Author’s Notes: I published this essay on the 26th anniversary of Jacob’s disappearance. As we approach the 27th anniversary, it has recently been announced his remains have been found and his killer, Danny Heinrich, has confessed. A link to the news report is located at the end of this essay. My heart goes out to the Wetterling family. I am deeply grateful to them for all they’ve done to empower the rest of us in our efforts to keep our children safe.
As I look out my kitchen window and watch leaves fall from trees, I sometimes wonder what her quiet moments are like, still grieving the son who used to dive onto her bed like Superman.
Jacob Erwin Wetterling. Snatched into oblivion at the age of 11 on Oct. 22, 1989, by a masked gunman quarter-mile from his home and down the country road from my college campus in rural St. Joseph, Minnesota.
But for his parents, now grandparents to six and champions of hope to a nation, it’s an endless reality and ache for the son who never returned and the answers they never got.
The first anniversary lurked ahead as I knocked on their front door for my scheduled interview with Patty Wetterling on a fall evening in 1990.
A string of light-up letters spelling “Jacob’s Hope” draped across their porch. The J and H were burned out.
I’m sure to Patty and the other family members home that evening, I was just another reporter in hopes of a front-page byline.
I guess that’s true. I was a college senior with a portfolio to build and deadline for the “one-year-later” story in my school newspaper to meet.
But I was no paparazzi.
I was a mere 20-year-old English major scared out of my wits.
Not only was I unversed in the complexities of motherhood, but I only knew her peanut-butter-sports-lovin’ son as the boy in the yellow sweater from those fliers taped up on storefronts.
When I returned to campus, the uncertainty and sadness were still hovering. The illusion of small town safety throughout the nation still crumbling.
After she graciously invited me and Dan, the photographer, in, I immediately saw the small stuffed bear perched on the stair landing.
It hugged a handwritten note. Something like “Jacob, call 911. They’ll know where to find us. Love, Mom.”
No calls from her kind-hearted boy with the sunny smile yet.
Despite it being the largest manhunt in Minnesota history, not a single arrest has been made.
It should’ve been a quick there and back with his brother, Trevor, and best friend, Aaron, to get a video and blow pops. But instead, the trio’s bike ride home from the local Tom Thumb took an unthinkable detour.
Earlier that evening, Patty and her husband, Jerry, decided last-minute to attend a dinner party 20 minutes away.
The boys, bored, called for permission to venture out to get a movie. Patty’s and Jerry’s first instincts were to say no, but hesitantly, they gave into the boys’ pleas.
After all, they were responsible kids, those were different times, no stranger danger in that friendly little town.
Until out of the moonless night, appeared a man holding a gun with a nylon over his head.
He told the boys to lie face down in the ditch, asked them their ages, turned them over to take a closer look, and made his choice. After ordering Trevor and Aaron to run into the woods, he grabbed Jacob and vanished into thin air.
“Part of you just dies,” Patty said to me long ago as I sat on her living room couch. A framed photo of Jacob was tucked between two guardian angels on the piano nearby.
Somehow, though, out of the depths of despair, she managed to channel darkness into light for others.
In the aftermath, Patty looked around and noticed all the empty yards and streets.
Still crushed by the weight of a parent’s worst nightmare, she became a woman on a mission. Not only to find Jacob, but also to help parents empower their children, rather than shield and hover over them out of fear.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I was a very good mom and I refuse to imprison these kids,” she’d said, back then a stay-at-home-mom with another son and two daughters to watch over.
Just four months after the abduction, she and Jerry launched a foundation dedicated to child safety, now called the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, a program of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center.
They’ve been tireless advocates ever since, pushing for new sex offender registration laws, launching educational initiatives to prepare children for the realities of today’s world, and supporting other grieving families through Team Hope of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The long-ago connection I have to Jacob’s story is microscopic, and I haven’t had any since. But, for me, it was one of those moments, as brief as the quick snap of the wrist when skipping a stone out into the sea, that keeps rippling.
I still aim for the occasional byline, but I’m no longer a college girl baking tater tots for one.
I’m a mom at midlife busting my butt to provide balanced meals for five, now well-versed in a mother’s internal battle between freedoms and boundaries we set for our kids.
I worry. I second guess my decisions when I lose sight or don’t hear back. And yes, at times I “overparent,” as college deans might say, hovering over my kids more than I should.
But this isn’t about micromanaging their homework so they get into Stanford. It’s about keeping them safe so they come back home.
Vigilance and trust. A fine balance. One that I’ll keep trying to find. For the love of my children. In honor of Jacob. And out of gratitude toward the entire Wetterling family for fighting to make this world a safer place.
Read here about recent developments in the case. Leads on any missing child can be called into the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 800-THE-LOST.
By Julie Jo (Martinka) Severson
Read her follow-up essay to this story, The Force of Goodness
Julie Jo Severson, former college newsroom junkie and PR girl, is now a freelance writer with two desks. This is the one she doodles on for peace of mind about past, present, future clinking glasses and making peace.
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