The town of St. Joseph wouldn’t stand out from dozens of others like it that dot the Minnesota countryside, if it weren’t for a legacy that no town wants, but it’s borne with quiet dignity and grace. It’s 6,600 citizens live amid bucolic, rolling hills 90 min NW of the Twin Cities. 27 years ago, kids ran around after dark on their bikes, people didn’t lock their houses or cars, if your child wasn’t home right away when they were supposed to be no one worried, they were probably just playing down the street. And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all changed.
Three kids riding home from a convenience store where they’d gone to rent a video, two of them brothers, were stopped when a masked gunman came out of a driveway and ordered the boys to throw their bikes into a ditch and lie face down on the ground. He then asked each boy his age. The one brother was told to run toward a nearby wooded area and not look back or else he would be shot. The gunman then demanded to view the faces of the two remaining boys. He picked the other brother, and told his friend to run away and not look back otherwise he would shoot. And with that one senseless act, everything changed for the Wetterling family when 11-year old Jacob was abducted.
For 27 years, his parents and brother have wondered, waited and hoped. Was he alive? Was he dead? What happened? Where was he? Every birthday, holiday, life event that he missed, every dance, date, graduation, wedding that belonged to everyone else was something he wasn’t getting to do. His mother Patty became an accidental advocate for missing and exploited children, starting the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center because she could…because she had to. She was vocal, spoke before congress, in front of celebrities, to the media, anywhere that she could raise awareness and keep Jacob’s face and name in front of people.
A bridge in St. Cloud, MN was named after him, The Bridge of Hope, while #jaccobshope became a familiar hashtag as Twitter entered our social consciousness.
Most of us go through a phase in childhood being fearful of monsters, but we learn that we don’t need to be afraid of them, because monsters aren’t real. Oh it may take time to learn that, our brains need development time to comprehend the logic of this, but eventually we do learn it and they lose their power over us. But with Jacob’s abduction, the monster became all too real, all too close to home for us, and for 27 years, whether you were a parent or not, he was your worst nightmare. With the internet, Jacob became the new “face on the milk carton”. For better or worse, his picture was everywhere, and as people prayed for the family, they simultaneously said, “there but for the grace of God…”. That nameless monster changed how we lived that year – we started locking our doors, demanding our children were home before dark, called us when they left a friend’s house to come home. The phrase “Stranger Danger” took on new meaning and became more sinister than ever before.
The Wetterling family had to endure unimaginable pain through this, during the early days of Jacob’s disappearance when they had to cope with not only the fear of the unknown, but also the suspicion that was cast on them from the media and law enforcement. Could they have had something to do with it? The accusations were, of course, baseless, but to have to try to deal with the loss, not lose your mind, cooperate with law enforcement and the media, and somehow keep your marriage intact, raise your other children, keep running your business successfully and not fall apart? Yet both Patty and Jerry Wetterling did it, always staying strong for their children, and in the hope that they would be a family when Jacob came home.
On September 3, 2016 Jacob Wetterling did come home. Not with the happy, joyful reunion his family had hoped and prayed for, but with tears and sorrow, the location of his remains finally provided to authorities by the one who was for 27 years, faceless and nameless, right before he’s scheduled to start his federal trial on multiple counts of possessing child pornography.
I can’t even begin to imagine what the Wetterling family must be feeling right now. Relief, sadness, grief to extreme for words, anger…I’m sure they must be a roller coaster of emotions. Yes, they have an answer, resolution after all this time. But it’s not the answer they wanted, not the one they hoped and prayed for, not by a long shot. Seeing the age enhanced photos have to be devastating, knowing that he’ll never look like that. And the media onslaught will start all over again, because we all want to know everything, even though we have no right to, because we all felt like Jacob could be our son, our little brother, our nephew, the neighbor kid. And it wrecked us too. On October 22, 1989, the monster changed all of us, and none of us will ever be the same again.
That’s the name of the monster. He was even tied to another abduction shortly before Jacob’s that same year, to a child that escaped but by the time they could connect him to the crime, the statute of limitations expired and he couldn’t be charged, even though DNA tied him directly to the victim. But there was never any evidence linking him to Jacob. Now, with his leading authorities to Jacob’s remains, there is. September 6, 2016 he confessed to abducting, molesting, then killing Jacob. I don’t know how he slept nights for 27 years, knowing a family was devastated. Living less than 30 miles away for all those years, he knew. We all knew the impact it had. Maybe had had his own monsters, perhaps they drove him to do what he did, I don’t know if he’ll tell us or not. It won’t matter anyway. Knowing why won’t bring back our innocence, and it won’t bring back Jacob Wetterling to his family.
I’ve included a link to a Facebook event that’s being shared, asking people to leave their front door and porch lights on through Monday night as a tribute to Jacob. Wherever you are around the world, please take a moment to say a prayer for hope and peace for Patty, Jerry, Trevor, Carmen and Amy Wetterling.