Opinion

Out of the Jacob Wetterling tragedy, a family’s love and service emerge

In this Aug. 28, 2009, file photo, Patty and Jerry Wetterling show a photo of their son Jacob Wetterling, who was abducted in October of 1989 in St. Joseph, Minn. Jacob’s remains were found over the weekend in a farm field 30 miles southwest of the point where he was abducted.
In this Aug. 28, 2009, file photo, Patty and Jerry Wetterling show a photo of their son Jacob Wetterling, who was abducted in October of 1989 in St. Joseph, Minn. Jacob’s remains were found over the weekend in a farm field 30 miles southwest of the point where he was abducted. AP

When I left Minnesota in 1994, the haunting memory of Jacob Wetterling’s mysterious disappearance traveled with me — and still does.

Though there have been many tragic abductions of children all around the country, the case of 11-year-old Jacob’s kidnapping on Oct. 22, 1989 was one of the most unsettling to me and parents everywhere. How could such evil befall a region dotted with places such as St. Augusta, St. Cloud, St. Joseph, St. Martin, St. Paul, St. Rosa and St. Wendel?

The innocent errand of three boys pedaling back from the neighborhood convenience store with a movie is not supposed to be hijacked by a random, murderous molester. Danny Heinrich confessed Tuesday to the kidnapping, sexual abuse and killing of Jacob just a half-mile from the boy’s St. Joseph, Minn., home.

I was raising three sons at the time who weren’t quite as old as Jacob, but they were known to ride their bikes out of my sight and into the twilight in the Twin Cities suburbs. But I never had to face what Jerry and Patty Wetterling did when Jacob did not return that day — or for the next 10,000 since.

Though we did not know the level of Heinrich’s depravity at the time, we in central Minnesota were overcome at the stinging loss that the Wetterlings endured. For a loving, smiling, happy child to be taken in the the Land of 10,000 Lakes and slip beyond the idyllic borders of Lake Wobegon –– it was a parents’ nightmare.

We watched Patty Wetterling live through it with faith and strength and poise and hope when she gave countless television interviews pleading for information. We watched her transform her pain into working to prevent what happened to Jacob from happening to anybody else.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune — where I worked as a reporter and editor from 1984 to 1994 — reported over the weekend that Heinrich had agreed to lead authorities to Jacob’s remains last week. Under suspicion in other child molestation cases, Heinrich agreed to this, and to plead guilty to federal child pornography charges, in exchange for not being prosecuted for other crimes, such as Jacob’s kidnapping and death.

Heinrich could spend the rest of his life behind bars. The Wetterlings have already done 26 years and counting in the hell he created.

Though I like to think I felt some of the Wetterlings’ pain, that is impossible. My imagination is no match for their reality. I will never forget the void in Patty Wetterling’s eyes and the gaping hole in her soul every time I saw her focus on Jacob’s Hope and, in 1990, when she worked to create the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, which still operates under the premise that “you are special and you deserve to be safe.”

Lesser people than the Wetterlings might have collapsed under the weight of the events of the past weeks. In the midst of such grief Patty Wetterling marshaled the courage to go before the cameras again Tuesday — rededicating the focus on her beloved son and reminding us all that there are many, many children who can be saved from Jacob’s fate:

“We will continue to fight as he has taught us all how to live, how to love, how to to be fair and how to be kind,” she said. “His legacy will go on ... we love you, Jacob.”

Go read the entirety of Patty Wetterling’s remarks. They are so profound and powerful you might end up like me — unable to forget.

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