By Beth Leipholtz and Sarah Ober
Twenty-five years ago, the St. Joseph community was rocked after the abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.
Twenty-five years later, the case is still unsolved, Jacob’s whereabouts unknown.
Twenty-five years later, and Jacob is still on the minds and hearts of Minnesotans.
At the forefront? His family, still residing in St. Joseph.
“I’ve worked with a lot of families across the nation, and not everybody gets that ongoing support,” said Patty Wetterling, Jacob’s mother. “But Minnesota has never forgotten about Jacob. It makes me cry, but it’s just really cool. There’s still somebody out there, and I think the whole state needs answers. It’s beyond our family.”
Many Minnesotans, even people nationwide, know the surface of the story—Jacob, his brother Trevor and friend Aaron were biking home from Tom Thumb on Oct. 22, 1989. A gunman appeared at the end of a St. Joseph driveway, ordered the boys to place their bikes in a ditch. He studied each of the boys, told Trevor to run, and then Aaron. Jacob remained with the gunman, never to be seen again.
But there is more to the story than simply the events of that October night 25 years ago.
According to various media sources, leads have emerged in the years since—but never enough to solve the case.
Early on it was thought that Jacob’s abductor made his getaway in a car. This theory was laid to rest in 2003, when a young man named Kevin confessed that the tire tracks in the driveway were his. He had heard the commotion on the police scanner and drove to the scene. He claims to have told an officer this the night of the abduction, but no such conversation is recorded.
In 2004, it was discovered that 10 months prior to Jacob’s abduction, another young boy, 12-year-old Jared S., was abducted by a gunman, taken in a car, sexually assaulted and then released—the MO eerily similar to that of the Wetterling case and only 10 miles away from Jacob’s abduction site. Jared came forward in hopes that his story could assist law enforcement with the case.
A person-of-interest in the Wetterling case lives at the farm that is the closest residence to the abduction site. In June 2010, investigators were granted search warrants and allowed to excavate areas of the farm and study it for evidence. Nothing concrete was ever discovered.
The most recent flourish of leads were out of the Paynesville area in May 2014, and were brought to light by blogger Joy Baker. Due to these leads, investigators announced they were studying a series of attempted and reported child molestations of five teenage boys in the area in the two years before Jacob’s abduction. Authorities have stated that research and interviews led to the conclusion that these were not random attacks and have the potential to be connected to Wetterling’s disappearance.
A Call to Action
In the years since Jacob’s abduction, Patty Wetterling has dedicated her life to speaking, teaching and serving in the name of her son and other missing children.
“As part of the investigation, we learned a lot about missing children,” Patty Wetterling said. “We learned all this, and it was almost like social responsibility to share since it could help keep other kids safe.”
Jeanne Cook, professor of communication, was teaching at CSB/SJU at the time of Jacob’s abduction and sees him as a symbol for many larger issues.
“Jacob’s story is an important one to know because I think it represents the knowing his story ends up meaning that you end up knowing a lot of other kids’ stories,” Cook said. “He’s representative of so many real problems we have culturally. And we have to work together to think about ‘What can we do about that?’ It’s not just these random crazy people doing these things. There are cultural issues that we need to address here.”
In February of 1990, Patty and her husband Jerry worked to establish the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, a group that advocates for children’s safety. In 2008, the name was changed to the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.
Allison Feigh, a classmate of Wetterling’s, serves as the program manager.
“As a child you hope and dream and wish, and want things to change but they don’t,” Feigh said. “As an adult, you can act to be a part of the change and get past dreaming and hoping to actually moving.”
Patty and Jerry also assisted in establishing the Association of Missing and Exploited Children’s Organization through a federal grant, as well as bringing the Amber Alert to Minnesota. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Act was passed—an act which initiated a state sex-offender registry.
Additionally, they established Team Hope, a parent-to-parent mentoring organization which has served over 52,000 families to date and is what Patty remains most proud of.
“Team Hope provides mentoring, no matter what type of missing child a family has,” Patty Wetterling said. “We can put them in touch with someone else with a similar situation. It’s a great support for parents, otherwise they are all alone.”
The most recent effort in the search for Jacob is a billboard campaign featuring information on the case and an age-progressed photo of Jacob. This effort echoes the hope that the Wetterlings have that Jacob is still alive and out there to be found.
“A lot of times I work with families who knew their child had died. They felt it, they experienced that and knew the exact moment,” Patty Wetterling said. “I never felt that.”
Past Event, Present Impact
Although a quarter-century has passed, there are still members of the CSB/SJU community who can vividly recall the events of Oct. 22 and the ensuing heartbreak.
Jacob’s disappearance continues to stay with Cook—even 25 years later.
“I still look for him when I’m traveling,” Cook said. “I used to look for him in airports all the time when I was traveling places and I still think ‘I could recognize him as an adult, I think I could.’ But I think it was traumatizing for a lot of people. Clearly for his family, but the whole community was just horrified by this.”
Aubrey Immelman, associate professor of psychology, has dedicated much of his time and energy to researching the case. Immelman is a political profiler, and after the disappearance of SJU student Joshua Guimond in 2002, he gained interest in criminal profiling as well.
“I don’t have a firm conclusion,” Immelman said. “One thing I can say is we know for sure he was abducted because there were witnesses…almost all of these kinds of cases are sexually motivated crimes. That is also suggested because he (the abductor) did look at the boys, picking one that most appealed to him. The question is why can’t we find him?”
On occasion, Immelman brings the Wetterling case into the classroom. In past years around the time of the anniversary, he has taken his criminal psychology students to the site of the abduction. He parks his car next to the road, not quite on the person-of-interest’s driveway, and has his students move about 50 yards away and walk towards him while he stands in the road, as a type of reenactment.
“One time the moon wasn’t out,” Immelman said. “They almost walked right into me without seeing me, and never saw the car, which was two yards from road. There are not a lot of lights in the area and it was even darker then, when there were almost no houses.”
Also dating back to 1989 is the annual “Halloween in the Halls” event at CSB. In the weeks following the abduction, the community was on edge and parents were uncomfortable sending their children out to trick-or-treat.
Sister Susan Rudolph, the director of housing at CSB at the time, had the idea to invite children to dress up and trick-or-treat in the residence halls. Sunday, Oct. 26 marks the 25th anniversary of Halloween in the Halls.
CSB first-year Morgan Durbin participated in Halloween in the Halls as a child and is eager to stand on the other side of the doors this year as a student. However, she takes time to recall the origin of an event that has meant so much to her over the years.
“Halloween in the Halls is something that unifies the college community and the St. Joe community after such a devastating tragedy,” Durbin said. “Twenty-five years ago when Jacob Wetterling was abducted had to have been a terrifying time for parents. This gave them another fun and safe option for their kids, and an opportunity for kids to see the kinds of people they can grow up to be.”
Holding onto Hope
While the community and media’s attention is reawakened annually at the time of the anniversary, the Wetterling family has relived the tragedy each day for 25 years.
“It’s a really hard thing to explain,” Patty Wetterling said. “For everybody else, it’s suddenly 25 years, but we live it every day. It’s like yeah, it’s an icky reminder of how long it’s been, but it’s not something we just suddenly thought of.”
Patty and Jerry Wetterling continue to hold onto hope that they will someday receive closure and are grateful for the continued support of the CSB/SJU and St. Joseph communities.
“I want to say thank you to everybody in this community,” Patty Wetterling said. “I feel like I owe the world. Never doubt for a minute the impact you can have on the world. I mean look at Jacob’s impact on the world. The power of one, of connecting dots and doing one thing, it matters. Collectively I think it’s important that we know that there are more good people in the world than bad.”