December 31, 1998

Son Abducted 9 Years Ago, Mother Hangs On to Hope


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    ST. JOSEPH, Minn. -- It is the middle of the night, as Patty Wetterling sits on the living room couch, staring out the window, waiting for her boy, Jacob, to come home.

    She has been waiting for nine years.

    "I still, deep in my heart, believe it is possible that he's alive," said Ms. Wetterling, who hung Jacob's stocking from the fireplace mantel again this year, as she does every Christmas season. "Sometimes I look out the window and expect to see him come running up the driveway."

    Jacob was 11 years old when he was abducted by a man with a gun in this small town on Oct. 22, 1989. His brother, Trevor, who was 10, and a friend, Aaron, 11, were with Jacob that night. The three boys were riding their bicycles home from the Tom Thumb convenience store, where they had rented a movie, "Naked Gun," when a man wearing a mask stepped out of a driveway. The man told Trevor and Aaron to run, or he would shoot them. And then he took Jacob.

    No arrest has ever been made. No body has ever been found. All that remains is uncertainty.

    For the Wetterling family, the uncertainty has meant nearly a decade of life lived in the half-step, not quite here, not quite there, reluctant to lose themselves completely to the moment, moving ahead with daily routines, because there is no choice, learning to sing again, even to laugh, but never as freely, or lightly, as before.

    Theirs is the burden of doubt known to people who live with mysterious holes in the family fabric, voids that go unexplained, losses that are never properly mourned: people who can only wonder at what became of a father, last known living in some faraway place, or a sister, tormented by emotional demons until vanishing into the streets, or a child, who went out to play one day and somehow crossed paths with evil.

    Jacob Erwin Wetterling was born on Feb. 17, 1978, a boy who liked to celebrate his birthday with his grandpa, who loved to fish with his dad, Jerry, who slept with one arm around his brother, Trevor.

    A great fan of sports, he played soccer, hockey, baseball and football, and so worshiped Marcus Allen, the star Los Angeles running back, that he named his dog Marcus, and dressed the pup in a Raider's jersey.

    He could never eat enough peanut butter or guacamole. He was famous around the house for playing tricks on his mother for April Fool's, and for making her beautiful artwork for Mother's Day.

    The abduction of the sixth grader in this town 75 miles north of Minneapolis, initially drew hundreds of law enforcement officials. But the case no longer gets much attention. It has faded from the headlines in the Minnesota newspapers. Agents for the FBI pulled out years ago. Only the local sheriff's department keeps close tabs anymore.

    But Patty and Jerry Wetterling keep looking.

    "One morning, I lay in bed and couldn't go on anymore," said Ms. Wetterling. "It was too hard. I pulled the covers up over my head and decided I was never going to get out of that bed again."

    But then she envisioned Jacob. He was huddled in a corner, saying he was going to give up.

    And she found herself speaking out loud: "Hold on, Jacob. We're going to find you."

    "So I pulled myself out of bed and took a shower, and went out to find him," she said. "And that's what I do every day."

    Searching faces on buses and trains, at construction sites and shopping malls, Ms. Wetterling looks for a young man with brown hair and blue eyes, probably about 6 feet tall now, with a 21st birthday just around the corner.

    Ms. Wetterling started a foundation, Jacob's Hope, which focuses on the plight of missing and exploited children, a forum that gives her a chance to talk with law enforcement officers across the nation and keep her son's case from being forgotten.

    Some leads still come, but none has panned out. There are people who call, from all over the country, and say they think they have seen Jacob, sometimes sending pictures. There are con artists who call and ask about a reward. There are sadistic pranksters who call to try to twist their minds.

    The Wetterlings came home one night and switched on the answering machine. The voice of a young man whispered into the telephone. "This is Jacob Wetterling," he said. "And I want you to know I'm still alive."

    The Wetterlings felt certain it was not Jacob, but there remained a shred of wonder.

    "It's been so long," Ms. Wetterling said. "Would we recognize his voice?"

    The police traced the call and determined it was bogus.

    Plenty of psychics have called, some looking for self-promotion, some apparently driven by a misguided hope to help bring an end to their doubts.

    "Jacob is cold and dead," said one caller, who identified himself as a psychic in New York.

    Ms. Wetterling responded with outrage.

    "Because you had some funny feeling sitting in New York," she said, "you decide to call and tell me to just quit and give up."

    Before the horror of the abduction, the Wetterlings led a seemingly charmed life, a popular and handsome family with a sense of playfulness and idealism.

    Jerry Wetterling, a chiropractor with a growing business in town, was president of the local branch of the NAACP. His wife, a former math teacher, stayed home with the children, was president of the PTA and a soccer coach.

    The eldest child, Amy, was sailing through school like a yacht. Jacob and Trevor were confident and happy-go-lucky. The youngest, Carmen, raced at life like fire across the prairie.

    But then came the earthquake, in the words of an aunt in San Francisco, that never stopped.

    Amy started to carry the world on her shoulders, driven to excel in everything she did, certain it was her role to make the world right. Carmen began to withdraw socially, especially as she neared age 11.

    The parents worried most about Trevor. They looked him in the eyes and talked to him about the abduction, the night when his parents and police officers asked him a thousand questions.

    "You have to know that there was nothing different that you could have done," his mother told him. But to this day, she does not know if he believes that.

    Jacob had been an outstanding hockey player, a goalie on the traveling team. When it came Trevor's turn to join the travel team, he suited up, skated once around the rink, and walked off.

    "I quit," he told his father, and never went back.

    He is a student at St. Cloud State University, just 10 miles from home. He has never much liked to be alone, a trait his mother calls "a survival skill," and he has not wanted to go far from home.

    "I'll pay you to go to that college you've talked about in Colorado," his mother said she has told him. But Trevor is not ready to go far from home yet.

    Amy recently graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in psychology and a minor in criminal justice. Carmen is a junior at St. Joseph High School.

    Since there was no extra time for anything but comforting the children, and searching for Jacob, the parents gave up their duties at the NAACP. and the PTA. Ms. Wetterling abandoned her plans to return to teaching part-time.

    Jacob's class of 1996 seemed to carry him with them. He was given a page in the school yearbook. The hockey team listed his name on the roster, since he should have been playing. The football team dedicated its season to Jacob, and then surprised everyone by winning the Central Lakes Conference championship.

    The abduction of Jacob robbed some of the innocence of his classmates, a burden they seemed to carry all the way through school. On the day of their graduation, the principal called the Wetterlings and asked them to speak to the departing seniors.

    "Somebody has got to set them free," the principal said.

    Ms. Wetterling reminded the students about Jacob, a boy who was not afraid to try anything.

    "Jacob believed in a world of possibility and potential," his mother said. "Let your spirits soar."

    In the last few years, Jacob's world has changed without his knowing it. He lost his grandpa last year. Marcus, his dog, died a few years ago. And the fields near home have become thick with new houses, a subdivision called Pound Meadow Ridge.

    His father, who just turned 50, now has just a touch of gray in his hair at the temples, and his mother, 49, wears eyeglasses most of the time these days.

    But if he should ever find his way back to the driveway, he would see a big display of white lights on the garage door. It reads, "Jacob's Hope."

    The family would never consider moving, since they need to be there when Jacob comes home. And they would not change the telephone number, despite some of the crank calls, because that's the number that Jacob knows.

    "Kids do come home," Ms. Wetterling said. "And they do heal."

    Just a few months ago, the mother sat down to write a letter to Jacob's abductor, an appeal she intended to touch "that shred of compassion" his mother hopes exists in every human being.

    "To the man who took Jacob," began the letter, which was printed in some Minnesota newspapers. She reminded the abductor that he, like Jacob, had once been an 11-year-old boy, and that something very wrong must have happened to him.

    "For my own survival, I have had to let go of a lot of anger or I would be swallowed up in it," she wrote, asking that he call her and tell her what happened to her son. "You have held the answers for so long. You also hold the pain. Please talk to me."

    The fireplace glowed with red embers, winds whipping across the frozen prairie, as she gazed out the window into the darkness.

    "I think the world is about ready for a miracle," she said. "Let it be here."

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