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.

On October 22, 1989, a masked gunman stepped out of a patch of darkened woods near St. Joseph, just north of St. Cloud, and kidnapped Jacob Wetterling. The 11-year-old was never seen again. ¶ For months, the crime dominated headlines—not just in Minnesota, but all over America. Then, as now, people regarded small towns like St. Joseph as safe havens for children. If something so horrific could happen in such a setting, and to a responsible kid with protective parents, then it seemed it could happen to anyone. ¶ Jacob’s abduction triggered a sea change in our culture and our laws. Children are now routinely taught to be on guard against strangers who might harm them. Once nearly impossible to track, sex offenders now are required to register with law enforcement, and police are more sensitive to victims’ experiences. ¶ Countless articles have been written about the crime and the search for Jacob. But this month, on the 20th anniversary of the his disappearance, we revisit the event and its repercussions in a way that has never been done before—through the voices of those involved along the way.

The Boy

Jacob was the second of Patty and Jerry Wetterling’s four children. The oldest, Amy, was 14 in 1989. Trevor was 10, and Carmen was 8. Patty was a stay-at-home mom and Jerry a chiropractor. The family lived on a quiet cul-de-sac.

Patty Wetterling: Jacob was 11—that wonderful age. He was young and sweet and still liked to be hugged. His voice hadn’t changed. He had a girlfriend. He was almost my height. He was 5-feet tall. I’m 5-foot-1. That was a big milestone: “You’re as tall as Mom.”

He was a good athlete. He played soccer, basketball, and football. Both our boys played football together with the neighbors. They were so competitive. Frequently, they’d come in crying. I’d say, “Come on, you guys! Why can’t everybody win?”

Jerry Wetterling: For Father’s Day, the kids made a video of themselves putting on a skit. Jacob was portraying me. He was sitting in a chair reading the paper and Amy came up to him and said, “Dad, I’m so sorry I broke one of the lamps.” And he said, “Oh, that’s okay, we can get that fixed or get another one.”

And Trevor came and said he was throwing a baseball and broke a window. And he said, “No problem, we needed to get that window fixed anyhow.” And then Carmen said, “Dad, we forgot to tape the game.” Jacob said, “What?! You forgot to tape the game?!”

Patty Wetterling: I love hockey, so I was excited when Jacob started playing. Whenever he hit the puck, though, he’d fall down. After a while, he decided to be goalie, and that was traumatic. That’s a lot of pressure.
He wasn’t perfect. He could be really stubborn. When he made up his mind, there was no negotiating with him. I found that heartening later when he was missing. That stubborn streak might work to his benefit.

The Abduction

The night of October 22, 1989, Patty and Jerry decided at the last minute to attend a party held by some friends. Amy was at a sleepover. The couple thought the remaining children would be fine on their own at home.

Patty Wetterling: We asked Jacob if he minded baby-sitting for a couple hours while we went. He didn’t mind: “Can Aaron come over?” That made me feel totally fine: They were two sixth-grade boys. Carmen was in second grade—she was 8. Trevor was 10. He was in fourth grade. We ordered a pizza for them, then we left.

Our friends live near Clearwater, so from our house it was like a half-hour drive. We called home when we got there to give the kids the phone number. Shortly after, Trevor called and said, “We’re bored. Can we ride our bikes to the store and rent a video?” My gut instinct was, No, it’s starting to get dark. There’s plenty to do.

But Trevor said, “Well, let me talk to Dad.” I passed the phone over, and Jerry said he barely got to say anything at all. It was like, “Look, Dad, I’ve got a white sweatshirt on. Jacob’s wearing your jogging vest. I’ve got the flashlight. We’ll go straight to the store. We’ll come straight back.” And Jerry said, “It should be okay.”

It was Jacob who called the next time, and said, “Carmen doesn’t want to go with us. Is it okay if Rochelle comes over and baby-sits?” Rochelle lived next door. These were responsible kids. They got a babysitter for their little sister.

At the Tom Thumb store, the three boys bought some candy and some pop. They rented a video, The Naked Gun, then set off toward home in the dark, Jacob and Trevor on bikes and Aaron on a scooter. About 9:15, when they were just a half-mile from home, a man appeared on the end of a driveway, wearing a mask and holding a gun. He told the kids to lie down in the ditch, and then asked each their age. After hearing that Trevor was 10, the man told him to run into the woods. He then asked Aaron, 11, his age and looked at his face, dismissing him, too. Both boys ran hard. Neither saw what happened to Jacob or the stranger.

Patty Wetterling: By the time Aaron caught up to Trevor and they felt safe enough to turn around and look back, Jacob and the man were gone. The boys ran home and told Rochelle to call 911. She called her dad, and he called 911. Then he called us.

The police arrived six minutes later and went to the place where the boys had seen the man. Jacob’s footprints were on the driveway by where the man had been standing. But then they ended and his toe sort of dug into the gravel. There appeared to be some resistance at that point. There were tire tracks on the driveway.

The neighbor who called said, “You have to come home.” Jerry grabbed me and said, “We’ve got to go. Somebody took Jacob.” I grabbed my purse. We didn’t even say goodbye. We just walked out of the party.

We had a very long drive back. I was yelling at Jerry. He didn’t have any answers, and I just kept asking questions. We didn’t have cell phones. I kept telling him to speed, but he didn’t want to get pulled over. He thought that would delay us. I said, “No, that would mean a police escort. Just go.”

We finally arrived at our road and it was a nightmare. There was a squad car, and the police stopped us and drove us home. Trevor was just…I’ve never seen a kid wound tighter. He just couldn’t stop talking. Aaron was tucked in the corner of our kitchen, biting his nails, like he was trying to disappear. He couldn’t talk. I remember Amy and Trevor and Carmen sitting on the couch in absolute terror.

I remember the sheriff saying, “You know, the highway patrol has a helicopter with a search light. Should I call them?” And I’m like, “Oh, my Lord.” I had always thought you were more at risk in the Twin Cities. That’s where real crime happens, I thought, not in St. Joseph.

The Investigation

Just minutes after the 911 call from the Wetterling home, Al Garber, supervisor of the FBI’s Violent Crime Squad in Minneapolis, got a call at home from Al Cotelo, an FBI agent stationed in St. Cloud. Cotelo, who had a son in Jacob’s class, thought Special Agent Garber should be aware of the circumstances surrounding Jacob’s disappearance. Garber is now retired.

Al Garber: Special Agent Cotelo called me at home about 9:30 p.m. He told me Jacob had been abducted and they were all looking for him and they were hopeful that they could find him shortly. Very early the next morning, Al called me again, told me that Jacob had not been found, and said the hunt was becoming more and more intensive. So I got in my car.

I got up to St. Joseph about 7 a.m. It looked right away to me like this was going to be a big investigation. There were so many things to do, and to do all these things, we needed more people, more resources. I kept asking for them and the powers that be just kept giving them to us. At the height of the investigation, we had 70 investigators working full-time.

It was very hard work. Every morning started out with a briefing. And then when everybody left, the phones started ringing and the information started coming in, it got really intense. We used to expect that about mid-morning, we’d get a headache.

You start at the crime scene. There wasn’t any physical evidence to speak of. There were some tire tracks. The bicycles were examined extensively by crime labs, but we didn’t find any physical evidence. There were no witnesses to the actual abduction except the boys, and they were so scared and the abductor was masked. It was isolated. It was an area where a car wouldn’t attract attention. It was a challenging area to start with, as difficult as any I’ve been involved with.

Kidnappings by strangers are incredibly rare. Of the 25,000 children that went missing from 1984 to 1990, for example, fewer than 700 were abducted by someone other than a parent. These so-called stranger abductions generally have one of four motives: to obtain a ransom; to retaliate against the child’s parents; to cover up a crime, such as child sexual abuse; or to carry out sexual exploitation—something that’s extremely rare. Because it seemed that Jacob’s kidnapping was not one of the first three types, the FBI called on an investigator who knew something about sexual psychopaths. Retired Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office detective Neil Neddermeyer was one of only a handful of law-enforcement officers in Minnesota—often derided at the time as “kiddie kops” or “diaper deputies”—who specialized in child-sex-abuse cases 20 years ago.

Neil Neddermeyer: FBI Special Agent Steve Gilkerson knew I had the only file in the state of known sex offenders toward children. A day after the kidnapping in St. Joe, the sheriff got a call from the special agent in charge. He said, “I need your guy, Neil Neddermeyer.” I had time to stop at my house and get a clean change of underwear. I was there the second day.

I had the experience to know that you don’t decide you’re going to go kidnap, rape, and murder a child today. You may start by experimenting with touching the child, or being around children, and you work up to it over a series of years, as a pedophile might. And in fact, the guy that did this had probably been in jail before. We knew or we were aware that there were certain sex offenders that had gone through the system and the Stearns County Jail. But there were no computers back then, and there was no way to search the inmate records, except by hand.

I had gotten to know the head of the Minnesota Security Hospital for the criminally insane in St. Peter, where a lot of the major sex-crime offenders go. He said somebody will commit a crime toward a child, then have three months of feeling empty, and then three months of starting to look, and he’ll do it again in nine months. So all of a sudden we’re putting together time slots.

At the time, there had been several child kidnappings by over-the-road truck drivers, so I took a look at who drove a truck through town.

We also knew that pedophiles sometimes sought out jobs where they could be around children. So we took a look at all the school-bus drivers and teachers and anybody that was around children. You can imagine how delicate that was.

Al Garber: There were composite drawings drawn by police artists of a man who was in the Tom Thumb who we couldn’t identify. We never found out who he was for sure. People came up along the way who might be likely suspects. In most cases, we could rule them out with some certainty, but there were several whom we just couldn’t rule out. Some we talked to many, many times. Sometimes we followed them. Sometimes we looked into their backgrounds extensively for many years. But there were a few you couldn’t say yes and you couldn’t say no.

Neil Neddermeyer: I counted 28 great leads we had, but they all petered out over a several-month period. The emotional rollercoaster was unbearable. You got a lead, you started getting excited, really excited, and then you go for it, you just run, and all of a sudden—stop, no, it’s impossible. You go back to kicking the chairs.

Patty Wetterling: We couldn’t believe that anybody we knew would do this. It was very difficult for Jerry to turn in any names. I finally had to shake him, and say, “Look, Jerry, there’s at least one bad person in the world. Somebody took Jacob.”

Everybody wants to find the man who took Jacob, but you don’t want to find him in your family or in your church or your neighborhood. When the police did their canvassing, they kept asking everybody, “Did you notice anything unusual that night?” And that’s a good question, but you also have to ask, “Who’s usually around?”

We were interviewed by the FBI at the Comfort Inn, Jerry and I in separate rooms. I remember them ordering sandwiches and just asking everything they could ever want to know. Then you go home, and it’s like, Am I supposed to ask Jerry about what they just asked me? It really alienates you as a couple. I read something like 87 percent of the marriages don’t make it.

I remember telling Al Garber, “You can ask me anything you want, just don’t ask me to be patient. I’m not a patient person.”

Al Garber: Regional FBI Director Jeff Jabar said, “Now before we start, I’m going to have to ask you to be patient,” and Patty just went off. She said, “Be patient? This is my son. This is my boy. I’m not patient. Find him.” We didn’t tell them things we thought they shouldn’t know because they were ongoing or turned up nothing. But mostly we told them everything. There were some people who said we told them too much. That’s not right. You know, they’re a mother and father—they have a right to know as much as we can tell.

Patty Wetterling: Al and I set up some rules. I didn’t want to find anything out through the media first. The second thing was he called me twice a day. He called me after their morning briefing and after the evening briefing. Sometimes it would be really late at night—10:30, 11 p.m. I knew he would call. It gave me some structure, some order. I didn’t want to be bugging them. I wanted them to be investigating. So I would make a list of things I needed to ask the next time he called. He was phenomenal.

Jacob was kidnapped October 22. I turned 40 on November 2. For my 40th birthday, the first thing I got was flowers from the FBI. My family had this big party planned, but it turns out I got flowers from the FBI first.

Neil Neddermeyer: Mrs. Wetterling would come every day with cookies or bars—Minnesota stuff, you know, for our break room—and would walk around. When she would walk in, everybody was quiet out of respect. We just felt her pain.

During the investigation, she came to me because I wasn’t out running leads. I was there. She said, “What tools do you need to make your job easier?” I said, “Oregon is the only state that has a [registered sex-offender] database. I’ve been spending weeks, months, finding out who the sex offenders are. If I could know that through a registry, it would help me a great deal.”

Patty Wetterling: We called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and that was like somebody throwing me a lifeline. They kept telling me, “Kids come home. Don’t give up.” And I kept asking, “How do they get there, and what has to happen?” They told me that 40 percent of the kids that come home alive are found because of TV.

Paul Magers, former KARE 11 news anchor: We certainly stayed on top of it. So did the other television stations and radio stations, but I think we worked it as hard or harder than anybody else. At KARE 11, we paid particular attention to what was fact and what wasn’t, because there were a lot of things floating around out there—things we never reported because we couldn’t confirm them.

For me, it was a seminal moment. Just the setting alone—this bucolic setting, three boys on bicycles, renting a movie, riding back home a short distance, as safe as an area can be. It had a profound personal effect on me and my coworkers. I still get depressed thinking about it.

Neil Neddermeyer: In the beginning, we worked from 6 in the morning until 10 at night, seven days a week. After three or four weeks, we changed to from 8 to 8. A few weeks after that, we started taking either Sunday or Saturday off, because there were issues of burnout. You could see investigators that were just done: They would start throwing things or swearing and you just knew.

Al Garber: One of the things that was difficult for Patty—and difficult for me to tell her—was when resources started to be withdrawn. The reason they were withdrawn was not because anybody lost interest. But there was not as much to do, so agents and cops were sent back to their agencies. It was important to tell them the truth. You can’t make them think that you’re going to be there forever if you’re not.

Patty Wetterling: That was one of the hardest things to watch. It strengthens you to see all that support and those possibilities: the National Guard, the FBI, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. I remember going to a law-enforcement Task Force meeting. I was walking into the building and this FBI guy came running up the stairs with tears in his eyes: “They’re sending me back. We’re not done and they’re sending me back.”

The Effects

Jacob’s kidnapping dominated life in the St. Cloud area for months. Mailboxes were wrapped in white ribbons, and Jacob’s picture was placed in front windows. But the crime’s ripples spread, in part because the Wetterlings started a nonprofit in their son’s name four months later, and Patty Wetterling (who ran for Congress in 2004 and 2006) began lobbying for better child-safety laws. Over the years, several of Jacob’s classmates have worked with the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. Scott Zimmer is one; he was 12 at the time of the kidnapping.

Scott Zimmer: I recall one incident in particular. The neighbor kid and I were biking in the middle of nowhere. We were parked in the ditch throwing pebbles into the pastures and talking and a truck comes. It comes driving by and passes us, but it’s going awfully slow. Then it stops. We were out of there. We didn’t say a word, just biked as fast as we could. He could have been going to check on a cow. He could have been checking a fence. He could have been lost.

If Jacob had never been abducted and that driver had said, “Hey, I need directions,” I would have probably hopped in the truck.

Patty Wetterling: After Thanksgiving, Jerry decided he should go back to work so that the kids would go back to school. I didn’t want them to live their lives in fear. People used to say, “I bet you can’t ever let them go.” It wasn’t like that. They wanted to be in our house and never go out. I had to nurture them out. I really believe there are more good people in the world than bad, and I wanted our kids to know that.

Nancy Sabin, executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center: I said it a million times to both Jerry and Patty: How did you let your other three kids off the end of the driveway after that? If they had the courage to let those other three kids out—and they did, obviously—how could the rest of us not do the same? That’s the other side of this message: Jerry and Patty will say, “Don’t let Jacob’s case make you believe this happens every time you turn around on most kids, because it doesn’t.” The 24/7 media cycle has driven too many horrible images into parent’s minds.

Michael Campion, Minnesota Commissioner of Public Safety: The case changed how parents handled their kids. It changed legislation. It changed the way law enforcement investigates violent crimes.

One time Patty got up in front of a group down in Owatonna. She had 250 cops sitting on the edge of their chairs. You could hear a pin drop. She chastised the cops, rightfully so. Years ago people were kind of insensitive in some of these cases in terms of the impact on families.

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.

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