If someone had told Jacob, when he was 11 years old, that he was destined to be world-famous someday, he might have dreamed that he was going to become an astronaut, maybe a pro football player, or perhaps a champion for human rights. Millions of people know him for the latter – a posterchild for the prevention of missing or exploited children. But fame came at a terrible cost. On this weekend in 1989, Jacob was abducted and, now we know, murdered.
On the morning of October 22, 1989, Jerry and Patty Wetterling could not have imagined how the course of their lives would change before the end of the day. Perhaps not unlike 9/11, 10/22 marked a loss of innocence – families changed the way they lived. Patty and Jerry asked neighbors to leave their porchlights on at night, with the hope that they might guide Jacob back home, or help protect other kids. Now, 27 years later, porchlights are still on at night, in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and around the world.
I’ve often wondered, with the thousands of children that go missing every year, why Jacob’s story captured international attention. I think there are three reasons: (1) Jacob wasn’t just missing; he was abducted, (2) the Wetterlings had great pictures of their winsome son, and (3) Patty’s undefeatable determination to find Jacob and prevent other families from a similar fate.
New York Times writer David Brooks wrote a column in 2011, based on a commencement speech he titled, “It’s not about you.” His thesis was that, concurrent with educational goals, people often set out to discover their calling in life, when actually, Brooks writes, a calling finds you… “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”
My undergraduate education was at a university in central Minnesota, just miles from the Wetterlings. I had already been working with victims and offenders for several years, and followed this story from that fateful night. Like many in this field, my career was influenced by Jacob and Patty.
It took nearly 27 years, but it seems that Patty’s invincible determination, and all those ‘porchlights,’ eventually led to Jacob’s recovery. What many people don’t know is that Jacob was found as the direct result of the dogged efforts of another individual – a boy from the nearby town of Cold Spring, who had also been abducted 27 years ago, when he was 12. Jared Scheierl, now 40, was released after being sexually assaulted nine months before Jacob. Over the years, despite resistance from investigators, Jared believed his attacker was also Jacob’s assailant. Jared caught a glimpse of his kidnapper’s face, and said he would never forget his voice, but his attacker remained unknown.
That changed in 2015, with a break in the case. New technology was used to identify a trace amount of DNA on Jared’s sweatshirt, and led authorities to a known suspect. Law enforcement executed a warrant for 52-year-old Daniel James Heinrich, and found child pornography in his residence. The statute of limitations had run out for the kidnapping and assault of Jared. There’s no statute of limitations for murder, but Jacob’s fate was still unknown, so authorities used child pornography charges to apply pressure to Heinrich. After a year, Heinrich reached a plea agreement with state and federal prosecutors.
On September 3, 2016 authorities announced that Jacob’s remains had been found. At a press conference on September 6, prosecutors said that, in consultation with the Wetterling family, they had two goals: to bring Heinrich to justice, and to bring Jacob home. Patty said, “To us Jacob was alive, until… we found him.” Jacob’s younger brother, Trevor and his friend, Aaron Larson who were biking home with Jacob that tragic evening, were once again gripped with survivor’s guilt.
When Jared Scheierl got the news, he said he was overcome with emotional ironies - not only had Jared’s kidnapper confessed to also being Jacob’s assailant, but Jacob’s remains laid undiscovered for 27 years in Paynesville, where Jared had moved his young family, including his own son - now 12. It was Jared and blogger Joy Baker who were relentless in connecting the links between Jared and Jacob. It seems Jared’s calling had found both Jacob and their mutual assailant.
As part of a plea agreement (20 years in prison for possession of child pornography), Heinrich provided chilling details in open court to kidnapping and assaulting both Jared and Jacob. With the Wetterling family, Aaron, and Jared all in the courtroom, Heinrich recounted that, before he murdered Jacob, Jacob had asked, “What did I do wrong?” Nothing, Jacob – only wrong place, wrong time. And then you went on to be an unforgettable inspiration for a safer world for kids.
Jacob now has a date of birth and known date of death - bookends for his short but magnificent life. A public memorial service, attended by thousands, was held on September 25.
No child wants to be the namesake for an Act of Congress to prevent child sexual abuse; and no parent expects to become a champion for the rights of missing and exploited children. But that is the amazing legacy of Jacob and Patty Wetterling – “Jacob’s Hope.”
Patty is well-known to ATSA members. For 27 years, she has poignantly spoken at numerous state, national, and international conferences on the prevention, treatment and management of sexual abuse. Most people are surprised, and often tearful, to discover how Patty has turned her tragic loss into both responsible accountability and compassionate treatment for those who have sexually abused. It’s one thing to be a champion for missing and exploited children; it’s another to be an advocate for sound public policies to effectively address child sexual abuse as a public health initiative. Patty explains that ‘Jacob’s Hope’ for a better world would include not only prevention, but support and recovery for victims, abusers, their families, and friends.
Patty says that she gets her boundless energy from the indomitable spirit of Jacob, and the vital support of family, friends, and colleagues. It would be difficult to find anyone who works in the field of the prevention of sexual harm that has not heard of Jacob Wetterling or found inspiration in Patty’s resolute determination. Sometimes we don’t find a calling in life – a calling finds us.
Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW
Cordelia Anderson, a colleague and friend of Patty Wetterling, wrote her own tribute to Jacob & Patty.