ST. JOSEPH, MINN. – As Jerry Wetterling stood before the thousands gathered to mourn his son, it became clear how much Jacob meant to all of Minnesota.
“Any law enforcement — active or retired — I’d like you to please stand,” Jerry Wetterling said.
Dozens of investigators who searched for decades for the kidnapped 11-year-old rose to their feet.
Jerry Wetterling looked around the darkened room, lit blue in Jacob’s memory. “Anyone here who has distributed fliers, tied ribbons, lit a candle or some type of volunteering,” he said, “also please stand.” The majority of the people in the crowd of 2,200 stood.
“Finally, anyone here who has said a prayer or sent out positive energy for Jacob or our family, also please stand.”
By the end, the entire crowd inside the fieldhouse at the College of St. Benedict was on its feet.
The community that linked arms nearly 27 years ago to search for the sandy-haired boy who was snatched at gunpoint by a masked man came together Sunday morning to celebrate his life, console his family and say goodbye.
It was a warm, wistful service, filled with music and candlelight; Catholic hymns and Baha’i prayers; sad songs and funny stories about the kind, clever boy who put peanut butter on his breakfast cereal and sometimes fell asleep while hugging his little brother.
That’s what you do when someone dies: share stories, memories and tears. And that’s one thing the Wetterling family was denied for almost three agonizing decades as they hoped against hope that Jacob might someday come home.
Certain knowledge of his death is a new grief, and one their friends and neighbors wanted them to know they wouldn’t have to bear alone.
“Our community and our hearts have expanded due to our shared love for Jacob Wetterling,” college president Mary Dana Hinton said in welcoming the crowd. “We also gather today to extend our support and gratitude to the Wetterling family … in some of their darkest moments, we learned about grace and courage from Patty, Jerry and their entire family.”
Roughly 2,800 were on hand for the service to remember, hope and heal.
Most paid their respects inside the Catholic school’s fieldhouse, including the state’s governor and two U.S. senators. Another 600 watched in a nearby viewing area, where the service was simulcast. Thousands more watched online.
A boy with twinkling eyes
On giant overhead screens, photos of Jacob’s childhood showed him proudly displaying fish he’d caught, playing hockey, posing with his family and blowing out candles on a birthday cake.
Jacob’s cousin Allen Overturf shared stories about the funny little boy who once got so excited when he scored a hockey goal that he was still skating with his hands over his head when the next play started.
“Jacob had twinkling eyes and a genuine smile,” Overturf said. He was kind to others, dedicated to fair play and irrepressibly optimistic.
Jacob played goalie. Once, his mother asked if it bothered him when the other team scored goals on him.
“Jacob replied, ‘Not really. If it went in, it was a great shot. If I stopped it, it was a great save,’ ” Overturf said.
For all those years, Overturf said, whenever Patty Wetterling heard of a lost child coming home, she remembered Jacob saying: “That was a great save.”
Wetterling, who was snatched as he was riding his bike home from renting a movie with his brother and his friend, became a national symbol for missing children. His abductor sent the other two boys running, telling them not to look back or he’d shoot them.
The case changed the way people throughout Minnesota and the nation watched over their children. Over the years, the Wetterlings advocated for missing and exploited children everywhere through a resource center. They pushed for changes in state and federal law.
The community kept hope through the years that Jacob might still be alive, switching on porch lights to illuminate his way home. Those hopes were crushed earlier this month when a longtime suspect in the case, Danny Heinrich, confessed to abducting, assaulting and killing the boy, then burying his body in a pasture near Paynesville, some 30 miles from St. Joseph.
At the memorial service, though, family, friends and guests focused not on Jacob’s death, but on his life.
“Jacob,” his mother, Patty Wetterling, said, “we will always carry you in our hearts, and our love for you will never die.”
That sentiment was conveyed in music by Red Grammer, Robert Robinson, the St. John’s Boys’ choir and more.
Afterward, ice cream
As the service ended, mourners sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” then walked out together to the campus green, where a few of the 125 volunteers were handing out ice cream bars.
Many had come just a few blocks or a few miles; others came from hours away.
Molly Orso, who was a student at St. Benedict’s in 1989 and was out for a walk on the night of the abduction, has been haunted by Jacob’s story. She drove from Wisconsin with her husband and mother for the service. “He was everyone’s little brother,” she said.
“It’s like this huge collective sigh,” said Sarah Meysenburg, who came to the service from Minneapolis but grew up in St. Joseph at the time of Jacob’s abduction. The Wetterlings have been “rocks,” she said, drawing respect from everyone who watched them handle the tragedy. “It’s a time to come together and show love to them and to the community.”
Guests took a moment to heed Patty Wetterling’s advice: Be with friends, create joy and eat ice cream.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.