I Only Knew Her Peanut-Butter-Lovin’ Son from Fliers Taped on Storefronts

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.

HopeandlightFor most, it’s a long-ago event. A grim memory that resurfaces in small headlines when the anniversary creeps around again like an obstinate shadow trapped between Homecoming and Halloween.

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.

The Wetterling Family with caption2I’d been away on a study abroad program the semester he disappeared, but news traveled quickly.

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.

Patty Wetterling

Patty Wetterling

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.

–By Julie Jo (Martinka) Severson

Read The Force of Goodness, my follow-up essay after Jacob’s remains were found.

Read the News Report.

I’m Julie Jo Severson, mom to two teens and a tween, freelance writer, editor, and co-author of HERE IN THE MIDDLE: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between. 

This blog, Carvings on a Desk, is where I reconnect with my own voice swirling around in the middle.

Subscribe and receive the occasional stories in your inbox.


About Julie Jo Severson

Julie Jo Severson, former PR girl, is now a freelance writer, journalist, editor, and lost-and-found attendant for two teens and a tween. This is where she doodles about past, present, future clinking glasses and making peace.

39 comments on “I Only Knew Her Peanut-Butter-Lovin’ Son from Fliers Taped on Storefronts

  1. Hi Julie! I live in the Twin Cities and was in my mid 20’s when the news came out about Jacob. I remember this event clearly. I wasn’t a parent at that time either, but I think the whole state of MN had broken hearts when this happened. The Wetterling’s have done an amazing job to build awareness for the cause of missing children. This was quite a story for you to cover at such a young age and your article here is a nice remembrance honoring Jacob and the Wetterling family.

  2. OH my heart. I am utterly horrific and tragic story to report… and you so profoundly painted the raw and real picture of how it has continued to ripple through your life, and now it will through mine. It is an incredible inspiration to me, to read about the mom and how she was able to go forward with a mission.

    These stories sink me. She was a GOOD MOM, we are all good MOMS… THIS is out of our control. And that’s what terrifies me most.

    Thank you my friend… for keeping the story alive. I will surely keep my light on come October 22nd.

  3. I was in first grade in Mason City, Iowa, I remember the panic and how afraid everyone. His Grandparents lived by us and I was so young I just remember being sad, then time went on, his Grandmother worked in our school cafeteria and wore her button everyday, then I remembered, I thought about how old would he be and “where is he?” Then time went on and I was a teenager working at the grocery store and there she was again, a bit older but still that sweet woman with her now faded button, and then I remembered again, Jacob is still gone, years passed and I got My CNA and there she was, old, tired but she still wore her button everyday, her room full of pictures of all her precious grandchildren through out stages of their lives, but his stopped. I would see Patty and the family when they came to visit and then I remembered again. Now I am a Mom and I have the fear of the evil of the world, and I think of the strength and courage and love of this family. I prayed that someday my precious neighbor could retire her button. God bless for all do, and keeping hope alive not just for Jacob but for all the children you have helped bring home!

  4. Wow. What an interesting connection you have. A story all on its own. I really appreciate you sharing it. As for your last sentence, I personally can’t take credit for any of that and all credit goes to the Wetterlings.

  5. On that dreaded Anniversary 10/22 which seems so long ago, like yesterday…. The 4th Anniversary of my little sisters & niece deaths 10/22/85 by a drunk driver in 1989, my heart breaks for a child taken, a family crushed. I think of my loss and Jacob and his family as I drive, as I look out into the fields, as I read a headline, see a flier, as I walk in the leaves…I wonder why, where is Jacob, please Lord, help him find his way home, he is so loved and so missed. I only wish the same for my loved ones…. I will never forget and for all of the love ones lost, may God help you find your way home. I have always and will continue to always leave the light on for all of you. Until you are safe in loving arms…. Know you are love! God’s blessings A mom from Maplewood, Mn.

    • Tammie, thank you for being here. You are clearly a beautiful, compassionate soul, and I’m truly sorry for your heartbreaking, unimaginable losses of your little sister and niece. God bless your little angels, and yes, Lord, what happened to Jacob???

  6. As the step-grandmother-in-law of Trevor Wetterling, I have observed first hand this remarkable family. Patty and Jerry are both wonderful examples of how to deal with crippling, horrific circumstances. To raise a son as wonderful as Trevor is an accomplishment few families do without dealing with the trauma they have. It is an inspiration to know them. My porch light will be on on October 22nd.

    • Janet, I’m so honored you stopped by to leave a comment and share your connection. I have such vivid memories of Trevor that evening I was in their home talking to Patty. He was watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” when I walked in, but quickly got up and went downstairs when I started asking my questions. My heart went out to him and it still does, and it warms my heart knowing he is doing well. So thank you for that.

  7. My mother still has the missing flyer up on the fridge…she won’t take it down until he is found. We will keep the light on on October 22nd!

  8. Hi Julie, my brother Jim and wife Becky along with my sweet niece’s lived at the beginning of there street. I remember there worry and fright. God bless sweet Jacob and his family.

  9. I heard the story for the first time just a few years ago. I came to MN in 1991. This story is just so dear to everyone heart in MN. That even me, not born here feel all the passion for this cause. The losing of a son and not knowing his faith breaks my heart. God bless him and his family, help them find peace. My porch light will be on Oct. 22nd.

  10. We all remember that day, too clearly. As a mother of 3 boys my heart bled for them and I remember thanking God that mine were safe. And imagining the pain that the Wetterlings were feeling. 11 years later I discovered that my imagination didn’t come close to the real thing, when I buried my 18 year old middle son Adam. I know now that I am the lucky one as I know what happened to Adam, and was able to go through the grief process and move forward the best I can. Patty is left with every parents worst nightmare of not knowing…thanks for keeping him alive in our hearts.

  11. Dear Julie Jo,
    Such a beautiful article written from the heart. I thank you for your article. Many times I have thought about writing to Patty and never could. I wanted to, but I was a Minnesota mom guilty of still having her child. Even if only on paper, how could I ever face her?

    I was 32 when Jacob disappeared and my daughter was five months younger than Jacob. We had moved from St. Paul to Cottage Grove in 1988 to ensure my child was safe from the inner city and the crime therein.

    When Jacob was abducted everything I believed to be true was questionable. Maybe I needed to do more, maybe I should have been a “helicopter mom”, maybe I should be home schooling, anything to keep my child safe. For all the parenting errors I may have made, I was allowed by the grace of God to keep to my daughter.

    In sum, maybe because of Jacob’s abduction, I watched a little closer, asked a few more questions, kept a closer eye out for trouble. I want to thank Patty for the awareness she instilled in me. Many parents, not just me, were impacted in 1989 to this day by Jacob’s story. God bless and keep the Wetterling family.

  12. I was 12 years old when Jacob was taken, I remember how this impacted us even hours away in Askov a town of 300 people. Patty was a wonderful Mom with no control of what happened to her son. She made all mothers realize that they need to have awareness!! I am now a mother of 3 and I am overly protective and leary of most. Thank you Patty for taking your horrific situation and using it to help others! YOU ARE AMAZING!!

  13. As I read your story this morning I had tears come to my eyes just remembering the event. I was a newlywed, and working at St. Ben’s when Jacob was abducted. I remember very clearly the sound of the helicopters overhead when I would head home each day. I remember gathering with friends and putting together flyers and mailings in hopes someone would see something and bring Jacob home. I have kept my porch light on continuously since then . . . even though I didn’t know Jacob, and have only briefly met Patty and Jerry.

    I have a college-aged daughter now who is getting ready to embark on her own adventure abroad and my worries about that often remind me of Jacob, the emotion surrounding his abduction, the grace with which the Wetterling family managed to live through this tragedy, and my own personal hope that I won’t have to learn how to do that! Wouldn’t it be a wonderful place if nobody had to worry about losing a child in such a way? If children could truly be kids and be safe in their environment? If parents didn’t have to feel the need to hover, and then feel guilty about it?

      • Beautifully written, Julie. Ah, dear God, such loss, I hope I never have to fathom!
        The struggle between granting freedom and giving secure boundaries seems to never end, Except that now, my firstborn is 18, and I see that it IS ending. My heart goes out to that mom, to that family.

  14. Oh my goodness, this is such a sad story. I’m in Canada… and was a teen when this took place, which is probably why I don’t have a recollection of it.

    I struggle with allowing my children freedom and then overprotecting them. There is this fine line and sometimes we just do what we think is best and it doesn’t work out.

    I will definitely have my porch light on.

    God bless.

  15. I was 2 when Jacob was stolen from his family. I have no real connection to the event. I live far from where it happened. But I am a mom now, and I remember as a child I was allowed to walk (much like Jacob did) to nearby stores on my own or with friends. I took my children (5, 2, and 1) to the nearest city downtown yesterday to go to a science center. We were in broad daylight, but when my 5 yr old daughter skipped ahead of me and disappeared around a corner (and did not come back when I said to!) I thought the worst. She was fine, she jumped out from the corner and said “surprise!” and she was so full of mischievous joy. I think the Wetterlings are right. To lock up our children and keep them on short tethers because of our fear is a tragedy. Those with evil intent should be the ones locked up. I will make sure our light is on on Oct 22nd. May Jacob and the others somehow find their ways home.

  16. “It hugged a handwritten note. Something like “Jacob, call 911. They’ll know where to find us. Love, Mom.”

    Instant tears. I was only nine when Jacob was abducted. Being close in age, it terrified me. What if that was my brother or me? Jacob was everywhere. Patty did and continues to do an amazing job of creating awareness.

    Peace be with you.

  17. This is an amazing article. I had not heard of Jacob, or the Wetterlings (I’m from the UK, so this story didn’t reach me). How inspirational Patty is. It is a fine balance, isn’t it, between your urge to keep your children safe and to allow them the freedom they need to grow. I will keep my porch light on x #SHINEbloghop

  18. Julie, Thank you for sharing this important piece. Your beautiful writing captures the pain and strength of the Wetterling family and the incredible way they have navigated this tragedy and nightmare. I hope one day Jacob comes home to them. I will have my porch light on Oct. 22 for him. xo

  19. I read this last night and wanted to come back to say thank you for sharing it. I’m Canadian and not familiar with this story – but I was a journalism student, so I can imagine the impact it must have had at that age on you – I don’t know if I could have done it. I’m also now a parent, and so this terrifies me for the whole unpreventable-ness of it. I am humbled to read how much that family has done through their terrible loss to push for change and find a way for something positive to come from every parent’s worst nightmare.

    We’ll keep our light on Thursday.

  20. I remember seeing his parents on the TV as a kid and everytime I see a missing kid poster or Amber alert I think of him. I’ve always held hope of them finding him. My parents and many other parents kept us kids closer after his disappearance. I still think of him frequently even though I never knew him and grew up many many miles and states away. I too am a mother now and my heart goes out to his family!!!!

  21. I’ll be honest and say that I wish I hadn’t read this piece. Because, it details my worst nightmare of something happening to my boys.
    But, thank you for writing it because pieces like this raise awareness and keeps their selflessness in the public eye.

  22. Roshni, I know what you mean. Writing this essay stirred quite a few emotions in me and it has caused some buried anxieties to resurface unfortunately. I just said to a friend the other day, I hope it doesn’t cause that in others. But I will continue to search for that balance. Even Patty allowed her other kids to play outside again, I have to sometimes remind myself. But yes, my purpose in writing this was not to frighten but to raise awareness, give tribute and to honor all that is good and courageous.

  23. I read this post weeks ago now, and meant to leave a comment – it’s been sitting open on my desktop. What you wrote about how interviewing that mother affected how you feel as a parent was the final piece in a jigsaw for me in why it’s insane to judge another person for how they parent their children. We all have something in our past that still affects us in some way, and it colours the fears and attitudes we have now.
    Thank you for joining in the 1000 Voices Speak link-up last month – your post inspired me to write one about why to go from mommy wars to mother love!

    • Thank you so much for coming back to share how reading my post impacted you. I’ve often thought that same thing, too. What a different world that would be if we could see what has touched the soul of another.

  24. I remember when Jacob disappeared, as clearly as I remember when Adam Walsh was taken. With Adam, I was the age to be admonished to be careful, to be watched over. When Jacob disappeared, it was my younger sibling who took the brunt of the overprotective parents. It wasn’t until a few years after Jacob disappeared, as a new parent, that I was able to fully understand the fear that goes through every parents entire being. And that is just at the thought of it, or a child who leaves your view for five seconds as you grab a can off a grocery store shelf. I can never fully comprehend what Jacob, or Adam’s parents went through. And, if I’m bing totally honest, I hope I never have to.

Comments From Your Desk to Mine!