Nearly a year ago I started this post. Daniel Heinrich made an appearance in court. He was named a person of interest in the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. The sight of Heinrich made my stomach turn.
If you’ve lived in Minnesota for any length of time, you’ve heard the story of Jacob Wetterling. His name instantly brings to mind his school picture, his yellow shaker knit sweater, and that sweet, sweet smile. Jacob was abducted in 1989 at the age of 11. What happened to him is a mystery seared into the consciousness of all who know the story.
Up until the moment he was taken, his life had been good. He had loving parents. He lived with his family in a quiet town. He, and we, were innocent. And then it happened. He vanished.
I graduated high school in 1989. So Jacob’s disappearance didn’t alter my childhood, but it did let me know there was danger out there in the real world. The kind of danger a recently-turned-18-year-old normally resists acknowledging. Evil was real, and it didn’t just prowl in dimly lit downtown parking ramps. It also lurked in twilight shadows along rural country roads. That made it even scarier.
“If you’ve lived in Minnesota for any length of time, you’ve heard the story of Jacob Wetterling. His name instantly brings to mind his school picture, his yellow shaker knit sweater, and that sweet, sweet smile.”
A few days ago, Daniel Heinrich lead authorities to Jacob’s remains. Finally. For nearly 27 years, we’d all wondered where Jacob was, and now we knew. The ending we had feared. Those age-enhanced photos of what Jacob might’ve looked like were never real. He will forever be that innocent 11-year-old boy.
Jacob’s mom, Patty, has always amazed me. I’ve followed the story and read about her countless times over the years. Initially, the story instilled some fear in me, and then when I became a parent it fueled an anger. And like many, I thought if I could just see that monster for five minutes I could somehow convince him to give Patty the closure she so deserved. Surely he could do that one right thing.
“Those age-enhanced photos of what Jacob might’ve looked like were never real. He will forever be that innocent 11-year-old boy.”
I think of getting that call ― a call saying your boy has been taken. I think of how desperate I would feel, how I wouldn’t have wanted to sleep until he was found, but then exhaustion would’ve won and I would awake from the nightmare to find it was my reality, over and over again, day after day. Oh, how painful it must have been. I ache for her at the thought. Then days became weeks, and weeks became months. Patty, her husband Jerry, and their other three children had to find a new normal. I can’t even imagine.
She had a choice to make. She chose to believe there was more good than evil. She chose to live in the world that Jacob knew and believed in. At a time when I may have been investing in home-school supplies and security systems, not wanting my children out of my protective reach, Patty helped her kids back into the world. She described it as loving them out. What a brave and beautiful choice she made.
“She had a choice to make. She chose to believe there was more good than evil. She chose to live in the world that Jacob knew and believed in.”
In the years that followed, she became a warrior for all children. She was and is a tireless advocate for missing children. The gains that she has made in terms of how missing children are thought of and searched for is nothing short of astounding. When Jacob went missing, there was virtually no system in place to search for him. Nothing was computerized. Odds were not in their favor. Things are much different now, thanks largely to her efforts. She became an expert on a topic not many want to study: sex offenders.
With the knowledge she gained, she knew that the man who had abducted Jacob was probably less of a monster than an adult who himself was abused as a boy. How sad.
So this is to say thank you, Patty. Thank you for fighting for all of our kids at a time when you could’ve so easily been too broken to fight at all. Thank you for seeing goodness in the world rather than letting fear cloud your vision. Your love for your son has shed into dark places. While a reunion is what you’d dreamt of, I hope you find comfort in learning Jacob has been at peace all this time ― watching over his mom, probably astounded at her tenacity.
“When Jacob went missing, there was virtually no system in place to search for him. Nothing was computerized. Odds were not in their favor. Things are much different now, thanks largely to her efforts.”
So many mourn with you, and I hope you feel that. If your burden and pain could be lightened by all who feel it, you could breathe easy. Thank you, Patty. Rest in peace, Jacob. I will always remember you smiling.