The sad and scary circumstances surrounding Jacob's kidnapping gripped not only the small town of St. Joseph, MN (where the Wetterlings resided) but also the entire state of Minnesota. The story even gained national attention when Jacob's parents, Jerry and Patty, appeared on ABC's Good Morning America to share their story.
Anniversaries of the abduction were typically cited by local news outlets. It was amazing to see Jacob's friends as high school graduation approached in the mid-1990s, then the 10-year anniversary when those same "kids" were in their early 20s. I wrote about the commemoration of the 25th anniversary, particularly how the tragedy impacted Jacob's good friend Aaron Larson. It was Aaron and Jacob's brother Trevor who were with Jacob on the night he was taken. The two boys were told to flee or risk being shot. I can't imagine the horrible guilt they've endured for nearly three decades, wondering why they were allowed to live but Jacob was taken at gunpoint.
Despite the unlikelihood that Jacob would ever be found alive, his mother never gave up hope.
There have been millions of words written and spoken about the case. None have been more poignant than these five repeated through the years by his mother, Patty Wetterling:
"What if he comes home?"
She would say them every time somebody asked why her family hadn't moved out of its house near St. Joseph.
Why would the Wetterlings want to stay in the place with so many memories? How is it possible to get through a day living in the home where Jacob lived, where his bedroom was, where he played and sat at the dinner table and got ready for school each morning and celebrated holidays? Why would anybody want to relive that every day of their lives?
"What if he comes home?" Patty Wetterling would ask.
She wouldn't drop the family's land-line phone or change its number for similar reasons, even through all the painful prank calls and messages left on their answering machine.
What if he tries to call home?
Sadly, we now know that will never happen.
For almost three decades, Minnesotans kept their porch lights burning, hoping Jacob Wetterling might find his way home.
Those hopes were crushed Saturday when they learned that a longtime suspect in the 1989 disappearance had led authorities to the remains of the 11-year-old, whose abduction from St. Joseph stunned Minnesotans and changed the way parents watch over their children.
“Our hearts are broken,” Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, texted to the Star Tribune on Saturday morning. “We have no words.”
Jacob was snatched off his bike, half a mile from his home, by a masked man with a gun on a dark October night. Danny Heinrich, a suspect first questioned shortly after Jacob’s disappearance and now in federal custody on child pornography charges, provided investigators with the information that led to the boy’s grave, hidden on a Paynesville farm.
I'm not a parent, so I can't even begin to fathom what Jerry and Patty Wetterling are feeling at this point. While many (including myself) surmised that a sense of closure can finally be felt, that feeling may actually be put off for some time. The grieving process is now just beginning since it appears the Wetterlings kept the faith that there'd be a reunion.