Without a Trace
Twenty years ago, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling vanished. His fate remains unknown, his captor’s identity a mystery. But much has changed in the way crimes against children are investigated. Here, the story as told by those who lived it.
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In 1994, U.S. Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Act, requiring states to create registries of people convicted of sex offenses and crimes against children. Amendments two years later directed the FBI to create a national offender database, among other changes.
Jim Ramstad, former Minnesota congressman: I’ll never forget walking the halls [of the U.S. Capitol], going office to office with Patty, to try to get the Wetterling bill passed back in 1993 and 1994. Patty Wetterling personified parental love. It wasn’t difficult to get my colleagues’ attention once they met Patty. The Jacob Wetterling Act started the ball rolling.
In 2006, Congress dramatically broadened sex-offender policy, requiring juveniles and, in some cases, nonviolent offenders to register, and allowing retroactive application of the law. Wetterling and Sabin are among many early proponents of stronger laws who say the latest reform is a step in the wrong direction. One worry is that so many low-level and juvenile offenders must now register that, for investigators, using the database to find a criminal match is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Nancy Sabin: Ironically, we are now speaking out against the misuse of our own law. It was originally intended as one tool in a tool kit; it wasn’t supposed to be the whole kit. It was intended for violent, repeat-pattern adult offenders. So we’ve passed laws to throw every kid and adult who has ever done a sex offense on the registry. It will lull us into thinking now we can breathe easier.
Eric Janus, president and dean of the William Mitchell College of Law and author of Failure to Protect: America’s Sexual Predator Laws and the Rise of the Preventive State: I think the sex-offender law that has the biggest prospect of being useful is the registry. But if we really want to be effective, we’re going to have to change our focus and become much more comprehensive. All of these laws really are based around this archetype of the sex offender as a stranger who’s mentally disordered and can’t control themselves. But we know that is wildly inaccurate. Statistically, the greatest risk of child sexual abuse comes from acquaintances and family members.
We don’t have very many stranger-child abductions, and very, very few sexually oriented child murders. It’s a mistake to design a whole system around those very rare though horrific crimes.
Al Garber: This case educated law enforcement about child abductions, and that’s been great. But it was hard work then, and if it happened again tomorrow, it would be hard work tomorrow. It’s really all about the people on the ground—nothing’s changed in that respect. Computers are not going to find the kidnapper, and satellites are not going to find the kidnapper. They help the investigator on the street, but it’s the investigator—not the computer—that’s going to find the kid or the kidnapper.
The Open Case
The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office continues to receive tips regarding the kidnapping. Most of them, such as calls from people who think the man on the barstool next to them resembles Jacob, don’t pan out. New information that surfaced six years ago did lead investigators to revisit their past assumptions. In 2003, a local man came forward and said he had been listening to a police scanner the night of the kidnapping and had driven across the scene. Upon realizing the tire tracks at the scene probably belonged to him, police took a fresh look at local suspects.
John Sanner, Stearns County Sheriff: If hindsight teaches us anything, it’s to not lose focus of that local piece when you’re doing everything else. Very early on in this investigation, we became a national clearing house for information regarding missing and exploited children. We looked at any case that involved a missing child anywhere in the United States and Canada, hoping for a connection. We lost the local piece pretty quickly.
I look at this case as a huge failure both for the entire law-enforcement community and for this agency. We weren’t able to provide answers to the family or the community, and we still have a detective assigned to the case. We truly are the only hope the Wetterlings and the community has to get answers. We have made a commitment to ourselves, every single one of us here, to not let them down.
We have developed a few local suspects. Some, of course, we like better than others.
Al Garber: We tried as hard as I’ve ever seen a group of cops and agents try and we couldn’t find out who did it and that’s pretty unusual. Usually, people do talk about what they’ve done. Sometimes it takes them a long, long time, but eventually somebody talks and that’s the way that crimes are solved. Nobody who could lead us to Jacob or the kidnapper talked and that leads me to believe that the criminal is either extremely unusual or dead.
The Wetterlings still live in St. Joseph. Jerry still works as a chiropractor and leads a yearly Rocky Mountain trek to raise money for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. Patty Wetterling is the director of sexual-violence prevention at the Minnesota Department of Health. Jacob’s siblings, Amy, Trevor, and Carmen, have reached out to others who have lost brothers or sisters in the same way. There are three grandchildren, including a new baby named Jake.
Patty Wetterling: My kids are doing well, and I’ve got grandkids, and it would be easier to just curl up and say, “I’m not going to do it anymore.” But somebody took Jacob, and he’s still out there. Is he doing it again? Has another family been hurt by this person? I just can’t live with myself if I don’t try. The boy we knew is gone, but I will always fight for the world he knew.
A reporter recently asked me, “What do you think really happened?” I’m like, “If I knew…. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
I don’t know if I’m in denial or if he’s still out there. I’ve known a lot of families with missing children over the last 20 years, and many people, when their child died, they knew it. They felt it. Mothers had this sense of knowing. Later the police would come, and they would say the exact time, and the moms would say, “Yes, I knew it.” I’ve never had that happen.
Beth Hawkins wrote about businessman Tom Petters in the September issue of Minnesota Monthly.