be a bad idea, too. But I couldn’t just stand there either, so I proceeded on my way. Just by the use of my peripheral vision and by the sound of the movement on the sidewalk, I knew the guy was right behind me. Every time I sped up my pace, I could hear by his footsteps that he did, too. I was never so scared in my life. When my mind actually understood what could be going on, I took off running as fast as my legs could go. I no longer heard anything that was going on around me. I didn’t even know if he was still right behind me. I probably reached my cousin’s house in about thirty seconds, but it felt like ten minutes. I was so glad I didn’t have to go any further.

When I reached my cousin’s house, I dashed inside, peeked out the door, and saw a fairly short guy with a medium build continue to walk by. He didn’t seem to be paying any special attention to anything, just briskly walking by. I wondered if he saw where I darted into and hoped he wouldn’t bother anyone there later. Oddly enough, it wasn’t really cold, but he had a black face mask on and he seemed to be dressed all in black. I just got the shivers.

I tried calling my dad again to see what was going on, finally got him, and told him to pick me up. Actually, I said, “Where in the hell are you?” Somehow there had been some misunderstanding. I was safe, but I just couldn’t explain the fear that was still going through my body. I actually felt sick as I pictured all the things that could have happened.

Mom and dad were also shook up when I told them what happened, and when my dad finally picked me up, we went straight to Officer Drager’s house. I had to tell him everything that happened and try to describe what I saw. He was supposed to meet me again to get an actual statement, but that was the end of it. Not much else was ever said about the whole issue. My parents and I did drive around for a short time that evening to see if we could spot the man or the green car. We never had any luck.

I told several friends, and my parents told some of theirs, just for precautionary measures. The worst part was they all sort of just blew us off. I knew if it had been them (especially since there had been so much talk about abductions at the time), they would have felt differently. My parents even began to see why things like this continue to happen. People don’t take warnings seriously enough until it’s too late. My whole family was shook up for quite some time just realizing how lucky we may have been and appreciating each other even more. That may sound sort of weird to others, until it happens to them.

At any rate, I didn’t do much walking alone at night for even short distances for quite some time. I’m a much more cautious person. Even now when I run to the high school from my home, my mother makes me call when I get there. She says, “You just never know if there is a real problem and you wait, you’ve already made circumstances worse by wasting that time thinking nothing is wrong. I forgot to call the other night when I ran out to the school because I got distracted as soon as I walked in the door. My mom almost had a heart attack. She even sent dad out there to look for me, just to make sure. I guess some lessons learned actually last a lifetime.

The young man who wrote this paper also provided me with a map that shows where he was standing outside the school, where the man pulled into the alley, and which direction the man came from when he started walking toward him.

Here’s the map:

Click to view a larger version

Click to view a larger version

One final thing. I happened to be driving through Paynesville with a friend last weekend, on our way to St. Cloud. We pulled off the new bypass to stop and get gas, and ended up driving through town to get back onto Highway 23. As we neared the main drag downtown, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Jacob’s billboard that was placed last October was still up, now six months later.

Way to go, Paynesville.

Click to view a larger version

Click to view a larger version

NEXT: “Catch Me If You Can”…

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A 12th Paynesville incident

If you read my last post, “The party in the woods – Part 2,” you’ll remember there was a balding, gray-haired man who was seen near the party spot in the woods, quite possibly on the same day as Jacob’s abduction. A group of young teenage boys witnessed this man who was taking notes in a notebook and acting suspiciously. After the abduction, two of the boys were interviewed by the FBI at school, then taken to the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office where they each worked with a sketch artist to create two separate drawings of this man. As far as I can tell, these sketches were never released to the public.

In response to that post, I received a message on my blog from another young man who wanted me to get in touch with a friend of his. This friend had grown up in Paynesville and had experienced another possible abduction attempt by someone who sounded eerily familiar… a balding, gray-haired man who was driving a wood-paneled station wagon.

Here’s his story.

During the summer of 1989 or 1990, two young boys, ages seven or eight, were riding their bikes just a few blocks from home. They were near the corner of Minnesota Street and Stearns Avenue (just west of the middle school) when a man driving a light silver or tan wood-paneled station wagon pulled up and tried to get them into his car. First he offered them candy, then money, then he said he had “something fun” he wanted to show them. They took off on their bikes and headed home in a panic. Neither of their parents were home, so they went went to a neighbor’s house and reported what they had seen. The neighbor called the police, and they came to the house to take a statement.

I was curious whether this statement still existed, so I contacted both the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and the Paynesville Police Department. No go. Neither could find the statement, but this is not unusual. The state retention policy for offense reports is only seven years (from what I can gather), so once the retention period has expired, the records can be legally destroyed. However, what DOES seem unusual to me is that none of these statements seem to have found their way into either Jacob’s or Jared’s case file. Why? Yes, some of these victims were re-interviewed AFTER Jacob’s disappearance and THOSE reports exist, but what happened to the original statements? Why weren’t those retained?

In light of this new information, we now have twelve separate Paynesville incidents, and it’s starting to get a little confusing as to which one is which. So, I took some time to revisit my Google map this afternoon and update it a bit. In addition to the date and location of each incident, I have now added all the details to the long description of each marker. Simply click a marker to view the details of each incident.

You may notice there are only 10 markers, but 12 incidents. That’s because I believe we are still missing the details from two of the five incidents that were originally reported in the May 26, 1987 article of the Paynesville Press.

If you recall, there were two incidents that were reported by the Paynesville Press on December 9, 1986. The dates of those incidents were August 1986 and November 30, 1986. In both cases, the victims were attacked from behind and verbally threatened. The second victim was sexually assaulted. I know which one occurred on November 30, 1986, but I believe I’m missing the one from August 1986.

The next article that was published on May 26, 1987 mentioned five cases, so I assume the two cases from August and November 1986 were included in those five. But, in trying to match up witness accounts with the paper’s timeline, it doesn’t jive. I believe we are still missing two additional incidents that took place “by the river,” and “at the middle school playground.” I also believe the June 1986 incident was not included in either newspaper article. If you or someone you know has any information about further incidents that occurred in or around the Paynesville area, please email me using the Contact form on this blog. You may also contact the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.

I hope to report some new details soon about one of the incidents I had previously written about. In the meantime, here’s my updated map for the Paynesville Incidents. Thanks for #ThinkingJacob.

NEXT: A lifetime lesson…

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The party in the woods – Part 2

I have an update to my last blog post — “The party in the woods.” It was about a high school party that took place on the same weekend Jacob Wetterling was abducted, in the woods just northwest of the abduction site.

When I received the original message from a young man who had been at the party that night, he told me he was fairly certain it had taken place on the same night as the abduction… Sunday, October 22nd, 1989. However, he wasn’t entirely sure and encouraged me to contact other members from his graduating class to corroborate his story.

So, that’s what I did. I put the word out and heard back from several classmates who all remember being at a party in the woods that weekend, but they are sure it took place on Saturday night (the night before the abduction), not Sunday, October 22nd. They also added that the party spot was on the west side of 16th Avenue, not on the east side, as the original commenter had reported. They do, however, remember the police breaking up the party that night. Kids scattered in all directions… some on foot, and some in cars… all racing to get out of there before they got caught.

When I reported this information back to my original commenter, here was his response:

“I am glad you are getting some more responses on the party, and I am glad it is getting cleared up. I am sure that my classmates’ memories might be better than mine, so if others say the party was on the west side on Saturday night, I am probably the one who is mistaken. I am quite sure about one thing. Someone from Law Enforcement interviewed several of us at Apollo High School soon after the abduction. It could have been Tuesday or Wednesday, but it did happen at school. I thought they were from the FBI, but I could be wrong. I do not remember them in any uniforms, but rather in business suits, and there were at least two of them and they used one of the offices of the front school offices. These were not school officials or anything like that, as we had never seen any of them before. I called to try and locate any statements regarding this from both the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI in St. Cloud, but neither of them had any record of talking with us nor of breaking up the party. I find it odd that no one kept any record of our interviews unless they were deemed so inconsequential that no records were formally kept.”

So far, I haven’t been able to find anyone else who remembers being interviewed at school by Law Enforcement later that week. That is… except for the young men I interviewed for a previous blog post – “The men in the woods.”

If you recall, these young men had been walking/riding through the woods that same weekend when they noticed an older, balding, gray-haired man who was sitting off in the brush by himself and appeared to be taking notes in a notebook. The man’s car (or what they assumed to be his car) was parked just outside the entrance to the woods. It was a wood-paneled station wagon.

I decided to call these young men back to see if they could help me put together a more detailed map that showed exactly where the party spot was, where the balding, gray-haired man had been sitting, and where his station wagon was parked.

Here’s the new information I learned:

  • They remember seeing the balding, gray-haired man being right near the entrance of the woods. They were young, middle school teens and were on their way to sneak a smoke at the party spot. Some were on foot, some were on bikes, and one was driving a Honda Odyssey ATV (like a go-kart with a roll cage). They all saw the guy with the notebook about 10-20 feet into the woods. He was sitting on a log and writing stuff down in a notebook, but they didn’t think much of it and just kept on walking. However, on their way back out, they noticed the guy had moved closer to them, and was now more in the middle of the woods when they passed him the second time.
  • The station wagon was parked on the gravel road just north of the woods. They’re not sure on the color of the station wagon… they just remember the wood panels.
  • I asked them which day they saw this man. Again, they weren’t sure, but they think this happened on Sunday during the day, which would have been the same day as Jacob’s abduction.

With their help, I was able to put together an updated map which shows the area in 1991. As a comparison, see the map below which shows the same area in 2013. (Click the images to see a larger view.)

Map_AbductionSite_1991_rev

Map_AbductionSite_2013_rev

So… is any of this significant? I’m not sure. But, here are two things to consider.

First, the woods just north and west of Jacob’s abduction site were a happening place. During the day, it was a common spot for kids to explore, ride their bikes, or sneak a smoke. During the evening, it was a party spot for kids from all four area high schools — Apollo, Tech, Cathedral, and St. John’s Prep. Also, keep in mind, this was the same spot where Trevor and Aaron were told to “Run toward the woods and don’t look back or I’ll shoot.” These are those woods.

Second, I recently learned about another incidence of a possible abduction that took place in Paynesville during 1989 or 1990. And get this… it involved a balding, gray-haired man who was driving a wood-paneled station wagon.

More on that next time.

#ThinkingJacob

NEXT: A 12th Paynesville incident…

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The party in the woods

For those who have followed this blog or studied the Jacob Wetterling case, there’s been one nagging question that we all seem to keep coming back to. Who in the world would have been waiting for those boys on that isolated dead-end road in the middle of nowhere?

I’ve always been of the belief that someone overheard the boys on their way TO the Tom Thumb that night and knew they’d be coming back that same direction. In my head, there was no way anyone could have had enough time to see them at the Tom Thumb, figure out where they lived, get ahead of them, stash a car, and then patiently wait for them to pass by. No way. In my head, it had to be someone who had some business being on that road that evening.

I’ve also never bought into the theory that someone had been stalking Jacob in the days, weeks, or months prior to his abduction. These boys had never been allowed to go to the Tom Thumb after dark before, so what are the chances an abductor who was stalking a specific child would get so lucky that his intended target would come waltzing right by on a dark, moonless night while his parents just happened to be away for the evening? Nobody gets that lucky.

But, here’s the deal. I’m rethinking things a bit. As it turns out, there were plenty of people on that dead-end road that weekend… and maybe even that very evening. There were twenty-five to thirty of them, in fact. High school seniors. At a party. In the woods.

Yep.

When I first talked to Kevin and he told me about the “party spot in the woods,” I had in mind that these parties had taken place way back in the early 80s. Kevin had been in his young teens when he remembered being there… around 1980-1982 or thereabouts. So, I figured this party spot didn’t even exist anymore in 1989.

It wasn’t until I recently heard from another group of young men and learned about “The men in the woods” that I even knew there was more than one party spot, or that they were still in existence in 1989. But again, I knew these boys weren’t old enough to drive at that time, so they mostly biked the trails and hung out in the woods during the day, not at night.

Fast forward to now. I recently heard from a 42 year old man who said, not only were those party spots still in use during the fall of 1989, but that he was actually there, at a party, on the very night Jacob was abducted.

Wait… what?

Here’s the message he sent to me:

On the night Jacob Wetterling was abducted, I and about 25-30 of my friends were at one of the party spots on the east side of 16th Avenue, across and north of the abduction site. We were drinking and partying, when all of a sudden we saw flashlights and I heard someone yell, “Cops!” This was probably about 10:30 or so.

We all took off on foot, some of the locals running home, and the rest of us running to our cars, which were parked off the road, in the woods, out of sight. We had no idea there had been an abduction. We just thought it was the cops busting our beer drinking, which was fairly common.

Someone must have squealed on us, because the next Tuesday at school (we had Monday off), we were all rounded up and questioned individually by the FBI. As far as I know, none of us saw anything, and it never went anywhere, but it surely doesn’t jive with some of your investigation and what the police have reported. The truth is, the woods around the abduction site were full of drunk and drinking high schoolers that night who scattered in all directions at a high rate of speed within an hour or so of Jacob disappearing. We could have left tracks down the driveway, along the shoulder of the road, on the bike trails, etc.

Wow.

I have tried very hard to verify whether this party actually took place the same night as Jacob’s abduction, or whether it took place the night before, on Saturday, October 21st. Either way, it seems significant, and it led me to rethink things a bit.

I asked the man who had emailed me if he could tell me exactly where this party spot was on a map. I sent him a historical map from Google Earth (thank you Jordan V.) that shows exactly what this area looked like in 1991, just two years after the abduction. (See map below.) You can see where the new roads are overlaid, but at the time, it was mostly just woods and farmland along 16th/91st Avenue. After some discussion, we figured that, most likely, the party spot was located in the woods where Jefferson Lane is now located (just north of Rassiers’ property). Click the map to view a larger version.

StJoe_SatelliteImage_1991

I asked if there was ever some random, out-of-place creeper who showed up at these parties, offering to sell drugs or alcohol to the kids. He didn’t think so. As far as he knew, they were all just beer drinkers… good, normal, high school kids. But, it was definitely possible, he admitted.

I also began to wonder whether some creeper may actually have been stalking THEM… hiding off in the woods and waiting for an opportunity to assault or kidnap an older teen. Then, when Jacob and the other boys happened along that Sunday night, he saw a new opportunity and decided to go to Plan B instead.

With everything I’ve learned about what was happening along that road in the days and weeks just prior to Jacob’s abduction, it certainly makes me wonder what was really going on. Suspicious cars roaming the neighborhood… strange men with notebooks lurking in the woods… young boys being chased by a car on their way home from the Tom Thumb earlier that summer. You have to admit. It’s a lot of weirdness for one little isolated, dead-end road in the middle of nowhere.

And here’s one more interesting tidbit that just adds to the weirdness. You may recall that Jacob’s friend Aaron was riding a scooter on the night of the abduction, while the other two boys were riding bikes. That’s because Jacob’s bike had actually been STOLEN the night before. He had been staying overnight at a friend’s house when his bike was stolen right out of his friend’s yard. (The friend lived just north of the woods on the WEST side of 16th/91st Avenue.) That’s why Jacob had borrowed his mom’s ten-speed that night and Aaron had taken the scooter. (For what it’s worth, the police eventually found and questioned the guy who had taken Jacob’s bike, but still… what a weird coincidence.)

I’d be interested in hearing from any other members of the Apollo Class of 1990 who were at this party and could verify whether it occurred on Saturday night or Sunday night. Drop me a line using the form on my Contact page. Anyone who gave a statement should be able to call and request a copy of it from the Records Department at the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office. The phone number is (320) 259-3700.

Of course, if you have important information to share, please contact the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office at (320) 259-3700, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.

As always, thanks for #ThinkingJacob.

The party in the woods – Part 2

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A great article from the Marshall Independent

A few weeks ago, I came across a great article written by Jenny Kirk from the Marshall Independent. It was written as a four-part series to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction. Jenny interviewed Jacob’s parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling, as well as Aaron Larson, Jacob’s best friend who was with him the night he was abducted. She also interviewed Brian and Annette Swanson, the parents of Brandon Swanson, a 19 year old from Marshall, Minnesota who went missing in 2008.

I have read A LOT of articles about this case, and I have to say, this is one of the best ones I’ve ever read. Kudos to Jenny Kirk for taking the time to research the case in depth, sticking to the facts, and reporting the story in a responsible yet compelling manner.

I’m reprinting the four-part story here, in its entirety, with the permission of the Marshall Independent. Again, thank you to Jenny Kirk for her time and dedication in writing this story.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

‘Everything changed that day’

October 22, 2014
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series on the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. Stories will include interviews with his parents, local law enforcement, Jacob’s friend, Aaron, who was with him the day he was abducted, and the parents of Brandon Swanson of Marshall, who went missing in 2008.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling’s abduction. And time has done nothing to ease the pain of his absence for loved ones, as the excruciating hurt is still there, etched on their faces and in their hearts.

Since Jacob’s abduction on Oct. 22, 1989, Patty and Jerry Wetterling have spent every day — 9,125 of them — wondering what really happened to their son and where he is today. They live day-to-day with countless questions and frustrations regarding his absence. No trace of Jacob has been found since the 9:15 p.m. abduction on a rural road near picturesque St. Joseph.

Photo by Jenny Kirk. Patty and Jerry Wetterling are shown at their home recently. The Wetterlings sat down with the Independent last week to talk about their missing son, Jacob, and how their lives have changed since the day he was abducted, 25 years ago today.

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Patty and Jerry Wetterling are shown at their home recently. The Wetterlings sat down with the Independent last week to talk about their missing son, Jacob, and how their lives have changed since the day he was abducted, 25 years ago today.

“For the media and other people, it’s a once-a-year thing,” Patty said. “For us, it’s like every day, every day, every day. It’s the ongoingness. So in some ways, the date is less significant, but at the same time, it smacks you in the face.”

The Wetterlings will spend the 25th anniversary of the abduction today with family and friends.

“Our family was always close, and that’s what you’d hope that Jacob would tap into,” Patty said. “We don’t know what happened. It’s just mind-boggling. And everything makes me cry these days.”

Eleven-year-old Aaron Larson and 10-year-old Trevor Wetterling were with Jacob that evening, as they headed to and from the local Tom Thumb store to rent a video. On their way back to the Wetterling home, a masked gunman emerged from the darkness and forced the boys off their bikes and scooter. After commanding the boys to lie down in the roadside ditch, the man asked for their ages. Terrified, the three boys did as they were told. Eventually, the abductor grabbed Jacob and told Aaron and Trevor to run and not look back or he would shoot. And from that moment on, everything in the community, the state and even the nation changed. The tranquil, simple life – a time when people rarely locked their doors or hesitated to let their children roam free and play outdoors – was shattered. The kidnapping of Jacob proved that bad things can and do happen in small towns and to good people.

THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS

For the Wetterlings and Larson, now 36 and living in southwest Minnesota, life would never be the same after that day.

“I think I’ve lived my whole life knowing that Trevor and I were the last ones to see Jacob,” said Larson, whose eyes also reveal years of pain and frustration in them. “He looked at our faces. He was looking for something. I don’t know. We looked pretty similar. We were the same size and the same age, and it was a pitch-black, dark night. That’s something I’ve always lived with.”

As the man of the house, Jerry tried to stay strong for his family. Emotions rushed to the surface on Friday, as he recalled how difficult those early days were.

“The first thing that hit me right away is that you try to have a certain amount of control in your life, but this totally threw that out the door,” Jerry said. “You felt you had control of nothing. Trying to be there for the rest of our family and still keeping the search going was hard.”

Law enforcement and supporters invaded the Wetterling home, all hoping to provide answers and ultimately, bring Jacob home. Jerry was the local chiropractor, while Patty was a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s four children — Amy, 13, Jacob, 11, Trevor, 10, and Carmen, 8 — at the time.

“It was crazy,” Patty said. “We were lucky that our family helped out a lot with our other kids. We were here, but we were in and out. It’s not like we abandoned them, but we’d get pulled out for interviews with the FBI or investigatively. My sister came from California and stayed quite a bit. My mom was up the first night. We had a lot of support for our other kids.”

As time went on, each member of the family dealt with Jacob’s absence differently.

“Carmen was eight, and she’d go to school and everybody wanted to be her best friend and sit next to her,” Patty said. “She got a lot of attention. Amy was 13 and went to the high school. Nobody knew what to say or do, so they’d often just leave her alone. Trevor lived in the shadow of being Jacob’s brother. He loved being Jacob’s brother, but as you grow and develop, you are your own self. You’re greater than that role.”

Patty said that Trevor and Aaron both talked very little about the trauma they went through, besides what they told investigators.

“Imagine Aaron, dealing with the loss of his best friend,” she said. “It was a very lonely time for him. Trevor, too. They didn’t talk about it for years.”

Along with having so many questions, the close-knit family ached to have Jacob back home with them. It was challenging and emotionally draining, they said.

“We miss him,” Patty said. “It’s the reality that there were four children and the simplicity of our lives back then and who we were. You had dreams and hopes for the future. And everything gets thrown up in the air, and you try to grab pieces and put some order to it as it falls. But absolutely everything changed that day, for everybody.”

REMEMBERING JACOB

To adults in the state and across the country, Jacob is the smiling 11-year-old boy wearing a bright yellow sweater in the photo that circulated nationally. His story touched the hearts of people everywhere, though to friends and family, he was so much more than that.

Jacob Wetterling was a happy, kind-hearted and active 11-year-old. He was very athletic and loved sports, especially hockey.

“Jacob got me into hockey,” Larson said. “He played goalie. He ended up on a traveling team, and I didn’t make it. I was better at basketball, actually. Trevor and I ended up being on the same team.”

The Larsons had moved to St. Joseph from southwest Minnesota, where there was little opportunity to play hockey or tennis.

“The Wetterlings got me into tennis and into a lot of sports,” Larson said. “I went to state in tennis and played in college at St. John’s. I loved tennis.”

Less than a week after meeting Jacob, Larson knew he’d found a good friend.

“We became friends right away,” Larson said. “I think the first week we met, I ended up staying overnight at his house. We were always up to something, as far as sports and being outside. We were together a lot. He was always the nicest, kindest one. That was his personality. His whole family is like that.”

Patty also remembers Jacob and Larson, who both have February birthdays, quickly becoming friends.

“Aaron was kind of new to the area, and I remember Jacob saying he had a new best friend,” she said. “He said we’d like him. It breaks my heart. He said he’s really smart and likes sports. It was cute.”

THE EARLY DAYS AFTER THE ABDUCTION

Aaron recalls being at the Wetterling home a great deal after the kidnapping, though he admits he didn’t talk much about it to anyone except law enforcement.

“The Wetterlings have a close-knit family and so do we,” he said. “After it first happened, everybody was at the Wetterling house together and supporting each other. I knew my parents (Fran and Vic) were there for me, but we never had a time where I sat down and talked about it with them. Obviously, me and Trevor were there, so we knew what happened. It was constantly on the news, too. I was 11, so that’s old enough to know what was going on.”

Larson also remembers being interviewed over and over by investigators. Though he knows the fault lies with the abductor, he couldn’t help feel like he should have done more to help Jacob.

“The biggest thing is that it shouldn’t have happened to anybody,” Larson said. “It’s not anybody’s fault except the person who was messed up enough to take a child. Law enforcement was really good. I deal with the local, the FBI, national, and so forth. I think I always looked at it as wanting to do whatever I could to help bring him back. So the more questions I answered, the better.”

Larson said his parents shielded him from unnecessary media attention, finding a good balance between being cooperative and still being protective.

“You always think about what you could have done differently,” Larson said. “But now when I see an 11-year-old, and you compare an 11-year-old to a grown man with a gun, it makes you take a step back and realize there’s not much you could have done. It just never should have happened.”

While law enforcement quickly ruled out the Wetterlings as suspects — they were at a dinner party 20 minutes away when the abduction occurred — there were people who wanted to believe that the parents were somehow connected.

“Jerry’s a guy, so sometimes they’d look at us questioning,” Patty said. “There are people who want to put a reason on it, so if we did something wrong, then their kids are safe and it won’t happen to anybody they know.”

Being in the public spotlight was difficult for the Wetterlings, who say they led a quiet, simple life before that day in 1989.

“It’s like all of a sudden, a light gets shone on you,” Patty said. “A light gets shone on your personal life, everything about you. They’re going to interview all your friends and relatives and suddenly, everything is public. Our world is more like that now with the Internet but not back then.”

Jerry noted that people in the community didn’t really know how to react to seeing them, especially in the first few months after the kidnapping.

“We’d go into a store and because of all the TV exposure, people would recognize us,” he said. “What a way to take the mood out of a room. They’d see us, and everything would change.”

Soon after Jacob vanished, though, Patty and Jerry worked to establish the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, pass legislation to assist law enforcement investigations and help educate the public on child safety. Today, Patty is symbolic of missing children advocacy across the nation. To many, she is an American hero. She currently serves as the Minnesota Department of Heath’s Sexual Violence Prevention director as well as the board chair for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“Back then, everybody knew Jerry because he was the local chiropractor, but I was a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “Nobody knew me. It’s so different now. Every aspect of our lives is different. I had just interviewed for a job to get back into teaching junior high math, but it didn’t happen. It’s just hard to grasp and make meaning of.”

THE AFTERMATH OF THE ABDUCTION

Like a bad, reoccurring dream, those closest to Jacob began celebrating the dreaded first Thanksgiving, first Christmas and first birthday with no trace of him to be found. Gradually, the anniversary of the abduction became a grim reminder of Jacob’s absence.

“It’s one of those things you’re thinking about all the time, but obviously, that day is kind of like a bad birthday,” Larson said. “You think about it more during that time. Other people are usually talking about it. It obviously shapes who you are.”

Though it can be difficult, Larson said he doesn’t mind answering interview questions about his experience.

“After 25 years, I’ve answered a lot of the same questions,” he said. “It’s good that people don’t forget. That’s the way I look at it. It’s worth it to sit down and talk about it because it brings Jacob’s story back, and hopefully, other kids, too.”

Over the years, Larson, who now lives in Slayton and works in Currie and Tracy, has carried a great deal of baggage with him from the experience, though he’s been able to channel most of it into positive directions.

“It changed me completely when I was 11, from a carefree kid to being scared of the dark,” Larson said. “It also changed how I dealt with relationships. I went from having my best friend, to not wanting to have a best friend again because what if something happens again? It affects you obviously, when you’re a little kid but also shapes your relationships, with letting people in and with trust.”

After high school graduation, Larson moved to South Carolina to attend college for a year. He then spent time in the Army Reserves. Eventually, he moved back to St. Cloud area and attended St. John’s University.

“I went and did different things because you just have to get away for while,” he said. “You get tired of being known as the person that was with Jacob. I have other qualities, too. Sometimes, I just wanted to be able to live without people knowing who I was and to be able to succeed on my own.”

When he moved to rural southwest Minnesota, more people than ever knew who Larson was. Though nobody ever did it in a negative way, the label wore on him for a long time.

“I got introduced as the person who was with Jacob about a million times,” Larson said. “It drove me nuts because I have other characteristics. But it’s a big deal for people, I guess. I know Jacob’s story really touched so many people.”

Now married and the father of a 7-year-old son, Larson said he has come to terms with the experience, as much as anyone in his situation could. Though few likely suffer from survivor’s guilt, Larson knows that everyone faces some degree of loss or some type of struggle in their own lives. He also knows he’s not alone.

“At some point, you have to start living life, as far as being happy and being OK with being here,” he said. “My wife and son have a big part in that. I have things to live for and be happy for. Something bad happens on different levels to everybody throughout their life. It’s just a matter of how you handle it and overcome it.”

Larson sympathizes with his own parents, knowing now how difficult it must have been to let him out of their sight after Jacob’s abduction. He admits he’s probably overprotective of his own son, though he tries to find a healthy balance.

“It’s interesting because my son knows who he is named after (his middle name is Jacob),” he said. “It’s a fine line. You don’t want him to be afraid of every stranger, but you want him to be aware of his surroundings. He’s only seven and 99 percent of the time, he’s within sight of me, but he’s going to grow up (and want more freedom). I’m sure it was hard for my parents, to be that close to losing your kid. It would freak you out. So I guess it’s natural that I’m beyond overprotective. You never know.”

Trevor Wetterling moved to Colorado after high school graduation, while sisters Amy and Carmen remain in the Twin Cities area. Along with grandkids, Patty and Jerry say their children are doing well today. Years back, Jacob’s siblings worked together with six other siblings of abduction victims to write a book about their experiences. The book is called, “What About Me? Coping with the Abduction of a Brother or Sister.” They also teamed up to share their feelings in a video in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Our kids are absolutely amazing,” Patty said. “And Aaron has done a lot of sorting, but he’s done well, too. He’s still a kind, generous, wonderful man. He and Trevor went through something unprecedented for kids, and neither one of them ended up in the criminal justice system or bitter, angry or mean. They’re wonderful human beings.”

The Wetterlings credit the support system around them for helping them all navigate through the challenges of day-to-day life.

“Our kids and grandkids are doing well,” Patty said. “We’re grateful. But we didn’t do it alone. We were held up by this community and by people all over the world.”

The criminal case

October 23, 2014
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series on the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. Stories will include interviews with his parents, local law enforcement, Jacob’s friend, Aaron, who was with him the day he was abducted, and the parents of Brandon Swanson of Marshall, who went missing in 2008.

There has been no shortage of leads regarding 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling’s abduction by a masked gunman 25 years ago, though unfortunately, none have brought him home or his kidnapper to justice.

The reality of that is frustrating for Jacob’s family, friends, St. Joseph area community members and law enforcement officers.

Photo by Jenny Kirk. Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling at the end of a neighbor’s driveway along a rural road near St. Joseph in 1989. Jacob’s footprints stop near the second telephone pole. Despite hundreds of thousands of leads, it is as if Jacob and his masked abductor simply vanished.

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling at the end of a neighbor’s driveway along a rural road near St. Joseph in 1989. Jacob’s footprints stop near the second telephone pole. Despite hundreds of thousands of leads, it is as if Jacob and his masked abductor simply vanished.

Jacob’s case triggered the largest manhunt in Minnesota history and quickly gained national media attention. Over the years, more than 50,000 tips have been received in connection with the investigation. Unfortunately, with little evidence, false leads and false sightings, there are still more questions than answers.

Current Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, who has been in office since 2002, addressed the issue recently with WCCO, reassuring everyone that his department would never stop trying to solve the Oct. 22, 1989, disappearance.

“A tremendous amount of work has gone into this case, from the local and state level, to the national level. And it is an unbelievable frustration that we can’t provide the family and community with the answers they want and need,” Sanner said.

A DARK PART OF SOCIETY

Jacob’s parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling wish that they never had to know about the horrific side of society in which predators seek out children. The thought of child sexual abuse typically makes people extremely uncomfortable, but the fact is that it does occur, and unfortunately for our nation’s children, it’s happening at an alarming rate.

Crime Victims Center statistics reveal that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. The average age of the first abuse is 9.6 for girls and 9.9 for boys.

“I learned early on about this world I never knew about,” Patty said. “Very few people knew a lot about sexual abuse of children back then, and they knew less about boy victims. Boys didn’t tell, typically.”

The Center estimates that less than 10 percent of child sexual abuse is reported to the police, which often allows the abuse to continue.

Ninety-three percent of juvenile sexual assault victims are said to know their attacker, with 34.2 percent being a family member and 58.7 percent being an acquaintance. Only 7 percent of the perpetrators were strangers to the victim.

In addition to those numbers, Patty Wetterling is bothered by the knowledge that people choose to protect friends or family members over a child.

“We’ve been begging since the beginning to come forward, and so many people have,” she said. “But this past year has been troubling because we know of people who are really more mindful of protecting their family. I don’t understand that. I remember telling the FBI at the beginning that I would turn in my mother if I thought she had information.”

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), law enforcement agencies across the country have also seen a dramatic increase in cases of sexual exploitation of children since the 1990s. In 2006, U.S. attorneys also handled 82.8 percent more child pornography cases then they did in 1994. Child sex trafficking has also dramatically increased.

“(The perpetrators) are often hard to find because we don’t think like they do,” Patty Wetterling said. “Some have crazy ideas or behaviors that may seem rational to them in the crazy circumstances they might be living in. It makes it difficult to find people like them.”

Jacob’s story received national exposure, on television programs such as “Nancy Grace,” “America’s Most Wanted” and just recently, “The Hunt with John Walsh.” Still, the key tip to bring closure to the case has not surfaced.

“Tips from the public solve cases. And we’re always hopeful that the next call will be the missing puzzle piece that we’ve been waiting for,” Sanner said.

A LONG LIST OF SUSPECTS

Early on, law enforcement believed the kidnapper was a stranger who quickly escaped the abduction site with Jacob in a vehicle. The boys reported that they neither saw nor heard a vehicle, but it was an extremely dark night so a vehicle nearby was still a strong possibility. Investigators found a tire impression, thought to be that of the abductor, at the site. It wasn’t until 2003 that the driver of that vehicle, a young man named Kevin, came forward, admitting that he had likely left the tire prints. After hearing the report on his scanner, Kevin and his girlfriend showed up on the scene in 1989. He reported speaking to an officer before leaving, but that conversation was never passed along.

The revelation changed the way law enforcement looked at the crime, realizing then that the predator was more likely to have been on foot. And local.

“Law enforcement simply didn’t know enough at the time,” Patty Wetterling said. “We do know now, so we have to look at it from a different lens.”

Hundreds of people have been investigated, including Duane Hart, a convicted pedophile from Belgrade; Vernon Seitz, a Wisconsin barber who, after his death, was found to have suspicious items in his home; and the Bahner family. Richard Bahner, Sr., (now deceased) was charged with having sexual intercourse with a minor female between 1984 and 1985. His three sons, Richard, Jr., Michael and Alan (now deceased) were all charged with felony criminal sexual conduct involving sodomy and other sexual abuse of a 7-year-old boy in 1990. The Bahner’s sister lived close to the abduction site in 1989.

Matthew Feeney, who held jobs such as a local youth minister, camp director and talent agent, admitted to being in the vicinity within an hour of the kidnapping, having dropped off a student in the neighborhood. Feeney was convicted in 1992 of molesting three children. He was also scheduled to appear for court in 2013 for abusing brothers, ages 9 and 15, from 2007 and 2009.

Unknown to local police at the time, there were also halfway houses in the St. Joseph area that housed sex offenders upon their release from prison.

“It is baffling and troubling,” Patty Wetterling said. “It was hard to find out there were a lot of people who could have done this. We didn’t know about that element of society. Nobody wants to know about that.”

There was also Phillip Meemken, head of the Police Explorer program, who mentored young people interested in law enforcement. Beginning in 1982, Meemken spent 18 years with the Stearn’s County Sheriff’s Office. He later faced 25 criminal charges, including criminal sexual conduct and furnishing alcohol to minors.

Nearby Saint John’s Abbey was also found to have housed a large number of monks who likely offended against minors over the course of decades. A recent article reported that by 1989, more than 200 incidents of misconduct had taken place by monks at the Abbey. At least two dozen perpetrators were identified, having preyed on students without consequence for decades, though time and lack of evidence made determination of guilt difficult in some cases.

An official statement released by the Abbey on Dec. 9, 2013, included 18 names. Seven monks were deceased (Andre Bennett, Robert Blumeyer, Cosmas Dahlheimer, Othmar Hohmann, Dominic Keller, Pirmin Wendt and Bruce Wollmering), while two men (Francis Hoefgen and John Kelly) have been dispensed from their religious vows and are no longer connected to the Abbey.

Michael Bik, Richard Eckroth, Thomas Gillespie, Brennan Maiers, Finian McDonald, Dunstan Moorse, James Phillips, Francisco Schulte and Allen Tarlton complete the list, though there is no way to truly know the extent of the abuse.

While disturbing and deserving of investigation, Patty Wetterling instinctively believes the clergy were not to blame for Jacob’s abduction.

“It’s been a constant, because we get calls and letters, telling us to look at the monks and priests,” she said. “I feel like, and maybe it’s false, but, they didn’t need to abduct a child. They had access to all the kids in the world, unfortunately.”

Convicted murderers Delbert and Tim Huber were also on the radar because of violent outbursts reported by others in the Paynesville community in addition to the eerie resemblance to sketches made by a young Cold Spring victim (named Jared) who was sexually assaulted nine months before Jacob’s kidnapping.

Cold Spring is 10 miles from St. Joseph.

Minnesota blogger Joy Baker alerted police to a potential connection regarding a series of unsolved sexual assaults on boys in Paynesville, 30 miles from St. Joseph, two years before Wetterling’s abduction.

“I don’t want to say it’s frustrating on the law enforcement side because it was just a different day and age as far as communication and so forth, but it’s obvious that there were things that they didn’t know, like with all the stuff that came out with Joy Baker breaking all the stories,” said Aaron Larson, who was with Jacob at the time of the abduction. “If they’re all somehow related, what if something could have been prevented before it was Jacob? It’s frustrating to think about.”

In her research, Baker uncovered a 1987 Paynesville Press article that revealed five attacks on young boys, ages 12-16.

“Joy has become a friend,” Patty said. “She’s a good person. She’s very accurate, and she really researches. She’s found stuff we didn’t even know.”

In 2011, the Hubers were convicted of murdering Albertville man Timothy Larson, who reportedly accused the father and son of being involved in Jacob’s kidnapping. Both men denied the accusations. A day after WCCO-TV’s Esme Murphy interviewed him in prison, 83-year-old Delbert Huber died of natural causes.

“We don’t know for sure how old the abductor was,” Patty Wetterling said. “If he was 50, then he’s 75 now. When they interviewed the guy in prison, and he died right after, I said, ‘OK, you guys (law enforcement) have to kick it into gear because we’re losing people. And we want answers. We deserve answers. The whole world does. We’ve certainly fought long and hard to get them.”

In 2010, authorities searched the family farm — the closest to the actual abduction site — of one of the Wetterling’s neighbors. Jacob was reported to have been abducted near the driveway of Robert and Rita Rassier, who live on the farm with their adult son, Dan Rassier. Neighbors say the elder Rassiers were out of the country at the time Jacob was taken, but that Dan Rassier, an elementary band teacher, was home.

“Obviously, somebody out there knows what happened,” said Larson. “It’s just a matter of getting to the right time or moment to get them to come forward, whether it’s a family member, a friend or somebody that saw something. Somebody knows. You don’t just do something like that and nobody else knows about it.”

There are countless others who have been looked by law enforcement over the years.

Many of the people questioned in connection with the abduction have been cleared, while others remain a person of interest. For everyone’s sake, the hope is to finally find the person or persons responsible, bring them to justice and clear those who were not connected in any way.

“I think law enforcement always had the best interests in mind,” Larson said. “Their goal was always to find Jacob, and it still is. So many people got personally involved. It’s like a punch in the gut when you can’t find answers.”

Anyone with information is asked to call the Stearns County Sheriff Department at 320-259-3700 or the NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling continue to work to help families of missing children, 25 years after the disappearance of their son

October 24, 2014
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a series on the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. Stories will include interviews with his parents, local law enforcement, Jacob’s friend, Aaron, who was with him the day he was abducted, and the parents of Brandon Swanson of Marshall, who went missing in 2008.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling are ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary tasks in the aftermath of their son Jacob’s abduction in 1989.

Through their pain and experience, the Wetterlings have become tireless advocates for the past 25 years, helping countless families of missing children. In addition, the couple — who still have more questions than answers regarding the unsolved kidnapping of their 11-year-old son — have successfully pushed for laws to help keep children more safe.

The board chairperson, Patty Wetterling, has served on the board for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) since 1999. Since opening in 1984, the organization has served as the nation’s clearing house on issues relating to missing and sexually exploited children. In the last 30 years, the NCMEC has handled more than 3.9 million calls.

“We learned quickly, through letters and phone calls, that we had tapped into this river of victimization we knew nothing about,” Patty Wetterling said. “Child sexual abuse and exploitation wasn’t in my vocabulary. I knew nothing about it. Then you hear about all these other victims and it’s like, ‘whoa.’ So we saw a bigger picture. It was bigger than Jacob.”

FOUNDATION IN JACOB’S NAME

According to Patty Wetterling, her husband was pivotal in forming the first foundation for Jacob, called Friends of Jacob. An office was established in the basement of a local bank.

“There were about 10 people, townsfolk, that were wanting to do something,” Jerry Wetterling said. “Besides their regular jobs, they were kind of meeting and organizing events and getting fliers out. The first big mailing was on Patty’s birthday, November 2.”

California native David Collins, whose son Kevin went missing from a bus stop in 1982 and has never been found, also became a resource for the Wetterlings, as did Minnesota snowbirds.

“We printed fliers and had everybody bring stamps,” Jerry Wetterling said. “It was astronomical what we were spending. And there were a lot of snowbirds who would take fliers out to Arizona or Florida when they went.”

Eventually, the volunteer effort became too much for those involved. So four months after Jacob’s abduction, the Wetterlings formed the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, an advocacy group for children’s safety and announced it on Jacob’s birthday – Feb. 17, 1990.

JWF was later changed to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, whose vision is to end all forms of child abuse, neglect and exploitation through training, education, advocacy, prevention and awareness in addition to providing care and treatment for children, families and adult survivors.

“In the beginning, law enforcement was asking questions, like is there anyone who liked Jacob too much?” Patty Wetterling said. “Does anybody take him anywhere or buy him anything? So they knew about predators. They were sort of educating us.”

LEGISLATIVE PUSH INTO LAW

Unfortunately, it often takes tragic events to change laws. This is certain true regarding the safety of children. At the time of Jacob’s kidnapping, there was not a comprehensive list of sex offenders for law enforcement to utilize in their investigation.

“It was chaos because there were no databases at that time,” Patty Wetterling said. “They’d have to go to every county jail or city jail in the state. It was a nightmare. It takes time, and you don’t have time when it comes to missing children.”

When the Wetterlings learned of this, they decided to take action, leading to Minnesota’s Sex Offender Registration Act in 1991.

In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Act was passed in Minnesota, marking the first law to mandate sex-offender registries in every state. More strict requirements were subsequently implemented on a national basis when the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act was included in the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

The law was designed for investigative purposes, Patty Wetterling said, though later, it became more public. Amendments followed, starting with Megan’s Law, named for Megan Kanka, who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by a twice-convicted pedophile living across the street, in 1996. Megan’s Law requires law enforcement agencies to release information about registered sex offenders that are deemed dangerous to the public.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes tragedies to bring about changes,” said Rob Yant, Marshall director of public safety. “It’s such a benefit, though, when parents try to do things to keep it from happening again. They make a difference.”

The Pam Lyncher Sexual Offender Tracking and Identification Act, requiring the FBI to establish a national database of sex offenders to assist law enforcement agencies in tracking sex offenders across state lines, was also passed as an amendment in 1996. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 then broadly updated and strengthened various areas of law regarding the protection of children, including increases in mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenders, increases in sentences for Internet crimes against children and upgrades in sex offender registration and tracking stipulations.

While there are a variety of controversial issues, Patty Wetterling said she is most concerned about juveniles convicted of sexual offenses because the law, she believes, was not designed for children.

MANAGING SEX OFFENDERS

Effective Jan 1, 1997, the Minnesota Community Notification Act requires assignment of a risk level for offenders subject to registration as a predatory offender before they are released from a state prison or treatment center. According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, about 8,000 of the state’s 17,400 registered predatory offenders are required to have a risk level assigned.

The MDC estimates that 58 percent of the offenders are considered Level 1, which are deemed low risk to the public. About 29 percent are Level 2, classified as a moderate risk to the public, while 13 percent fall into the Level 3 category and are considered the highest public risk. As of 2013, there were 272 Level 3 offenders living in Minnesota communities.

“Sex offenders used to just be released when their sentences were done,” Yant said. “But now, the biggest thing is that they established a follow through with the classifications. It’s for public safety. The classification is based on the likelihood of the person to re-offend.”

Yant noted that Marshall has one Level 3 offender, which the public was notified about.

“His issue was that he couldn’t follow the rules when he was released,” Yant said. “If they’re out on parole and they don’t follow those guidelines, they can be returned to jail. It keeps people accountable.”

Yant said monitoring sex offenders is now considered part of the job for local detectives.

“We assign it to our detectives to do as part of their duties,” he said. “We have 60 people we are currently monitoring. The goal is to keep them from re-offending.”

OTHER EFFORTS

The AMBER Alert System began in 1996 and has since helped save the lives of 495 children nationwide, according to the Department of Justice. AMBER stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and was created in honor of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped while riding her bike in Arlington, Texas, and then brutally murdered. By 2005, all 50 states adopted similar AMBER Alert plans.

“There are certain criteria that have to be met and if it does, it goes into an AMBER Alert,” Yant said. “It’s a relatively immediate thing. With the criteria and refinement, there isn’t a lot of false reports going out. It works pretty well.”

Established in 1998, Team HOPE (Help Offering Parents Empowerment) offers a parent-to-parent mentoring program for mothers and fathers of missing children. In 2004, the group officially became a part of the NCMEC, continuing to be a vital lifeline for families.

PREVENTION IS KEY

As director of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Sexual Violence Prevention program, Patty Wetterling wholeheartedly believes in prevention. The organization’s goal is to create a culture where sexual violence is unthinkable. The program works to change the social norms and attitudes that support, condone or ignore sexually violent messages and behavior, which contributes to the problem. Those sexual violence norms include destructive gender socialization, uses of sex for power and control, exploitive images of women and children in the media and narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity.

Not only does sexual violence damage victims, it’s also financially expensive. Department statistics report that in 2005, costs of sexual violence in Minnesota totaled $8 billion – 3.3 times as much as alcohol-impaired driving costs in the state.

“I know people can heal, but I also know the challenges with that and how hard it is,” Patty Wetterling said. “It’s an ongoing thing. And most of the parents I’ve worked with over the years wish it never would have happened in the first place.”

Hope in their hearts

October 25, 2014
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a series on the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. Stories include interviews with his parents, law enforcement, Jacob’s friend, Aaron, who was with him the day he was abducted, and the parents of Brandon Swanson of Marshall, who went missing in 2008.

Patty and Jerry Wetterling are living every parent’s worst nightmare, having had their 11-year-old son Jacob snatched from them 25 years ago near their rural St. Joseph home. Jacob and the masked gunman who took him have never been identified.

Photo by Jenny Kirk. Aaron Larson, who was with his friend Jacob Wetterling when he was abducted 25 years ago, says “you always hold out that hope,” Jacob will be found. “You never know. I always wonder when we’ll get some answers.” Larson now lives in Slayton and has a son of his own.

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Aaron Larson, who was with his friend Jacob Wetterling when he was abducted 25 years ago, says “you always hold out that hope,” Jacob will be found. “You never know. I always wonder when we’ll get some answers.” Larson now lives in Slayton and has a son of his own.

Marshall residents Annette and Brian Swanson are facing similar heartache since their 19-year-old son Brandon went missing six-and-a-half years ago when he was returning home after visiting friends 30 miles away. While Brandon’s vehicle was found the following day, no trace of the young man has ever been found.

Jacob and Brandon are two of the 476 missing persons recorded in the FBI/National Crime Information Center for Minnesota as of Dec. 31, 2013.

“That’s why I think it’s good to keep doing stories,” said Slayton resident Aaron Larson, who was with Jacob and Jacob’s brother Trevor the night of the abduction. “It helps keep Jacob’s story out there and it’s good for other kids because you can never give up. So the more you keep it in the public eye, the less it’s going to happen and the more likely the cases can be solved.”

As the families and friends of Jacob and Brandon cope with the painful absence of their loved one and the lack of answers in their disappearances, they’re bound by one common thread — hope.

“If there’s no hope, there’s no reason to get up in the morning,” Patty Wetterling said. “There’s no recipe for doing this. Either way, if Jacob’s alive, we need to bring him home. And we have no evidence to show he’s not, so that will always remain a possibility in my mind. If he’s not alive, then who did this and where is he? What happened?”

The Swansons would also like answers to their many questions.

“The not knowing where a loved one is, not knowing what happened, is awful,” Annette Swanson said. “Ultimately, you’d like an answer. You know they’re not where they should be, but you have no idea where they are. You don’t know if they’re living 50 miles away from you, or if they’re dead. You don’t know if something horrific happened to them, or not. You don’t know if they’ve had an accident, lost their memories and are living a life someplace else not knowing somebody is looking for them. You just don’t know.”

THE SEARCH FOR JACOB

In the two-and-a-half decades that Jacob has been missing, more than 50,000 leads have been received, though everyone is still waiting for that key piece to come in so the case can be solved. Even after 25 years, the Wetterlings trudge forward, searching for answers.

“There’s been a lot of activity going on this year,” Jerry Wetterling said. “We’ve been, in a sense, more directly involved in some of the investigation stuff than in other year, and it wears on you.”

For that reason, no large-scale celebrations were planned this year on the Oct. 22nd anniversary. Instead, the Wetterlings spent the day surrounded by friends and family. The previous week, six billboards that included photos of Jacob at age 11 and age-progressed to age 36, were put up around the St. Joseph area in hopes of sparking new leads.

“You just hope it can lead to something good with him and maybe lead to something good for other missing children,” Larson said. “I think this is the first time where I really feel like something could happen, as far as some answers. There have been different things going on. I just feel like something is bound to happen. I think we’re going to get some answers.”

There were times Larson learned about remains that were found, but he never had the feeling they were those of his best friend.

“When I was a kid, they’d find something, but I never felt it in my gut,” he said. “They’d find bones and one time, there was a body in the Mississippi, but it never felt right to me. I guess we’ll have to just wait and see.”

Patty Wetterling, who serves as the Minnesota Department of Health’s Violence Prevention program director, and is the board chairwoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), was pleased to have the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, FBI and Stearns County Sheriff Office together to kickoff the billboard campaign recently.

“It forced the three agencies to be working together again,” she said. “The National Center made those billboards happen. They called everybody together, so it was a good thing.”

Patty Wetterling has become a national spokesperson and advocate for missing children, something she never intended on becoming.

“Looking back, we could have never written this as a script for our lives,” she said. “Some good things have happened, but it’s all for the wrong reasons, so it’s kind of confusing emotionally.”

Unintentionally, the Wetterlings feel responsible for bringing Jacob home. They know that law enforcement efforts can fade over time, so they feel like the ball gets thrown back in their court.

“I feel like it’s on our shoulders to find Jacob and it’s a heavy load,” Patty Wetterling said. “We’ve been pretty creative, trying to generate leads, but I don’t know what to do next. What haven’t we done?”

THE SEARCH FOR BRANDON

While the search for Brandon is nowhere near the quarter century mark like in Jacob’s abduction – Brandon was born in 1989, the year Jacob was kidnapped – his friends, family and community don’t want to reach that same grim anniversary.

“Jacob’s case is a little more defined in that they know somebody took him, but you don’t know in so many of these case, where the people are,” Annette Swanson said. “They’re not where they’re supposed to be. You don’t know what happened to them. And you don’t know until you know. You have to go find them.”

Through coordinated efforts of local law enforcement agencies, including Lincoln, Lyon and Yellow Medicine counties, a number of searches have taken place for find Brandon. The Swansons have also reached out to additional resources on their own, noting that as parents, they needed to do everything possible in their power to bring their son home.

“As a family, when you’re left to your own devices, which we were, you start trying to find your own resources, because as a parent, you’re going to do everything you can until you’ve exhausted what you can do,” Annette Swanson said. “To leave stuff undone, I can’t live with that. This is my child. I can’t live with that thought.”

Extensive searches have revealed very little. Besides Brandon’s car, a single footprint near the river’s edge and possible hits – though somewhat contradictory – by search dogs, there is no sign of Brandon.

“We’ve had a lot of different search dog teams,” Swanson said. “We learned there are different types of search dogs, too, with different abilities. And the environments they work in are different, too. Wind is a huge factor out here that they haven’t experienced before. It’s been difficult for them to read.”

One final tract of land yet to be searched will likely be the last attempt to get answers. Efforts are currently under way to search the area this fall.

“There is a farm site that we couldn’t get on before, but this fall, it’s going to get searched,” Brian Swanson said. “Our search coordinator is setting it up. I think this is pretty much the last place to search. Early on, I think I went out every time because I felt the need to be there. But we won’t be going out this time with them.”

Annette Swanson said thought of the impending search brings forward an array of emotions for the entire family.

“We want them to be able to search this area because it’s part of the area and it hadn’t yet been done,” she said. “It’s that piece of trying to do everything you can do. So we want to do this. But at the same time, we don’t. It upsets this universe that we’ve got going on, that we can function in. We know how to live here and work in this. And when the day comes where we finally get answers, we’re not going to know how to live in that place. We’re going to go through a whole bunch more stuff.”

HOPE, IN THE FORM OF OTHERS FOUND

On the heels of the child abductions and murders of 6-year-old Etan Patz, 29 children from Atlanta, Georgia, and then 6-year-old Adam Walsh, John and Reve Walsh established the Adam Walsh Outreach Center for Missing Children to serve as a national resource for other families.

As the effort to protect children has grown – including the enactment of the Missing Children’s Act in 1982, followed by the utilization of the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database and the establishment of the NCMEC in 1984 – more and more children have been located. In 1990, the Outreach Center merged with NCMEC. And with better public awareness, training, laws and technology, the recovery rate of missing children has jumped from 62 percent in 1990 to more than 97 percent today.

“At this point, I haven’t seen otherwise (to suggest that Jacob is not still alive),” Larson said. “You see other missing people come home after many years, which is great. I guess that’s what keeps you going. It could happen.”

More long-term missing children are also being recovered. The NCMEC has never stopped searching for Jacob or given up hope of finding him, National Director John Ryan said recently at a St. Cloud new conference.

Jaycee Dugard was 11 when she was abducted at her bus stop near South Lake Tahoe, Calif. In 1991. After 18 years in captivity, where she gave birth to two children fathered by her kidnapper, Dugard was returned to her family.

The recovery of other children – Steven Carter after 34 years, Carlina White after 23 years, three Ohio women (Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight) after 10 years, Steven Stayner after seven years, Shawn Hornbeck after four years and Elizabeth Smart after nine months – keeps hope very much alive for other friends and families of missing persons.

“People always ask if I want closure, but I don’t know if knowing one way or the other is better,” Larson said. “Obviously, the hope is to find him. You see all the time now where it’s been 10, 20 years and somebody comes home. So you always hold out that hope. You never know. I always wonder when we’ll get some answers.”

WHAT THE FUTURE MAY HOLD

Despite their worlds being turned upside down, the Wetterling and Swanson families have defied the statistics and have kept their marriages and families intact.

“I can see why marriages don’t survive,” Annette Swanson said. “We’ve worked really hard on communicating with each other and understanding and respecting what the other person feels and where they’re at in their process. I was in a way different place than Brian was, but just talking about it, being willing to share where you are, what you’re feeling and thinking, and have the other person just acknowledge it and respect it is helpful.”

The Swansons said feelings fluctuate, from anger to sadness and everything in between. But they just try to keep working through it.

“It’s better now than it was, but life will never be the same,” Brian Swanson said. “Going to work helps. If you’re not doing something, then you start thinking about it even more. You always think back and wonder what you could have done differently. You can’t go back, but because of your emotions, you do.”

A lot of the time, Brian Swanson said he keeps his defenses up, to help shield him from the pain.

“Sometimes you think about all the fun things you did with Brandon,” he said. “Sometimes that doesn’t work, either, so you try to get your mind on something else. You just never think something like this will happen to you.”

Annette Swanson said she, too, purposely keeps busy. In addition, the couple’s daughter Jamine, who was 17 when Brandon went missing, and grandson Eli keep their spirits up.

“Jamine and Eli are part of what gets us through every day,” she said. “You also need the everyday, mundane part of your life, to get you through. You need to distract your brain. There are still moments where you just break down and cry, but you don’t do it every hour, or every day or every week anymore.”

Patty and Jerry Wetterling remain close with their other three children – Amy, Carmen and Trevor, who was 10 and with Jacob when he was abducted – and six grandchildren.

While life has had its struggles, Larson tries to follow the Wetterlings’ lead. He recalls how difficult it had been for his own parents (Fran and Vic Larson) to cope with the experience.

“My family is very close-knit,” he said. “Obviously, this freaked them out. I think it freaked out the whole area. Nothing is ever supposed to happen in small town. You think your kids are safe. When I got older, even in high school, I know it was hard for my parents to let the leash out a little bit.”

Larson is working hard to find his own balance with his son Anikan Jacob, who is nearly 8 years old.

“You still have to be able to live your life to some extent,” Larson said. “The experience is always going to be with you, and I’m sure I’m overprotective, but I try to keep moving forward and stay positive. I don’t ever want to let my guard down, but it doesn’t have to completely shape you. I think as a parent, you’d never stop looking for your kid. If something happened to my son, I’d do the same. You never give up on your children.”

Reprinted with permission from the Marshall Independent

NEXT: The party in the woods…

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The men in the woods

Hello blogosphere… it’s been a while.

If it seems like things have quieted down a bit lately, I think it’s because maybe they have… at least for me. That’s not to say I’ve given up or shifted my focus, but I will admit that after all the positive energy we helped generate in Jacob’s case last summer, our little rag-tag justice league is feeling a bit… well, defeated.

I know we have definitely shaken the tree. I have talked to many different people, taken copious notes, organized hundreds of tips, and passed along numerous credible leads to Stearns County, the FBI, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Information moved very quickly, and at times, it became completely overwhelming. But I kept at it because we all felt like we were doing something important… like we were making a difference… and that we might be getting closer to finding an answer for the Wetterlings.

And then, the 25th anniversary came and went. On a beautiful fall day, with unseasonably warm temperatures much like they were in 1989, the entire state of Minnesota mourned the passing of the 25th anniversary of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance. Twenty five years… what a blow. It was a milestone none of us wanted to acknowledge, in part because it’s just so unbelievable. How could this child still be missing after 25 years, with no trace and no answers?

Karla Hult from KARE-11 News put together a story that ran on Monday, October 20th, two days before the anniversary. (If you missed it, here’s a link.) It was hard to watch, mostly because I know what the Wetterlings have been through this past year. Usually the anniversary marks a hopeful time when new tips come in and new leads are generated. But this year, October 22nd came and went with still no answers… no feedback about the hundreds of tips we had helped generate, and no acknowledgement of any kind that all the work we had done had made any difference at all. Talk about defeating.

So, now what? Where do we go from here?

Well, for me, it’s back to square one. I was talking to someone just last week who asked me what my motive was in all this. What did I hope to gain by blogging about Jacob’s case? I didn’t even have to think twice about my answer. It’s the same reason I’ve given all along. My goal is simply to keep people talking… to keep “thinking Jacob”… and to get people to share their stories so that someone might possibly remember the one tiny detail that could be the key to solving the case. I’ve been very intentional about who I’ve interviewed, talking only to people who have a direct connection to Jacob’s case. So far, that seems to have worked well.

And so, with all that being said, I have a new story to share.

I was recently contacted by a young man who was the same age as Jacob and rode the same school bus. A few weeks ago, I met up with him and another friend of his from the old neighborhood. Later, they also put me in contact with three other neighborhood friends. This whole group has a pretty amazing story to tell.

In the summer and fall of 1989, this group of young teenagers spent nearly every day biking or riding go-karts through the woods just north of the site where Jacob was abducted. They also knew about the “party spot” in the woods, which I first heard about from Kevin back in 2013. (See my previous post, “A few answers… many more questions“) However, according to these young men, there wasn’t just one party spot in the woods; there were four.

Back in 1989, woods covered much of the area to the north and west of the abduction site. That land has since been developed into single-family houses, but back then, it was a popular hangout spot for the under 21 crowd.

The following map was created for me by one of the young men who used to live in the neighborhood. The green area shows where the woods and bike trails used to be. The blue area used to be a big open field, and the red circles show where the party spots were. (Note, I’m still waiting to hear back on the location of the fourth party spot.) The orange circle shows the abduction site.

Green areas were wooded and where bike trails located - Blue open field - Red party pits

In the days preceding Jacob’s abduction, this group of boys was riding along the trails on the west side of 16th Avenue, and happened to notice an older man who was sitting on a log, off in the brush. He appeared to be writing things down in a notebook.

Right away, I asked the young men if this was the art student who had been seen sketching in the area. They didn’t know what I was talking about, so I clued them in. Not long after the abduction, police asked for the public’s help in finding the driver of a red compact car who had been seen in the neighborhood and acting suspiciously. After an article ran in the St. Cloud Times which included a composite sketch of the suspect and a description of the red compact car, a young man came forward and admitted to being in the area making sketches for his art class. He was later cleared.

The young men I talked to don’t believe this was the same guy. Their guy was older, in his 50s, with balding gray hair. Also, another tidbit this young man remembers is that the guy’s car (or, what he assumes was the guy’s car) was parked on the edge of the woods, near what is now Klinefelter Park. It was not a red compact car, but a wood-paneled station wagon.

After they came forward with their tip, two FBI agents showed up at their school and took them to the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department to make a statement. They were asked to create a composite sketch of the man they had seen in the woods, and were taken to separate rooms. Each boy worked with his own sketch artist, and after all was said and done, their sketches appeared almost identical.

I asked them if their sketches had ever been released to the public, but they weren’t sure. I don’t ever recall seeing a sketch or hearing about this particular lead, and I’ve read nearly every issue of the St. Cloud Times from October 23, 1989 through 1990. So, I decided to give Stearns County a call and ask if I could get a copy of the sketches. I was told I could not… because it is still an open investigation.

So, all I can tell you about the two sketches (based on what I’ve been told) is that they very closely resemble the sketches of all the other mean-looking bald men that were released in this case. Maybe that was their reasoning back in the day for not releasing these sketches… because they felt it would be confusing to the public. Who knows, but that would make some sense.

As it turns out, this gray-haired, note-taking bald man was not the only suspicious character the boys saw in the woods during that timeframe. On a different day, one of the boys also witnessed a younger man, late 20s or early 30s, who was up in a tree with a clipboard. He was fairly skinny, with dark brown hair and a baseball cap. They were riding go-karts that day, and when they came back through the same area about an hour later, the guy was in a different tree. They didn’t think much of it at the time, assuming he was a student from St. John’s who was working on some kind of class project. Again, I asked if the guy in the tree was the art student, and again, the reply was, “I don’t know.”

So, now I’m left with a lot of questions, and probably, you are, too. Go ahead and leave your comments, and maybe together we can find some answers.

As always, thanks for following along and #ThinkingJacob.

A great article from the Marshall Independent…

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From a former Bulldog…

I received this comment from a “Former Bulldog” on my most recent blog this past Tuesday afternoon. It was so well done, I decided to publish it as its own post. Thank you for your compassion, Former Bulldog.

(Side note, the Bulldogs are Paynesville High School’s mascot. Their football team recently went undefeated this season and are heading into the Section playoffs. A state championship sure would be a great ending to a whirlwind year for this big-hearted town. Go Bulldogs!)

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Former Bulldog | October 21, 2014 at 12:19 pm

I too have thought a lot about whoever took Jacob.

I think there’s a good chance he reads this blog.

I don’t know if he took Jacob and kept him; I tend to think like Patty wrote that maybe he meant to let him go but something went wrong.

I grew up in Paynesville, in town, and am around Jacob’s age. I remember Chester the Molester, as we kids called him. I thought he was a figment of our imagination until finding this blog back in May. I had always connected Chester in my head to whoever took Jacob. It was shocking to me to discover this summer that not only was Chester real, but we kids were very possibly right in our hunch that it was Chester who got Jacob.

Did you know we called you that, Jacob’s abductor, if that was you, and if you’re reading this? We thought you were a monster and maybe you wanted us to think that. Maybe you still want us to think that. Now that I am an adult with kids of my own, I know that you aren’t a monster, because monsters don’t exist. What you are is broken, and you did some very broken things.

I’m pretty sure you were abused yourself as a child, that things happened to you that very much shouldn’t have happened. Things that weren’t okay. Did you know that? That they weren’t okay? Or did they happen so often that it seemed normal to you? Or is it complicated? Was there anyone who showed you love? Was it the person who showed you love who did the things to you that children should be shielded from? Or was there no love and only horrible things, and you have spent your life trying to get rid of the pain of your early years by doing similar things to children?

While I no longer believe you are a monster, you are still a figment of my imagination. I have no idea who you are or if any of that was true for you. If horrible things happened to you, as a mother, I want to say: I am so sorry that stuff happened to you that you felt you had to do horrible things back. The things you did weren’t right, and the things done to you weren’t right. If you were a part of our community, I am sorry that our community failed you, that it didn’t have the tools to deal with someone with your level of pain. But you weren’t alone in that: it didn’t have the tools to deal with your first victims in Paynesville either, which is why that article in the Paynesville Press went unnoticed by our teachers and parents.

You taking Jacob changed all that.

You taking Jacob set in motion a vast course correction within the community. The Wetterlings, somehow, miraculously, through their pain, were able to set up their foundation and set up the Sex Offender Registry, and since Jacob’s abduction, there is just no way that an article like that in the paper will ever go unnoticed by teachers or parents again. This is something we talk about now. There were teachers and faith leaders taken out of the game because of their sexual abuse, but only after you took Jacob. Victims feel more able to come forward. Justice happens more and more when they do. It is a different world, post-Jacob, I mean it still happens. But hopefully not as much and hopefully there is more help when it does happen and hopefully people don’t feel like their only option is silence or perpetrating the abuse.

I would imagine you felt really powerless, as a child. I would imagine that your actions as an adult were about getting power back: having power over the terrified boys, having the power of surprise as you laid in wait, having the physical strength to outrun them and overpower them and scaring them into doing what you wanted…

I propose to you that that isn’t real power, what you felt when you attacked those boys and when you took Jacob. It was fake. It was a temporary feeling of adrenalin, and I’ll bet your actions made you feel worse in the end. Do you know what I think real power is? Real power is the ability to heal and transform yourself. Do you know who has real power? Your victims, the ones who were able to take what had happened to them and work with it and make their lives better not just despite it, but because of it, like what the Wetterlings did, and like what Jared did. Those are people who are truly powerful, my friend. Take a look at them if you want to learn about power.

There is no doubt that you are powerful, even though I believe your actions hurt you most of all. Look at what you have created. You took Jacob and the entire community changed. Even 25 years after the fact, your actions were so powerful that Joy created this blog and people are talking and thinking about it still. Maybe your taking Jacob was a cry for help, even if not a conscious one, help for you and people like you, and look: what you did had the consequence, in a twisted way, of helping.

But you yourself still need help. There are people who can help you, but they can’t help you if they don’t know who you are.

You are probably an old man by now, but it is not too late for you to experience true power. You are the one who took Jacob, you can bring him back. You can talk to the Wetterlings, and tell them what happened to their son. Tell them where he his. If he is dead you can’t bring him back, but you can bring him home. Speak. It will transform your life. It will be a kind of redemption for you, but I believe it is the only way. You have the power to do it; you are the only one who does. Save yourself. By speaking, you have the power to heal not only yourself and the Wetterlings and the Paynesville victims and all of us who have been so affected by this case, but I also believe you have the power to heal backwards and forwards in time, so that the healing extends to the people who did this to you, and also to future generations.

That is a lot of power. Use it.

NEXT: The men in the woods…

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25 Years

Wow… where to begin. It’s been such a whirlwind year, and I’ve been overwhelmed trying to decide how to write this blog post. It’s incredibly hard to put into words what the 25th anniversary of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction means to me. But, I definitely have some things to say, so here we go.

This Wednesday, October 22nd, will mark 25 years since Jacob Wetterling was taken at gunpoint from a rural road in St. Joseph, Minnesota. It was just after 9pm, and Jacob was returning home from a local convenience store where he had gone to rent a movie with his friend, Aaron, and his younger brother, Trevor. They were just a few blocks from home when a masked gunman stopped them, ordered them to put their bikes in the ditch and lie face-down on the ground. One by one, they were asked how old they were, then Trevor and Aaron were told, “Run toward the woods and don’t look back, or I’ll shoot.” When they got far enough away and dared to look back, Jacob and the gunman were gone. He has not been seen since.

This past Tuesday, six billboards went up in locations near Jacob’s abduction. They say “STILL MISSING” and show a picture of Jacob in 1989, along with an age-progressed picture of what he might look like today at age 36. They also include the number for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1-800-THE-LOST. Anyone with a tip is encouraged to call the hotline. You may remain anonymous.

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Along with the billboards, the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, together with Jerry and Patty Wetterling, the FBI, the BCA, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) gave a joint press conference. Patty and Jerry both spoke, and we were encouraged by the words of John Ryan, President and Chief Executive Officer of NCMEC, who said that in a five year time span, from 2009-2013, over 160 kids had been found who had been missing between 11-20 years.

Wow. Wouldn’t that be something.

The fact that all these agencies are coming to the table after 25 years is both encouraging and hopeful. I think it is a testament to how active this case really has been, especially in the past year.

I also think there’s an interesting phenomenon that has started to occur. I didn’t catch it at first, but it started to gel after I was reviewing some of the comments and messages I’ve received on my blog over the past few years. It seems there’s a common phrase I keep hearing over and over, and it comes from a generation who is just now beginning to realize how much Jacob’s disappearance has impacted their lives. It goes something like this… “Now that I’m a parent myself…”

You see, these are Jacob’s peers who have been talking to me. They’re in their late 30s now, hovering toward that monumental 40th birthday. They’re busy chasing kids, life, and the American dream. But, when they finally get a chance to slow down and reflect for a moment, I think they’re starting to realize something. At this point in their lives, they are now very close to the same age that Jerry and Patty Wetterling were when Jacob was taken. And for them, like all of us, that is an unbearable thought.

But something is different this go-round. This generation thinks and acts differently than any generation before them. They have something that is innate and instinctive to them. It’s called technology… and they know how to use it.

In the past few years (and the last year in particular), I have seen this investigation explode because of the power of the internet. From blogs and forums, to Facebook and Twitter, people are talking and sharing more than ever before. And more than that, they’re demanding answers.

Throughout the past year, I have seen victims reach out to other victims, encouraging each other to come forward and share their stories. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever spoken openly about their experience. It is raw, and emotional, and hugely impactful. And while these memories are deeply painful for all of them, they have agreed to do it for the same reason… because now they are parents themselves.

We admire Patty and Jerry Wetterling for all they’ve done to make this world a better and safer place for our children. In 1990, they started a foundation in Jacob’s name to raise awareness about childhood abduction (now called the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center). They helped pass the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994 which required states to implement a sex offender and crimes against children registry. They have reached out to other families of childhood abduction, and in 1998, helped found Team HOPE, a national support group for families of missing children. Today, Patty serves as the Director of Sexual Violence Prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health, and is also the Chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

For these things and more, we admire and respect the Wetterlings. But it’s more than that. We also see them as parents, just like ourselves, so we grieve for them, hurt for them, and wish so badly there was something we could do to help.

The truth is, Jacob could have been any of our children. He was an 11 year old boy, doing what 11 year old boys do. He was taken from a kind and gracious family who loves him, and who did everything they knew to keep him safe. So, how does a boy like Jacob get taken from a small town like St. Joseph, on a country road that was just blocks from his home?

Not OK.

Not then, not now, not ever.

Jacob, we will never forget you, and we will never stop searching and demanding answers. As Minnesotans, we consider you one of our own… OUR son. Our Jacob.

The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center reminds you to keep your porch light on this Wednesday, October 22, and to also do something kind that helps build hope in our children. They offer a list of 25 suggestions you might try to honor Jacob and his family.

And, as always, please keep the tips and prayers coming. Thanks for #ThinkingJacob with me.

NEXT: From a former bulldog…

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