Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Holding onto hope in the sadness of Jacob Wetterling’s death September 8, 2016

MY FINGERTIPS REST ON THE KEYBOARD. I stare at my computer screen, attempting to pull my thoughts in to words.

To the left, outside my home office, I hear the steady thrum of traffic splashing across a rain-slicked roadway. Rain drips from a Minnesota sky as grey as my mood.

I watched a live news conference and TV newscasts Tuesday afternoon on the Jacob Wetterling case. Here's the Jacob we all remember, a sweet 11-year-old boy abducted nearly 27 years ago.

I watched a live news conference and TV newscasts Tuesday on the Jacob Wetterling case. Here’s the Jacob we all remember, a sweet 11-year-old boy abducted nearly 27 years ago.

How do I write about the deep sadness I feel after Jacob Wetterling’s murderer confessed earlier this week to abducting, molesting and then shooting the 11-year-old on October 22, 1989? For 27 years the killer held his secret, revealing the truth Tuesday in court as part of a plea deal. (Danny Heinrich will never be charged for the murder of Jacob as part of the agreement, instead serving a possible maximum 20 years in prison on a single federal charge of possession of child pornography.) Last week Heinrich led investigators to Jacob’s remains next to a pasture of grazing cattle in Central Minnesota.

Surrounded by family, Patty Wetterling addresses the media and others during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. Behind Patty stands Trevor

Surrounded by family, Patty Wetterling addresses the media and others during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. Behind Patty stands Trevor to her right, overwhelmed by grief.

How do I write about the deep sadness I feel for Jacob’s family, who, along with so many Minnesotans, held onto hope that Jacob would be found alive? Watching Jacob’s brother, Trevor, during a recent news conference brings me to tears. He was biking home with Jacob and a friend on that October evening when a masked gunman took his brother at gunpoint. Trevor’s grief is visible in his closed eyes, bowed head, leaking tears and the way he leans in to his father, Jerry Wetterling.

How do I write about the deep sadness I feel as part of the sisterhood of mothers? Jacob’s mom, Patty Wetterling, has remained rock strong through all of this, advocating for children while she continued to hope. For 27 years. I cannot imagine the pain and the devastating grief. As Patty noted, until Jacob’s remains were found, he was alive. Now she knows with certainty that her little boy is gone.

As Minnesotans, how do we cope? We must grieve. Collectively. Privately.

But we must also hold onto the hope Patty inspired in us. Hope for a safer world for our children and grandchildren. We must claim hope. Because of Jacob.

TELL ME: How have you been impacted by the abduction of Jacob Wetterling and, now, by the discovery of his remains and by the killer’s confession?


FYI: Click here to read a timeline of events posted by Minnesota Public Radio in the Jacob Wetterling case.

Click here to read specifics on how you can help keep kids safe and how you can support the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.

Click here to read the writing of freelance writer and blogger Joy Baker, who, along with Jared Scheierl, was key in helping to solve the mystery of Jacob’s disappearance. Patty Wetterling in Tuesday’s news conference thanked them both for “stirring the pot.” Jacob’s killer admitted Tuesday in court to abducting and sexually assaulting Scheierl nine months before he took Jacob. A DNA match confirmed that assault against the then 12-year-old in Cold Spring. The statute of limitations has expired in that case, thus Heinrich cannot be prosecuted for that crime.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


18 Responses to “Holding onto hope in the sadness of Jacob Wetterling’s death”

  1. It’s heartbreaking. And appalling.

  2. Amy Says:

    Heinrich’s plea deal is such that he will never be allowed parole, so he will have to serve the full 20 years, and he may be civilly committed after that because of the child porn, so it’s possible he will die in prison. Also, people in the Wetterling community are holding CreateJoy events on Oct. 1, after Patty Wetterling’s request that people find ways to create joy to honor Jacob: http://bringmethenews.com/2016/09/07/5k-and-create-joy-events-scheduled-in-honor-of-jacob-wetterling/
    There will be some in the Twin Cities too, I don’t know exactly where yet.

    • Amy, thanks for adding these additional details about the time Heinrich will serve and the possibility of civil commitment. I was aware, but didn’t want to get into all of that here.

      Mostly, thank you for sharing about the CreateJoy events. I was unaware and I think it’s a great idea. We all need this, as a state and as a way to publicly express our emotions.

  3. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

    When Jacob was taken, my own son was 8 years old. I remember feeling cold in the pit of my stomach with the idea that someone would just take a boy who was doing nothing out of the ordinary, just being a boy. Now, my son is the father of a 5-year-old daughter. His wife cried in the shower when the news about Jacob’s body was released earlier this week. There is so much sadness in this story, so much about Heinrich that we cannot understand. But Patty Wetterling and her family are amazing people for what they’ve done with their grief all these years, for refusing to let that grief turn them into nothing more than bitter, angry people. I don’t believe that any of us know what we are capable of in horrible situations until they happen to us. That the Wetterlings finally know what happened to their son is a much-needed piece of this story, but the story isn’t over. The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center still, sadly, has much work to do. This boy’s life matters in huge ways far beyond his tragic death and he will be one reason that children continue to be helped. The Wetterling family’s collective strength will be another reason.

    • Thank you for sharing your personal reaction to the loss of Jacob. Grief traces through all of us.

      Like you, I am amazed by the Wetterling family’s strength. This specific part of your comment really resonates with me also: I don’t believe that any of us know what we are capable of in horrible situations until they happen to us.

  4. Don Says:

    Upon reading of this no words cannot adequately relay my emotions. In the end the good Lord will address this situation for all those involved………………………………..

  5. Amber Schmidt Says:

    I noticed last night one of our neighbors has big yellow ribbons around their tree. I think it must be for Jacob. I wonder if they kept the ribbons for 27 years?

  6. Sue Ready Says:

    This was sent to me today via Facebook

    The Wetterling family put it best with the 11 commitments:
    1. Be Fair
    2. Be Kind
    3. Be Understanding
    4. Be Honest
    5. Be Thankful
    6. Be a Good Sport
    7. Be a Good Friend
    8. Be Joyful
    9. Be Generous
    10. Be Gentle with Others
    11. Be Positive

  7. barry Says:

    We live in Leicester England, very near to the university where DNA was first discovered. Jacobs fate first came to my attention several years ago and I was reminded of a local boy who disappeared in a similer fashion and whose case was again solved with the help of DNA after thirty three years. I am comforted that we are moving forward, gradually closing the loopholes through which murderers formally escaped justice, but sadly I doubt we will ever entirely erradicate such evil, people like Heinrich are devoid of conscience and commited to the satisfaction of their own desires. I find myself asking many times, how could this man shoot such a beautiful trusting child. I am happy for the family that they have Jacob back, that they know what happened and they know that at least it was all over very quickly, there need by no more speculating on his fate. In a strange way there is comfort even in knowing the worst. Sadly I truly doubt that Jacob could ever have recovered mentally from this encounter, the terror of what happened is still with Trevor and Aaron and they only experienced the first act so to speak, what this poor child went through, alone, in the dark with a monster, would destroy an adult let alone one small boy of eleven years old . ‘Rest in peace Jacob. God Bless, brave soldier.’

    • Barry, thank you for your comforting words.

      I, too, welcome advances that will help apprehend those who commit crimes. Jacob’s family needed those answers as did all of us in Minnesota. I applaud the Wetterlings for all they did, even in their pain and grief, to advocate for missing children and their families. That shows tremendous strength, courage and compassion.

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