On September 1, I posted a blog entitled The Monster Is Not The Most Terrifying Thing About Stranger Things. Ostensibly about the hit Netflix horror series which takes place in 1983, the blog detailed how the disappearance of one of the main characters reminded me of the real disappearances of children from that era. I wrote about several cases, but the one which impacted me the most was the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. I won’t repeat the content of the original blog other than to share the last line I wrote about Jacob:
“To this day, his fate remains unknown…”
Forty-eight hours later, everything changed quickly and without warning. Danny James Heinrich, the only person on Earth who for three decades actually knew the boy’s fate, confessed to abducting, molesting and then murdering Jacob. His confession lead authorities to where Jacob's remains were buried in a rural field in central Minnesota.
For 27 years, Jacob’s memory has haunted his family, friends, the people of Minnesota, and the American public. It haunted me as well. My recollections of obsessively watching the news for updates on his case during the Fall of 1989 are as clear and impactful as the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the fall of the Twin Towers.
As more details emerged, my mind reeled and my heart broke all over again. We now know that Jacob met his end shortly after being snatched by Heinrich, his body hastily buried on the edge of a cow pasture about 30 miles from his family’s home. Even more unbelievable is that Heinrich was a person of interest to the police as far back as 1990. But as with many missing person cases, the devil was in the details. Authorities were confounded by a lack of physical leads despite a massive search effort and Heinrich never flinched in maintaining his innocence. If he hadn’t been anxious for a plea bargain on child pornography charges and thus more cooperative with investigators, the Wetterling family might’ve never known what had happened to their son.
One would like to believe that Heinrich’s revelation, as horrific as it was, brought the Wetterling family some closure. One would like to believe that with knowledge came metamorphosis, that pain softened and some greater meaning was pulled from such senseless brutality. But when I put myself in the Wetterling’s shoes, having also raised sons, it’s difficult to imagine how you could ever find peace after such trauma.
Still, what’s touched me, amazed me and gratified me is how Jacob’s friends and family have been so consistently empathetic and decent throughout this ordeal. Patty Wetterling, the grieving mother who went on to be a national advocate for child safety, asked people to remember her son by celebrating life. People listened and responded. Athletic teams from high schoolers to the Cleveland Indians are honoring Jacob by wearing his hockey jersey number — 11 — on their uniforms. The hashtags #JacobsHopeLives and #11forJacob are flooding social media. Events, fundraisers and public memorials are being staged. Doubtless even more expressions of compassion and solidarity with emerge in the day’s ahead.
As for me, I’ve come to a few revelations about how Jacob’s case affected my life. Two months after his disappearance, I graduated from the University of Arizona and started volunteering at a local children’s shelter. A decade later I became a foster parent to five boys, ultimately adopting my sons Cooper and Myles. In fact, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life working with and advocating for abused and neglected children and all of it can be traced back to Jacob Wetterling.
My sons grew up — a privilege Jacob never got — but caring about the welfare of children shouldn’t end just because your kids are no longer kids. Or because you don’t have kids. Or because you think these things will never happen to your kids. If Jacob Wetterling has anything to teach us all these years later, it’s that we must be kind, we must be fair and we must be vigilant.