In 1989, the rural town of St. Joseph, Minnesota was rocked with devastating news. A masked man with a gun abducted 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling while riding his bike near his house.
Jacob has been missing for 26 years but his parents, Patty and Jerry, have never given up hope -- they will find their son.
Jacob would have turned 38 years old Feb. 17, as shown in the age progression photo below.
To commemorate the date, the Wetterlings -- who still live in the same house where they raised their son -- have a tradition.
"We always have a family dinner and we fix his favorite food, steak," Patty told ABC News. "We laugh and hug our grandkids and we honor that. There were six us of in this family and we still carry Jacob in our hearts. It's just what we do."
Patty, who served on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's board of directors for three years, also penned an emotional letter to her son this year and posted it on Jacob Wetterling Resource Center's website:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY JACOB!
Birthdays are supposed to be about parties, hats and noisemakers, cake, ice cream, friends singing and making wishes but not yet. Not this year, again. How I wish to wrap my arms around you and hug you tight! I have watched the tape of your last birthday party over and over. We rented a suite at the Holiday Inn for your party. You and Aaron raced back and forth in the pool and took turns throwing each other in the deep end. It was so much fun!
I want you to know that since you were stolen away from us, people everywhere have been searching, praying and hoping for your safety and for answers. Last fall, 26 years later, news of possible answers had your story as the number two news coverage in the region. That's pretty amazing 26 years later. People care. There are more good people than bad in the world and people still hope.
My birthday wish is for you to come home. We need to find you. I have another wish for every child who is home safe today, that they will never have to endure abduction or sexual exploitation of any type. We are working just as hard on prevention as we are on searching because this is so wrong…so unfair. I remember how much it bothered you when things were unfair. Me too, it bothers me too.
I am hoping and praying that people will remember you on February 17 and we ask that everyone hug their kids a little tighter, tell them that they love them and take time to play a game or read books. My wish is also that parents will support agencies that help to find our missing kids and help other victims. Today, we ask everyone to volunteer, attend events, send financial support and share safety information. The non-profit work continues on a daily basis. Sometimes sexual exploitation and abduction are on the news, and sometimes not, yet we all rely on the support and expertise of these agencies when we need them. They are there for us. They need our support as well.
And once again today, February 17, we will light our candles, fix your favorite foods and cake, and thank God for the gift of you.
We love you Jacob and we'll never stop searching for you!
I so wish for a happy birthday for you…
Jacob’s long-standing cold case got a huge break in November. Authorities in Minnesota named a person of interest -- Daniel James Heinrich, a 52-year-old who was arrested on charges of receipt and possession of child pornography.
According to a feature written in People in 1989, Jacob, his brother, Trevor, 10, and a friend, Aaron Larson, 11, were coming home from a Tom Thumb convenience store and found a man in a mask waiting for them at the end of the Wetterlings’s dead-end street around 9 p.m on Oct. 22, 1989.
"He told them to lie face down in the gutter," Jerry told People. "Then he asked them their ages. He told Trevor to run into the field or he'd shoot. Then he had Aaron turn over, and he looked at his face and told him to run. He grabbed hold of Jacob."
Though the Wetterlings have experienced unfathomable emotional turmoil, the family is resolute in continuing their search.
"We hope and pray that … we will have the answer to the one question we have asked forever: 'Where's Jacob?'" the Patty told reporters gathered outside her St. Joseph Township home in November. "Somebody knows. We're waiting for those answers."
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