Back on September 14, 2014, I shared “Jennifer’s story.” It was an article about the 22 year old female college student who was working at the Tom Thumb convenience store the night Jacob Wetterling was abducted. She was the one who had rented the movie to Jacob that night, and was the last one to see him alive before he, his friend Aaron, and his younger brother, Trevor, were stopped by a masked gunman on their way home. It’s a night that has haunted Jennifer throughout her adult life.
Though I didn’t share it at the time, there is more to Jennifer’s story… and mine. Throughout this journey, I have often mentioned the striking number of coincidences I encountered along the way, many of which kept me going when things got hard. This is one of them.
In January 2013, when I started blogging about Jacob’s case (the second time), I made the conscious decision to stick to the facts and only interview people who had a direct connection to the case. One of the people I really wanted to talk to was the clerk who had been working at the Tom Thumb that night. I had put out an appeal, asking anyone who knew her to let her know I’d be interested in talking to her. I never heard back and assumed that angle was a dead end.
Several months later, I came across an article in the CSB/SJU student newspaper from 1998 titled, “Student remembers Wetterling anniversary.” In it, the author mentioned that when she was in 5th grade, her student teacher was the clerk at the Tom Thumb that night who was the last to see Jacob.
I contacted this author and asked if she would be willing to share the clerk’s name with me. She sent me a nice reply, but said she wasn’t sure if she should share the name with me or not. She said she would think about it and get back to me.
Eight months later, in March 2014, the author wrote back to me with the name of the clerk. I thanked her and promised I would proceed with integrity and respect. From there, I was able to find Jennifer’s email address, so I contacted her to see if she might be willing to talk to me. Understandably, she was very leery. I received a brief reply, but nothing more came of it. I moved on.
Another four months went by, and in July 2014, I was chatting with my aunt Carol on Facebook. Out of nowhere, she mentioned that Jennifer and her husband had just been over to her house for dinner. I about fell off my chair. As it turns out, my aunt Carol knew Jennifer because they had a mutual friend and attended the same church. For over a year, my aunt Carol had been encouraging Jennifer to contact me on her own, gently assuring her that I was a nice, normal, trustworthy person.
Two months later, Jennifer finally agreed to talk to me. It was September 1, 2014, one day after Jacob’s story had appeared on John Walsh’s new show — “The Hunt” — on CNN. My husband and I were moving our oldest son into his college apartment at Hamline University in St. Paul, and because Jennifer didn’t live too far from there, we had made plans to meet at her house.
The first thing I noticed when I entered Jennifer’s house was a beautiful grand piano. I asked her if she played, and she told me that the piano had originally belonged to a good friend of hers who had passed away from cancer. Before she died, she had told Jennifer (who is a very talented pianist) that she wanted her to have the piano. As it turns out, this is the same friend who had known my aunt Carol.
We sat down at Jennifer’s kitchen table, and over a cup of coffee, she told me her story. It was all still very raw, and before long, we both needed Kleenex. (If you haven’t yet read “Jennifer’s story,” I encourage you to do so.)
I published Jennifer’s story on my blog on September 14, 2014. A month later, on the 25th anniversary of Jacob’s abduction, the Wetterlings invited Jared and me to stop by their house so we could meet the rest of their family. It was the first time Jared and I had ever met any of the Wetterling children or their grandchildren. The whole day was hard, and emotional, and hugely impactful.
Then… the very next day… my aunt Carol died of a heart attack.
It was sudden and jolting and it knocked my whole world off kilter. Carol had been like a second mom to me when I was a little girl, and for as long as I can remember, she had lovingly fostered my love of reading and writing. I was asked to speak at her funeral, so within a few days, I found myself giving the eulogy at my aunt Carol’s church, with Jennifer and her family sitting in the congregation.
How do you explain these things?
Since that time, Jennifer and I have become friends. When the news broke early on September 3rd that Jacob’s remains had been found, it was Jennifer who called me first. We both cried, barely able to get words out. It had been almost two years to the day that we had first met.
Two weeks ago, Jennifer and I met again, this time to participate in the “Running HOME for Jacob 5K” at Lake Phalen Golf Course in St. Paul. It was the first-ever 5K for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and by all accounts, it was a resounding success. When they first organized the event over a year ago, they were hoping to get 250 participants. At last count, I believe the total was over 2,100.
There were many magical moments throughout the day, not the least of which was the weather. Saturday, October 22, 2016 was a perfect fall day in Minnesota with highs in the mid-60s, no wind, and beautiful fall colors as far as the eye could see. It was the 27th anniversary of Jacob’s abduction, and what would have been a very hard day for the Wetterlings and for our state, turned into something fun, positive, and healing for everyone who was in attendance.
Another magical moment happened at the end of the race. I took this video just as the entire Wetterling family was crossing the finish line. I happened to glance at the time, and if you can even believe it, the Wetterlings all crossed the finish line together at exactly 11:11 AM.
And then this. After 27 years, Jennifer, Aaron, and Trevor got to meet each other for the first time since that night in the Tom Thumb back in 1989. It was exactly 27 years to the day.
Jennifer shared these thoughts about the day:
Twenty-seven years ago tonight, these boys walked into the store where I was working. Trevor, Aaron, and their friend and brother Jacob Wetterling. I rented Jacob a video and sold him some candy. He was taken a few minutes later.
One trait to honor and remember Jacob with is “Be kind”. With everyone. As often as you can. We don’t know our futures.
Hope is one thing we have and cling to. Hope was watching people show up today to support the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center with the first 5K. Jerry Wetterling told us they were hoping for a few hundred, and more than two thousand showed up.
Jacob, your traits are everyone’s hope. I’ve known your story longer than I’ve been married, been a teacher, or been a mom. You’ve taught me, and us, so much. Rest in peace.
Such powerful words… such a powerful moment. Peace to everyone involved, and special thanks to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center for helping make all these magical moments happen on what would have otherwise been a very sad day.