It’s unusual that I write one blog and then have to write another on the same topic so soon, but sometimes things happen quickly and without warning.
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.
The Wetterling family has asked that people display the number 11 in honor of Jacob's memory. There are a few of these 11 For Jacob graphics already circulating on the internet, but since I don't know who they belong to I created my own. Anyone is allowed to use these graphics for the purpose of honoring Jacob's memory. They may not be used for any commericial purposes. If you have questions, feel free to email me. Thanks.
Like so many other Netflix viewers, I was blown away by Stranger Things. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, the series takes place in 1983 and is a direct homage to the early films of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg, with perhaps a little Joe Dante and George Romero thrown in for good measure.
In true Spielbergian fashion, the first episode introduces us to four boys playing Dungeons & Dragons late into the evening. The scene is clearly reminiscent of the first few minutes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), not just for the RPG reference nor the suburban setting, but because of how the mundane is suddenly interrupted by the extraordinary. In the case of Stranger Things, the interruption is not caused by a potato-shaped alien botanist, but a bloodthirsty monster released from an alternate dimension by meddling government types. (Yeah, E.T. had those too if you’ll remember…)
Stranger Things isn’t the first to attempt this kind of throwback. J.J. Abram’s Super 8 (2009) covered similar themes with similar characters, but Stranger Things does it better thanks to its excellent writing, outstanding performances and the sheer creepiness of its execution. Abrams' work, by comparison, got bogged down by his typically over-the-top special effects and world-destroying violence.
But what I realized as I tore my way through the mere eight episodes of Stranger Things is that the creepiest aspect of the show had nothing to do with monsters and everything to do with the disappearance of one of the young role-players named Will (Noah Schnapp).
If you lived through the 1980s, you might recall it was the Era of the Missing Child. And I don’t mean that more children went missing during those ten years, but rather that Americans became suddenly, frantically aware of the issue thanks to the use of mass media.
If you have to put an iconic face to the problem of missing children during the 1980s, it must be that of Etan Patz. The six-year-old vanished while walking to a school bus stop in May 1979. His father was a professional photographer and made many portraits of Etan available to authorities and the media. For years afterwards, tow-headed Etan grinned back at you from the pages of the newspaper, the nightly news, thousands of MISSING CHILD posters… Etan’s face was also the the first to appear on the back of a milk carton, bringing the issue of missing children literally into the family kitchen.
Two years later, Adam Walsh vanished while playing video games in a Sears store. His head was found floating in a canal weeks later and this grievous crime launched his father, John Walsh, on a lifelong crusade to protect children and bring criminals to justice. Walsh’s television show, America’s Most Wanted, ran a whopping 24 years (1988-2012) and was lauded by law enforcement and American presidents alike as an essential public service.
If there was one 1980s child abduction case that impacted me the greatest, it was the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. The 11-year-old was riding home on his bike from the local video store when a man in a mask appeared and held he, his younger brother and a friend at gunpoint. The man told the other boys to run away and not look back. Jacob was never seen again. I was in my senior year in college when the Wetterling case broke and, coincidentally, was managing a video rental store. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Jacob and the innumerable kids his age who wandered in and out of my store at all hours of the day and night. Were they at risk, I wondered? Most of them lived just around the corner, but in the Era of the Missing Child it didn’t seem to matter. Apparently you could vanish without a trace doing even the most innocuous things — going to school, playing video games, renting a movie. I remember watching the news night after night, hoping that Jacob would be safely recovered. To this day, his fate remains unknown.
As I watched Stranger Things, I realized that the scenes that affected me the most were those with Winona Ryder and Charlie Heaton (who played Will’s mother and brother, respectively) dealing with their grief of not knowing the boy’s fate. I don’t know if Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer intended Will’s disappearance to be so reflective of other boys like him during the same era. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because it struck a chord no matter what the intent. I can only imagine the anguish that the Wetterlings, the Walshs, the Patzes and other families of missing children still deal with daily. If Stranger Things did one thing for me personally, it was reminding me that monsters needn't come from alternate dimensions. We have plenty of them living among us…
Related Information: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children