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This story was originally reported August 31, 2014.
“I want answers. I want to know who took Jacob, what happened.”
It’s been 25 years since Patty and Jerry Wetterling’s 11-year-old son, Jacob, was abducted while riding his bike with his brother and a friend in rural St. Joseph, Minnesota. Jacob had been at home with his two younger siblings, Trevor, 10, and Carmen, 8, and Jacob’s friend Aaron Larsen, 11, while the Wetterlings attended a dinner party about 20 minutes away.
Jacob Wetterling's abductor
“We weren’t going to be gone very long, and they were just going to stay home,” Patty recalled.
After getting permission from the Wetterlings, Jacob, Trevor and Aaron grabbed a flashlight and rode their bikes and scooter to a nearby Tom Thumb convenience store to rent a movie.
The three boys headed back from the store at about 9:15 p.m. and, as they approached a dark stretch of road, they heard a low raspy voice demand that they stop. Trevor was told to turn off his flashlight.
A man with a gun wearing a stocking mask stepped out from the darkness and told the boys to get into a roadside ditch.
“He asked one by one what their age was,” Jerry Wetterling said, recounting what Trevor and Aaron told authorities. “After that, he had Trevor and Aaron, one by one, run off into the nearby woods (and told them) not to look back or else he would shoot.”
As Aaron fled, he said, he saw the gunman grab Jacob by the arm. Moments later, both boys looked back as they ran toward the Wetterlings’ home. There was no sign of Jacob, the masked man, or any sound from a getaway vehicle.
“Everybody thought that within a few hours we would get it taken care of,” said Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner.
As news of the disappearance spread, FBI agents and National Guard troops descended on the quaint town of St. Joseph to aid in the search. Everyone came up empty-handed.
Tens of thousands of tips surfaced in the weeks that followed, but none panned out.
Investigators began looking into an incident about nine months before Jacob’s abduction: A 12-year-old boy had been pulled into a car and molested while he was walking home alone in Cold Spring, Minnesota. When the man dumped the boy out of the car, he was told to run. If he didn’t, he would be shot.
Not only did the methodology fit, but so did the geography: Cold Spring is about 10 miles away from St. Joseph.
A sketch of the suspect was issued but it led nowhere.
The case got new attention in 2010 when freelance writer Joy Baker started looking into the Wetterling case. She tracked down news reports about a series of attacks on teenage boys in Paynesville, Minnesota – about 30 miles from St. Joseph and 10 miles from Cold Spring – between March 1986 and the summer of 1989.
According to those reports, the perpetrator also approached the boys in a car as they walked down the street and, in some instances, allegedly told his victims not to turn around or they would be shot.
Baker told Jared, the survivor of the Cold Spring abduction in 1989, about her discovery.
“Those attacks sounded so similar to his case and to Jacob’s case, I asked him, ‘Have you ever heard of these before?’ and he’s like, ‘No, I’ve never heard that before,’” Baker said.
“I think there’s a very strong possibility that the cases are linked. How many psychopathic pedophiles can exist in a 15- to 20-mile radius?”
Baker said her investigation led her to a man who was arrested in 1990 and convicted of sexually assaulting four boys. The man was “looked at early in Jacob Wetterling’s abduction and is still being looked at,” according to Baker.
“What we’re trying to do now is connect him to both Jared’s case and to St. Joseph,” she said.
Sanner declined to talk about specifics because the Wetterling case is “still an active and open investigation.” He noted that bloggers and journalists like Baker “can speculate,” which he called “a healthy process in a criminal investigation.”
“But in order to prove it we have to have fact, and that’s the piece that’s missing in the blogging,” Sanner said.
Patty and Jerry Wetterling have spent more years looking for their son than they spent raising him. He would be 36 today, with brown hair, blue eyes, possibly about 6 feet tall.
Since her son’s kidnapping, Patty Wetterling has become an advocate for families of missing children. After helping create the sex offender registry for Minnesota and subsequently for the nation, she helped build Team HOPE – Help Offering Parents Empowerment – a parent-to-parent mentoring program for mothers and fathers in similar situations.
“Most parents know nothing about child abduction, so when it happens you just scramble for what’s out there,” Wetterling says.
“These kids do not come running forward on their own. They are found by someone else,” she explains. “The bottom-line lesson is to tell people to report things when they see them. Trust your instincts. … You’d want somebody sticking up for your child, so don’t second-guess. And call.”
Police believe Jacob Wetterling’s abductor is of average height and weight with a deep, raspy voice, and could be in his early 50s today.