Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thoughts following an attack at a Central Minnesota mall September 20, 2016

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A vehicle travels along Interstate 90 near La Crosse in the rain Friday morning. Fog shrouds the bluffs in grey.

A vehicle travels along Interstate 90 near La Crosse, on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River, in the rain Friday morning. Fog veils the river bluffs.

WHEN FOG DESCENDS, shrouding the landscape in a veil of grey, the value of light magnifies.

Our eyes search for light.

We look for ways to banish the grey, to illuminate our world. We want desperately to find the light and to hold it high.

Events of the past weeks have shaded our skies grey here in Minnesota—first with the discovery of Jacob Wetterling’s remains and now the stabbings of 10 individuals at Crossroads Center in St. Cloud in what appears to be a possible act of lone wolf terrorism.

That both of these major crimes happened some five miles apart in Central Minnesota is pure coincidence. But it is not lost on me that the kidnapping of 11-year-old Jacob nearly 27 years ago and the mall attack on Saturday evening are in the backyard of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon.

I like to think that Lake Wobegon—the region in which some of my in-laws live—is a pastoral setting of grazing cows, church spires and old-timers playing cards at the Chatterbox Cafe. It is and it isn’t. In today’s world, no place, not even Central Minnesota, is safe.

Even so, we Minnesotans are a strong, determined and resilient lot. We will, through the greyness of these days, search for the light of goodness and of hope. Of that I am certain.

© Copyright 2016 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


From southern Minnesota: Grieving Jacob Wetterling & the impact of his abduction September 5, 2016

Jacob Wetterling. Photo credit: Jacob Wetterling Resource Center

Jacob Wetterling. Photo credit: Jacob Wetterling Resource Center

HER WORDS STUNNED ME. Jacob Wetterling’s remains were found, my eldest daughter told me Saturday afternoon. I had been blissfully oblivious, enjoying the final long weekend of summer.

Some 122 miles to the northwest, a Central Minnesota family was grieving. And now a state is grieving at the news that Jacob’s remains were uncovered near a pasture of grazing cattle. The man suspected in the 11-year-old’s abduction reportedly directed investigators to the pastoral site last week.

On October 22, 1989, a masked gunman grabbed Jacob, who was biking with his brother and best friend to a convenience store a half-mile from their rural St. Joseph home. His remains were found 30 miles away to the southwest just outside Paynesville.

The 1989 crime rocked our state. And the nation. For 27 years, we hoped along with Jacob’s parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling, that their son would return home alive. Jacob’s abduction forever changed us.

I was a young mom at the time with two daughters, ages 3 ½ and nearly two. I remember teaching them to kick and scream and to run. Run. Run. Run. I remember wrapping my arms around my eldest, role-playing an abductor. She remembers none of those lessons. For that I am grateful, that I did not emotionally scar her with the fear I felt following Jacob’s disappearance.

If a stranger could snatch a pre-teen boy biking in rural Minnesota, surely no place, no child, was safe.

Mayberry innocence vanished on the day Jacob vanished.

But, led by Jacob’s mom, Patty Wetterling, we held onto hope. Hope that Jacob would be found alive. As the days passed, then the weeks, months, years and decades, the reality of Jacob ever coming safely home seemed less likely. Still, we hoped, because hope is easier than believing otherwise.

FYI: Click here to learn how a Central Minnesota blogger, Joy Baker, investigated decades old crimes she believed were linked to Jacob Wetterling’s abduction. Her efforts prove that sometimes you have to follow your gut and pursue opportunities presented to you to find the truth.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Hoping on November 6, 2015

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My great niece Kiera painted this stone, which I got at a recent family reunion.

My great niece Kiera painted this stone, which sits on my office desk as a reminder of hope.


Thank you, Patty Wetterling, for reminding me of that when you spoke to the media this week. For 26 years, Patty and her husband, Jerry, and their family, plus an entire nation, have hoped for the safe return of their son, Jacob. The 11-year-old was abducted in October 1989 by a masked gunman near their St. Joseph, Minnesota, home. Last week law enforcement named a “person of interest” in the case.

Inspirational quotes posted on my desk, on the shelf above my desktop screen.

Inspirational quotes posted on my office desk include a quote by poet Emily Dickinson, right.

In January, I chose “hope” as my word for 2015, following the example of my sweet friend Beth Ann, who blogs at It’s Just Life.

Pulling out my thesaurus, I find these synonyms for the verb, hope: aim, intend, plan, have it in mind, aspire, expect, look for, wish for, want.

To that list I might add trusting, believing that things will get better.

Hope can be elusive when the stresses and challenges of life overwhelm. It is easy to lose hope if difficult situations persist, when burdens weigh heavy upon your heart and days.

But then I hear statements like “Hope is a verb,” spoken by a mother who long ago had every reason to give up hope. Yet, Patty Wetterling has endured, taken action and continued to hope for answers in the disappearance of her son.

During their statement to the media this week, the Wetterlings emphasized the importance of the community in sharing information to help solve the case. Community. The community of Minnesota and beyond has supported the Wetterlings through this entire horrible ordeal spanning more than a quarter of a century.


Hope logo


Support is essential. Without support, hope flounders. Locally, I need only consider Hope Center, which helps and supports victims/survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. There’s that word, hope, centering the Center’s name.

We all need family and friends who have our backs during difficult times—listening, encouraging, praying for, being there without judging or thinking they have all the answers or putting the focus on themselves rather than your needs.

Songs of Hope performers present a selection from India.

Songs of Hope performers present a selection from India during a summer concert at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

A year ago, I heard hope during a concert by Songs of Hope, a group of students from a St. Paul-based international performing arts summer camp. These singers from around the world performed with the enthusiasm of youth believing that world peace is possible. Their energy and passion showcased hope. Such positivity inspires hope.

Take in the details: the red and blue bench, the double front doors, the rock out front...

The Hope Post Office has closed since I took this photo several years ago.

In southern Minnesota, just off Interstate 35 south of Owatonna, you’ll find a small town named Hope. A place. A proper noun, not a verb.

Hope. Noun or verb. It’s a powerful word, if only we believe it to be. You can offer hope to others by listening, by giving of your time and talents and financial resources, by caring, by showing compassion, by simply being there. Hold a confidence entrusted to you. Check in with someone facing a difficult situation. Care. Emulate hope.

TELL ME, how do you offer hope or hold onto hope?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


My reaction to developments in the Jacob Wetterling abduction October 29, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:53 PM
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ALL ACROSS MINNESOTA today, we are holding our collective breaths, hoping that news about a possible break in the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling provides answers. Answers we’ve waited to get for 26 years.

An Annandale man, arrested for possession of child pornography, is now considered a “person of interest” in the October 22, 1989, abduction of 11-year-old Jacob near the Wetterlings’ St. Joseph home. He was questioned early on in the Wetterling case and several times thereafter.

Jacob’s abduction marked a change in parenting in Minnesota. I remember, as a young mother of two and three-year-old daughters, teaching my girls what to do in the event of a possible kidnapping. I didn’t want to scare them. Yet, because of what happened to Jacob, I felt compelled to educate my then preschoolers about stranger danger.

Rural Minnesota, especially, lost a bit of innocence on that October day when a masked man approached Jacob, his brother and a friend while they were riding bikes from a convenience store. The man disappeared with Jacob after threatening to shoot the other two.

It all seemed so random. A horrible crime in an ordinary place. Anytown in rural Minnesota. Jacob could have been our son, our nephew, our neighbor boy. He was the face of all Minnesota children. And his parents, especially Patty, were the faces we saw in the mirror. We feared this could happen to any of our families.

For 26 years, we have grieved and hoped and prayed with the Wetterlings. And maybe soon we will all have the answers we long for, that we need. Who took Jacob? Where is he? And why? Oh, why?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling