It isn’t often that you can hear a pin drop in a room full of 300 newspaper people, but that’s what I experienced late last month.
The event was the annual convention of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, but the reason for the silence was the talk provided by Jerry and Patty Wetterling of St. Joseph.
Most Minnesotans know their story. It is every parent’s worst nightmare. Their son Jacob, then 11, was abducted on Oct. 22, 1989, while riding his bike a few blocks from home.
For 27 years, the Wetterlings looked for their son. Every year on the anniversary of the abduction, news media reminded the world that Jacob was still out there.
Finally, last September, Danny Heinrich confessed to Jacob’s murder and led authorities to the remains. At the time, Patty said: “All I can confirm is that Jacob has been found and our hearts are broken. I am not responding to any media yet as I have no words.”
She and Jerry came forward at the newspaper convention to say thank you to the media. In particular, she singled out the Paynesville Press. It was the archives of the newspaper, she said, that solved the case.
Joy Baker, a citizen blogger, began thinking and writing about Jacob in 2010. She couldn’t get the case out of her mind, and she went back and looked at the newspaper archives. In April 2014, she wrote that at least five sexual assaults on boys in Paynesville had been reported in 1986 and 1987. Eventually, she found 12 reports of assaults in Paynesville. The significance of those reports is that it increased the likelihood that the perpetrator was local.
Baker wrote, “In every case we found, the victim was either attacked at or near his own home. The suspect knew who the boys were, where they lived, and when they would be on their way home.”
Three years ago, Baker met with Jared Scheierl. Nine months before Jacob disappeared, Jared, then 12, was assaulted near his home in Cold Spring.
Then in October 2015, law enforcement made a DNA match between Heinrich and the DNA on the jacket Scheierl was wearing when assaulted.
Finally, in the last week of August 2016, law enforcement had put enough pressure on Heinrich, who was facing child pornography charges, to bring about a deal.
The Wetterlings took us through the eight days from the time Heinrich’s attorney said a deal might be possible until he confessed in open court, on a plea deal that puts him behind bars for 20 years.
Speaking at the convention, Jerry said, “The biggest challenge was getting Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall to forgo charging Heinrich with kidnapping and murder.”
But the Wetterlings just wanted to find their son, so Kendall relented.
It was a roller-coaster week for the Wetterlings. Patty said, “None of the days were good, but that was an awful experience.”
At one point, law enforcement contacted them and said they found a hockey jacket, but there was no name on it. Patty was certain Jacob’s name was on his jacket.
They had also found some bone fragments, but they turned out to be animal bones. The Wetterlings’ hopes were again dashed.
Finally, at 5:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 2, the sheriff called to say that they had found Jacob’s soccer jersey and human remains.
The following Tuesday, Heinrich confessed in court. The Wetterlings’ three other children had come home for the hearing, but the next day, they needed to get back to work, and Jerry, too, went back to his chiropractic office.
In the most poignant statement in their talk, Patty said, “I didn’t know where to go because this is my work.”
And although Jacob has been found, Patty, now the chair of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, will go on looking for missing kids. She said, “We can’t ever give up on these kids that are out there.”
She urged everyone to be gentle with others.
“It’s so easy in our cynical world to talk about what we are fighting for,” she said.
She urged everyone to keep communicating with their children all the time, but not to instill fear in them. “There are way more good people in the world,” she said.
Unwilling to succumb to the desire for hate or revenge that ruins so many crime victims, Patty urged everyone to follow these 11 values, named for Jacob’s jersey number:
1. Be fair.
2. Be kind.
3. Be understanding.
4. Be honest.
5. Be thankful.
6. Be a good sport.
7. Be a good friend.
8. Be joyful.
9. Be generous.
10. Be gentle with others.
11. Be positive.
In memory of Jacob, it seems like the least the rest of us could do. —Tom West (Editor’s note: West is the general manager of the Morrison County Record of ECM Publishers.)