I was 15 years old living one hour south of the small Minnesota town where Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989. On the Sunday night in October he was kidnapped, I was probably complaining about school the next morning, homework eating into my Golden Girls binge watching.
But Jacob, his 10-year-old brother Trevor, and his friend Aaron were being held at gunpoint by a man wearing a mask after being forced off their bikes while riding home from a convenience store. The gunman told all the boys to lie face down on the ground and asked each one their age. He then told Jacob’s brother to run and not look back or he would be shot. He asked the two 11-year-old boys left to turn around so he could see their faces. He chose Jacob.
That was 27 years ago. For 27 years, Jacob’s parents Patty and Jerry have been left to wonder what happened to him. Twenty seven years of birthday parties and holidays and unremarkable Tuesdays they missed out on with their son. Parents who were forced to spend almost three decades wondering what happened to their child.
When I watched his story unfold as a child, it was the stuff of nightmares that hit entirely too close to home. It was terrifying. For my mother, the emotion must have been wholly unrecognizable. No parent can conceptualize losing a child. The rage and contempt would be all consuming. For Jacob’s parents, they simply did not know what happened to their child. One minute they were tucking him into bed and making his breakfast, and the next minute he was gone.
The complete void his absence created would be enough to cause any parent to retract forever. To shut their doors and grieve privately, to focus on themselves. And no one would have blamed them.
But the Wetterlings did just the opposite. In 1990 they founded what is now known as the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, an advocacy group for children’s safety. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Act was passed, the first nationwide law to institute a state sex-offender registry. Patty has worked tirelessly as a nationally-recognized advocate for child safety and is the chairwoman of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She spent her life working to educate people on child abduction to lessen the chances of what happened to Jacob from happening to another mother’s child. Patty and Jerry have spoken hundreds of times over the years in an attempt to keep Jacob’s story in the spotlight, never losing hope that someday they may find him.
This week, the longtime suspect in the case, Danny Heinrich, finally admitted to abducting, sexually assaulting, and murdering Jacob 27 years ago — and he finally led authorities to Jacob’s remains.
This time, I watched the news as a mother to three children with a son the same age as Jacob when he was kidnapped. As I sobbed in disbelief, it was Jacob’s parents who lifted all of us up yet again. In a brief message released from The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, the family responded to those of us asking how we could possibly help them. To this, they said, “Say a prayer. Light a candle. Be with friends. Play with your children. Giggle. Hold hands. Eat ice cream. Create joy. Help your neighbor.”
They could have let the hate in. They could have let the bitterness and anger we are all feeling consume them. But they continue to honor their son with their actions. They continue to show love when it would be so much easier to hate. And that’s what we all must remember. Even in the worst possible situation; even though every parent in the same situation would be within their right to hate — love always wins.More On