This post was originated in the fall of 2015. Daniel Heinrich made an appearance in court. He was named as 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 eleven. What happened to him was a mystery seared into the consciousness of all who knew 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 eighteen 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.
Then in the fall of 2015 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 eleven 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.
When I think of getting that call, a call saying your boy has been taken, when I think of how desperate I would feel, how I wouldn’t have wanted to sleep until he was home where he belonged, 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. One I can’t even imagine.
Patty 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.
Over 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.
Now we learn that Heinrich himself was abused as a boy, perhaps less of a monster and more a broken man who never got help when he needed it. 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 light into dark places. While a reunion is what you’d dreamt of, I hope you found some comfort in learning Jacob has been at peace all this time – watching over his mom, probably astounded at her tenacity.
On November 21, 2016 justice was served as best it could be. Daniel Heinrich was sentenced to prison, but not before hearing from Jacob’s family, his best friend, and another of Heinrich’s victims. He shed some tears and offered an apology. While that does not repair what he destroyed, it heartened me to know he felt grief and has lived with that guilt all these years. As Patty said in court, he made very bad choices.
Jacob’s family, friends, and classmates all suffered the consequences of those bad choices. It altered their lives forever. And it is such a bittersweet reality that all of our children are safer because of Patty’s efforts. Not all mothers would’ve accomplished what she has under the awful circumstances. We all owe her a debt of gratitude.
So many mourn the loss of Jacob. I hope all who loved him can feel that. If their burden and pain could be lightened by all who feel it, they could breathe easy. Thank you Patty, thank you for fighting a fight no mother should have to.