ST. JOSEPH, MINN. — When the news they’d long been dreading finally came, it struck at the core of people in this small college town.
The mystery of Jacob Wetterling’s fate had haunted St. Joseph for nearly three decades, a lingering legacy of uncertainty and fear.
“You think of it almost like a myth,” said Cody Ireland, 21, a host at the American Burger Bar on the edge of this central Minnesota prairie town of 6,500, where Jacob disappeared in 1989. “There’s definitely kind of an eerie feeling here in St. Joseph today.”
The years of apprehension gave way to a shared grief Saturday, but also relief and the strong hope that the discovery of Jacob’s remains will provide closure to his family.
Lucy Laudenbach was here when the search for Jacob began. She watched from the front porch of her rural home, just south of where the boy was abducted, as searchers combed the fields outside.
On Saturday, TV news trucks worked over the area again as word spread that Jacob had been found at last.
Twenty-seven years ago, Laudenbach said investigators stopped at the house, where she has lived since 1977, to ask questions, but she had seen nothing and knew little.
“I wish there was something we could have told them,” she said, squinting out over the fields, now covered with tall corn.
The Wetterlings are “such wonderful people,” and as a mother of seven children, Laudenbach said she can’t imagine them “not knowing where he’s been all this time — wondering, ‘will I ever see him again?’ ”
Hopefully this news brings them some answers, she said.
‘Part of the culture’
By midday Saturday, white ribbons, anchored with a yellow “J” fluttered in front of a row of retail shops in downtown St. Joseph, about 75 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Jon Petters, 63, the building’s owner, said he put them up after reading the news Saturday morning.
“I just went to a craft store and tried to find Js,” he said.
He said the ribbons expressed both sadness and support for the Wetterlings and the community.
“Obviously, there’s relief, but then there’s the finality and a huge sense of grief,” he said. “I think we all kind of grieve together.”
The gesture was part of a show of sympathy that extended statewide. A social media effort was launched to encourage people to turn on their porch lights Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights to show support for the Wetterlings.
Seth Peterson, a 21-year-old student at nearby St. John’s University, who works at the food co-op on the main drag, said nearly everyone he rang up Saturday talked about the Wetterling case: “Did you hear the news this morning?” they asked.
Peterson wasn’t yet born when a masked man abducted Jacob as he rode his bike home from a Tom Thumb store. Jacob, his brother, Trevor, and best friend Aaron Larson had gone there to pick up a movie video.
Peterson said he quickly learned about the crime when he moved to town and began following developments in the case. “It’s part of the culture,” he said.
One co-op customer at the register, Danielle Taylor, 47, hadn’t heard the news. When she was told, her hand flew to her heart. “I just got chills,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.
Taylor recalled moving to St. Joseph years ago and, as a member of the co-op, suggesting that it move the children’s area from the front of the store to the back because the front was cluttered.
She recalled how the people on the board immediately rejected the idea.
They couldn’t do that, she was told, because it would be harder to keep an eye on the children.
“All parents with kids that age were really affected hugely,” Taylor said. “It’s that unresolved story that continues to haunt.”
Many in town Saturday also had questions about why it took so long for investigators to find out what happened to Jacob.
Danny James Heinrich, a suspect in Jacob’s disappearance almost from the start, gave investigators information that led to the discovery late last week of the remains.
Heinrich, now 53, was arrested last fall on child pornography charges and at the time, was described by federal authorities as a “person of interest” in the Wetterling case.
He remains in custody.
“If you would have kept the pressure on [Heinrich earlier] he would have cracked,” said Nikki Riebe, tending bar at the American Burger Bar.
A beloved family
The news had special meaning for Cy Pfannenstein, a manager at the St. Joseph Meat Market.
His son once rode the school bus with Jacob, and his daughter, Tammy, died of a degenerative disease just months before Jacob was abducted.
He remembers the Wetterling family attending Tammy’s wake.
“They were so supportive,” he said. “Little did we know that in a couple of months, we would have the opportunity to share our grief back with them.”
As terrible as it was to lose his child, Pfannenstein said he ended up feeling more fortunate than the Wetterlings.
The discovery of Jacob’s remains left him in disbelief. Even after all these years, he said, he held on to the hope that Jacob might make it home.
“I’m an optimist, I guess,” he said. “I always thought that he’d be found” alive.
Staff writer Jenna Ross contributed to this report.