ST. JOSEPH, MINN. - More than two decades after 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a masked man at gunpoint here, investigators and earth-moving equipment descended on a farm near where he was last seen.

Tight-lipped police and FBI agents spent more than 14 hours Wednesday searching a farmhouse and adjacent property near the spot where Wetterling vanished on a warm October night in 1989. They are expected to remain overnight at the farm where they had previously questioned a resident and taken DNA samples.

As children pedaled past the scene Wednesday evening on bicycles, officials said nothing more than they were conducting an investigation.

Patty Wetterling, Jacob's mother and a longtime activist for missing children, said authorities had alerted her to their plans Wednesday.

"I'm grateful the investigation is still going on, and I'm grateful people are still willing to help," she said.

Stearns County Chief Deputy Bruce Bechtold said that a court order prevented investigators from discussing why they were at the spot, located about a half mile from the Wetterling home in St. Joseph, or what, specifically, they hoped to find.

"All I can say is that we are conducting an investigation today," Bechtold said. "Any of the details of the investigation are restricted from dissemination by the court order."

Bechtold said the order was issued earlier this week.

Investigators from the FBI and state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension were at the scene to assist Stearns County. At one point, 17 law enforcement vehicles were parked around the farmhouse and outbuildings.

Authorities involved in the investigation said the search came after two young agents working the case took a fresh look at the file.

There were no new tips that sparked the search, "no nothing, just young cops looking at the file and they said 'Maybe we should go take a look,' " said an official familiar with developments.

Asked if the agents were merely working off a hunch, the official said, "Yeah."

He also said that as of Wednesday night, it didn't appear investigators found anything significant.

Just after 6 p.m., a silver Dodge Charger, two SUVs and a BCA crime lab truck pulled out of the long dirt driveway leading to the farm, turned right and headed back toward St. Joseph.

A few minutes later, two flatbed trucks, one red, one blue, hauling dozens of plastic drums and green scaffolding exited the property as well. A deputy at the scene said officials were simply taking items stored into town where they were to be used in a community festival this weekend.

Familiar turf

Wetterling was abducted shortly after 9 p.m. Oct. 22, 1989, while heading home from a local convenience store with his brother Trevor, then 10, and best friend, Aaron Larson, who was 11. The kidnapping, taking place in a relatively small and quiet prairie town about 75 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, shocked Minnesotans like few crimes before it, gripping a region for weeks and making headlines across the country.

"The first thing I remember was the flash of the gun, and a guy saying 'Stop, I have a gun,'" Larson said last fall on the 20th anniversary of the kidnapping. "I caught my breath. I thought it was a high school kid pulling a joke on us. ...Then it hits you: this is happening, it's no joke."

Despite more than 40,000 leads from all over the world during the past two decades, Jacob hasn't been seen since.

No one has been arrested in connection with the case.

The property searched Wednesday has been targetted by Stearns County investigators before.

In 2004, they began questioning a man who lives there and obtained DNA samples from him, according a relative who spoke with the Star Tribune at that time. The man, now 54, lives with his parents, both in their 80s.

The relative also said the man received an envelope back then with the return address of the Stearns County Sheriff's Office. The envelope included a handwritten letter signed by Jacob's mother, Patty Wetterling.

It implored anyone with information about Jacob's disappearance to come forward.

The relative said the man called authorities the night of the abduction to report a suspicious car turning around in his driveway.

Authorities didn't call the man a suspect in 2004, and the relative said then that he believed the man was innocent, adding, "He just wouldn't do something like that."

When the man drove up to the property Wednesday, he was stopped by deputies who asked several questions. After a few minutes, a deputy went to the man's mailbox, grabbed his mail and gave it to him.

Later, a woman answering the phone at the man's home hung up when asked about the search of the property.

'Back to the beginnings'

Patty Wetterling, who works in St. Paul, said she had been told by investigators that the search would be conducted sometime soon.

She said she got a call from authorities Wednesday morning at about the same time that her husband, Jerry, saw police vehicles drive into the farm near their St. Joseph home.

"He was wondering what was going on," she said.

"We knew they were going to do it, but just not today," she added. "I knew they were revisiting old stuff, and I got a call this morning saying it was today.

"It's a good investigation," she added. "They are going back to the beginning. They are reviewing a lot of things."

Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall declined to comment about the investigation or why police returned to the house to do more work.

But, she added, "What I can say is this has been 21 years and the sheriff's office works every single call that comes in on it. It's an active investigation and it always has been."

Throughout the day, small groups of neighbors and residents wandered past to check to see what was going on.

One was Jane Thielen, the mother of a 14-year-old boy.

Thielen said she was certain when Jacob was abducted that the kidnapper would soon be caught.

Emotions may have faded over time, but, she added, "a day like today brings it all back."

jwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-7428 richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425